Home > Paper > Wikipedia and the Utopia of Openness: How Wikipedia Becomes Less Open to Improve its Quality

Wikipedia and the Utopia of Openness: How Wikipedia Becomes Less Open to Improve its Quality

I found out today that I have never posted my final paper of the Digital Methods of Internet Research. During my year in the Master New Media at the UvA, this was one of the most interesting researches I have worked on. With a final grade of 8.5, I was also asked to present it on the Digital Methods Conference. In this blog post, I have put down the abstract and the method. If you find it interesting, the full paper can be found here under a CC-BY-SA license.


Wikipedia has become an enormous source of information in the last decade. Because of its ubiquitous presence on the internet and the speed of which it is updated, it has become more than a reference. It becomes ‘a first rough draft of history’. In this study the changing politics of openness are analyzed. By looking at both small articles, as well as one extremely popular, the role of openness and transparency within Wikipedia is discussed. In this study I point out that in order to improve the quality of Wikipedia, it is sometimes necessary to limit the amount of openness, which is not a problem as long as the process remains completely transparent. At the same time, more transparency is needed to improve the smaller articles, which are often created by a single person.


In this paper, I want to take a deeper look inside Wikipedia and the way that the articles are created. Who is responsible for the content that can be found on Wikipedia? What is the consequence of the fact that ‘anyone can edit’ at any time and how is dealt with a project that has become so incredibly large? In the first part I will point out how Wikipedia works. The basics of Wikipedia will be explained and a more in-depth analysis of the politics of Wikipedia is done. By looking at the rules and regulations of Wikipedia, as well as how they are actually regulated by the community I will point out how Wikipedia has managed to control such a large group of editors and created an encyclopedia of high quality in stead of an anarchistic chaos.

In the second part, a closer look is taken to how an article is created and how it develops. Who creates the article? Is it a dedicated member of the community or an anonymous user who believes he can add something to the encyclopedia,? It is also interesting to see what happens after the creation. How does the community respond and what kind of edits are made? By taking a couple of articles as a case study, this will be made clear. This will make clear that a user should look at the average Wikipedia article more critically. Since this is hard for the average not so media-savvy Wikipedia user, Wikipedia should make this process of creation more insightful

In the third part, a more closer look will be taken to articles who are subjected to heavy editing. By taking a more deeper look into the Wiki article about Julian Assange the it will be made clear how the community responds on a topic like this and what this means for the idea of the ‘open’ and collaboration.

From this analysis, I conclude that the role of Wikipedia has changed, it has gone to be more than an encyclopedia, as it functions as an up to date news source. This has implications for the openness of Wikipedia and other ideas from the early days. To make sure Wikipedia can stay and become a more reliable source of information, transparency is the key.


The fact that Wikipedia is becoming bigger everyday, both in size, as in its ubiquitous presence, makes it an important object of study. On a daily base, millions of people use Wikipedia as a source of knowledge. The Wikipedia community is well aware of this and does its utmost best to create articles of better quality. This is not only done by checking new edits by both humans and bots, but also by creating new policies and guidelines. It seems that in the ten years of existence, the ideology of the early days has been abandoned. Rules can in fact be made and changed and the amount of openness can de reduced, as long as it benefits the quality of the content.

Wikipedia has developed from a small and open project, into a huge bureaucracy. This has several implications. It has become harder to start editing Wikipedia, new users often are frustrated by the wall of bureaucracy they run into and are therefore demotivated to become a Wikipedian. The consequence of this is that a declining group of people, is forming one of the biggest sources of knowledge. At the moment this does not affect the popular articles. As showed in the study to Julian Assange’s page, it is checked and discussed more than ever, despite the limited accessibility. It can however, reflect on the quality of smaller articles since more expertise is required and may as well lead to more conflicts between editors.

The increasing bureaucracy has two effects. On the one hand it decreases the amount of transparency. Because of the enormous growth of the policies and guidelines, it becomes harder to get the basic rules of Wikipedia and to see why a decision is made. At the same time, the user can assume that the article is of better quality because the content that is actually in the article, complies to all the rules. This however, does not apply to articles where only one editor created all the content. Most of the rules have to be checked by other users. As this research has shown, the text created in less popular articles is usually not changed much after that. The only edits that were made are text formats or adding categories and inlinks.

Therefore, I suggest that Wikipedia must give more attention to how the specific article is created and make it visible for every visitor. This way it brings back the transparency that has always been so important and improves the knowledge of the reader. It should be shown in the article how many users created it. For example, note a percentage in the top that shows how many of the content of the article is written by the same person and how many edits were made all together. This gives the user a better idea if an article is trustworthy and unbiased. By making the creating process even more transparent, it becomes easier for the user so decide how to approach the given information

It is up to Wikipedia as well as scholars to study better ways of indicating the quality of the article. With more than 3.5 million articles in the English-language Wikipedia, this can not be done efficiently by the human contributors, which numbers are slowly declining. New ways have to be found to automatically identify the quality of an article, as some researchers have already started discussing. This way, Wikipedia can indicate the quality of the article and show this to the user. This does not only make the user more aware of the fact that the content of Wikipedia is not perfect, it makes it also possible to automatically generate lists for the Wikipedians of articles that need to be checked for quality. It might even be possible to regulate the edit options automatically, giving more access when an article has proven to be of less quality, decreasing the amount of bureaucracy for starting editors.

This study has shown that Wikipedia has transformed since it was found, leading to a more bureaucratic organization. This has several implications, mainly on the openness of Wikipedia. As pointed out, these decisions can benefit the quality of Wikipedia, as long as the process remains completely transparent. By making less popular articles also more transparent, not only the quality of the content will improve, but it also notifies the reader how reliable an article is.

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