Read between the lines: Wikipedia’s inner workings revealed

Wikipedia's web features let you learn more about what you're reading than you can from a traditional book. Photo (c) Julia Spranger, licensed CC BY

Wikipedia’s web features let you learn more about what you’re reading than you can from a traditional book. Photo (c) Julia Spranger, licensed CC BY.

Since it launched in 2001, Wikipedia has become the most widely-viewed source of original content in the world. But the way it’s built is utterly different from other publications: newspapers, books, traditional encyclopedias. Most of us have a basic understanding how a traditional publication is created; for instance, the difference between a reporter and a news editor, or the role of a publisher as a gatekeeper in determining what authors get published. But that understanding won’t help much when it comes to Wikipedia.

But there’s plenty you can do to learn about how a Wikipedia article has evolved, and assess things like its accuracy bias. Wikipedia is built on the principle of transparency; with very few exceptions, every edit in an article is preserved, and publicly visible. So is every discussion about how the article should be written or edited.

But if you want to explore these edits and discussions, you will need a basic understanding of how Wikipedia works. Below is an exercise you can complete in 30-60 minutes, designed to help you build some skills as a critical Wikipedia reader.

Before you get started, review this case study of the evolution of the article on Celilo Falls. Don’t worry about absorbing every detail; but take in a view of the kind of things Wikipedia editors do. Keep the case study open in a browser tab while you do the following exercises.

  1. Explore that article’s “Talk” page. Read through the beige boxes at the top. Explore some of the links in them. Can you find one or more that were mentioned in the case study? (These beige boxes are typical of an article’s talk page, but they have nothing to do with discussion; it’s just an oddity of Wikipedia that this is where they happen to live.)
    Now explore the rest of the page. Do you see any discussions related to the case study?
  2. Explore that article’s “View history” tab. (See below for some help with this one.) Use the date fields at the top of the page to navigate to one of the dates mentioned in the case study. Can you find any of the edits mentioned in the case study? Do you see any others that are interesting?
    Now look at the line near the top of the view history page labeled “external tools.” Try clicking some. Can you find out how many times the article was viewed in the last month? Who has written the bulk of the article? Can you find when a certain sentence was originally added?
  3. Look at the public logs for this article. (The link is at the top of the view history page.) Logs will reflect certain administrative actions, for instance, protecting an article from anonymous edits. For the Celilo Falls article, you won’t see any entries; but for a more controversial article, you probably will.
  4. Finally, look at the “page information” for this article. (The link is under “Tools” on the lefthand side.) Anything interesting here?

Once you are familiar with each of these links, try them all with another article — pick a topic you know or care about. Run through each screen again, and see if you can learn anything interesting about the article’s evolution. In particular, try step #3 with a highly controversial article (for instance, a major politician or political topic).

Guide to the “view history” screen

The "View History" tab of any Wikipedia article is a vital tool in understanding how it has evolved.

The “View History” tab of any Wikipedia article is a vital tool in understanding how it has evolved.

The view history tab of every Wikipedia article provides a great deal of information. The color coding here will help you understand what you’re looking at. (In the upper left of the graphic, notice that it’s the “View history” tab for the Article, not for its Talk page; each has its own history.)

Below the header section, each line beginning with a bullet reflects a revision to the article.

  • The green column has tools for to comparing any two revisions of the article.
  • The yellow column states the date of that revision; clicking it will take you to the version of the article as of that date.
  •  The grey column tells you who made the revision, and provides links relevant to that user.
  • The blue column tells you about the size of the article as of that revision (and will indicate if the user labeled the edit as “minor,” and a few other things.) This is probably the least important of the columns.
  •  The pink column shows the edit summary the user provided (and in some cases, additional information).
  • ░ The unhighlighted links at the right give you the ability to easily undo recent edits, or thank the user for making the edit. Try both links; don’t worry, neither will take any action without you confirming it first. (You have to be logged into an account to thank somebody.)

For a more thorough overview of the view history screen, see this 10 minute video, which covers each item and link in detail; and see this brochure (designed to be printed) for a general overview of evaluating Wikipedia article quality.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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