What Is Wikipedia, and What Is It Good For?

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There are a
lot of bad things said about Wikipedia,
the ninth
most-visited destination on the internet
. An encyclopedia that
anyone can edit, critics argue, is one that is vulnerable to endless
mistakes. Such criticisms have been raised by skeptics since Wikipedia’s
creation in 2001. Despite the critics, Wikipedia has grown to include
8.2 million articles
in 253 different languages
. The English Wikipedia alone includes
nearly two million articles, and has a word-length fifteen times
that of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia is the single
largest encyclopedia ever assembled, having long since surpassed
the Yongle
Encyclopedia
of 15th century China.

The man credited
with founding Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales — known to Wikipedians as “Jimbo”
— was a finance major at Auburn University when the Mises Institute’s
Mark Thornton
suggested he read “The
Use of Knowledge in Society
,” a now-famous essay written by
Austro-libertarian economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek.
The essay argues that prices in the market represent a spontaneous
order that results from the interaction of individuals with diverse
wants, allowing them to cooperate to achieve complex goals. According
to a June
2007 Reason magazine interview
, this insight of Hayek’s
is what led Wales to found Wikipedia. The rather lofty vision that
inspired Wales? “Imagine a world in which every single person on
the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.
That’s what we’re doing.”

While that
ultimate goal imagined by Wales for Wikipedia has not yet come to
fruition, there is no questioning the breadth and usefulness of
Wikipedia. Those who refused to believe that a user-generated encyclopedia
could compete with the monolithic, traditional encyclopedia written
by experts and organized by professional editors, were no doubt
shocked when Nature magazine published a 2006
article
comparing Wikipedia to the well-known Encyclopedia
Britannica. The article concluded that Wikipedia articles were
comparable in accuracy and thoroughness to those of the older, paper
encyclopedia.

According to
a 2007 study
by the Pew Research Center, Wikipedia is by far the most popular
educational and reference destination on the web, with nearly a
quarter of the total traffic to such sites going to the free encyclopedia.
According to the study, “Wikipedia has become the No. 1 external
site visited after Google’s search page, receiving over half of
its traffic from the search engine.” All that traffic does not include
sites that syndicate Wikipedia content, such as Ask.com.

Such syndication
is free thanks to the special license agreement to which all contributors
consent when adding content to the encyclopedia. The GNU
Free Documentation License
(GFDL) allows for royalty-free reproduction
— in original or modified form — even in for-profit projects. While
some images in the project are utilized under “fair-use” doctrine,
the vast majority of images and text are either subject only to
the GFDL or are in the public domain.

But how does
such a poly-centric, even anarchic system, composed of editors acting
independently and for their own reasons, result in such an utterly
useful resource? The answer goes back to the Hayekian inspiration
for the project. Because editors receive both psychological satisfaction
and material usefulness from their contributions, the project has
grown to include safeguards that help guarantee that the development
of the project will move in a positive direction — towards broad,
accurate articles that depend on reliable, verifiable sources.

One could very
aptly describe the Wikipedia system for directing the development
of the project as being a common law system of sorts. The encyclopedia
has basic policies — the constitutional law of Wikipedia — which
require articles be written from a neutral
point of view
, make use of verifiable
sources
, and including no
original research
. Less concrete are “guidelines,” which are
rules based on commonly followed interpretations of policies — very
similar to judicial precedents — that help users to contribute in
a manner that upholds the policies. Guidelines are generally followed
because they have been accepted by the community as means by which
to avoid editing disputes and thus direct more energy to productive
ends. Below guidelines are “essays” — arguably the dicta
of Wikipedian law — which may be seen as the musings of individual
users regarding certain conflicts or inefficiencies in the system.

Whenever a
content dispute does arise between editors on the “talk” pages that
accompany each article, there are a host of dispute resolution options
available to resolve them. The community has created the “Third
Opinion
” board, where editors at loggerheads can request an
outside perspective on a disagreement. There is also the “Request
for Comment
” process, where one editor may request formal oversight
by the community at large, and particularly by veteran editors whose
informed opinions usually carry more weight than those of new users.
There are also the Mediation
and Arbitration
Committees, which are for solving more complex, ongoing disputes,
and who actually refer to past precedents in making judgments.

Wikipedia’s
reflection of market dynamics is most easily observed in what many
people view as the project’s weakest areas: obscure articles which
draw little traffic. In articles about third-rate garage bands and
other topics of limited interest, one will often find factual and
typographical errors at a much higher rate than in high-traffic
articles like “England
or “Barry Bonds.”
The much higher demand for information about the latter topics means
that many more eyes will be combing those much-demanded articles
for mistakes. Since Wikipedia is open to correction by anyone, it
only stands to reason that the articles attracting more potential
editors will be of a higher quality. Rather than a failure of Wikipedia,
this is a great demonstration of its efficient allocation of resources.
The project, like any other, has a finite amount of productivity
to apply to its various activities. It is a positive thing that
those articles in greatest demand — those about topics of popular
curiosity — would be those that are the most complete and reliable.

The
entire system, which is fabulously complex and robust to the contributing
editor, is remarkably simple for the basic user, who wants only
to find data on an unfamiliar topic. So long as one exercises discretion
in accepting information from Wikipedia, and so long as one’s research
extends beyond the Wikipedia article to the sources it cites, Wikipedia
is an exceptional resource that is unique to our generation.

September
5, 2007

Dick Clark
[send him mail],
a native Southerner, currently lives in exile in the People’s Republic
of Cambridge, MA. He is a first-year law student at Suffolk University
Law School in Boston.

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