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Wikipedia has been around for nearly 15 years now, with the spectrum of topics covered expanding perpetually. Tens of thousands of volunteer editors come together to update the online encyclopedia, oftentimes just as quick as the news surfaces.
So how does Wikipedia keep up with the rush of the news on every conceivable topic from the hermeneutic style of Latin to Super Mario Bros. 3? Well, in an official blog post published earlier today, Wikimedia Foundation communications intern Joe Sutherland detailed the approach in an attempt to appear more transparent about the non-profit's internal procedures.
For the purpose of demonstration, Sutherland selected the article "Shooting of Michael Brown", focused on the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri last August. Until January 12 of this year, Sutherland kept a detailed record of the subject's Wikipedia page.
There were two peaks of activity. The first ensued from the media attention surrounding protests beginning in mid-August, and the second was the judicial decision to not indict Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. Each peak brought 500 individual revisions to the Wikipedia entry, allowing for a comparison between two different case studies or, as Sutherland puts it, cross-case analysis.
During the time when the initial rioting was ocurring in protest of the killing, the speed of editing was unsurpisingly faster than directly after the page was created. This is because it took a few days for Wikipedia's editing community to discover the page and find out more details about the event it was based on. During this time, the mean editing period was 18.47 edits every hour, notably eleven times greater than the article's overall editing average.
As media coverage grew more pervasive during the time of Darren Wilson's indictment decision, nearly 500,000 people visited the article, though editing rates were sluggish during this period, with only 7.21 edits per hour. The first peak was faced with an average of 501.02 bytes of text added to the page every hour , 3.6 times faster than the second peak.
Determining accuracy of the "Shooting of Michael Brown" article, like all Wikipedia entries, is a dubious task – but especially with a topic as subjective and oftentimes easily deceiving as this. To do this, however, Sutherland decided to examine the volume of sources per kilobyte of text, dubbed reference density.
During this study, Sutherland took ten samples from each peak, tallying their reference and combining them with the size of the page and – voila! – obtaining the reference density.
As expected, the reference density rose during both peaks, with it being notably higher in the first peak, requiring more sourcing due to the barebones nature of the page. Surprisingly, most of the sources used in the entry derived from print publications rather than online media, with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch having become a rife presence during the article's second peak.
Obviously, many of the sources came from Missouri-based publications, though most of sources referenced are based in New York, as Wikipedia editors are typically inclined to cite major news publications like the New York Times and USA Today rather than indpendent sites.
As far as the range of contributors are concerned, Sutherland assumed to divide editors up into categories based on contribution frequency. In doing this, he discovered that most of the editors were, as expected, "Highly active", contributing 10 to 40 edits per day while "Casual" users who supply 0.1 to 1 edit each day closely trailed behind as depicted in the infographic below.
Outstandingly, 58 percent of the edits made to the entry were issued by Wikipedia's top ten contributors, meaning a marginal group of people can mostly be credited for the page today. This somewhat validates the theory that Wikipedia articles are mostly contrived by a small team of people while the contributions of individual editors are comparatively minuscule.
Interestingly enough, Sutherland's study shows that Wikipedia handles breaking news more like a newsroom than many of us had previously thought. In hindsight, however, editing rates don't quite line up with media coverage peaks.
Joe Sutherland's complete thesis, entitled "An evaluation of Wikipedia's response to and coverage of breaking news and current events" is available as a PDF here.