Wikipedia

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Wikipedia is the collectively produced open encyclopedia, which has become the flagship of peer production in the knowledge field.


Aims of Wikipedia

Co-founder Jimmy Wales on the ambitious aims of Wikipedia

"One of the most important things to know about Wikipedia is that it is free to license and that the free license enables other people to freely copy, redistribute, modify our work both commercially and non-commercially. We are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and we've been around since January 2001, so that's about four years ago. The Wikimedia Foundation is our non-profit organization that I founded about a year and a half ago and transferred all the assets into the foundation, so the foundation actually manages the website and runs everything. The mission statement of the foundation is to distribute a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet in their own language. And we really mean that because every single person on the planet, this includes a lot more than just a cool website." (Jimmy Wales lecture at Stanford University, 2-9-2005, quoted by Howard Rheingold on the SmartMob blog)


Governance

See for extended treatment: Wikipedia - Governance

The Quality Control Process in the Wikipedia

"There is a bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia. There are special tools provided to volunteers for preventing vandalism, decreasing administrative workload and so on: rollbacker, autopatroller and the like. Then there are nearly two thousand administrators, who are empowered to "protect, delete and restore pages, move pages over redirects, hide and delete page revisions, and block other editors."

Higher up the tree, there is MedCom, a committee of mediators, and then there are the arbitrators (just 16 of them, at this time) who handle more serious beefs. The bar for arbitrators is high. Potential candidates are limited to those who have made their bones by contributing many hundreds of hours of work. A look at the Wikipedia page detailing current requests for arbitration gives an idea of the kinds of disputes resolved by arbitrators and the methods through which they're settled.

At the top of this loosely organized but large and passionate governing force is the Wikimedia Board of Trustees, currently a group of ten that includes Jimmy Wales, "Chairman Emeritus." Three seats, including that of the current Chairman, Ting Chen, are held by community members—that is to say, interested individuals of no particular expertise outside their own deep and long-standing volunteer involvement, elected by "active members" of the Wikimedia community (an "active member" is someone who has made a certain number of edits to articles within a certain timeframe).

Other, parallel systems of control at Wikipedia have grown more robust as well, such as the informally organized "projects" like WikiProject: Medicine, in which anyone interested can help improve the quality of articles relating to medicine.

In short, there is a byzantine array of forces working for accuracy and against edit-warring, sock-puppetry and the like on Wikipedia." (http://www.theawl.com/2011/05/wikipedia-and-the-death-of-the-expert)

History

"Wikipedia is a popular online, collaboratively written, free content encyclopedia initiated in 2000. Like code, Wikipedia has a modular structure, in this case composed of encyclopedia articles. This structure enables parallel development along a multitude of specializations. The modules are iteratively written, peer–reviewed, and together reflect the consensus of collective intelligence through individual transactions.

The Wikipedia project leverages open source wiki software to both organize content and participation. This platform enables an accessible, networked connection between the project and geographically distributed participants. The wiki platform provides participants with tools and a place to work. It also structures the nature of the work.

Ward Cunningham built the first wiki, WikiWikiWeb, in 1995 to host the Portland Pattern Repository, a collection of problem and solution archetypes for computer programming (Cunningham). Cunningham’s design supports social, political and conceptual phenomena conducive to successive, distributed collaborative projects. Wiki-wiki is a Hawaiian term meaning quick and easy. Wikis impose a minimal barrier to participation through a simple text markup system and uploads which do not require server login.

Wikis support a mesh network of hyperlinked modules of content. Each module contains two additional layers for module history and discussion specific to the module’s content. This structure is important. The history layer of the module serves as a versioning system that records iterations and can be used to revert the module to an earlier, perhaps more stable, state. The discussion layer facilitates open and transparent negotiation of consensus about content, allowing contributors to voice their opinions and sometimes assert their identities without affecting the content layer. Because the discussion layer is part of a content module, discussion stays on topic. Both the history and discussion layers form the institutional history of a project, making decisions and protocol transparent.

Openness and transparency are central to the functioning of the Wikipedia project. As a matter of Wikipedia policy, anyone, including an anonymous user, is permitted to directly edit any module on any subject. Wikipedia participants, like free and open source software hackers, are personally motivated to contribute. Participation is voluntary and is the sole condition for membership in the community. Instead of going through a moderation process, contributions become immediately visible on the site, providing immediate satisfaction for participants. Ownership of the work is distributed throughout the community. Contributor names do not appear on entries, although discussion and history layer entries are typically signed with user names.

Contributions are recorded in the history section of a module. They are peer-reviewed and either contribute directly to an iteration of an entry, are modified or are deleted. Reviewers debug edits according to consensus recorded on the discussion layer of each module. Because the discussion layers are the only forum for dialog (a benefit of geographically distributed, asynchronous, networked collaboration on a dedicated platform), discussion is open to all participants and decision–making is transparent.

Transparency is important to the success of Wikipedia because it allows participants to understand the reasoning behind decisions, contributing to trust in the Wikipedia process. It also allows newbies a means to understand informal community protocol and culture, as well as reduce abusive practice. While formal procedures exist to limit members who violate project mores, these measures are rarely necessary. Peer pressure typically regulates behaviour before administrative actions are needed. Participants self–manage and are usually not subjected to organizational authority.

Openness and transparency contribute to the success of the project in additional ways. Schlock and chaos are avoided due to the watchful eyes of the many, exemplifying Linus’ Law, coined and articulated by hacker Eric Raymond as “Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow? (Raymond, 2000). As anyone can edit Wikipedia, vandalism does occur. On the other hand, because anyone can edit Wikipedia, Wikipedia is robust. IBM’s Collaborative User Experience Research Group found that most Wikpedia pages have been vandalized. These researchers also found that most pages were repaired through version rollback using the module histories so quickly that most users would never see the effects (IBM). This phenomenon is called soft security in the free software, open source and wiki communities.

Wikipedia is not owned by any individual or group. The content of Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Document License (GFDL), the open content counterpart to the GNU General Public License (Stallman, 1991). On a fundamental level, participants edit on equal footing; however administrative roles are granted by peers to participants who exhibit competence, trustworthiness and dedication to the project ( Meta–Wiki, “Power structure?). This system creates a bottom–up hierarchical structure based upon merit.

Successful open source communities develop hybrid political structures similar to both an open cathedral and a bazaar. Wikipedia Sysops are elected by the community and are able to delete pages and block users. Wikipedia Bureaucrats set Sysop priviledges. Stewards are multi–project Bureaucrats. Board members are elected through a popular vote of active members and have jurisdiction over policy and project stewardship. This bottom–up hierarchical structure is similar to the structures created to administer module oversight in free software and open source code projects. It is noteworthy to mention that Wikipedia has various related wikis, some which support organizational and institutional needs and some which are parallel or related projects.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is acknowledged by the community as the project’s benevolent dictator. Like Linus Torvalds, he reserves the right to unilaterally make decisions. In practice, he rarely exercises this right ( Meta–Wiki, “Power structure?). Benevolent dictators must keep the project alive while not becoming autocratic or infringing on the community-wide sense of project ownership.

Typically benevolent dictators are founders of the project and have put considerable energy into creating the initial version. Open source collaboration works well to iterate and grow a project, but originating a project using open source methods is difficult. Founders and early adopters are important in establishing the foundational mores of the community. Much of Wikipedia policy developed from Wales’ desire to create “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge? ( Meta–Wiki, “Foundation issues?).

The benevolent dictator’s power is held in check by the right to fork, guaranteed through the GFDL. All participants are volunteers and can leave the project at any time, taking the project with them if they chose. The Wikipedia platform and content database are available for download. As a consequence, a benevolent dictator only retains the position as long as he or she is trusted. Project forks can also occur when foundational attributes falter, fade, or no longer apply." (http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_6/coffin/)


Status Reports

2007

Andrew Lih, on the situation after September 2006:

"A new board was put in place almost the exact same time while multiple staff reshuffles have taken place. Certainly a new style of oversight and leadership has taken hold. The board is larger than its ever been, and is very much an operational, hands-on entity. Gone are the days of grassroots informality. Elected folks are now delegated with authority and a six figure budget. Formal “chapters” with leaders dominate the community organizing efforts." (http://www.andrewlih.com/blog/2007/06/28/wikipedia-plateau/)


2008

"Ed Chi of the Palo Alto Research Center is the creator of WikiDashboard, a social dynamic analysis tool created independently of the foundation that allows readers to analyze all of the edits made by their peers. In October, Chi discovered a huge drop-off in the number of edits, to the point that 1 percent of editors were editing 50 percent of the content. While Wikipedia remains strong in page views and overall ranking, Chi said the waning interest among editors does not bode well for the site or community.

"The edits have leveled off and remained steady," Chi said. "We don't yet know a reason for the decline, but we suspect it is due not to the wisdom of crowds but to the increased level of conflict among community members. Often it is not the one with the right answer who has their say, but the one who sticks around the longest and is best able to argue his case." (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/24/MNIJ12ETP4.DTL)


2009

Details on the number of volunteers, by Jonathan Hochman:

"How many Wikipedia volunteers are there now?

Jonathan: Think of a Venn Diagram - a big circle. The total number of contributors are about one million different people that contribute. But there are probably about 5,000 active editors that are consistently and regularly contributing. And within that kernel there are fifteen hundred people that have administrator access and probably only eight hundred of them are active. People have a natural life span with the community. People come an typically stay for 6 months to 3 years. Usually after that they become bored, disillusioned or get into a conflict with someone. There is a natural tendency for people to stay for a while and move on. Some people stay longer, a few, but the majority will move on at some point. So it is a lot of fresh faces moving in." (http://www.ugotrade.com/2008/12/29/hacking-the-world-in-2009-google-street-view-smart-stuff-and-wikiculture/)


UNU Merit Survey

Data summary:

"From late October to early November 2008, the Wikimedia Foundation and UNU-Merit conducted the first multilingual survey of Wikipedia readers and contributors in 20 languages. In total, more than 130,000 Wikipedia readers and contributors completed the extensive survey questionnaire:

  1. 65% of respondents self-described as readers, and 35% as (mostly occasional) contributors. Former contributors are analysed separately.
  2. Respondents came from over 200 countries, ranging from 10 to 85 years completed the survey; their average age is 26 years, and 25% of the respondents are younger than 18 years. Female respondents are a bit younger than the average (24 years)
  3. Among these, readers and contributors are on average in their mid-twenties, and predominantly male (75%)
  4. Women, with a share of 25% in all respondents, are more strongly represented among readers (32%) and less strongly represented among contributors (13%).
  5. Both educational levels and age are slightly higher among contributors than among readers.
  6. Regarding their motivations to contribute, respondents mentioned as their top two reasons that (1) they liked the idea of sharing knowledge, and (2) that they had come across an error and wanted to fix it.
  7. The concern that they might not have enough information to contribute is the main reason holding back potential contributors, mentioned by 51% of this group. Fourty-eight percent mentioned they were happy readers of Wikipedia, and saw no reason to get involved as contributors.
  8. The most common reason why respondents have not donated money to the Wikimedia Foundation, mentioned by more than 42% of respondents, is that they don’t know how."

(http://blog.wikimedia.org/2009/04/16/first-preliminary-results-from-unu-merit-survey-of-wikipedia-readers-and-contributors-available/)

Why Wikipedia is Out-cooperating its rivals?

Cooperation expert Christopher Spehr:


Citation 1

"The Encyclopaedia Brittanica editors are out-cooperated because the Wikipedia authors work for free. But this is partly an illusion, because the Wikipedia authors have to eat and dress and live in houses too. Only they get paid by other structures, outside the Wikipedia collaboration, not by the project itself. So we do not know, so far, which form of collaboration is more productive. The costs of Wikipedia are hidden, they are externalized. Whoever can externalize its costs, wins – that’s a basic rule in capitalism, and that’s why ecological movements always claim the internalization of costs. The reason Wikipedia is really more productive is because it does not have to spend work, money etc. into means of forcing people to work, because editorial work is spread among all participants and not located in a fixed editors’ class, because the roles of producer and consumer get blurred, because a strong responsibility of the worker for his or her work is established, etc." (http://www.networkcultures.org/geert/out-cooperating-the-empire-exchange-with-christoph-spehr/)


Citation 2

"GL: Is it productivity that counts? Ultimately a new system will win against the existing system, just because it’s more productive?

CS: Yes, I think so. More productive, not more efficient. Usually, a new way of production, and a new society linked to it, is successful because it can accomplish something the old way of production (and the old social structures linked to it) could not. Machines, weapons, ideologies, structures of environmental control, intelligent machines, you name it. It is not successful because it is more cost-efficient. If something really new, really useful, really powerful can be accomplished, costs really don’t matter. That’s a very important historical lesson. So the question is: what is it about the new modes of production, as they emerge today, that enables them to accomplish things the old ones could not? It’s not that Wikipedia authors work for free. That’s not the point. But maybe it is Wikipedia indeed. And what’s related to it. Maybe it’s the astonishing productivity of free cooperation in such forms. That would be the new forces of production, and the new relations of production would be that of free basic income, personally free labour and shared means of production.

So what is it that new cooperations, like Wikipedia, can produce that older forms of cooperation could not? Wikipedia, using the tool of the wiki and the knowledge of online community building, creates a product that is completely up-to-date, that is mistake-free, error-free, while it works in extremely error-friendly ways at the same time. It is quite unbiased in terms of cultural hegemony, it is strongest when it comes to entries other encyclopaedias wouldn’t even have. You may find better articles elsewhere, more to your gusto, but usually ideology is kept checked, balanced, controlled in Wikipedia. If you want it unbiased, you go there." (http://www.networkcultures.org/geert/out-cooperating-the-empire-exchange-with-christoph-spehr/)


Discussion

See our new page on Wikipedia Controversies


Wikipedia as an Epistemological Revolution

By Maria Bustillos:

1.

"Wikipedia is the foreshock of an epistemological earthquake to rival the one set rumbling by Johannes Gutenberg ca. 1439.

Bob Stein, founder and co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (and co-founder, in 1984, of the Criterion Collection company) has been writing persuasively in this vein about Wikipedia for years now. I asked him recently to give an update on his views, and he said that if I wanted to understand the significance of Wikipedia, I should read Marshall McLuhan.

"Go back and study the shift in human communication, what McLuhan called 'the shift to print,'" he said. "The place where an idea could be owned by a single person. One of McLuhan's genius insights was his understanding of how the shift from an oral culture to one based on print gave rise to our modern notion of the individual as the originaator and owner of particular ideas."

According to McLuhan, Bob explained, "the ownership of an idea" was made inevitable by the invention of printing; it is this era that we are outgrowing, as McLuhan foresaw. "If the pr

inting press empowered the individual, the digital world empowers collaboration."

...

All these elements—the abandonment of "point of view," the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing "of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either," the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from "authorship" (brought about by the emergence of a "hive mind") is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.

How neatly does this dovetail into a subtle and surprising new appreciation of the communal knowledge-making at Wikipedia?! It's no wonder that McLuhan is among the patron saints of the Internet.

It's no accident, either, that from grad school onward McLuhan was involved in collaborative projects that drew in a wide variety of disciplines, institutions, students, and paths of inquiry. If the results were chaotic (and they often were) they were also vital and thrilling. He worked with educators, corporate executives, computer scientists and management theorists; he helped develop high-school media syllabi, designed a study relating dyslexia to television watching, and conducted sensory tests for IBM. (For more on McLuhan, I can highly recommend Philip Marchand's fine biography, The Medium and the Messenger.)

McLuhan's insights, though they are being lived by millions every day, will take a long time to become fully manifest. But it's already clear that Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of "authority," "authorship," and even "knowledge."


...


2.

""Those who are wringing their hands over Wikipedia are those committed to the idea of some uncomplicated 'truth" he said, going on to characterize the early controversy between Britannica and Wikipedia as "an anguish regarding authority ... that there are no guarantees to truth." He continued: "The threat to Britannica from Wikipedia is not a matter of dueling methods of providing information. Wikipedia, if it works better than Britannica, threatens not only its authority as a source of information, but also the theory of knowledge on which Britannica is founded. On Wikipedia "the author" is distributed, and this fact is indigestible to current models of thinking.

"Wikipedia is forcing people to accept the stone-cold bummer that knowledge is produced and constructed by argument rather than by divine inspiration."

...


By empowering readers and observers with transparent access to the means by which conclusions are reached, rather than assembling them in an audience to hear the Authorities deliver the catechism from on high, we are all of us becoming scientists in this way, entering into a democracy of the intellect that is already bearing spectacular fruit, not just at Wikipedia but through any number of collaborative projects, from the Gutenberg Project to Tor to Linux.

But there continues to be resistance to the idea that expertise itself has been called into question, and we can expect that resistance to continue. Experts, understandably, are apt to be annoyed by their devaluation, and are liable to make their displeasure felt. And the thing about experts is that a lot of people still feel disinclined to question them.

Experts, geniuses, authorities, "authors"—we were taught to believe that these should be questioned, but until now have not often been given a way to do so, to seek out and test for ourselves the exact means by which they reached their conclusions. So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about "individualism" then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don't value those who can lead the conversation. We'll need them more and more, those "who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network," to use Bob Stein's words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.

And there's so much more to this. If my point of view needn't immediately eradicate yours—if we are having not a contest but an ongoing comparison, whether in politics, art or literary criticism, if "knowledge" is and will remain provisional (and we could put a huge shout-out to Rorty here, if we had the space and the breath) what would this mean to the quality of our discourse, or to the subsequent character and quality of "understanding"?

Maybe disagreement doesn't have to be a battle to be fought to the death; it can be embraced, even savored. Wikipedia as it is now constituted lends enormous force to this argument. The ability to weigh conflicting opinions dispassionately and without requiring a "decision" is invaluable in understanding almost any serious question. That much is clear right now. There are many, many practical political, pedagogical and epistemological benefits yet to be investigated.

"Learning" no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or on in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the "authoritative" version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet, now grown into a medium of almost infinite paths, where "learning" means that you can Twitter directly to people in Egypt to ask them what they really think about ElBaradei (and get answers), ask an author or critic to address a point you feel he may have missed (ditto), or share your own insights in countless forums where they will be read and admired (and/or savaged.) Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.

The results of these collaborations, like Wikipedia, represent not just new methods of packaging knowledge, but a new vision of what might come to be meant by "knowledge": something more like what Marshall McLuhan called "a galaxy for insight."

"The sadness of our age is characterized by the shackles of individualism," Bob Stein said. But are we throwing off those shackles, even as we speak?" (http://www.theawl.com/2011/05/wikipedia-and-the-death-of-the-expert)

Business Aspects

Mark Choate:

"Wikipedia is a living example of how network effects can confer sustainable competitive advantage in a market mediated by an open platform even though Wikipedia (on the surface) does not seem to act in accordance with the resource-based view of sustained competitive advantage.

The editing process taking place at Wikipedia is transparent. Not only can just about anyone participate, but the history of all the edits and who made them is available. At the same time, Wikipedia makes available all of its content. You can download every article and photograph and import it into your very own Wikipedia clone if you would like to.

Given the transparency of the process and the easy transferrability of resources, once might conclude that Wikipedia does not have a sustainable competitive advantage in the online encyclopedia market. One would be wrong, however.

While I can replicate the content on Wikipedia, I can never replicate the overall value of Wikipedia, for two reasons. The first is that there is a network of users who regularly monitor and update Wikipedia articles and they will continue to do so on Wikipedia's site, and not mine. Of course, I can continue to copy Wikipedia's content and maintain a site very close to the original, but with a slight delay and a modest degradation in quality. Even if I were able to make the transfer all but instantaneous, I still will not have replicated the value of Wikipedia because I also need to consider all the other sites on the Internet that link to Wikipedia as well.

It is the degree to which Wikipedia is entrenched in the network itself, the degree to which it is woven into the web that provides its greatest competitive advantage and one that, I suspect at least, will prove to be sustainable because that network is difficult to replicate. Clearly, network effects are still relevant, even with an open platform. The technology is readily replicable and the process by which the content was produce is entirely transparent. As it turns out, it is the weave of the data as woven into the network itself that is nearly impossible to replicate. Much in accordance with the old resource-based view of sustained competitive advantage, Wikipedia has secured it by making the value of its offering very hard to imitate." (http://www.cutter.com/offers/enterprise2.html.)

Details on the 2008 budget and governance structure at http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2008/12/29/should-wikimedia-cost-that-much/

More Information

  1. Wikipedia.org: The pro's and cons of Wikipedia (vs. traditional encyclopedia production) are discussed in this article: http://soufron.free.fr/soufron-spip/article.php3?id_article=57
  2. This paper explores the character of “mutual aid? and interdependent decision making within the Wikipedia at http://reagle.org/joseph/2004/agree/wikip-agree.html
  3. A profile of the most prolific contributors and the values driving them, at http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,66814,00.html?
  4. This review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, has interesting comments on deletionism, at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21131