From a contemporary perspective, though, the most significant design decision was that every page would have a public discussion page attached to it, which meant that there would be a record of all the arguments that had led to particular changes. “This,” wrote the Harvard scholar Jonathan L Zittrain in an insightful early commentary, “allowed people to explain and justify their changes, and anyone disagreeing and changing something back could explain as well…
If you look for the most visited websites in the world, what you find is a list of sites owned by western and Chinese corporations, confirmation of the degree to which the web has been captured by the corporate world. There is, however, one single ray of light in this depressing list. For there, in fifth place, is the antithesis to all of that: a site that embodies the potential of the internet to harness the collective intelligence of humanity – Wikipedia.
The idea that a significant encyclopedia could be created by allowing anyone to create pages on any topic seemed pretty improbable way in 2001 when it was mooted by Jimmy Wales. That it could have evolved into the world’s leading general reference work – and the fifth most visited website on the planet – is truly extraordinary.
Since its inception, it’s been the butt of jokes, a focus for academic ire and a victim of epistemological snobbery. I remember one moment when the vice-chancellor of a top university made a dismissive remark about Wikipedia, only to have a world-leading chemist in the audience icily retort that the pages on his particular arcane speciality were the most up-to-date summary currently available anywhere – because he wrote them. And this has been my experience; in specialist areas, Wikipedia pages are often curated by experts and are usually the best places to gain an informed and up-to-date overview.
Because Wikipedia is so vast and varied (in both range and quality), the controversies it engenders have traditionally been about its content and rarely about its modus operandi and its governance. Which is a pity, because in some ways these are the most significant aspects of the project. The political events of the last two years should have alerted us to the fact that Wikipedia had to invent a way of tackling the problem that now confronts us at a global level: how to get at some approximation to the truth.
Wikipedia’s governance is a clever mix of technology, norms and processes. It started with the wiki technology invented by Ward Cunningham, which allowed anyone to write and publish (and edit) live web pages, together with an acceptance that while “truth” might be unattainable, nevertheless achieving what it called “a neutral point of view” was a worthwhile aspiration. There were no gatekeepers – anyone could create a page on any subject – but the technology, which enabled rapid reversion to a pre-edited version, provided an effective antidote to vandalism. From the beginning, Wikipedia had a core of volunteer editors who shared a common ethos and some substantive expertise. And sitting atop this structure was a founder, Jimmy Wales, who operated as a kind of benevolent dictator and an arbiter of last resort.
From a contemporary perspective, though, the most significant design decision was that every page would have a public discussion page attached to it, which meant that there would be a record of all the arguments that had led to particular changes. “This,” wrote the Harvard scholar Jonathan L Zittrain in an insightful early commentary, “allowed people to explain and justify their changes, and anyone disagreeing and changing something back could explain as well. Controversial changes made without any corresponding explanation on the discussion page could be reverted by others without having to rely on a judgment on the merits – instead, the absence of explanation for something non-self-explanatory could be reason enough to be sceptical of it… The discussion page provided a channel for such debate and helped new users of Wikipedia make a transition from simply reading its entries to making changes and to understanding that there was a group of people interested in the page on which changes were made and whom could be engaged in conversation before, during and after editing the page.”
Reading Wikipedia discussion pages provides a way of understanding how a particular proposition or assertion came to be made and how it evolved over time. It’s like reading the transcript of an argument that has gone on for a long time – an attempt to track rationality in action. Like every other human-made thing, it’s imperfect. But in a polarised political climate, it shows what can be done to preserve us from the madness of hysterical, uncivil, conspiracist discourse that now characterises social media.
Which, among other things, explains why Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, recently announced that the video site will henceforth use excerpts from Wikipedia to counteract videos promoting conspiracy theories. This, wrote one commentator, “is, at first glance (and really, on second and third glances, too), odd. A megacorporation with billions of dollars and thousands of brilliant employees is… relying on a volunteer-run platform anyone can edit to fact-check information?” It is odd. But it’s also a validation of Wikipedia’s mission and a reminder of its importance. So why not give a donation to show your appreciation?
What I’m reading
Interesting piece by Rebecca Dolan in the Wall Street Journal entitled Sorry, Pal, I Don’t Want to Talk: The Other Reason People Wear AirPods. Apple’s white wireless earphones transmit music and conversations, but some users wear them all day as a shield, a secretary and a hiding place.
How to think about machine learning… Insightful blog post by Benedict Evans, exploring the possibilities presented as computers learn to read audio, images and video.
Search and destroy
According to a report by Matthew Rozsa for SalonTV, Donald Trump doesn’t understand why Google searches about him reveal what people think of him. The results simply reflect the reality.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010