Over the last six years, something incredible has happened. People all around the world who have no other connection to one other have come together to begin building a giant, free encyclopaedia. Because of its quasi-exponential rate of growth, the phenomenon has, in the last few months especially, been subject to some well-deserved attention, not to mention its fair share of scrutiny.
Theres no way of knowing who wrote it. Its not backed up nobody will put their name to it, this was what I was told by an otherwise liberal-minded professor from Wesleyan University in the United States, when I asked him what he thought of Wikipedia.
There seem to be roughly three identifiable attitudes when it comes to Wikipedia: people who are oblivious to it; people who either use it, contribute to it, or otherwise donate time, money, or goodwill to it; and people like my friend from Wesleyan who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with it, avoid it, and would certainly never make a contribution to it.
The fact is that people in the last group are probably there because they are unfamiliar with the efficiency of the process by which Wikipedia content is generated and edited the peer-contribution, open-source model. In fact, this model is an important and legitimate one for the future of the documentation of human knowledge, and those who find it strange should take a second look.
Also in this debate
Bill Thompson, The Democratic Republic of Cyberspace?
Simon Zadek, Reinventing Accountability for the 21st Century
John Lloyd, The responsibility of the harlot
Becky Hogge & Geoff Mulgan, Open source nation
Sarah Lindon, Talking Democratically
Ben Rogers, Courtroom shake-up
Miriam Clinton, The Internet Library: rip, mix or burn?
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There are two fundamental characteristics of Wikipedia, which are both also essential parts of what defines something as open source. The first, crucial, characteristic is that anyone can edit Wikipedia at any time. The second is that people do commit their time to editing and improving Wikipedia, even though they are not being paid or personally rewarded in any conventional sense.
Wikipedia has content in more than 200 languages, allowing it to reach much of the worlds online population. The English language version is still the largest, and contains over 730,000 articles, written and edited collectively by about 430,000 users. But size is not enough. There are around 600 billion pages on the web (though this varies dramatically based on the definition of a page), so what would make the information on Wikipedia so much better or more reliable than any other web page?
Supposing I was to make my own website, I could say anything I liked, and unless the information was strongly defamatory or libellous, nobody would be able to stop me or change what I had published. With Wikipedia, however, this is not so. Vandalism and inaccurate information can be removed by one user as easily as they can be put into Wikipedia by another. Wikipedia articles are protected by the same exact characteristic that may appear to make them unreliable in the first place: the fact that anybody can edit them.
So what ensures that the good contributions outweigh the bad? Open source projects always have one thing that keeps their anarchic editing process on track. Simply put, they have a purpose. The goal with Wikipedia, outlined from the very beginning, was to build something closely representing an encyclopaedia, though much bigger than any existing one, which was always up to date and endowed each article with a neutral point of view. With Firefox, the goal was to build a browser, and with GNU/Linux it was to build an operating system.
This type of target is very important. For Wikipedia, it means that for every person who commits an act of vandalism, purposefully writes fake or obscene entries, or who simply provides inaccurate information, there are thousands who, with Wikipedias goal in mind, set about correcting such problems. As long as an open-source project has a clearly defined goal such as this, the model proves to be highly successful first for producing software, and now knowledge.
This is not to say that Wikipedia, still only about six years old, has ironed out all of its problems as far as making a model like this work. Various battles of interpretation still rage on. Many pages have had to be temporarily locked by administrators some against repetitive vandalism, and others such as George W. Bush and Israel in order to prevent edit wars.
In other cases, Wikipedians have simply had to agree to disagree, and Wikipedia has furnished them with a standard template for notifying readers that the content of a particular article is disputed. When I was writing my linguistics thesis, for example, the page on verbal aspect was labelled disputed over an argument about how aspect is reflected In English verbs. Obviously, I decided against using the article to help with my thesis, but upon returning I now see that the page has been completely rewritten and that there are no longer any such conflicts.
But as so many people still cannot fathom, there is still the question of what possesses people to give their time and contribute to something like this without gaining from it personally. Why would somebody rewrite an entire article on grammatical aspect, in the above example, and not even be interested in receiving credit, let alone cash?
The answer to this question is perhaps what best defines the collaborative spirit of the open source movement. Lawrence Lessig, in his article Do You Floss? for the London Review of Books (Vol 27#16, 18/08/2005), provides us with the beginning of an answer. He says that although its generally quite hard to understand why anybody would give anything away for free, thats because giving away usually means having less for yourself. However, both software and knowledge (this is perhaps why the open source model can be so well adapted for writing an encyclopaedia) are not like that. Knowledge is not like food if you share knowledge, you dont have less as a result, but other people potentially benefit and come to know more. Some anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin would call it mutual aid.
You contribute your knowledge to Wikipedia, or code for Firefox, because you want there to be a better encyclopaedia, or browser, for everybody to use. Its a common good, in the purest, most exemplary sense of the phrase. You acknowledge that you know considerably more than the average person about a particular area or field, and fill in that page or pages on the encyclopaedia. Meanwhile, you can read and learn from the other parts of the encyclopaedia.
And while nobodys being paid to write for Wikipedia, there is for some people the sense of fulfilment, and even honour, at having been the first or main contributor to an article within their expertise. Eric S Raymond, who first wrote about what drives the open source phenomenon in Homesteading the Noosphere, calls this peer repute, or prestige.
If you consider that Wikipedia is akin to Diderots Encyclopédie (1772), which called upon the greatest thinkers in French society to build a great encyclopaedia from all of their specialist knowledge, then feeling that you have made even the smallest improvement to a Wikipedia article especially a bigger, higher profile one is cause enough to get writing. The overwhelming spirit of the project so far is one where peoples edits are based on a genuine desire for the articles they are editing to improve, and on a genuine commitment to the accuracy with which their chosen subject is explained.
As someone who is cynical and very questioning of just about everything that the media asks me to believe, like the third group of people I criticised at the beginning of this article, I was slow to realise what an amazing tidal wave had been set in motion by Wikipedia. Rather than trusting specific people with the task of writing about select subjects for a select few, and allowing what they write to remain as private property, we now trust everybody to contribute and write about anything for the common good, in the faith that as long as people are motivated to contribute by the aims of a given project, nobody will ever bother to spend time writing about something they know nothing about.
What the critics of Wikipedia cite as a problem, Wikipedians recognise as a strength: an open, peer-editing process, powered by a sometimes near-obsessive passion for improvement. It has worked for software and now its working for knowledge, and the more of us that roll up our sleeves and get stuck in the better it will continue to become.