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All in good faith

The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia, by Andrew Lih

25 March 2009

12:00 AM

25 March 2009

12:00 AM

The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia Andrew Lih

Aurum, pp.252, 14.99

The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia, by Andrew Lih

Who would have known that mixed into the aggregate at the foundations of what by now must be the most consulted encyclopedia in the history of the world would be Ayn Rand, options-pricing theory, Kropotkin, table napkins, soft porn and a Hawaiian airport shuttle-bus?

This being the internet, you might have guessed at soft porn — a sometime minor business interest of its founder Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ Wales. But the rest? These are interesting times for the culture of knowledge, and the story of the evolution of Wikipedia, with its utopian belief in collective good faith, its roots in hacker culture and its history of ingenious bricolage, is at the centre of them.

One of Wikipedia’s only non-negotiable policies is NPOV, or ‘Neutral Point of View’ — a rule, as you’ll have noticed, that Andrew Lih’s subtitle cheerfully violates. His book comes with the endorsement and co-operation of the Wikimedia Foundation, so expect a certain amount of boosterism. The opening pages like to use words like ‘phenomenon’, and the sort of prolepsis signalled by ‘little did they know at the time…’ But another acronymic catchphrase among Wikipedians is AGF: ‘Assume Good Faith.’

AGF. This is a touching, interesting story, and an important one. Thanks to Wikipedia, more knowledge is more available to more people than at any other time in human history, and it is available for free.

What’s remarkable about Wikipedia is not, surely, how inaccurate it is, but how accurate. It is not that it attracts vandals and dopes, but that it attracts millions of people donating their energy and expertise and hours of their time for free; and that they not only outnumber the vandals and dopes, but succeed in keeping them at bay. 

It’s a big story that started small — and it involves geeks: people to whom memories of DMOZ, Usenet, and HyperCard are pure catnip; people who nod and chuckle, rather than looking blank, if you mention ‘camelcase’; people who speak in acronyms and in-jokes: SOFIXIT, TINC, or I18n.

But, pilgrim, be not afraid. You can look those acronyms up on Wikipedia, and Andrew Lih’s book, with the barest minimum of jargon, will introduce you not only to the ideas and problems these people faced, but also to the culture from which they come. Since that’s the base culture of the internet, it’s worth your attention.

Jimmy Wales is the entrepreneur from Huntsville, Alabama, who set out trying to make a conventional for-profit encyclopedia online, only to find its side-project taking over the world. If he is the hero of this story, though, he is one who led from the middle. That’s in keeping with the nature of the project.

Many of the advances in Wikipedia have been cobbled-together, serendipitous, collaborative. But it developed a structure which could retain the good and remove the bad. The principle behind the open-source software movement — fiddle with it, fix it a bit, share it — is also the principle behind Wikipedia.

Its insistence on the greatest possible openness and transparency of process, and the minimal possible levels of authority, had the effect of giving its volunteers a sense of ownership over the project, or their corner of it. Rather than degenerating into anarchy, Wikipedia produced good citizens. This is heartening for humanity.

Arguments continue about how the community should be policed, how broad the criteria for inclusion of entries should be, and, inevitably, over political and linguistic issues. But those arguments are conducted, with earnest scrupulousness, in the open. Should the city be called Gdansk, or Danzig? One of the greatest ‘edit wars’ Wikipedia has seen raged over that one — but a compromise was eventually found, collaboratively. ‘Crisps’ or ‘potato chips’? Both names are included in the first sentence of the entry. But are they ‘flavoured’ or ‘flavored’? Gordian solution: they are ‘seasoned’.

Attacks on Wikipedia’s basic value tend to use inaccuracies or vandalism to ‘prove’ that it’s not a proper encyclopedia. The maximalist case — essentially, arguing that Wikipedia is worthless because it isn’t 100 per cent reliable — is the most common line of attack, and misses the point on two counts.

On the first, it’s that Wikipeda doesn’t claim to be 100 per cent reliable; indeed, its very method is to aggregate imperfections in the hope they will cancel each other out. Think of it this way: the chances of a coin coming up heads is 50-50. At first toss of the coin, the result will be 100 per cent heads or 100 per cent tails, but the more times you flip it, the more nearly your results will converge on that figure.

The principle of Wikipedia, in effect, is that the greater the number of interested editors — and many of whom, being interested, will also be knowledgeable — who swarm on a given article, the more nearly the result will converge on accuracy. It’s a process as much as an object.

The second place where this line of attack fails is more obvious: it affects to assume that there exist comparators that are 100 per cent reliable. A (much-debated) study in Nature compared the accuracy of several Wikipedia articles with their opposite numbers in Britannica, with favourable results. Books make and propagate mistakes, too. Errors in books remain in error. Errors in Wikipedia need not.

The key thing is form, not content. Wikipedia’s brilliance lies in giving its community the tools to identify and correct error. Neutrality, as I’ve mentioned above, is one among the handful of core content policies. Verifiability — that the information has already been published in a reliable external source — is another. If you simply copy facts from the front page of a Wikipedia entry, you deserve what you get. Check the footnotes; use the links.

If mistakes in books stay wrong and mistakes in Wikipedia don’t, the converse, of course, is also true. If you get something right in a book, it stays right. That’s not always the case with Wikipedia. Policing the encyclopedia, ensuring its stability, is an ongoing task: a Forth Bridge paint- job in the commons of knowledge. With its now vast size and influence, difficult questions arise about the practical structures of authority. Not long ago, for instance, unregistered users were prevented from creating new articles.

Wikipedia — high in the top ten websites in the world — is now entering a third phase of its life. Most of the big subjects are done. The piranha-rush of new recruits is slowing a little. Will enough people stick around to do the janitorial work? Or will the enemies of good faith — like the snivelling Tory creep who vandalised the entry on Titian earlier this year in the hopes of sparing David Cameron embarrassment — overrun it? Lih concludes with a warning: ‘The greatest enemy of a revolution is its success.’

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