The Hive

Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge
Common Knowledge

In June 2001, only six months after Wikipedia was founded, a Polish Wikipedian named Krzysztof Jasiutowicz made an arresting and remarkably forward-looking observation. The Internet, he mused, was nothing but a “global Wikipedia without the end-user editing facility.” The contents of the Internet—its pages—are created by a loose community of users, namely those on the Web. The contents of Wikipedia—its entries—are also created by a loose community of users, namely Wikipedians. On the Internet, contributors own their own pages, and only they can edit them. They can also create new pages as they see fit. On Wikipedia, contributors own all of the pages collectively, and each can edit nearly every page. Page creation is ultimately subject to community approval. The private-property regime that governs the Internet allows it to grow freely, but it makes organization and improvement very difficult. In contrast, Wikipedia’s communal regime permits growth plus organization and improvement. The result of this difference is there for all to see: much of the Internet is a chaotic mess and therefore useless, whereas Wikipedia is well ordered and hence very useful.

Having seen all of this in prospect, Jasiutowicz asked a logical question: “Can someone please tell me what’s the end point/goal of Wikipedia?” Wales responded, only half jokingly, “The goal of Wikipedia is fun for the contributors.” He had a point. Editing Wikipedia is fun, and even rewarding. The site is huge, so somewhere on it there is probably something you know quite a bit about. Imagine that you happen upon your pet subject, or perhaps even look it up to see how it’s being treated. And what do you find? Well, this date is wrong, that characterization is poor, and a word is mispelled. You click the “edit” tab and make the corrections, and you’ve just contributed to the progress of human knowledge. All in under five minutes, and at no cost.

Yet Wikipedia has a value that goes far beyond the enjoyment of its contributors. For all intents and purposes, the project is laying claim to a vast region of the Internet, a territory we might call “common knowledge.” It is the place where all nominal information about objects of widely shared experience will be negotiated, stored, and renegotiated. When you want to find out what something is, you will go to Wikipedia, for that is where common knowledge will, by convention, be archived and updated and made freely available. And while you are there, you may just add or change a little something, and thereby feel the pride of authorship shared by the tens of thousands of Wikipedians.


One of the objects of common knowledge in Wikipedia, I’m relieved to report, is “Marshall Poe.” Recall that the Scottish Wikipedian Alai said that I had no “notability” and therefore couldn’t really be considered encyclopedic. On the same day that Alai suggested my entry be deleted, a rather vigorous discussion took place on the “discussion” page that attended the Marshall Poe entry. A Wikipedian who goes by “Dlyons493” discovered that I had indeed written an obscure dissertation on an obscure topic at a not-so-obscure university. He gave the article a “Weak Keep.” Someone with the handle “Splash” searched Amazon and verified that I had indeed written books on Russian history, so my claim to be a historian was true. He gave me a “Keep.” And finally, my champion and hero, a Wikipedian called “Tupsharru,” dismissed my detractors with this:

Keep. Obvious notability. Several books published with prestigious academic publishers. One of his books has even been translated into Swedish. I don’t know why I have to repeat this again and again in these deletion discussions on academics, but don’t just use Amazon when the Library of Congress catalogue is no farther than a couple of mouse clicks away.

Bear in mind that I knew none of these people, and they had, as far as I know, no interest other than truth in doing all of this work. Yet they didn’t stop with verifying my claims and approving my article. They also searched the Web for material they could use to expand my one-line biography. After they were done, the Marshall Poe entry was two paragraphs long and included a good bibliography. Now that’s wiki magic.

Hive photograph by Ralph A. Clevenger/Corbis

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Marshall Poe is the founder of MemoryArchive, a universal encyclopedia of memories.

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