Wikipedia’s (Sometimes Dirty) Little Secret

When you think Wikipedia, you think encyclopedia. And when you think
encyclopedia, you think education, self enrichment and all kinds of
good stuff.

A trip to Wikipedia’s home page initially confirms those impressions. It points you to rather edifying content: an introduction to the Pashtun people, an entry on the Australian pelican, a look at the Vikings’ historical exploits, etc. So far, so good. All very commendable.

Now here’s the slight rub. Wikicharts
purports to list the 100 most viewed pages on Wikipedia’s English
language site, and very quickly the numbers suggest that netizens
aren’t always making scholarly use of the web’s free encyclopedia.
Here’s how some of the numbers break down: In March 2007, 12 of the
100 most viewed pages on Wikipedia (including 4 of the top 20) deal with sex, some of
which goes beyond explaining the simple birds and bees. (Consult the list for more on that.) Meanwhile
another 30+ entries delve into pop culture — South Park, Britney
Spears, Anna Nicole Smith, you get the point.

So, how many touch on more squarely educational topics? About 35.
And many of those include straightforward entries on countries (France,
India, Canada, etc.), or pieces that elucidate the new blockbuster
film, The 300. And while it’s good to see people using Wikipedia to understand the film, we all know that these more obscure historical entries will fall off the top 100 list as quickly as movies come and go. That doesn’t leave too many entries that
are reminiscent of an encyclopedia. In the top 100, you get a handful of classic topics — entries on Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Global
Warming — but that is about it.

All of this suggests that there’s something of a disconnect between
how we perceive Wikipedia (or how Wikipedia portrays itself) and how it
often gets used. Does this undermine the value of the more substantive
pieces that you can find on the encyclopedic site? Certainly not.
Wikipedia can be a great resource when it is at its best. But it does
suggest that Wikipedia’s enriching content is not its most popular, and
conversely that Wikipedia’s highest traffic is flowing to content that
probably won’t be showing up on Wikipedia’s homepage any time soon.

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Comments (7)
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  • michael says:

    The really interesting thing about the web is that with analytics we can get a sense how people are actually using, well, everything. In about a day on the web you can probably collect more information about how people use Wikipedia than has ever been collected on how people use a traditional encyclopedia. How do we know that an encyclopedia is not used the same way, i.e. that the more salacious entries get the most attention? It is almost a cliche now, but don’t most adolescents’ experience with dictionaries primarily revolve around looking up naughty words? I know mine did. All the research I’ve ever read about public libraries says that the most checked out books are current bestsellers, not classics. Why would we expect that behavior to be any different online?

  • Richard Chapman says:

    I think this is a case of killing the messenger. The stats on the top 100 on Wikipedia most likely correlate with the top 100 searches on Google, or pretty close. All that shows is what our culture is most interested in, not what Wikipedia makes people want to see. So what are the top 100 subjects “turned to” in the Britannica? If we even new it wouldn’t be a fair comparison because the Britannica doesn’t even come close to covering the wide swath of subjects that Wikipedia does. I wouldn’t blame the bottle for the bad tasting wine, I would blame the wine maker, or makers.

    If you want to find fault with Wikipedia then call them on who’s keeping track of the content. And the credentials of the editors.

  • DHC says:

    Michael, I think you’re right. It is not a complete shock that traffic drifts to more salacious/not-so-highbrow entries. But it is a bit of a disappointment to realize that Wikipedia is most often helping people learn about Pokemon, American Idol and Anna Nicole Smith. At some level, it changes how you look at Wikipedia. It leaves you wondering whether its content and focus is becoming too diffuse and whether the lines between it and Geocities are becoming a bit too blurred.

  • Lori says:

    Hmm…my guess is that it’s sort of like the long tail. The Top 100 pages get the most hits, but for each of those pages, there are 100,000 pages that only got 10 hits each. Those pages will never hit the Top 100, but in a day, there were far more hits to pages not featured on the Top 100 than pages that were.

  • DH C says:

    There are some excellent points being made here. My post was not meant to undermine the basic goodness of Wikipedia, but more to point out user patterns that weren’t immediately obvious, at least to me. I think the long tail view is spot on. There are likely thousands of high quality entries that receive a small number of pages views each day, but they probably collectively amount to a tremendous amount of traffic. And that’s where Wikipedia makes its contribution. Good points all.

  • Wati Wara says:

    Being a teacher, I would suggest that this indicates that a lot of the traffic to Wikipedia is coming from kids and schools. The topics you mention are the things that kids are interested in and want to know about.
    Wara ;-)

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