Interviews September 2006

Common Knowledge

Marshall Poe on the marvels and pitfalls of Wikipedia, the fastest-growing encyclopedia in human history.

Once upon a time, the term “encyclopedia” implied a heavy set of bound volumes sitting on a bookshelf. It was an invaluable resource for fathers who wanted to discuss the French Revolution at the dinner table, or sixth graders who needed to write a report on snails. Unlike so many other sources of information, the encyclopedia appeared to be incontestable. Every entry was written in the same authoritative voice, as though a single all-knowing being had expounded on all subjects from a cappella music to Zywiec, Poland.

This venerable notion began to crumble in 2001 when two men named Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched a project that shook the foundations of the traditional encyclopedia. They created a Web site called Wikipedia, an online knowledge base that could be edited or expanded by anyone who came along. This free-for-all approach had obvious drawbacks: know-it-all teenagers could undo the careful work of university professors, and pranksters could insert fictional details into an entry on John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But to an astonishing extent, Wikipedia worked. Serious scholars and armchair academics have written more than 4.5 million entries in over 200 languages, encompassing not only the well-worn territory of Encyclopedia Britannica but all sorts of eclectic subjects never before covered in any encyclopedia.

For historian Marshall Poe, the Wikipedia phenomenon raises all sorts of questions about the changing definition of knowledge and the evolving means of human inquiry. Before the Internet emerged, as he points out in his piece in the September Atlantic, there was no way for far-flung groups of people to collaborate on any one project. Software developers were the first to recognize that the collective knowledge of the masses could be an asset. During the late 1990s, adventurous code writers began opening their work to the general public. Instead of meeting in small, exclusive groups—writing, refining, and publishing software programs in the conventional way—they released their still-emerging code on the Internet and invited users to improve upon it.

As Poe points out, Wikipedia essentially borrowed this idea from the software field and applied it to epistemology. Unlike its printed predecessors, Wikipedia is a communal encyclopedia, based on the notion that the many can gather knowledge as well as, or better than, the select few. To illustrate this philosophy, Poe cites a seminal 1997 essay by Eric S. Raymond called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” The “cathedral” model, like the medieval church—and the old-fashioned encyclopediarelied upon the authority of an elite committee. The “bazaar” model, in contrast, draws input from anywhere and everywhere. At an open market, there is no central authority assigning value to an object. Prices rise and fall as visitors move from stall to stall, comparing items and quibbling over costs. Wikipedia works in much the same way. As Poe extrapolates,

The power of the community to decide, of course, asks us to reexamine what we mean when we say that something is “true.” We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars—we merely discovered it. But Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth…. The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability.

In the open spirit of the Internet, Poe recently created a Web site that mimics both the appearance and approach of Wikipedia. Launched in 2005, is a searchable “encyclopedia of memories” posted by users around the globe. Poe has written extensively on academic models old and new; he has also penned several works on early modern Russia and is a former editor of the academic journal Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is a writer and analyst for The Atlantic.

We spoke by telephone on July 20.

Jennie Rothenberg

How did you first become interested in Wikipedia as an article subject?

About two years ago, I was doing research on what are called read-write Web sites—that is, Web sites you could read and write to. I’d seen Wikipedia before—it comes up on Google searches, it comes up on Yahoo! searches, it comes up all the time—but I didn’t really know what it was.

I didn't mention this in the article, but I found some work I had done as an academic cited in Wikipedia, about something very obscure. And I was just like, “Man, that’s deep!”

What was that citation about?

It was in an entry on Sigismund Freiherr von Herberstein. He was an Austrian diplomat in the sixteenth century, and he was one of the first Western Europeans to travel to what is now Russia. He wrote a book about it, and I wrote a book about him, as well as about other people who went to Russia at that time. The entry popped up on my computer screen, and when I saw my work cited there, I wondered, “Good God, who did this? What kind of a lunatic would actually spend time creating an entry on Sigismund Freiherr von Herberstein, the most obscure dude on earth?” I know about him, and about ten other people do. I was just fascinated by that. I’m drawn to weird things like that.

And then I started to read more and more about it. As a historian, I was fascinated that the whole history of the article—all of the various changes and edits—had been recorded. I realized that if I actually spent some time on the weekends, I could go back and reconstruct pretty accurately, using Wikipedia's own sources, what was going on.

So what was going on? Who are these people who spend so much time editing and writing articles without any financial incentive?

It’s one of these things that is fairly typical on the Internet among a certain group of “techies.” They become very enthused about something, and once it starts to take off, it takes over their lives. I’ve been in touch with a couple of them. One goes by the user name “the Cunctator,” and I mention him in my article. Another is Eric Moeller, who I’m in contact with still. There are probably fifteen or twenty of them, most of them programmers. These are people who are über-Wikipedians. I don’t know how they keep day jobs, basically.

Then there’s a much larger group of people—I’d estimate it at several thousand—who spend a lot of time on Wikipedia. We would call them editors. They add content and also shape content as it comes in. They monitor the site and attempt to make sure that the standards of Wikipedia are upheld. That means both standards of content and standards of discourse, because they’re related. These are people who serve on arbitration committees and things like this. It’s not a closed circle, but it’s a self-referential circle. They all know one another, and they nominate one another to become administrators. They support one another.

Can anyone come forward to be part of this group?

Well, you can. But generally speaking of Wikipedia—and this is true of many sites that rely on user-generated content—you kind of have to go on credit. You do that by making edits and adding articles. Slashdot is really the site that pioneered this. I believe they have something called “karma.” The computer can tally the number of times you’ve contributed. Then people can look at your user profile and say, “This is an active contributor.” If the program is sophisticated enough, they can look back and see the tenor of your contributions, and they can adjudge them in various ways.

This is how you develop credit in the economy of user-generated content. I say it was pioneered by Slashdot, but on a massive scale, it was really introduced by eBay.

When you want to buy from someone on eBay, you can see whether that person has been an active seller and gotten good ratings. 

Exactly. It’s your online reputation, and the computer is very good at keeping records of what you’ve done. So on Wikipedia, these are people who have good cred.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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