What can content developers learn from Wikipedia?

Posted on July 19, 2016

 

It’s very tempting to think that if we Google something and it presents us with a fact, it must be true, but how much misinformation is there on the internet?

You will have seen many examples of dubious ‘facts’ shared on social media, often claiming something inflammatory about themes like immigration, MPs’ expenses and other subjects that get people’s blood boiling. Often, these memes cite unsourced statistics and claims, and are frequently debunked, as was the case for this meme about MPs’ seemingly misguided sense of priority that did the rounds in 2014.

If this popular Guinness advert from the 1990s had been remade today, the web would certainly have fed its creators with a lot more mythical stats to work with.

Perhaps the go-to source for information is the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, which is without doubt a fabulous resource. With more than five million entries in English alone, and entries in hundreds of other languages, it’s a resource that completely dwarfs any ink and paper equivalent, and is just as happy to inform us about Z-list celebrities and lower division football clubs as it is about significant historic figures and events.

Both Wikipedia’s strength and its weakness, however, is that anybody can edit it. This means that anybody with something to say about an entry can chip in and add to Wikipedia’s huge compendium of knowledge, which is a wonderful thing. Sadly though, it’s also possible that someone who isn’t in the know but thinks he is, or who might be in the know but isn’t very good at finding or using sources, could weigh in and send an article wayward with half-truths or outright myths.

Sometimes, this is an honest mistake made with good intentions, but other times, it’s vandalism. In fact, some of Wikipedia’s pages are protected or semi-protected so that only trusted users may edit them, and it’s not hard to understand why. If left open to the average troll for even five minutes, no doubt the accounts of controversial figures like Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins would be transformed into sources of nothing but silliness.

In some cases, Wikipedia will question the article itself and scrawl all over it in the way a strict teacher would with red pen. Sometimes, if a claim is made without being backed up by a reference, it will add a ‘citation needed’ note immediately after it. Wikipedia editors (known as Wikipedians) are then invited to either look for a source or, if they can’t find a reliable one, remove the claim from the page.
If you fancy doing a bit of investigation, here is a list of Wikipedia articles that require citations.

Another thing Wikipedia hates is language used to promote a person or thing (known as puffery or ‘peacock terms’), or indeed discredit them. It also has a problem with unsupported attributions or ‘weasel words’, which are statements like ‘some people say that’ or ‘it is generally accepted that’ that are open to questioning. You may see the question ‘by whom?’ inserted by Wikipedia immediately after such claims.

When researching on Wikipedia, it’s always wise to use it as a starting point and then back up what you’ve learned by checking other sources. It’s hard to fault the site too much though, and its guidance on subjects like unsupported attributions is actually a great reference tool for anyone looking to understand how to write their content with a neutral point of view.

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.
John Murray
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