Wikipedia is the highly successful on line encyclopedia that, surprisingly, anyone can edit. You can go there right now and add anything you like – say that a new atomic particle has been discovered and that it is a pink rabbit. It wont last long because there are people who constantly watch for that sort of thing and if you keep it up you will get banned. But if you have real information and present it in a neutral way that can be documented it will stay and even be improved upon by others. Wikipedia, like Linux, is a surprising phenomena that has emerged from the Internet that apparently defies our assumptions about how the world works. Johnathan Dee of the New York Times Magazine. (registration required) gives us an in depth look at Wikipedia as both encyclopedia and up to date news source in All the News That is Fit to Print Out. As the title of Dee’s article implies Wikipedia does news too, covering events as they happen, something traditional encyclopedias can’t even attempt. Dee mentions Wikipedia’s famous errors but more significantly explains how their system of internal watchdogs – called administrators – quickly spot and correct problems and restore neutrality when it is lost. Here Dee describes how Wikipedia’s quality control system works with breaking news:

…..given the chaotic way in which it works, the truly remarkable thing about Wikipedia as a news site is that it works as well as it does. And what makes it work is a relatively small group of hard-core devotees who will, the moment big news breaks, drop whatever they’re doing to take custody of the project and ensure its, for lack of a better term, quality control.

What is happening here is apparently unprecedented, but if you look at it in terms of what McLuhan predicted will happen any time a new medium emerges it makes perfect sense. New ways of doing things arise that blindside established institutions because initially we can only understand the new technology in terms of the past. Founded as a familiar thing – an encyclopedia – it has also turned out to be a news site outgunning its sister site Wikinews and providing a new kind of news consolidation that rivals traditional news outlets in some ways. Dee quotes prominent Wikipedian Dan Rosenthal:

Wikipedia’s morphing into a news source, Rosenthal said, “is an inevitable step. Because the software is absolutely perfectly suited to that. And the rules, I’m sure unintentionally, are perfectly suited to it, with the emphasis on verifying and the neutral point of view.”

While McLuhan predicts that these sorts of surprises are in store for us, he didn’t live long enough to speculate on the particular effects of the Internet . Eric Raymond, however, has put forward ideas about the open software movement that I believe give direct insight into what is happening with Wikipedia. Raymond noticed that unlike proprietary software development, where the code is secret, open source could be published to the Net and and improved by anyone. The result, was that problems were spotted quickly and as quickly fixed. Usually by people other than the programmers who wrote the original code and failed to notice that they had made mistakes. Surprisingly this free for all did not create chaos and muddled software, but actually produced very high quality software. Linux, for example, quickly became the choice for researchers who needed a highly reliable operating system because it crashed less often than others.

Significantly, I believe, Linus Torvalds the original creator of Linux still remains in overall charge of it so, although still open to contributions from anyone, it has a well developed community to maintain the quality of the project. Likewise Wikipedia has a strong community dedicated to a clear set of rules – the five pillars. Again, against expectations, it seems to be possible to create workable rules in self governing cyberspace groups. Raymond has gone on to describe the group dynamics of open software projects in his follow up essays to The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Homesteading the Noosphere and The Magic Cauldron. They are all available online here.

For example, Raymond argues that open software projects resemble ‘gift’ or ‘potlatch’ cultures where the individuals who give the most to the project gain the most prestige. Dee, in his article, describes how 16 year old Matthew Gruen, known as Gracenotes, came to prominence in the Wikipedia community by a combination of his role in maintaining neutrality in the fast developing story of the planned attack of Fort Dix and by plain hard work.

The only way to achieve a degree of authority in the world of Wikipedia is to show sufficient devotion to it, and that can happen in relatively short order. Gracenotes, for instance, was considered for admin status in part for his work on the Fort Dix story, and in part as a simple consequence of the fact that he will often, after his homework is done and his church responsibilities are fulfilled, spend six hours or more a night cleaning up errors in the encyclopedia. An amateur programmer and calculus buff who lives near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he became seriously involved with Wikipedia just about eight months ago, after his parents ordered him out of a different online community of which they did not approve.

One Response to “Wikipedia”  

  1. 1 Dan Rosenthal

    It’s an ongoing debate as to the real differences between Wikipedia and Wikinews. My best guess is it will be a perennial one for as long as the projects exist. However, Wikinews has the ability to actively conduct their own in-house, first-party interviews with subjects. Wikinews can conduct an interview with Linus Torvalds, or the Ubuntu team, or the like. Wikipedia, however, has to rely on existing ones. Thanks for considering me prominent though, I wouldn’t have been one to say that but I’ll take your word for it.

    Dan Rosenthal

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