January 22, 2006

Tale of a Wikipedian

Have you ever written for Wikipedia?

It is an encyclopedia written by an infinite number of monkeys.

But it is quite good.

Here is a tale of my small Wikipedia contribution...

The World's Largest Graffiti Wall/Encyclopedia

Wikipedia has emerged as the web's most popular online encyclopedia, by far. It adds more than one thousand new articles every day and is quickly approaching the one-million article milestone (in the English edition). This number dwarfs the Encyclopedia Britannica's mere 120,000 articles.

Wikipedia's articles frequently come up near the top in web searches, and so Wikipedia's traffic is exploding. Alexa statitics suggest that as 2006 begins, 3% of all internet users use Wikipedia. That is a number that has approximately doubled every quarter for the last few years.

Amazingly, anybody can edit Wikipedia. Any reader, any page, any time. You can put your name on your edits, or you can edit anonymously. You do not need to do anything to establish your trustworthiness. As soon as you edit a page, your changes are published and show up immediately to the world.

"Is this for real?" you might think. It is one thing know 'anybody can edit it', and another thing to actually make an edit and see it go out to the world. So today, I would encourage you to head on over to Wikipedia and make an edit on the topic of your choice. Pick an article about something you know, and then fix some spelling or wording, or better yet, add some content. When you see your changes appear in the Internet's most popular encylopedia, the amazingness of Wikipedia will strike you.

Why isn't the whole thing full of porn, advertisements, and spam? Many of the articles are quite good. How does Wikipedia get such great content?

Here is the story of my own small Wikipedia contribution.

Five False Facts

This fall, my son Anthony's second-grade class did a segment on insects. This is the part of elementary school where you draw pictures of bugs and butterflies and raise mealworms in the classroom. (I am sure the teachers love it.) So one afternoon he came home with the First Big Homework assignment of the year.

"Five False Facts" was the name of the project: he was to come up with ten "facts", five true ones and five false ones. The idea was to write all these facts on flash cards to make a game. The veracity of the statement would be hidden on the back of the card, and players would try to tell the difference between truth and fiction. To collect his facts, he was allowed to use the library, any books, or the internet as a resource. It was a good assignment.

Five False Facts lead Anthony to do his first Google search. It also lead him straight to Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia entry for Tick was where Anthony discovered that ticks are not insects after all, but rather arachnids. Since he had to choose an insect, he used Wikipedia to check several other critters and finally decided that mosquitoes would be his insect of choice.

Happy with his progress, I left him to read the Wikipedia article on Mosquitos to collect his facts.

Incredible! Mosquitoes Have Perfect Pitch!

Imagine my distress, checking his progress, when I found that all of his "true" facts were either false or dubious! "Mosquitoes eat other mosquitoes," "mosquitoes wings buzz at a high G", "dragonflies eat mosquitoes", "mosquitoes don't like vitamin B", "mosquitoes are confused by ultrasound". In truth, only the enormous Toxorhynchites mosquitoes eat other mosquito larvae; mosquitoes buzz at a whole range of different frequencies depending on the species; dragonflies eat some number of mosquito larvae but are ineffective mosquito control agents; vitamin B and other scents have been unproven or found extremely weak in tests (stick with DEET); and ultrasound mosquito repellant manufacturers have been prosecuted for fraud. None of the true facts were well-represented in the Wikipedia article, and there were many false facts, misrepresentations, and exaggerations.

The pattern was disturbing. The Wikipedia article on mosquitoes was highly slanted in favor of minority viewpoints. It seemed to be full of contributions from people with an agenda: perhaps hucksters pitching a product, or eco-extremists seeking to malign all use of manufactured chemicals. There was also a slant towards entertaining but dubious anecdotes, amazing but untrue assertions, and so on.

It was as if the encyclopedia article had been written by the producers of That's Incredible!

We had to find another source. "You're going to have to find your five facts again," I told my disappointed son. "This time, let's read a different webpage."

Geeky Dad Fights Forces Of Chaos

But I was a bit upset. I wasn't upset at Wikipedia: that would be like being upset at a restaurant after seeing some graffiti on a bathroom wall.

No, I was upset at whoever had inserted their "incredible" information into the mosquito article. I was upset that my son had fallen victim to it. So that night, I read several more sources of information on mosquitoes. I read several mosquito control handbooks, a clinical guide to mosquitos and health, some research papers on mosquitoes, and various sources of epidemiological information about mosquitoes.

And then based on what I had learned, I deleted half the Wikipedia article on mosquitoes, and replaced it with more credible information. I hadn't written a paper on a topic like "mosquitoes and public health" since high school, but it was strangely fun to do a piece of homework again.

What the heck do I know about mosquitoes? For one night in October, I annointed myself the world's expert on mosquito control. Or at least, I made myself Wikipedia's expert on the topic.

Pressing the "Save page" button was empowering: my changes showed up right away for everybody to read. No more talk about the benefits of ultrasonic devices; instead, a link to the FTC's fraud lawsuits. No more blatant anti-chemical bias; instead a balanced, modern treatment of integrated pest management and a discussion of measuring ecological impact against a spectrum of approaches.

What happens after you change Wikipeida?

I wondered what would happen once I rewrote the Mosquito article. Would my changes be reverted?

What happened surprised me. The first changes that came in were helpful: somebody immediately did a copy edit, fixing spelling, grammar, and other problems in the text. Other people soon contributed improvements to the neutrality of the language.

Some other people came in and started re-adding old wives tales about how various household concoctions might repel mosquitoes. I removed these since they weren't supported by research. "Let's add references to supporting sources," I wrote on the discussion page.

And then a couple days later, the Mosquito article was smeared with graffiti: various offensive words and bad jokes were scattered through the text. Oh well; I thought, perhaps that's inevitable for this medium. Without fixing the vandalism I left the Mosquito article and stopped contributing.

But now as I look back and visit the Wikipedia article again, I notice that my own content is still there, and all the graffiti has been removed. The article has continued to be improved, and there are very few dubious facts (although there still may be a couple). Wikipedia has proven to be incredibly self-healing. Just two days ago, an anonymous person replaced the word "mosquito" with "little fuckers" in several places in the article, and less than 30 minutes later, the change had been cleaned up and reverted by a Wikipedian named "Bobet."

What motivates all these Wikipedians?

I wonder if they are all geeky dads, like me, fighting the forces of chaos.

Posted by David at January 22, 2006 12:16 PM

One of the most pleasing parts of writing for wikipedia is finding a topic in desperate need of a good photographic illustration, grabbing your camera and taking a picture of something and uploading it to that topic.

Wikipedia has lots of text, but very few pictures. My photos have so far been of historic buildings and follys - and IMHO they add immensely to the articles.

Posted by: RichB at January 22, 2006 02:27 PM

There are at least two other species of mosquitoes that will also eat mosquito larvae and pupae. They are Psorophora ciliata and Psorophora howardii. Both larvae grow large like Toxorhynchites, but they are light brown or tan instead of red like Tox. One thing they have in common with Tox. is they will also attack and eat each other as well. In eastern North Carolina, they are at times found during the summer months in woodland pools, ditches, and ground pools. As an adult, the Ps. ciliata has a brown thorax with a gold stripe down the middle and white scales on the side. The (adult) Ps. howardii thorax appears to be black with whith scales toward the sides. It has a row of black scales down the middle that blend in with the color of the thorax. It's also been reported that Ps. columbiae will eat other larvae.

Posted by: Robert Collins at September 1, 2007 02:02 PM
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