Interviews September 2006

Common Knowledge

Marshall Poe on the marvels and pitfalls of Wikipedia, the fastest-growing encyclopedia in human history.
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So there is a sort of hierarchy on Wikipedia?

Hierarchy might be too strong a word. But it’s a hierarchy of reputation. It’s like any context in which a lot of people know one another. If you come in and you’re a stranger, they’re going to ask you some questions about who you are and what you intend. They’re going to say to you, “Maybe it’s best if you sit and listen for a while and watch what we do.” That generally is what they say in the kinder user-generated sites on the Internet. There are some that are ruthless and cruel. But Wikipedia isn’t one of them.

You might call these the “worker bees” of Wikipedia. They’re people who really care a lot about the project. They devote time to it and they think it’s fun to edit. They’re proud of their accomplishments. And they have a whole economy of reputation—they get positive reinforcement from each other. They give each other awards. On people’s user pages, you can see that they’ll get the “Barnstar Award,” which is an award you get for shoring up the entire project in various ways. You’re nominated by other users and you’re elected by other users. And people will discuss you.

Do you have any sense of who these people are? Are most of them academics, or do they come from all walks of life?

I honestly don’t know in most cases. It skews male, probably. And it skews young. I’d say that most Wikipedians are more educated than not. But beyond that, I’d say the group is so large that it regresses to the mean. It’s really everybody.

What about the people who let Wikipedia take over their entire lives? Do we know anything about the user who calls himself “the Cunctator,” for instance?

Well, we do know quite a bit about him. He’s famous in the Wikipedia community. He’s an anarchist. I mean, he’s an actual anarchist. He’s part of a group called Anarchists for a Past, Present, and Future World of Goodness. I think he’s in his 20s, if I recall correctly. He was going to college at one time. I don’t know what he was studying. He’s a good example of someone who gets enthralled with Wikipedia as a project. They can hear their voices making a difference. They can see the tangible impact of what they do. They can interact with other smart people. And they can argue—Wikipedians love to argue.

Because people interact using names like “the Cunctator” or “Splash47,” it’s possible to have a 25-year-old anarchist arguing with a 60-year-old department head from an Ivy League university. Are these adopted names one of the ways Wikipedians level the playing field? 

Definitely. In fact, that was Sanger’s chief problem with the entire thing: your credentials didn’t matter. When the Cunctator talked to Splash47, it didn’t matter who they were. The arguments were all that mattered. Sanger thought this wasn’t really right. And in terms of building an encyclopedia, it doesn’t seem like it is right. Clearly, the person who is a Yale professor in classics should have more community regard than the kid from Nebraska who just read a translation of The Iliad. But on Wikipedia, that’s not part of the economy of respectability. It all has to do with what you’ve done on the site.

So it really does level the playing field to a degree that makes most people very uncomfortable. You have to be able to suffer a lot of foolishness to work on Wikipedia. You really do. And for most people who were brought up in academic discourse, the way people behave just isn’t acceptable. But you have to balance that against the efficiency of producing the largest encyclopedia in human history over the course of five years.

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, subscribes to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Do you see the impact of Rand’s ideas—for instance, rational self-interest—in the way Wikipedia operates?

Jimmy Wales is a person who puts his ethical and philosophical beliefs front and center, and objectivism is certainly one of them. But when it comes to Wikipedia, I wouldn’t call his approach objectivist. I’d call it libertarian. As it is, the consequences for bad behavior are very low online—basically zero. He realizes that there’s really no way to punish somebody.

So he quite reasonably says, and many people do, that whether you like it or not, you have a kind of anarchic, stateless, authority-less universe. There’s nothing anybody can really do. One way to approach this is to simply say, “Well, we are going to try to use moral suasion to get people to behave correctly, because we can’t penalize people the way we would in the real world.”

I thought it was interesting that your article included a discussion of role-playing games, particularly Dungeons and Dragons. Could you say more about how the whole gaming craze of the 1970s fed into the Wikipedia phenomenon?

I think gaming had a huge impact, and Dungeons and Dragons specifically. D & D kind of made it cool to be a geek. I’m of that vintage—I’m forty-four. I wasn’t much of a geek, actually. I was more of a jock. But nonetheless, I recognized that Dungeons and Dragons was cool, and that creative, smart kids played it. It had characteristics that allowed players to articulate kinds of intelligence that went well beyond any board game. You really could let your fantasies run wild on it. And it was extensible, as they say in computers. You could have a world, and it could just continue. You could keep adding people to it.

And then once they figured out how to put this online, the scale of these universes expanded exponentially. The line between Dungeons and Dragons—that musty basement in suburbia—and the kinds of massive multiplayer games they have now is direct. There’s no question. The people who design these games, these multi-user dungeons, they’re the same folks. And they’re about my age. Wales and all of these guys were involved in that stuff. They loved playing those games.

It also ties into what we were talking about before. People could assume an identity and start interacting with each other in a way they never would in real life. With Dungeons and Dragons, you could be a skinny, pimply little guy, but as soon as you sat down to play, you were a Half-Elf.

I wanted to be Warrior-Priest. I always liked that. But, yeah, you took on a new identity, you inhabited a different world, you could act in ways you’d never acted before, ways that weren’t consistent with your real-life community but were consistent with that new world. It was really very liberating, a vessel for your imagination and also for your intelligence. Because a “world” had to be consistent. That was one of the rules. You couldn’t just do anything. So it could become very Byzantine, very complex.

Wales and these other guys saw that once a bazillion people could talk to one another, you could actually do quite interesting things, in terms of creating resources. That is also a pretty direct line. There were a lot of people in the ’90s who had the idea to create something like Wikipedia. He wasn’t alone.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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