Wikipedia logo on a laptop screen.

The word “wiki” comes from Hawaiian and can be a verb meaning “To Hasten” or an adjective meaning “quick” or “fast.” But how in the world does that relate to Wikipedia?

The Origin of the Name “Wiki”

The first wiki, WikiWikiWeb, was created by a man named Ward Cunningham to facilitate the exchange of ideas, information, and experience between programmers. The name, WikiWikiWeb, was inspired by a shuttle service at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu. Since then, the idea has grown explosively, and become one of the defining aspects of the internet.

Note: A lot of the discussion and examples here will revolve around Wikipedia and other sites managed by the Wikimedia Foundation, as they’re by far the largest wikis in existence. Not all wikis function in exactly the same way, though most will be similar.

What Is a Wiki?

The internet is loaded with informational websites of widely varying quality. Some are filled with carefully curated content, written and edited by people with specialized training or experience. Most sources considered authoritative are run this way, and for good reason — selecting your content for accuracy goes a long way towards increasing credibility.

Wikis work in exactly the opposite way. The content found on wikis is written and edited almost exclusively by anonymous volunteers. If you spot an inaccuracy or problem with an article, you can make any corrections necessary. If an article doesn’t exist at all, you can add it. If someone has a problem with your additions, they can dispute it or remove it. You can even host your own wiki if you wanted, either using software available from the Wikimedia Foundation, or your own home-brewed solution. The goal of wikis is always to be as open as possible.

The entire history of an article — when it was created, what changes were made and when, and any discussion or debate about the content — is publicly viewable. Here is an example of what you might see if you were to check out a page’s edit history on Wikipedia.

Revision history on the wikipedia article about Heavy Water.

Specialized Wikis

The majority of wikis out there don’t try to be as broad in scope as Wikipedia. There are specialized wikis for almost every topic you can imagine. (formerly Wikia) alone hosts thousands of Wikis relating to movies, television, books, video games, and more.

As an example, the Star Wars wiki — which is named “Wookieepedia,” a portmanteau of “Wookiee” and “Encyclopedia” — has just shy of 175,000 articles.

The top of the Star Wars fandom wiki.

Wikipedia maintains a non-exhaustive list of other wikis you can find on the internet, which you can check out.

Using an open collaboration model has allowed wikis to cover a diverse range of topics and grow at an astonishing rate with little—if any—centralized oversight. New information can be incorporated into existing articles within seconds. But what does the lack of centralized oversight mean for accuracy?

Should You Trust a Wiki?

There has been extensive debate over the accuracy and reliability of crowdsourced resources like Wikipedia. Critics are quick to point out that “Anyone can edit it and say whatever they want,” which is largely true. Sometimes false information is added and passed off as fact, either deliberately as an act of vandalism, or unintentionally, due to honest ignorance. Other times, biased or incomplete information is added without sufficient context.

Wikis rely on the “wisdom of the crowd” to sort out these issues. There is an assumption inherent to the wiki model that people will try to express the truth as best they know it, and that when you have a large enough group of people contributing, things like individual bias will get canceled out and major factual errors will be eliminated. Wikipedia, and associated sites, explicitly ask people to try to maintain a neutral point of view and to only make claims that are verifiable. But does this approach work?

As it turns out, it mostly does. Wikipedia scores decently when measured based purely on empirical fact. One study found that Wikipedia was accurate 80% of the time, whereas conventional encyclopedias were accurate about 96% of the time. Wikipedia does better with highly technical or specialized articles, where Wikipedia has been found to be comparable to Britannica in a Nature study, and a separate study found that experts rated Wikipedia articles related to their field more highly than laymen did. In the same study, only 5.7% of experts found factual errors in the articles they reviewed.

Wikipedia is usually factually correct, but what about bias? A study by researchers Harvard Business School found that the more times an article was revised, the more likely words indicative of bias are to disappear compared to expertly curated works — in other words, Wikipedia articles tend become less biased as more people work on them.

So make the world a less biased place — edit a Wikipedia article.

Profile Photo for Nick Lewis Nick Lewis
Nick Lewis is a staff writer for How-To Geek. He has been using computers for 20 years --- tinkering with everything from the UI to the Windows registry to device firmware. Before How-To Geek, he used Python and C++ as a freelance programmer. In college, Nick made extensive use of Fortran while pursuing a physics degree.
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