In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reflect on a decade of Wikipedia, a remarkable experiment in human interaction:
Ten years ago this month, Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales hired Larry Sanger to develop an online encyclopedia. You may have never heard of that project, titled “Nupedia,” but you’ve probably heard of the site that emerged from its ashes. Wikipedia is not only one of the most successful initiatives in the history of the Web but also a shining example of the potential of human cooperation.
Wikipedia sprouted in the fertile soil of freedom and possibility that characterized the early days of the Internet. Andrew Lih tells the story in The Wikipedia Revolution (2009). Wales, a principal of the technology company Bomis, perceived the potential demand for an online encyclopedia and launched his new venture to fill that need. Nupedia was soon abandoned because it was the result of conventional thinking—a traditional encyclopedia model applied to the Internet. When this dawned on Wales and Sanger, the resulting creative spark ignited the Wikipedia revolution. Putting an encyclopedia on the Web should mean not merely a change in the location of encyclopedia content, they realized: the new technology could instead transform the entire process of content production and publication. This was the insight that set Wikipedia apart and soon attracted millions of people across the world to its community.
The Wikipedia experiment was an exercise in entrepreneurship, and demonstrates that the impetus for life-enhancing innovation is not merely monetary success. Wales and Sanger were motivated by a desire to promote learning and empower people. In their view, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge should be democratic: let anyone with access to a computer participate in the process.
Traditionally, the collection and presentation of the world’s accumulated knowledge in the encyclopedia format was a jealously guarded prerogative of the gatekeepers of established publishing and academic institutions. This method had its advantages: consistency, careful review processes, and adherence to accepted standards of scholarship.
It also had its drawbacks. The updating and release of new material necessarily occurred at a glacial pace. Originality and dissent were frowned upon and non-mainstream perspectives could only find their way to print slowly, if at all. There were intrinsic limitations of scale and scope, put in place by the economics of the editorial and print process: only major topics deemed to be of interest to large numbers of people could justify the resources put into covering any given entry.
The philosophy of its founders shaped Wikipedia and supplied its unique sensibility, overturning the conventional constraints of established encyclopedias. Most critically, Wales and Sanger possessed a fundamental faith in humanity. Wikipedia is not about technology, Wales wrote in the foreword to Lih’s book, “it’s about people… it’s about trusting people, it’s about encouraging people to do good.” Detractors believed that permitting open editing of web content, or “crowdsourcing,” would result in chaos. Bias, error, and distortion would be rife. How could the anonymous interaction of the Web, they wondered, result in reliably accurate information on a wide range of topics?
But Wikipedia’s bet on the potential of free human interaction in an online community paid off. By 2008, it boasted more than 2 million articles in English, and millions more in some 250 other languages. By almost any measure it was a spectacular success.
The model pioneered by Wikipedia is not flawless. One might say that it is perfect only in its reflection of human nature. Without a formal review process and elite gatekeepers, there is the constant threat of interminable “edit wars,” which have in fact occurred from time to time. There is always the possibility that inaccurate content will be posted and will not be corrected in a timely fashion: Wikipedia entries cannot be assumed to be error-free. This last problem is most serious when contributors use content maliciously to defame the character of individuals or institutions. Finally, the vast scope and influence of Wikipedia is a temptation to the unscrupulous who have a pet agenda to push (witness the recently exposed exploits of a British scientist and Green Party activist who modified more than 5,000 articles in the cause of global warming alarmism).
Partly in response to these problems, Wikipedia has progressively imposed more elaborate publishing protocols which has, in turn, raised frustration levels and resulted in a decline in the number of editors who write for the site. There are also fewer subjects that haven’t already been covered after a decade of Wiki writing.
Yet Wikipedia is immensely useful and, all in all, remarkably reliable. Its success is a testament to the potential of human cooperation in a system of free exchange. It capitalizes on a vision of the person as flawed but capable of accomplishing good when given the opportunity and encouragement to do so. It recognizes that there is, in community, a power and capacity that exceeds that which is possible when people apply their talents individually and haphazardly. In brief, Wikipedia is a brilliant display of ordered freedom.
That there was no burdensome government regulation of technology in place to impede or prevent Wikipedia’s creation and expansion is then only the more superficial policy observation to be drawn from this episode. Wikipedia both recognized and benefited from a realistic appreciation of the human person as a creative, social, and moral being. Applying its lessons to the interaction of government with individuals and communities would transform political institutions as radically as Wikipedia transformed the meaning of the word encyclopedia.