All-Star Thinkers on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary


Wikipedia, that vast storehouse of knowledge and other sentences passing for knowledge, turns 10 years old this weekend. The fifth-most-popular website has become, as Jonathan Lethem puts it, "a Borgesian paraphrase of our entire universe," and is considered an almost impossibly valuable resource by many. But there's something disturbing about the way it flattens everything it describes, how it embodies milquetoast consensus, and the nature of its "objective" language.

To try to capture the many ways we think about Wikipedia, we reached out to an all-star ensemble of thinkers to comment on the site's texture and community. We asked them a simple question -- what do you think about Wikipedia? -- and we're immensely pleased with the responses we got. (The full essays are lurking behind those links.)

BruceSterling.jpgBruce Sterling, writer, futurist: People sometimes figured that, since Wikipedia entries were all crowdsourced and public and resilient and such, they'd be strong like the Internet is strong. It's a bit more plausible to say that they're strong like a big sprawling semilegal favela is strong. A favela where a rather road-worn and weary Jimmy Wales has to be an unelected mayor.

charlie.jpgCharlie Cheever, co-founder, Quora: A lot of times, too, people say to me, "As Quora gets bigger, isn't the quality of answers on the site going to degrade? Don't you know people on the Internet are stupid?" In the face of that, Wikipedia is inspiring. It's reassuring to be able to look at what you're doing and say, some percentage of people really care and are smart.

MarietteDiChristina.jpgMariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief, Scientific American: Wikipedia underscores an evolutionary lesson: We've always gotten farther as a species collaborating than going it alone. As a longtime science journalist, I can't stop myself from looking at human endeavors through the lens of possible past selection pressures. Wikipedia reminds me of in-group information sharing.

Jonathan LethemJonathan Lethem, novelist, Pomona professor: With all respect to the noble volunteer army, I call it death by pedantry. Question: hadn't we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikipedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity.

JayRosen.jpgJay Rosen, NYU journalism professor: People who study online life are familiar with the One Percent Rule. It says that if 100 people gather at a given site, about 10 percent will contribute anything at all, even a comment at a blog post, and less than one percent will become deeply engaged as a regular contributor. The rest will just use the service.

Mary HK ChoiMary H.K. Choi, writer, bonne vivante: Wikipedia's a collaborative experiment akin to Winchester's account of the creation of the OED, which outlines Murray's mission to produce the tome. Murray was aided substantially by the offerings of Dr. William Chester Minor, a surgeon and lunatic murderer. Just as some contributors to Wikipedia will likely be.

Clay ShirkyClay Shirky, technologist, writer, NYU professor: 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.

zuckerman.jpgEthan Zuckerman, fellow, Berkman Center: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. From its idiosyncratic origins, Wikipedia has grown into a remarkably complete, authoritative and useful resource, dominating the reference space and serving as the first response to many online queries. It's the 5th most visited site on the Internet and the most visited non-commercial site.

CraigNewmark.jpgCraig Newmark, founder, Craigslist: Wikipedia is the history of our times, where people work together, doing their best to write the truest versions of knowledge. It's an ongoing effort with a successful balance of professional and citizen curators, writers, and fact checkers. This has proven increasingly effective, not only in producing material, but in getting it corrected.

YochaiBenkler.jpgYochai Benkler, professor, Harvard Law School: That's the biggest gift that Wikipedia has given to us -- a vision of practical utopia. What gift can we best give back? Perhaps it is just this, to recognize the transformative role that thousands of individuals have played for all of us in how we can imagine our lives together as productive, engaged, social beings.

AlanJacobs.jpgAlan Jacobs, professor, Wheaton College: I believe the most important component of Wikipedia is not its commitment to collaborative and ongoing creation, commendable though that is, but its attitude towards its own history -- specifically, the history of each Wikipedia page. On the Wikipedia model, history is a necessary component of the presentation of information.

JamesBridle-Author.jpgJames Bridle, writer and publisher: This is what culture looks like, a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual codification. And for the first time in history, we're building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording and making use of every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces.

PaulFord.jpgPaul Ford, writer and programmer: It's easier, we're told, to ask forgiveness than permission. And Wikipedia's design makes it not just easier, but cheaper and faster; it keeps track of every change so that forgiveness is one reversion away. It accepts good edits in silence: That is how it confers grace. It forgives without confession: That is how it confers humility.

Illustration: Alex Hoyt.