Professor discusses study on Wikipedia

At an Annenberg Research Seminar that featured Shane Greenstein from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University on Monday afternoon, students and faculty were able to take part in a conversation about Wikipedia and the influences the user-generated content website has in everyday life.

Greenstein spoke about his research with the website during the lunchtime event.

Though technically titled, “Collective Intelligence and Neutral Point of View: The Case of Wikipedia,” Greenstein put numeric and written data about Wikipedia into perspective by calling students’ attention to their roles as part of the site.

“You are society’s information managers and contributors. If you see something wrong [on Wikipedia], fix it,” Greenstein said after encouraging the audience to register as users on the website.

The site, which was created in 2001, is the sixth most-visited website in the United States behind sites including YouTube and Facebook. Worldwide, the website receives 400 million views per month but Greenstein said that does not mean Wikipedia is an unbiased source.

Described by Greenstein, and in the fine print of the website itself, as “not authoritative,” Wikipedia is in a constant state of change. Students said though it is an important source, it is sometimes unreliable.

“I’m interested with issues that have to do with the Internet … because crowdsourcing major material affects everyone who uses the Internet,” said Kari Storla, a second-year graduate student studying communication.

Wikipedia has three options for contributor involvement. The first is as an administrator, someone who is approved by the company. The second group option is registered contributors, and the third is anonymous users denoted in revisions by their specific computer IP addresses.

In his research, Greenstein took 70,000 articles from the source community of Wikipedia. He emphasized how important the common person’s ability to post and revise content is to his research and the site as a whole. All articles have the ability to be modified in some way, with the exception of more controversial topics, which include President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, the Muslim prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ.

“We chose to look at Wikipedia articles that were not objective, not verifiable and controversial — so we chose U.S. politics,” Greenstein said.

Greenstein found in his research that the more contributors to an article, the less chance there was for bias. Additionally, more revisions from community contributors came less bias, and with less bias came more reliable articles.

Greenstein also noted that the “revision wars” have the ability to consume the website.

“Storage is cheap; you can always add another paragraph,” he said. “That’s an easy way to end a dispute.”

Wikipedia aspires to achieve a neutral point of view by presenting conflicting opinions side by side. The research proved that the website’s success is due to Wikipedia’s ability to “accommodate insiders and tourists.” When the site first began, however, Greenstein said it had a strong liberal bias.

“[It was] so loud you couldn’t find it anywhere but Berkeley, Madison and parts of Cambridge — maybe NBC,” he said.

Swini Tummala, a sophomore majoring in international relations, said she saw the seminar as a way to better understand the website she says every student wants to cite but can’t.

“It’s not a site to use as a reference in a paper and I think we, as students, understand that, but from all of this research and data it’s clear why,” Tummala said. “With so many eyes or editors making changes reliability can go either way; more is better only when more is knowledgeable.”

Despite the site sometimes being unreliable, 95 percent of articles are currently revised on average each year. Of these articles, the top 20 percent receive 1,000 revisions each year. This, in conjunction with managing editors, allows the goal of neutrality to become more of a reality, Greenstein said.

Many of the event attendees were doctoral students.

“Collective intelligence is relevant to anyone who pursues education at a higher level,” said Adam Rafkin, a first-year graduate student studying communication.


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