There was a time when bookshelves in homes groaned under the weight of hefty, leather-bound encyclopedias. Those books might have been expensive, but the authors were, in theory at least, held accountable by their publishers. Wikipedia, for better or worse, changed that with its “openly editable” model. But just how “editable” is “openly editable”?
Every day, Wikipedia publishes a meta history of the revisions made to all pages on the site so far. The files are enormous — multiple terabytes to be (sort of) exact, a volume equivalent to the RAM of hundreds of laptops. Instead of filing an expense report that could get me sacked, I looked at Wikipedia’s latest top-line figures, released from the database in November.
The most-edited articles are about editing Wikipedia articles. Confusing, I know, especially when you take a peek at what those housekeeping articles say. Take this test page that, at the time of writing this piece, says:
And here’s the additional text Yolo my name is jacob.
Not exactly an indication of online debate. So, to find which articles have had the most constantly shifting content, I looked at entries that didn’t relate to Wikipedia administration. Here are the 100 most-revised articles:
Many of these subjects are controversial, such as No. 24, global warming, and we can imagine Wikipedia editors in a never-ending tug-of-war. Others pages simply cover sprawling subjects — when will the No. 6 entry, “list of total drama characters,” be complete?
George W. Bush has been by far the most contested article among Wikipedia editors: Through November 2013, the page had been revised 45,273 times. That’s three revisions for every word in the article.
Not surprisingly, Bush isn’t the only political figure to attract factual controversy. The Wikipedia entry on Barack Obama has been revised 23,514 times — just slightly ahead of Adolf Hitler (23,499 revisions). Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton all make it into the top 100 (Sarah Palin falls just short, in 104th place).
Articles on religion, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muhammed, or about specific countries, such as the United States and Israel, attract plenty of revisions. More surprising, however, is that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) features in more revised articles than any other single body — seven — and is responsible for the second-most-revised article: list of WWE personnel.
Does all this reflect how controversial some topics are in society at large, or merely which topics are most contested by the people who edit Wikipedia? I had a strong suspicion it was mostly the latter (although I didn’t think the typical Wikipedia volunteer would also be a big WWE enthusiast), but it’s difficult to know.
Wikipedia has a page about its 21.5 million Wikipedians (people that edit Wikipedia). For obvious reasons, I’m reluctant to trust that. A 2011 study by the University of Minnesota may be slightly better. The authors found that women accounted for only 9 percent of all Wikipedia edits and represent an even smaller share of high-frequency editors — 6 percent of Wikipedians who have edited 500 articles or more are women. The study also found that men are more likely than women to edit articles about geography, science or history.