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.

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.

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.