The Wikipedia Way

Painting of Commander Oliver Hazard Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 via Wikimedia Commons

The Wikipedia Way

THE SOURCE: “Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812” by Richard Jensen, in The Journal of Military History, Oct. 2012.

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Wikipedia is nothing if not thorough. Take the entry on the War of 1812. More than 2,400 self-appointed editors contributed to the 14,000-word article. Some 627 people spilled 200,000 words’ worth of digital ink arguing over its exact content. In April 2012, it garnered 172,000 page views.

Wikipedia is an impressive Internet ecosystem. The problem is that Wikipedians are running out of new material to write—and argue—about, and the number of dedicated editors is dwindling, according to Richard Jensen, a retired history professor and himself an avid Wikipedia editor.

Over a typical month in 2012, the English-language Wikipedia was the sixth most frequently visited Web site in the United States. Yet not even one visitor in a thousand opts to write or edit an article. In terms of productivity, Wikipedia’s heyday came and went in 2006 and 2007. Unpaid amateurs churned out 2,000 articles per day in the summer of 2006. But “by the time one million articles are written, it must tax ingenuity to think up something new.” Still, narrow-gauge articles have proliferated; Wikipedia passed the four-million mark last year.

A core group of a few thousand highly active editors keeps Wikipedia humming. Fifteen hundred administrators, elected by their peers, have special powers. Ninety percent of active editors are male; 27 percent are under 21. (Some 13 percent are only in high school.)

With fewer articles to be added comes more scrutiny of what’s already been written. Just 15,000 of the four-million-plus entries on the English version of Wikipedia earn the “good article” classification, meaning that they are accurate, fully footnoted, neutral, and illustrated.

This is where the passions of Wikipedia’s partisans shine through. The history category has 905 “good” articles. But warfare blows that away, with 1,937 such articles, including 56 devoted to warships of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The novel-length dispute over the War of 1812 centered on which side won: Canada (then a British colony) or the United States. Some alleged that the entry leaned toward an American interpretation of events, a grave violation of Wikipedia’s rigorous commitment to the principle of Neutral Point of View. In response, users painstakingly compared 13 draft versions of the article. They settled on a compromise. “In recent decades the view of the majority of historians has been that the war ended in stalemate,” Wikipedia’s entry concludes.

Jensen says a broader problem is that like so many other war-related entries, the War of 1812 article is long on battlefield details and short on politics and context. “Social history content is rare, and cultural history even rarer,” Jensen writes of Wikipedia, “but every little battle gets its own article.”

On the flip side, Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on the War of 1812 is “sketchy on military and naval affairs,” according to Jensen. 

As encyclopedias go, Wikipedia has grown to maturity. But “it is not mature in a scholarly sense,” Jensen says. In military history, he suggests ways to fix that, such as giving prolific editors access to professional scholarship and encouraging them to attend military history conferences. But such dedicated editors may be a vanishing breed. “The numbers keep falling as more and more have had their say and moved on.”