Clay Shirky on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary

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There are so many things to celebrate about Wikipedia, on the occasion of its 10th birthday, starting with its incredible breadth -- where else would you go to find out who Big Bill Neidjie was, or where Lower Carniola is? -- but the thing I love most is what it tells us about the way it changes our view of the world, around issues like collaboration, generosity, or authority.

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A common complaint about Wikipedia during its first decade is that it is "not authoritative," as if authority was a thing which Encyclopedia Britannica had and Wikipedia doesn't. This view, though, hides the awful truth -- authority is a social characteristic, not a brute fact. Authoritativeness adheres to persons or institutions who, we jointly agree, have enough of a process for getting things right that we trust them. This bit of epistemological appraisal seems awfully abstract, but it can show up in some pretty concrete cases.

DARPA, the Pentagon's famous R&D lab, launched something in late 2009 called "The Red Balloon Challenge." They put up ten red weather balloons around the country, and  said to contestants "If you can tell us the latitude and longitude of these balloons, within a mile of their actual positions, we'll give you $40,000." However, because the Earth is curved, DARPA also had to explain the Haversine forumla, which converts latitude and longitude to distance.

Now, did DARPA want to write up a long, technical description of the Haversine formula?  No, they did not; they had better things to do. So they did what you or I would have done: They pointed to Wikipedia. DARPA, in essence, told contestants "If you want to compete for this $40,000, you should understand the this formula, and if you don't, go look at this Wikipedia article."

Now, as you might imagine, Wikipedia's Haversine article is really good; the discussion of the article among editors is visibly the kind of niggling, detailed-oriented technical editing that makes such articles worthwhile.

Even so, though, Wikipedia was the new kid on the block, not even eight at the time; the previous reigning champion was Encyclopedia Britannica, founded in 1768. So why did DARPA not point to Britannica?  The simplest answer is the correct one: They didn't because Britannica's article on spherical trigonometry didn't give new users the Haversine formula. It offered only the first hundred words, followed by a sign up form. So Wikipedia it was.

And on that tiny example, much of the carping about Wikipedia and authority runs aground. Authority is as authority does. In December of 2009, DARPA needed a description of Haversine that was accessible and correct, and they chose Wikipedia. You can't complain that the people at DARPA are stupid -- it is one of the most storied R&D institutions in history. You can't say that the reference was for some minor matter -- $40,000 rode on the contest -- or that it was atypical -- they referred to other Wikipedia articles elsewhere in the Red Balloon Challenge.

Defenders of traditional authority will object to the relativism of all this, but relativism is all we've got -- the rise of the scientific method has taken away  certainty and replaced it with nothing but process and probability. An authority isn't a person or institution who is always right -- ain't no such animal. An authority is a person or institution who has a process for lowering the likelihood that they are wrong to acceptably low levels. And over the last ten years, Wikipedia has been passing that test in an increasing number of circumstances.

And this is what I think is really worth celebrating as Wikipedia begins its second decade. It took one of the best ideas of the last 500 years -- peer review -- and expanded its field of operation so dramatically that it changed the way authority is configured. So Happy Birthday, Wikipedia, and thanks for giving us so much to think about.

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Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant, and adjunct professor at NYU. His writing resides at at cshirky.com.

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