Can Wikipedia Survive? Oh, I Hope Not

Jun 21, 2015, Wikipedia

Behind the boosterism of this opinion piece by Andrew Lih in the New York Times (“it is by far the world’s most popular reference site” – notice that he doesn’t call it the world’s most accurate reference site) are some interesting tidbits:

–The rising popularity of smartphones threatens Wikipedia (editing Wikipedia on a cellphone is problematic).

–The “peak years” of Wikipedia were about 2005.

–Promotion from editor to administrator is at best one a month, compared to 60 a month in 2005.

–Wikipedia has a budget of $60 million and fund-raising is no problem.


Me vs. Wikipedia
Wikipedia Hoax Exposed
Wikipedia: Murder and Myth




My favorite part:

Last year the foundation took the unprecedented step of forcing the installation of new software on the German-language Wikipedia. The German editors had shown their independent streak by resisting an earlier update to the site’s user interface. Against the wishes of veteran editors, the foundation installed a new way to view multimedia content and then set up an Orwellian-sounding “superprotect” feature to block obstinate administrators from changing it back.

My other favorite part:

One board member, María Sefidari, warned that “some communities have become so change-resistant and innovation-averse” that they risk staying “stuck in 2006 while the rest of the Internet is thinking about 2020 and the next three billion users.”

And I like this too: 

The worst scenario is an end to Wikipedia, not with a bang but with a whimper: a long, slow decline in participation, accuracy and usefulness that is not quite dramatic enough to jolt the community into making meaningful reforms.

ManWearingTinFoilHatWhat Lih doesn’t say (and I’m not sure anyone has said it) is that for all practical purposes, Wikipedia is fully built out and has been fully built out for years except for the need to update current events.

There is no more need to slave away on an extended biography of Eric Cartman: that’s already been done. Now all that remains is for the citizen-scholars who have staked out particular entries as their turf to fight off the trolls who keep changing things or blanking the page and writing: “Jason is gay ha ha.”

I was an early adopter of Wikipedia, but abandoned all efforts under a barrage of lunacy and I have heard from any number of people who have had similar experiences.  (One typical Wikipedia incident involved some idiot who changed “Normandie,” a well-known street in Los Angeles, to “Normandy” without checking any maps because “it looked wrong.”)

Wikipedia is a tremendous driver of traffic for the simple reason that Google likes it, the philosophy being that in the battle for clicks, it’s more difficult to game Wikipedia and therefore outbound links from Wikipedia are inherently reliable, in contrast to a link farm of dubious origin. (You do know that Google is trying to improve the accuracy among its results, right?)

As long as Wikipedia remains a sinkhole of crackpots, coding tweakers and factoid zealots, I will dance on its grave.  And here’s to you, Wikipedia tin foil hat guy.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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17 Responses to Can Wikipedia Survive? Oh, I Hope Not

  1. Dan Dassow says:


    I fully understand your position regarding Wikipedia and generally agree. Your encounter with nascent Wikipedia editors who continued to add incorrect information to the Black Dahlia Wikipedia article is a prime example of what is wrong with Wikipedia. I’ve had similar encounters as an editor on Wikipedia. However, I continue to believe that Wikipedia has its place.

    I believe there will continue to be a need for semi-curated articles for general information. Wikipedia fills that spot, although imperfectly. No encyclopedia, whether it is the Britannica, World Book or Wikipedia should ever be considered a primary source of information. Wikipedia does not possess the intellectual rigor of Britannica and World Book, which are edited by acknowledge world experts. What Wikipedia lacks in rigor, it can potentially provide more current information and cover subjects that mainstream encyclopedias would never cover.

    As you are probably aware, I’ve cited your excellent series of articles on Christine Collins when compiling the Wineville Chicken Coop Murder article. Mainstream encyclopedias would probably not cover this subject. I hope that at least a few readers of the article look at the citations for further reading.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Wikipedia is essentially a hobby for most people, which is why it has lengthy articles on pop culture. Wikipedia was founded on a noble ideal, that anybody can write or edit an entry and share their expertise, but unfortunately it fails to consider human nature, whether it’s vandalism, companies trying to bolster their image or politicians running for office. And then there are the long-running international disputes.

      In the same vein, IMDB is somewhat better, but only somewhat because it’s still generally a hobby and (as many people complain) hard to correct or update.

      Google is what keeps Wikipedia going by ranking it first in most of its searches. If Google ever abandons Wikipedia or downranks Wikipedia, it will become an antique. I can foresee the day when Google itself provides quick reference and general reference answers, not taken from Wikipedia but based on a consensus algorithm that polls multiple Internet sources that Google deems reliable (based on who knows what). In fact, I am already starting to get such results that are directly from Google and not taken from Wikipedia.


      • Dan Dassow says:


        I believe we are essentially in violent agreement.

        The state of the art of artificial intelligence is still not mature enough to replace Wikipedia. However, IBM’s Watson demonstrated that the technology works for specific problem domains such as providing responses to Jeopardy! answers. It’s just a matter of time before Google and other companies develop suitable consensus algorithms for the internet.

        Regardless, consensus algorithms will still depend upon domain experts and researchers such as you to provide the information they need.


  2. B.J.Merholz says:

    Darned Internet! Not a piece of useful information on it.


  3. mandymarie20 says:

    As a lifelong trained librarian, Wikipedia has been a nightmare ever since it’s creation. You are precisely correct when you state human nature as one of Wikipedia’s major flaws. The beauty and at the same time problem with the site you eloquently listed above. As a school librarian, you have no idea how troubling it is that students automatic answer to anything they don’t know is Wikipedia. I spend more time than I care to admit trying to teach them about the questionable authority of the site, to question the information contained in the site, and to seek out the best information – not just the easiest to find.


    • Alan H. Simon says:

      I talked to my son, Ken Simon, who is a college librarian, about these posts on Wikipedia, telling him that I use it as a quick first source reference and for certain things it gives me the basic information I need. On other things, it is simply a launching pad. His response was:
      “You’re exactly right. Many librarians, myself included, teach students that they can — and should — use Wikipedia to get generally familiar with a subject when they’re first starting out on a research paper. It can give them new angles on it they haven’t thought of, introduce some vocabulary that will improve their searches on the topic, etc. But then, they have to go out and find reliable sources for their actual research. Wikipedia is not to be used or cited as a source in their actual paper!”

      “There are some librarians and professors out there who vilify Wikipedia and “forbid” its use, which I think is unrealistic and teaches students nothing about being critical consumers of information. I even know of a couple of librarians who teach their students about Wikipedia’s vulnerability by having the class go in and intentionally put false information into articles. These people are, as far as I’m concerned, missing the point and acting unethically!”


      • lmharnisch says:

        Wikipedia has its uses.

        It might be a good place for the layman to begin gathering information on Civil War uniforms, military decorations, etc., but I would never use it to research the underlying political and social causes of the Civil War.

        Let me explain.

        Because it is generally a hobby and mostly the work of fans and buffs (despite occasional interest among museums and academia seeking to drive Web traffic), Wikipedia has a wealth of information (possibly correct) on popular interests. It’s also useful on ready reference questions such as “When was the War of 1812?” and “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

        Wikipedia is popular with history buffs/war gamers/Civil War re-creators and the like, so you will find extensive entries on random militaria such as classes of Navy ships, the evolution of tanks and armaments, and uniform insignias. Again in the pop culture vein, it has abundant entries on the history of comics, summaries of “South Park,” “The Simpsons” and so forth. Without checking, I would imagine the entries on Cobol, the TRS-80 and the AMC Pacer are quite thorough.

        But in areas that are contentious because of religion, politics, diplomacy, or that require more reflection and thought, you will most likely find it problematic.

        More important, at least the last time I saw anything on the subject, Wikipedia’s authors are skewed heavily young and male. In other words, the fanboys of the world, which explains the emphasis on pop culture, militaria, etc.

        I have spent an enormous amount of time shooting holes in Wikipedia and I won’t get into it again.

        More important, however, is the corrosive, abrasive, rigid, elitist holier than thou culture of the Wikipedians when it comes to issues of accuracy. If you have never contributed to Wikipedia — or attempted to contribute to Wikipedia — you might not be aware of how protective Wikipedians can be of their staked-out turf and how furious they can become at anyone who contradicts them, no matter how well-documented their information may be. “Revert wars” are all too common and the newcomer invariably abandons any effort to introduce new (corrected) material.

        As I have demonstrated more than once, it is child’s play to find contradictions between entries because of the way Wikipedia was created and turf wars among Wikipedians (and would-be Wikipedians) prevent any kind of consistency.

        I was an early adopter of Wikipedia, but I abandoned all hope after having some uninformed person destroy a day’s work on the basis of what was found in some book of dubious accuracy and further being accused (in the holiest of holier than thou words) of self-promotion. Even worse, because Wikipedia is “open source,” anyone can go back and undo the fixes that have been made or, under the best of intentions, introduce stupid errors, such as the dolt who changed Normandie Avenue to Normandy without checking because it “looked wrong.”

        Wikipedia enjoys a high profile on the Internet, not because it is accurate, but because Google gives it “white list” status in its search queries. In other words, no matter what Wikipedia says, as far as Google is concerned, it cannot be wrong.

        Why is this?

        Because everyone on the planet wants to improve their Google rankings and employ various tricks — or as they are more politely known “search engine optimization.”

        Google realizes this and relies heavily on Wikipedia on the assumption that it has a wide number of authors and is thus more difficult to manipulate than random link farms designed to fool search engines. Until recently, Wikipedia has been No. 1 in Google, but recently, Google has begun trying to improve the accuracy of its searches, although how Google determines the accuracy of a search is a heavily veiled secret. So maybe Wikipedia will decline in the rankings on some subjects. It certainly ought to.

        Finally, I’m not sure students — either high school or college — are taught critical thinking anymore. I believe they are generally of the notion that “if it’s on the Internet, it must be true.” I would like to be wrong, but I see evidence of it every day.


      • mandymarie20 says:

        I’m not sure you understood my point. I myself use Wikipedia and have contributed to the site by adding information as well as correcting errors – citing my information of course. My problem is that it is considered authoritative and isn’t questioned. I use it, but think critically while using it. When facts are presented, I think about accuracy. For example, if it told me WWI occurred in the 1700s, I would know that is wrong. Most people who use the site wouldn’t notice. Yes, a physical book, even with extensive editing can be incorrect, but there are supposed experts involved in the production: authors, editors, etc,

        I am happy to teach students about questioning their sources – it’s incredibly important, especially today. The problem is that Wikipedia is held to a godlike standard. No matter how many times you suggest the site is not authoritative, students assume everything on it is true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told Wikipedia is never wrong – and could never be wrong. My problem is lack of critical thinking where Wikipedia is concerned. To bring in a movie reference, it reminds me of ‘The Time Machine’. When people rely on only one source of information, they can be manipulated and given inaccurate information and not even realize it.

        Everyone just wants an answer to their questions as fast as possible without really caring if the answer is correct or not. Wikipedia feeds that need.


  4. calandlulu says:

    We will need a credible replacement when Wikipedia folds> How about a Harnishipedia?


  5. iratelamar says:

    I’ve never had a problem correcting/updating imdb. When that site first started they would accept anything but that changed a while back. When adding a new title you now have to link to outside sources to verify it’s existence. The trivia section is loaded with inaccuracies but all the ones I’ve flagged have been removed.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Unfortunately, I find it difficult to get my “fixes” made and so I have given up.


      • Dan Dassow says:


        As iratelamar states, IMDb was forced to ask for supporting evidence to make fixes and updates. IMDb has had troubles with vandals submitting false information. Since you have a wealth of knowledge about Hollywood, it would be a shame if IMDb would not be able to leverage your knowledge.

        I am not an IMDb Staff member, but I help out as a volunteer. You can contact me privately via the email I’ve provided or contact IMDb via their Get Satisfaction site:


  6. Eve says:

    I’ve always held that Wikipedia is a chat or message board. It’s a good, fun chat or message board, but THAT’S ALL IT IS.


  7. Earl Boebert says:

    To me, the problem is not that Wikipedia is uniformly bad, it’s that it’s selectively bad. There are a few pages on technical and historical topics that I’ve studied extensively and I’d rate the pages as “decent textbook quality,” a quibble or two but nothing that I would flag as outright wrong. There are a couple of others that are hopeless.

    If I had my druthers I’d split the thing in two based on number of edits and reversions, or at least display that information so that people can see how contentious a page was.

    There’s good stuff there that in a sense is already lost because everything is suspect.


  8. Earl Boebert says:

    Good summary of Wikipedia’s shortcomings just put up here:


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