Two years after it was created, I discovered Wikipedia in 2003 still low on hardware and non-geek users. Today, it is often among the first Google result for any noun, and I can mention Wikipedia in conversation without qualification. Though reassuring that Wikipedia is popular, these conversations make me question whether people understand the project.
Hints come up: some confuse Wikipedia with wiki. Others think that only experts and vandals edit (they may say, “A friend of mine ‘edited’ once, but was banned five minutes later.”). Others refer to what “Wikipedia says,” unaware that the article they read is the ongoing, collective, unverified work of disparate, semi-anonymous authors. (It happens to be of high quality, but must be read very carefully.).
I decided to poll my fellow students to see how many participate in and understand Wikipedia. This is a non-scientific survey, with presumably high error. I asked a few of peers to give their year of study and anonymously answer the questions:
- Do you use Wikipedia?
- Did you know that anybody can freely write, edit, and modify the contents of Wikipedia?
- Have you ever edited Wikipedia?
- Have you created an account at Wikipedia?
I only surveyed undergraduate students at Binghamton University, in dormitories. (Polling students in my classes would homogenize and skew the results.)
I meant to poll more students, but going door to door sucks, and I stalled for the last week, so in the interest of this non-scientific survey, with presumably high error, I’ll post the 67 responses I collected. The data that I will analyze is data.snapshot.20061025.csv, and will always be the same. There is also data.csv, which will contain the any additional data I may collect, but will probably stay the same as the snapshot.
The data can be opened by spreadsheet tools; each row contains a number (1=freshman, 2=sophomore, 3=junior, 4=senior) and, for each question, a ‘y’ for yes or ‘n’ for no. The data can also be analyzed with grep and a calculator.
- The number of entries =
grep -c ^.,.,.,.,.$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv= 67.
- The breakdown by year is
for n in 1 2 3 4; do grep -c ^$n,.,.,.,.$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv; done. 35 freshmen, 25 sophomores, 5 juniors, and 2 seniors. This is clearly not the best data.
- Only 5 respondents (7%) do not use Wikipedia (
grep -c ^.,n,.,.,.$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv). 62 people (93%) do.
- Of the 62 users, 24 (39%) were not aware that Wikipedia can be modified by anybody until the survey. This was higher than I expected. (
grep -c ^.,y,n,.,.$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv)
- 10 people have edited articles (
grep -c ^.,.,.,y,.$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv). This is 16% of the 62 users, and 26% of the 38 users that are aware that they can edit (
grep -c ^.,y,y,.,.$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv).
- 4 users (6.45%) have accounts. (
grep -c ^.,.,.,.,y$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv)
I designed the survey for cascading nos. Once somebody answers no to one question, they will probably answer no to the rest. If you do not use Wikipedia, you might not know that anybody can edit it. If you did not know that anybody can edit, you probably have not edited. If you do not edit, you probably do not have an account. The exceptions (
grep ^.*n.*y.*$ data.snapshot.20061025.csv):
Two users have accounts, but have never edited. So 2 out of 10 editors (20%) have accounts. I am one of them.
One person does not use Wikipedia, but knows that it can be edited. I did not look at the responses when I collected them, but I guess that this is the girl who said that her teachers told her not to use Wikipedia.
Some comments I heard were (paraphrased):
- The only reason I have not edited is that every article I have seen is either complete or I have no expertise about.
- I saw an inappropriate message, so I deleted it.
- I vandalized it. Does that count?
- What class is this for? [me: none] … You have too much spare time.
With its ubiquity on campus, Wikipedia has achieved its goal of being the most useful, accessible encyclopedia. However, the number of students that understood that anybody can edit was disappointing. I think the [Edit] links are prominent, but maybe they, along with the small link to the disclaimer, are not enough to explain Wikipedia to somebody stumbling in from a search engine.
In the article Who Writes Wikipedia, Aaron Swartz shows how much of Wikipedia was written by dabblers, rather than core community members. This is interesting information because who writes Wikipedia should determine policy and technology.
I hope that some insight into students’ Wikipedia habits will also provoke policy, technology, and design questions. We are learning from professors involved in research, and if some of us do not have anything to contribute now, we certainly will in a few years. How can Wikipedia cultivate these people?
I welcome you to gather more data. You can print out the same forms I did, from pdf or odt. Feel free to change the form, for example, if you are polling non-students. Questions, responses, graphs, more data, etc. can go in the comments.