- Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia by Dariusz Jemielniak
Wikipedia currently exists in 270 languages, with more than 20 million articles online. The English-language Wikipedia has 2.5 billion words, sixty times the size of Britannica. Wikipedia may be the largest collaborative initiative in history and influences what people the world over know or think they know. Its distinctive feature is the nonexpert, nonprofessional, noncertified, nonformal production of knowledge with credible content. Academics like to sneer at those characteristics, even as more and more of us acknowledge Wikipedia, support it, and use it in teaching. And why should we not warm to it? The rules of Wikipedia discourse are modeled after an ideal academy’s. Arguments, not personal attacks or status, carry the day. It may be the most scientific encyclopedia ever: Wikipedia is as self-correcting as anything in science. Purposeful bias, departing tendentiously from dominant beliefs of the academic community, does not prevail. Peer control is high; procedures are many and fanatically enforced. There are no back channels. Every editorial act is recorded and archived and remains on the record forever.
Since its inception, Wikipedia has promoted itself as an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and some three hundred thousand editors contribute each month. Some of them are not even human beings. In 2002, an algorithmic bot added thirty thousand articles (on US cities and towns) in a single week. There is evidence, however, that Wikipedia is not as welcoming of new editors as it once was and as its ideology still enjoins it to be. Despite the policy of consensus, conflict fuels Wikipedia growth. Conscious collaboration is rare; most interaction among editors occurs when they disagree. Jemielniak, an editor and administrator with six years of experience on both the English and Polish Wikipedia, has many tales about “edit wars,” when even the smallest inconsistency unleashes waves of uninhibited criticism. Why, then, does Wikipedia work? In theory, it should not. In practice, it seems to be a new paradigm of organization, whose breezy anticredentialism tosses traditional hierarchies of knowledge production to the wind. [End Page 104]
Barry Allen, professor of philosophy at McMaster University, is the author of Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition; Knowledge and Civilization; Truth in Philosophy; Artifice and Design; and Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts.