The world’s beloved online encyclopaedia is no longer a teenager, trying to find its feet in a rapidly changing digital universe. With two decades under its belt as of January 15, 2021, Wikipedia can confidently stake claim to being the largest and most widely referenced sources ever. It has come a long way since its early days when it was disdainfully dismissed as unreliable and utopian.
In an increasingly murky digital realm where disinformation, online vandalism, and profit-making algorithms are the new normal, Wikipedia stands apart as a beacon of hope. Its editorial ethos and voluntary, crowdsourced model are nothing short of revolutionary. As tech behemoths like Google, Amazon, and Facebook face increasing backlash for their profit oriented and monopolistic business models, as well as their failure to moderate content, Wikipedia seems to offer a much cleaner alternative. For a vicenarian, its erudition appears to extend well beyond its years.
KNOWLEDGE ‘ON THE GO’
Notions of a comprehensive compendium, encompassing knowledge in all its forms, had enabled the Greeks to transfer their wisdom over centuries to successive generations of mankind. As printing technology thrived with industrial revolution, such knowledge was condensed into encyclopaedias, and none was more sought after than the venerable Britannica. With the advent of the Internet, this was digitised, bringing the hitherto expensive volumes within the reach of every student and scholar from different corners of the planet.
As for Wikipedia, it owes its ancestry to an online open-source encyclopaedia called Nupedia, which was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2000. Their basic idea had been to source articles from eminent scholars and publish them in an online repository, after several rounds of editorial oversight. They had sought to digitally replicate the top-down, expert-driven model, which was conventionally followed in the case of hard-copy encyclopaedias.
The original site, however, failed to take off, as extensive peer-reviewing of articles written by experts made it too slow for online consumption by a mass of avid researchers logging in simultaneously. Succour came in the form of a collaborative software tool called 'wiki', which was a hypertext publication, edited and managed by its own audience using a web browser. Thus, the online encyclopaedia was born, and it could be freely edited by the public, as opposed to subject experts.
Following this, a community-managed encyclopaedia was registered by Mr. Wales and Mr. Sanger under the domain name ‘Wikipedia’. It permitted the compilation and editing of articles by volunteers who had a basic knowledge of digital etiquette. The governance of the site was also placed in the hands of its many contributors.
Although there were initial doubts about the viability of this ambitious project, it grew at a faster than expected pace. Within a year, it came to host nearly 20,000 articles, emerging as a noteworthy rival to traditional heavyweights like as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Today, Wikipedia boasts of more than 53 million articles in 300 odd languages. It has blossomed into the world’s largest informational ecosystem, attracting more than 500 million page views per day.
By eschewing a model that places heavy reliance on scholarly and elitist constructions of knowledge, Wikipedia has provided a platform for the ordinary person to participate in data creation. It has fashioned computers into a tool for the liberation and education of masses. Ideological differences have been handled by incorporating paragraphs that highlight multiple points of view. This has built a culture where information is based on evidence, reason, and good-faith deliberations.
Although anyone can contribute new articles and edit old ones, the appearance of such material is subject to approval by experienced administrators. Any mistakes, whether accidental or deliberate, are spotted and corrected with impressive speed by both bots as well as humans. Where knowledge remains uncorroborated, the same is indicated in the underlying text. Editors can also add articles to their ‘watch lists’ so that they are immediately alerted of any changes. Such proactive monitoring ensures that the information hosted on the website is credible and not subject to manipulation by vested interests.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the World Health Organization has chosen to work with Wikipedia to combat the ‘infodemic’ stemming from the COVID-19 crisis. Similarly, during the 2020 American Presidential election, the online encyclopaedia had tackled disinformation by locking down the main election page and allowing only trustworthy editors to make the required changes.
For tech Goliaths like Google, Facebook, or Twitter, such systems of decentralised content moderation and community-based policing form interesting case studies. Implementing such best practices in their own companies may help to deflect some of the criticisms pertaining to fake news and disinformation.
The fact that this treasure trove of knowledge is not beholden to any profit-making enterprise adds to its appeal. Overseen by a not-for-profit group called Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia depends on a donation-based revenue model.
Apart from monetary and in-kind donations, it also sells branded merchandise to meet the numerous administrative costs involved. Compared to other tech companies, there are no shareholders or venture-capital backers demanding higher profits and maximised user engagement. Wikipedia is predicated on a social-production model that is free from advertisements, cookies, pop-ups, filter bubbles, and other personalised algorithms.
To keep up with the ‘age of the smartphone’, it is currently seeking to improve the site’s mobile-editing tools. If implemented successfully, this can prompt a large number of users in poor countries, for whom smartphones maybe the only entry-point of Internet access, to edit and contribute to this portal.
So, the next time you log onto Wikipedia, and it politely asks for a small contribution, please don’t hesitate!
- Wikipedia has its limitations too. The nature of crowdsourcing is such that only the most trending articles receive the best editorial scrutiny. For the sake of posterity, a uniform code of conduct which safeguards the veracity of even the most obscure articles is important. After all, it serves as a rich archival source for historians, sociologists, linguists, scientists, and other scholars.
- As with most institutional structures, the online encyclopaedia is not free from its own systemic biases. It is commonly perceived that the editorial body is heavily dominated by males, mostly from Europe and North America. This naturally leads to accusations of pre-conceived notions and prejudices as well as scholarly leanings in a particular direction. A more diverse set of voices which truly represents the global public must be ensured by the Wikimedia Foundation.
Such a seemingly idealistic model may not always be transferable to tech companies in the commercial sphere. Nevertheless, it offers some interesting insights regarding the relative opportunities and risks of user governance vis à vis investor ownership. It serves as a timely reminder that the Internet can be a ‘force for good’, if backed by the right intentions.