Wikipedia is Dead. Long Live Wikipedia!

by on May 25, 2006

Nick Carr pronounces the death of Wikipedia. Well, that’s what he suggests in his attention-grabbing headline. What he’s really talking about is the alleged end of Wikipedia as an open encyclopedia:

There was a time when, indeed, pretty much anyone could edit pretty much anything on Wikipedia. But, as eWeek’s Steven Vaughan-Nichols recently observed, “Wikipedia hasn’t been a real ‘wiki’ where anyone can write and edit for quite a while now.” A few months ago, in the wake of controversies about the quality and reliability of the free encyclopedia’s content, the Wikipedian powers-that-be – its “administrators” – abandoned the work’s founding ideal of being the “ULTIMATE ‘open’ format” and tightened the restrictions on editing. In addition to banning some contributors from the site, the administrators adopted an “official policy” of what they called, in good Orwellian fashion, “semi-protection” to prevent “vandals” (also known as people) from messing with their open encyclopedia.

I think this misunderstands what “open” means. Open source projects sometimes get similar criticism for the fact that they’re often organized as tightly-knit groups of core developers led by a “benevolent dictator” who has ultimate control of the code base. Critics claim that this proves that the projects aren’t “really” open and democratic.

But this misunderstands the point of “openness” in this context: it isn’t about the organizational philosophy of a project, it’s about what constraints are placed on the use of the finished product. Or specifically, about the lack of such constraints. What distinguished Wikipedia from Britanica, or MySQL from Oracle, isn’t that one was created “democratically.” Rather, it’s that anyone is free to use, copy, and modify Wikipedia or MySQL for their own use, while the use of Britanica and Oracle are controlled by for-profit companies.

This weekend, I could create the Tim Lee Linux Kernel, which would be entirely controlled by me. This is known as “forking the code base.” If I were a better kernel maintainer than Linus Torvalds, over time the Tim Lee Kernel could become the most popular version of the Linux kernel, and I’d be able to control the evolution of the Linux platform.

Here’s what’s neat about open projects: Even though anyone has the right to “fork” an open project at any time, very few people actually do so. This might seem paradoxical, but I think it actually makes a lot of sense: Linus Torvalds and Jimmy Wales know that if they try to push their projects in a direction that their collaborators don’t want to go, somebody will get pissed off enough to fork the project. As a result, they’re careful to (as much as possible) reflect the consensus of their respective communities. Linus Torvalds is a benevolent dictator with the emphasis on benevolent.

I think there’s an interesting parallel here to “at will” employment contracts. People from countries with less flexible labor markets sometimes express amazement at the fact that most American employees can be fired at any time, for any reason. Yet the vast majority of employment relationships are quite stable. The reason for this is that because each party knows the other can sever the location at any time, each has an incentive to go out of his way to keep the other happy.

By the same token, the administrators theoretically have dictatorial powers over the content on Wikipedia. However, in practice, they’re not going to abuse that discretion too much, because if they did so they’d cause a revolt and drive away a lot of their volunteers. As a result, Wikipedia is still effectively a democratic enterprise, even if its form isn’t perfectly democratic.

I’ve started noticing something amazing about Wikipedia lately: Wikipedia is one of the top ten hits in almost every Google search for subjects of general interest. Search for a celebrity, a company, a piece of software, a science term, etc, and the relevant Wikipedia page will more often than not be on the first page of results. Sometimes it’s the second or third hit, right after the official page for the entity in question. And although I don’t plan to start citing Wikipedia in my research papers any time soon, the pages are typically helpful quick guides to the subject in question. In short, while Wikipedia may not satisfy Nick Carr’s democratic ideals, rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

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