Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wikipedia quality: Barack Obama

The third article on the list of most visited pages is the first biography in the list: Barack Obama. Obama is, as practically anyone reading this blog probably already knows, running for President of the United States, and is at the moment in a hotly contested primary battle with Hillary Clinton (whose article also appears on the most visited pages list, but quite some ways further down). As a result, it stands to reason that this article would be in flux as the campaign progresses, and be prone to inappropriate editing, both from those who support and those who oppose his candidacy. Wikipedia's Featured Article process identified this article as a "featured article" in 2004, and the article has successfully withstood two attempts to decertify it of that status since. The article has been subject to full protection since March 7th (expiring March 14th); prior to that it had been semiprotected since December 2007, with a long history of various levels of protection before that.

The access pattern displays a seemingly odd cycle of weekly peaks on Tuesday; however, this is simply explained by the fact that most primaries and caucuses in the United States are held on Tuesday. Obviously the traffic to Obama's article peaks with the newscycle. It seems quite evident that people are going to the Internet to find out more about Obama each time he hits the news, and Wikipedia's article on him is the second Google hit for "Barack Obama" (after the campaign's official site) and the third for "Obama" (after two separate listings for the campaign site). The extra high peak on February 5th and 6th obviously corresponds to Super Tuesday.

To the complete credit of whoever has obviously made this article a labor of love, this is a fine article. I've read through it twice now and I can find no significant fault with it. The prose is well-written and engaging, and there is a good sense of flow in the writing. I did not find myself confused or put off by transitions. I do not notice any major omissions, nor do I see anything that has been given significant undue weight. Biographies in general often lend themselves to a chronological approach, and this article follows that approach, but in this case it does the article no harm. There is not a discussion of Obama's "lasting cultural legacy" as one might expect in an encyclopedic biography, but given that Obama is still alive and very much in the thick of current events, it would be premature and speculative to even begin to write such content. My only complaint (and a weak one, at that) about this article is that it may perhaps be too sympathetic to Obama.

I did contact the Obama campaign to ask them if they have been monitoring the article or taken any role in maintaining it; as of the time I write this, they have not responded. However, the Washington Post reported last September that the Obama campaign is aware of the article and has established some policy regarding its staffers editing Wikipedia (without revealing what that policy is). If they do respond, I will be certain to share their comments as appropriate. (Relatedly, this article, on the Obama campaign's use of wikis and other web 2.0 ideas in organizing their campaign, is an interesting read.)

Grade: A
Viewed: 62 times a minute


  1. Too sympathetic towards Obama? Wouldn't that make the article at odds with editorial neutrality rules?

  2. It seems that you will review articles primarily for readability and coherence. That makes sense, of course, since you're not an expert in every topic and don't have the resources to do a lot of fact checking.

    Readability and coherence are certainly important qualities. But it may be worth noting that this puts the focus on what is possibly the poorest aspect of Wikipedia. In the 2007 Stern study the German Wikipedia was found to be more complete, more accurate and more up to date than its competitors. But it was also found to be less clearly written. And in my experience the English Wikipedia is more turgid and bloated than the German one.

  3. Haukur,

    Yes, you are right, I am not going to extensively fact-check these articles. I don't have the time or resources to do that. But, as you point out, accuracy is not so much Wikipedia's problem these days.

    If I am putting the focus on Wikipedia's poorest aspect, that can only be to Wikipedia's potential benefit. Especially since I'm targeting the most frequently viewed articles -- the ones for which readability and coherence are at their greatest importance.