By Symonne Torpy
I discovered my “cosmopolitan identity” drifting through an arts degree, fertilized it with plane tickets and left it to mature on social media. Wandering the dystopian universe that is the Internet, I get stalked by Facebook advertising affiliates, feed my life through Google, and search for a connection. I seek something to bond me to this sense of the “global”, supposedly innate to my generation. There’s got to be a set of rules or a common tongue or a passed down skill that adheres us to one another. Something we have created together, more appropriate to climate-controlled times than ‘how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together’ and more substantial than status updates or #instafood.
From the aforementioned, there is one element that emerges dominant: the need for a common knowledge – to challenge and build, to share in concepts historic, present and projected. From whence does this contemporary knowledge come? Wikipedia.
Blurring Boundaries of Knowledge
The idea that Wikipedia is the nexus of this thing I’m calling “global knowledge” is a little frightening, but also makes sense.
It has become a permanent verb in our contemporary vernacular. The site/community/database/omniscient-phone-a-friend is defined by a few key tenets: free access, focus on cooperation and consensus, and above all, a respect for contributor liberty (with an exception of trolls).
Free access is not only about price but also the opportunity. Basic computer literacy will render information to anybody, be it a reader or a contributor. No sign-up process or email addresses halt the access. Copyright has no business flexing its muscles here. Gone too are the heavy burdens of finance and time that plague the world of print. It is the first time in history that there is a medium within which the ever-expanding corpus of global knowledge may be expressed.
Instead of letting majority rule, community debate is deployed. Check out ‘Articles for Deletion’ – the public Wikipedian chopping block. Arguments for and against, saving challenged entries, are leveled, with each valid point holding far more weight than unsupported claims. This mirrors an open court style approach rather than a ballot. I like to think that fighting to keep ‘Decorative Impressionism’ or ‘Freedom Ball’ or ‘Tiger Mom’ is a noble quest for mutual truth, wherein passive readers of such articles may later share in the fruits of our cooperation.
Test Before You Trust
But beyond its virtuous foundation, how reliable is it?
Lovers of the site often reference a Nature academic journal study conducted in 2005 that compared the accuracy of Wikipedia content with the reputable Encyclopedia Britannica Online. The study employed a blind review of 50 pairs of articles from both websites, after which experts compiled lists of factual errors, omissions, and misleading statements. 123 errors were identified in Britannica articles (approx. 3 per article), 162 in Wikipedia (4 per article), making the two similarly untrustworthy.
Broadly slammed by the Britannica camp, variations on the Nature study have been conducted, pitting Wikipedia against numerous other well-regarded publications. From history to science, the site tends to fare well enough as a base reference, described as “largely sound” and “broadly accurate”. While this makes the site a fail for academic purists, it does reflect the temperature of common human knowledge and is reliable enough to keep us coming back.
I use it a lot and so do you. Published in 292 languages, it sits within the top ten visited websites, keeping company with Google, Facebook, and Youtube, all of which have their own merits when it comes to building our global identity. What we’re consuming has been edited by a fair few fellow beings too. In June 2016, 68,241 users made edits to Wikipedia articles 5 times or more. Of these, only 14.5% edited more than 100 times, showcasing a population of regular, but not super dominant, users. An average of over 12.5 million edits occurs per month to Wikipedia content. This is an evidence of the dynamic evolution of knowledge and the continuous addition of changing global perspectives.
But, is this a space that will eventually herald world peace, or is it merely giving us a piece of the world picture? ‘The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit does have its drawbacks when it comes to solving my identity crisis, especially if I wish to consider myself an inclusive global citizen.
Firstly, let us look at the digital divide. ‘Wikipedia Statistics’ highlights a clear gap in the content building between countries. As of August 2016, approximately 22.5% of articles were presented in English. And while Wikipedia represents for many cultures the first encyclopedic account in their language, are the young western city-dwellers nevertheless vastly over-represented in the 21st-century cosmopolitan identity?
Another flaw in Wikipedia is the emergence of a tight-knit editing community, inevitably parlaying the power of longevity and academic peer networking to amplify their own voices. Even though the job of editing entries is widely spread amongst the whole community, only 10% of Wikipedians author 90% of the original content – so we’re hearing the tenor of a comparative few. Persistence is rewarded, though. And, as a general atmospheric rule, novices and elites mix happily to drive the site.
Lastly, in the world of Wikipedia, there’s an overwhelming focus on pop culture – perhaps more an indictment of our entertainment-obsessed sensibilities than of the site. From July 31 to August 6, 2016, the top visited page was ‘Suicide Squad’ (2,889,015 views).
‘Global’, Yet Limited
Thus, there is an imbalance in the foundations of global identity itself, and perhaps ‘cosmopolitanism’ has more to do with Sex and the City cocktails than labeling myself as an informed citizen with a broad worldview.
Let us, therefore, excuse only a bit of the intended irony from the words of The Office’s Michael Scott: “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information”.
Symonne Torpy is a prolific writer and currently working as a Creative Strategist at Creative Spirit, Paris.
Featured Image Courtesy: Pixabay