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The wiki principle

In this survey

Apr 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Are many minds better than a few?

WHEN people express scepticism about participatory media, they usually have people like Brian Chase in mind. Mr Chase is a 38-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee, who until recently worked in the middle-management layers of a courier firm called Rush Delivery and seemed destined to remain entirely unremarkable. For reasons known only to himself, however, Mr Chase last May decided to play a joke, “a joke that went horribly, horribly wrong”, as he would later tell his local newspaper, the Tennessean.

His joke consisted of a hoax entry on, a free online encyclopedia that anybody—anybody at all—can edit, simply by clicking on a button that says “edit this page”. Mr Chase posted a biographical article on John Seigenthaler, a distinguished journalist (and former editor of the Tennessean) who in 1961 did a stint as assistant to Robert Kennedy, America's attorney-general at the time. Mr Chase, however, fabricated an entirely different life for Mr Seigenthaler, one that had him living in the Soviet Union, founding a public-relations firm and, most perniciously, suggested that he was implicated in the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy.

Normally, such vandalism is corrected within minutes on Wikipedia because other people see it, remove it and improve the entry with their own genuine insight—that, in a nutshell, is the philosophy and power of collaborative intelligence. This particular item, however, fell through the cracks. For 132 days, the libellous lies went unnoticed and remained on the site. Eventually, some volunteer sleuths traced the vandalism to Mr Chase, who finally came clean last December and apologised profusely to an impressively gracious Mr Seigenthaler. With that, the episode became a scholarly footnote in media history.

A telling one, however. Reflecting on the incident in USA Today, Mr Seigenthaler succinctly summarised the promise and peril of the latest media revolution: “And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research—but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.”

For the most part, it is much more worthwhile to dwell on the phenomenal opportunities than on the poison pens. Wikipedia's promise is nothing less than the liberation of human knowledge—both by incorporating all of it through the collaborative process, and by freely sharing it with everybody who has access to the internet. This is a radically popular idea. Wikipedia's English-language version doubled in size last year and now has over 1m articles. By this measure, it is almost 12 times larger than the print version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Taking in the other 200-odd languages in which it is published, Wikipedia has more than 3m articles. Over 100,000 people all over the world have contributed, with a total of almost 4m “edits” between them. Wikipedia already has more “visitors” than the online New York Times, CNN and other mainstream sites. It has become a vital research tool for huge numbers of people. And Wikipedia is only five years old.

This success has made Wikipedia the most famous example of a wider wiki phenomenon. Wikis are web pages that allow anybody who is allowed to log into them to change them. In Wikipedia's case, that happens to be anybody at all. The word “wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word for “quick”, but also stands for “what I know is...”. Wikis are thus the purest form of participatory creativity and intellectual sharing, and represent “a socialisation of expertise”, as David Weinberger, who is currently writing a book on collaborative intelligence, puts it.

Among the new media, wikis are the perfect complement to blogs. Whereas blogs contain the unedited, opinionated voice of one person, wikis explicitly and literally allow groups of people to get on the proverbial “same page”. This is the main reason for the failure of a Los Angeles Times experiment with wikitorials, described in the previous article. Wikis are good at summarising debates, but they are ill-suited for biased opinion.

Wikipedia's numbers actually make it an anomaly among wikis. Joe Kraus, the co-founder of JotSpot, a provider of wiki software, reckons that most of the millions of wikis already in existence are designed for small, well-defined groups of people. Team members in a company, for instance, might use wikis to collaborate on presentations or project calendars. Wikis are communities, and “communities require trust,” says Mr Kraus. Trust comes most easily when the people involved know one another or are accountable for their contributions. Given that the optimal group size for humans may be less than 150 members (see the article on blogging earlier in this survey), most wikis might be expected to be small.

At first sight, Wikipedia seems too large for its contributors to be able to trust each other easily. How, then, does it work? A common assumption, expressed most cuttingly by Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is that Wikipedians trust in “some unspecified quasi-Darwinian” process, whereby accuracy “evolves” as more and more “eyeballs” examine an item. “Does someone actually believe this?”, wonders Mr McHenry. He obviously does not. To him, Wikipedia is a “faith-based encyclopedia”, based on “the moist and modish notion of community and some vague notions about information wanting to be free”.

In fact, it turns out that such quasi-Darwinian logic is “not the way we talk about ourselves within the community”, says Jimmy Wales, who started the (not-for-profit) Wikimedia Foundation that operates Wikipedia, as well as lesser-known sites such as Wiktionary, Wikinews and Wikibooks. Instead, says Mr Wales, the process “is much more traditional than people realise”. Fewer than 1% of all users do half the total edits. They add up to a few hundred committed volunteers like himself, says Mr Wales—“a real community of people who know each other” and value their reputations. Besides “democracy” on the site, he says, there is occasional “aristocracy” (when editors with superior reputations get more say than others) and even occasional “monarchy” (“that's my role”) in cases such as the Seigenthaler biography, when quick intervention is needed.

To put this process to the test, the journal Nature recently commissioned a study to compare the accuracy of a sample of articles drawn from Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica respectively. Nature's experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia's articles and 123 errors in Britannica's. Jorge Cauz, Britannica's president, immediately claimed victory because Wikipedia had “a third more errors”.

Privately, however, Britannica's editors were shocked to have to concede that their creation contained any errors at all. Total accuracy, after all, is the main selling point for the old media. So Dale Hoiberg, Britannica's current editor-in-chief, commissioned his own review of the study and found that “Nature did everything wrong that they could possibly have done wrong.” Last month Nature issued a rebuttal. But if it did get it wrong, it is not clear why it would have erred more for Britannica than for Wikipedia. Mr Hoiberg puts a brave face on it, claiming that “our model, although not perfect, is the best.”

For a lot of new-media watchers, the most interesting thing about the episode was something entirely different: that Britannica, somewhat representative of old media in general, instinctively regards Wikipedia as a threat, whereas Wikipedians are not the least bit tempted to reciprocate. “I'm a big fan of Britannica's work,” says Mr Wales, adding that he is not motivated by “disrupting” anybody, and is glad that Brockhaus, the biggest encyclopedia in Germany (where Wikipedia is very popular), appears to be doing better than ever. But why not have a free alternative as well? And why not test the limits of what social collaboration can do? Mr Wales is the first to admit that “there are some inherent limitations,” and says they are busy trying to discover what they are.

Contrast that with the joyful reaction of Wikipedia's detractors to Brian Chase, the dodgy biographer (whose article was literally one in a million). Somebody who reads Wikipedia is “rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom,” says Mr McHenry, Britannica's former editor. “It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.” One wonders whether people like Mr McHenry would prefer there to be no public lavatories at all.

Next article in the survey: Heard on the Street: Podcasting will change radio, not kill it...


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