Thursday, June 10, 2004

A Market of Knowledge

This article is a week ahead of schedule.

About a month ago I stumbled onto Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia. Every entry on the site is created by volunteers, lending their expert knowledge to any entry that they happen to want to create. New entries and updates are posted on a page for anyone to edit as they see fit. At any given time, over a quarter of a million articles are being worked on in the English version. While the Columbia Encyclopedia 6th Edition has 6.5 million words, the 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica has 55 million words and the 2002 Encarta Encyclopedia has 26 million words, Wikipedia’s three-year-old English version contains over 81.6 million words, a value that increases everyday from over seven thousand contributors.

Naturally, this open system contains immense potential for abuse. Wikipedia is meant to be a reference though it contains no official decree that its pages are accurate. I had to ask myself, are the 7,135 contributors just as good as a handful of paid employees? The other night I ran an experiment, placing ten false articles into the system. The article topics ranged from gardening to economics to entertainment. Sometimes the mistakes were subtle, easily attributed to typos. (Characters of Middle Earth: The assembly of protagonists and antagonists depicted in J.R. Tolstein’s The Habbit.) Sometime the articles were blatantly wrong. (sampling bias: A form of prejudice that discriminates against the sampos subculture of Lower Manhattan. Those that exercise a sampling bias commonly accuse the sampos people of being too clean and anal retentive, threatening the wild and grimy character of the area.)

I expected to check the site daily and watch the contributors struggle with my articles or ignore them completely. After about a week, I figured I could examine what proportion were corrected. But in less than an hour of the articles’ publishing contributors cleaned Wikipedia of my errors. Most of the articles were redirected, meaning the article’s topic was awfully similar to an existing article so my text was replaced with the old text.

One of my articles was deleted by network administrators, the only Wiki members whohave the power to purge their databank of any article. My article was about Marvin Perry, who I claimed was an actor best known for his portrayal of Chandler on Friends. Wikipedia takes deleting material very seriously—my deleter had to justify the deletion—because while the original article remains available no matter how many times it is redirected or edited, a deletion eliminates the presence of the article completely. However, Wikipedia members can vote for a deletion to be undone so even an administrator lacks absolute power.

There was one article members had trouble with. It said "blue ribbon" is “A show on Comedy Central about comics participating in a dog show.” Defaulting to humble ignorance, a member of the Wiki community named Stormie was about it let it go until he Googled it and checked Comedy Central’s website, yielding no evidence to my claim in either case. He also noted my other contributions were highly suspicious and turned the article into a “candidate for deletion,” meaning he’s suggesting to network administrators to research the topic and delete it if needed. With my experiment complete, I admitted that the article was a fake, hopefully preventing dozens of administrators wandering about the World Wide Web in a hopeless pursuit of a series about comics showing off their dogs. Thankfully, my "blue ribbon" article no longer exists.

Wikipedia is an organic encyclopedia, using the disperse nature of knowledge to its advantage by opting out of a position of control. It relies on the fun and inherent satisfaction people experience when they participate in teaching others. As such, it is extremely accurate (Ronald Regan’s entry, for example, was updated mere hours after his death). In Michael Polanyi’s words, Wikipedia represents the dynamic order that evolves when freedom is paramount. It is self-ordering, self-correcting and even the most influential lack absolute power.

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