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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