The Ecologies of Wikipedia
Last week, another bombshell exploded in the slow, cold war between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. Toward the end of 2005, the prestigious British science journal, Nature, conducted an analysis of a number of articles in both Britannica and Wikipedia, and proved that, on the whole, both publications seemed equally accurate – and equally inaccurate. Now Britannica claims that Nature cooked their data – there’s been a fair bit of that going on in the scientific community lately – and that, in fact, they’re far more accurate than upstart Wikipedia.
Does anybody care?
For a brief shining moment in 1999, Encyclopedia Britannica was freely available online in its full glory, and it was good. So good, in fact, that the site crashed shortly after its launch – many, many people wanted the high-quality facts in Britannica. These millions of visitors quickly overloaded its servers. Britannica upgraded its web infrastructure, relaunched itself, and quickly became one of the hundred-or-so most popular sites on the web.
Somehow Britannica managed to lose money. The reasons for this colossal case of business malfeasance remain shrouded in mystery: web-based advertising paid more in 1999 than it did in 2001. With a steady stream of millions of visitors a day, it shouldn’t be hard to earn a fair bit of money. Yahoo! does it. Google does it. Somehow, Britannica couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and this failure was the death of Britannica. For, late in 2000, Britannica locked itself behind a “walled garden,” charging subscribers $6.95 a month for access, promptly losing nearly 100% of their audience. Even worse, they laid the ground for the perfect competitor: Wikipedia.
I first heard of Wikipedia in January of 2002, at a conference celebrating the life and achievements of Douglas Engelbart, who gave the world the mouse, hypertext, computer videoconferencing, and did it all nearly 40 years ago. Engelbart believes that computers can be used as “intelligence amplifiers,” and he’s spent his lifetime developing techniques to make us all more intellectually productive. But early in 2002, even as we celebrated his life, Engelbart seemed downcast, preoccupied with the failure of the World Wide Web to live up to his expectations as a medium for intelligence amplification. Yet – during a series of presentations about way his work has influenced others – one of the presenters showed a nifty web technology known as “Wiki”. The Hawai’ian word for “quick,” a wiki is really nothing more than a technology which supports editable web pages. That seems simple enough, but the overall effect is profound: with Wiki, every web page becomes dynamic, and every person who visits a web page can leave their own mark upon it. Instead of performing as a presentation medium, like a newspaper, Wiki turned the web – potentially the entire web – into a palimpsest. Erase what you don’t like on a web page, and begin again. Then multiply that by the billion-plus web pages in the world of 2002.
Somewhere during that talk, the presenter showed us “Wikipedia” – an editable encyclopedia – as a shining example of the power of Wiki technology. At the time, Wikipedia had about 40,000 entries on a fairly broad range of topics. Hardly comprehensive, but not bad for a freely available and user-created resource.
As of today, Wikipeda has one million, fifty four thousand, two hundred and eight articles in the English language, and nearly double that count if all entries in all languages are added together. That’s about eight times the size of Britannica. It seems that people aren’t just hungry for facts: they’re more than willing to add their own facts to the commonweal. Britannica, obsessed with rapidly-obsolescing models of professional knowledge production, sees Wikipedia as little more than a million monkeys typing at a million keyboards. Wikipedia lacks every time-honored methodology of review, fact checking and careful consideration which Britannica considers essential to the creation of an encyclopedia. Yet, somehow, Wikipedia works – and works far better than Britannica. Late in 2005 Wikipedia zoomed into the top twenty most-visited websites in the world. Despite Britannica‘s critiques, the online world has voted with its virtual feet.
The question has never been “Is Britannica better than Wikipedia?” The question – always, and only – is this: is Wikipedia good enough? The answer, it’s now apparent, is a resounding yes. Instant access to the entries of Wikipedia – even if slightly less accurate – always trumps the careful and carefully protected information of Britannica. In some ways, this is another example of Gilmore’s Law at work: Britannica got locked up – damaged, if you will – so the net routed around it by creating an effective alternative.
This week I became a person. Oh, I had an existence before, circles of friends, some prominence in the Australian media, but I lacked that essential signifier of individual presence in the 21st century – my own Wikipedia entry. I had considered creating my own entry, but could never bring myself to do it, out of some combination of humility and fear. How can you write about yourself with any accuracy? What if others learn you wrote your own Wikipedia entry? Wikipedia exposes the editing history of every entry – so a self-created entry wouldn’t look very good. Instead, I talked one of my friends into doing it.
This wasn’t pure vanity on my own part; I am mentioned at several points in Wikipedia – most notably in the articles on VRML and “peer-to-peer (meme)” – both of which reflect some of the significant work I’ve done over the last decade. Given these mentions, it made sense to have my own Wikipedia entry. So, as a birthday present, my friend Gregory Pleshaw offered to author my Wikipedia entry. I was happy to accept, and offered him all the support he might need.
In early 2006, Gregory created a basic page about me. Within 18 hours, that page no longer existed on Wikipedia, having been wiped out by one of the wizards of Wikipedia, the mavens who make it their life’s work to see that standards of content and factuality are maintained within Wikipedia. I fired off a message to the wizard in question, and asked her why the page had been deleted. She, in turn, pointed me to an extensive set of guidelines for biographical pages for living persons. Not everyone can have their own Wikipedia entry; you have to be a person of some renown. There are different ways of measuring that fame, such as whether you’re regularly written about in the media, or the number of hits a Google of your name returns, etc. The article itself must clearly lay out the reason(s) why this person is well known. Then – and only then – will the biographical entry be accepted into Wikipedia.
Here’s the first thing that most people don’t yet know about Wikipedia: it’s not just a dumping ground for random facts. There are standards, and there are several thousand people who make it their business to keep Wikipedia clean and pure and up to the standards developed by the Wikipedia community for the good of the community. If an entry doesn’t meet those quality requirements, it gets flushed. Different pages have different requirements: an entry about an obscure theorem of mathematics can drone on in decidedly technical language – with lots of nice mathematical formulae – while an entry on a more prosaic subject must be written clearly, accessibly, and must link broadly both into Wikipeida and other sources.
Wikipedia is evolving its own internal ecology of standards and practices, and these are necessarily embodied both in its editors and its readers – given that the line between an editor and a reader is modal. I can flip back and forth between self-as-editor and self-as-reader several times a minute. Most pages I would never want to edit – except to correct an obvious spelling mistake or grammatical error – but some pages, such as my own, or on subjects where I know I possess some recognized authority, demand my own input. I apply my own expertise, and improve Wikipedia. Some others have taken on Wikipedia as a whole – these are the wizards who are recognized authorities on Wikipedia itself – and they add the necessary ecology of self-reflection which makes the whole process so successful.
Thus, we’re seeing the emergence of a “priestly class” of Wikipedians, who have been judged by their peers as experts in Wikipedia – initiates into the mysteries – and hence have been given the keys to the kingdom: the ability to delete unsatisfactory entries or edits. This means that Wikipedia has become a civilization in its own right – after all, we judge the birth of civilization in the Near East by the emergence of the priestly classes in Egypt and Mesopotamia. These priests gave us writing and arithmetic and centralized worship – necessary innovations for civilization.
The downside of this is obvious: the priestly class places all of the rest of us at a remove from Wikipedia. We can create, but they have the power to expunge the record, cleansing it of apostasy. They are developing their own bureaucracy, their own arcana, their own mysteries. As time goes on, it will become ever more difficult to fathom their logic. Increasingly, we will rely on faith alone: faith that the priests have got it right, that this collective project of human civilization is headed in the right direction. And that means we’ll need to find individuals who can act as intercessors between ourselves and the gods.
When Gregory Pleshaw and I first discussed the creation of my Wikipedia entry, he mentioned that he might offer this as a service to some of his clients. I had a flash, and in that moment foresaw the future of Wikipedia, the next logical point in its evolution: Wikipedia is about to become a commercial ecology. We will soon see the rise of a professional class of Wikipedians, who – because of their professional relationships – can never be part of the priestly class, for fear of conflicts of interest, but who will make it their life’s work to create high-quality entries for those individuals and organizations which recognize the importance of Wikipedia as the definitive human reference work.
While I contend that this will be honest work, there will undoubtedly be any number of communities that will object to this proposal, because it seems to strike directly against the idea of a free and freely available resource. First and foremost among the protesters will likely be the priestly class of Wikipedians, who might see the emergence of any commercial ecology as a “pollution” of the ideas of Wikipedia. Nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, a commercial ecology is the ultimate validation of Wikipedia. If Wikipedia is so important, so powerful, so vital that people can earn a living by writing high-quality Wikipedia entries, doesn’t that mean Wikipedia has met its own standards of quality? A professionally-created entry isn’t locked away. It isn’t owned. Like everything else in Wikipedia, it is given away freely under a Creative Commons license. Even though someone paid a professional to create an entry, that rule doesn’t change. In effect, they’re paying to create something that will be given away. That, as I’ve already written elsewhere, is a smart 21st-century business practice.
I suspect that we already have a professional class of Wikipedians among us; but, because of the nearly religious tenor of the open-source ethos that surrounds Wikipedia, they’re keeping a very low profile. Some of these folks are in Marketing & Communications agencies, managing Wikipedia as part of a client’s online-presence and branding. Some others, like Gregory Pleshaw, are free-lancers who have stumbled into this newest commercial ecology of the Information Age. But make no mistake: these people already exist. Wikipedia is too powerful, too important, and too central to our lives for it to be any other way.
A final point: this is an example of a professional class emerging from a strictly amateur ecology. The amateur ecology won’t fundamentally change: all of us can continue to be Wikipedia dilettantes, dropping in occasionally to correct a word or add a sentence. But now, we amateurs will face real competition from professional Wikipedians, who have studied the mysteries of Wikipedia, and mastered them. That competition can only improve Wikipedia, making it even more comprehensive, reliable and indispensable.