Interviews September 2006

Common Knowledge

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

What about casual Wikipedia users, the ones who just tweak an article or two from time to time?

Yes, that’s people like you and me and just everybody who has a computer and an Internet connection. Most people don’t contribute to Wikipedia at all. If you tried to estimate the ratio of Wikipedia users to Wikipedia contributors, it would be tens of thousands to one. Most people are not moved to participate in the actual content. But many are. A couple of hundred thousand people have actually made an edit, which is a high bar if you think about it. Making an edit on the site means they’re going to change it tangibly. That’s kind of scary!

It is. In fact, I have friends who go around making subtle changes to obscure entries as an in-joke with each other. For instance, they went into an entry about the actor Tim Robbins and wrote that his crowning achievement was the 1985 B-movie Fraternity Vacation. I’m sure there are plenty of people doing that. The more controversial entries may be more carefully monitored, but isn’t there a danger that someone could look up Tim Robbins and find something wrong or misleading?

That happens. There’s no question it happens. To their credit, the community at Wikipedia is taking measures to make sure that what are called low-traffic entries—something like “Finnish cuisine,” or “Marshall Poe” for that matter—can be monitored. I don’t know what all these methods are. They’re not heavy-handed by any means. For example, there could be a simple rule: if a page has not been viewed for ten days and you want to edit it, you have to be a registered user. That’s all.

It kind of reminds me of an insurance copay. The point of the copay is to keep people from going to the doctor every few days. No one makes any money off that copay. It’s just a little hurdle to keep most people out. But vandalism is a constant problem on Wikipedia, and if you think about it, it’s a constant problem in life. Some people just aren’t playing by the same rules as everyone else.

Vandalism aside, there’s also the question of what the Wikipedians call neutral point of view—a consensus that’s reached when many different users put aside their prejudices and reach an agreement about a set of facts. But what about cases where different users just really have different ideas of truth? There’s not going to be any consensus between someone who believes in Darwin’s theory of evolution and someone who believes the world was created in six days.

The neutral point of view, as has been pointed out to me repeatedly, doesn’t require that consensus be reached on a position. If you look at the entry on evolution, I’m sure there will be a section on creationism: “Many people believe that the world was created in six days.” But you won’t find a section that says, “Marshall Poe created the world in six days.” It would be kicked off. It’s not as if they arrive at the same opinion about truth. They arrive at the same opinion about what should be in the article. That’s a very different thing.

As for the issues themselves, I think the point is that they don’t ever get resolved. One way to think of Wikipedia is not as a static entity but as a continual dialogue.

In your piece, you never quote Sanger and Wales as primary sources. In fact, it’s not immediately obvious that you interviewed them for this piece at all. Most profile writers these days go out of their way to emphasize the fact that they scored an interview with the person: “On a September afternoon, I sat down with the Prime Minister of France at a sidewalk café.” Why did you do things differently?

I do know that New Yorker-style profile, and we do that, too, a lot of the time, in The Atlantic. But I don’t find it very satisfying. As a historian you would never do that. You would go back and try to find documentary evidence instead. Because people lie about their pasts. They do it unknowingly. When I tell stories about what I was doing five or ten years ago, I don’t have any confidence that they were accurate. I really don’t.

With Wales and Sanger, I was very fortunate because I could actually go back and look at everything they’d done. I used my interviews mainly to make sure that the arc of my story was correct and that my interpretation of the facts was correct. There were a couple of little facts that made it into the article that they provided—for instance, the fact that they both played Dungeons and Dragons.

When I started working on this article, the early Wikipedia listserves were a great resource. That’s one of the beauties of the Web. You can’t really hide. Once it’s out there, it never disappears. Similarly with the page records of Wikipedia entries. I was able to go back and find what was, from a historian’s point of view, a remarkably complete record of what had been done. I don’t think they really thought about this when they were doing it. When I went back to Sanger and Wales and said, “Did you know you wrote this then?” they would kind of cock their heads and say, “No way. I did that?”

You begin and end the story by discussing the “Marshall Poe” Wikipedia entry. What inspired you to create an entry on yourself?

When I first added the entry, it was one line: “Marshall Poe is a historian,” blah blah blah. I added it because I’m part of a project called Memory Archive. It’s a wiki on which people can go and record their memories of everything. I wanted to create a Wikipedia entry for the project, and I wanted to create a Wikipedia entry for myself, as the head of the project. And, honestly, I just wanted to see what would happen, because I was curious about it.

There’s a function on Wikipedia where you can watch for new entries, and there’s a whole group of people who just watch. For example, if you go in and put in an entry for “Snoopy,” they’ll delete it, because there’s already an entry for “Snoopy.” Or if you put one in there for “The Rug In My Bedroom,” they’ll say, “That obviously isn’t encyclopedic. Let’s delete that.” But they obviously didn’t know who I was, so they had to do some research. The back and forth I mention at the beginning of the article is that research that they did. They Googled me and they looked around and saw that I wasn’t anything very special but I had written some books. I was amazed at how what they call Wiki magic does work. A bunch of people, without getting paid, did all that research and managed to put new stuff on there. That is a testament to the power of the thing.

Even with all of those people monitoring the site so carefully, isn’t it dangerous to use Wikipedia as one's sole source of information on a given subject? A two-paragraph entry on Marshall Poe is one thing, but what about a more complicated subject like stem cell research?   

It’s a little bit like what Ronald Reagan said about Soviet missiles when he was about to sign the treaty: “Trust, but verify.” Is it an encyclopedia? Yeah, it’s an encyclopedia. Is it very accurate? I wouldn’t bet my bottom dollar on anything in there. Do I use it? I use it all the time. I use it constantly, and sometimes I find stuff on there that’s very funny. But I try to check it. I’m not making any investments on the basis of what I find on Wikipedia. No way, man. I’m calling my broker! I pay that guy.

Do you think kids who are growing up in the Wikipedia era might end up with a skewed idea of knowledge and accuracy? It might just be too tempting to take what they see there as fact without double-checking it against a more reliable source.

It’s up to the schools to explain to kids what Wikipedia actually is. It’s a useful resource that can give you a general impression of the objects of our experience. When I was growing up, people said to me, “You shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.” Twenty years before I was born, I think people kind of did believe everything they saw on TV. But I was taught not to. So if the schools teach things properly and the Wikipedians do their work, then people will know what it is—and they’ll know what it isn’t.

Wikipedia is an unvetted secondary source. That’s what it is. It’s just like testimony from somebody. I would think of Wikipedia as something that’s closer to common knowledge. These are things we all kind of know. If you think about it, where does all knowledge lie? It’s in our heads, really. Sure, it’s out there in books somewhere, but that knowledge is dead. What we know is in our heads. Someone is talking about it somewhere. In the case of Wikipedia, it just happens to be on the page. So it’s common knowledge distilled.

I guess the real question is, in the end, is Wikipedia ever going to fill the same role as the encyclopedia volumes my father used to take down off the shelf whenever I had a question at the dinner table?

My gut says the answer is, No, of course it isn’t! But it’s much larger, and that’s good, too. On any particular detail, the experts are probably better at answering specific questions. But it would have been impossible economically to put together a group of experts to assemble an encyclopedia that has 4.5 million entries and exists in 200 languages. There was no way to do that except this way.

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

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