Now that we have (haven’t we?) come to accept the death of the True Wikipedia – even if the True Wikipedia only ever existed in our fantasies – maybe we can move on to bury, once and for all, the great Wikipedia myth.
The myth begins with the idea of radical openness, the idea that Wikipedia is a creation of the great mass of humanity in all its hairy glory. It’s a myth encapsulated in Wikipedia’s description of itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As we now know, that’s never been precisely true. According to cofounder Jimmy Wales, there have always been filtering mechanisms to restrict certain people’s ability to edit certain articles. Those mechanisms have been expanded and tightened over time. In Wikipedia’s early days, the encyclopedia asked contributors to maintain a “neutral point of view,” but, as the official history of Wikipedia notes, “There were otherwise few rules initially.” Since then, rules have proliferated, as the encyclopedia has adopted a de facto bureaucratic structure.
But the myth of Wikipedia’s radical openness has continued to flourish, with myriad print and online articles replaying the blanket statement that anyone can edit anything on Wikipedia at any time. Today it’s commonly believed that Wikipedia is truly an encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” without restriction. Wales himself has helped, perhaps inadvertantly, to promulgate this myth by glossing over Wikipedia’s controls in some of his public comments. In an interview with CIO Insight last June, for instance, he said, “The wiki leaves everything completely open-ended for the users to determine. People don’t have to get permission to do something useful … We let everyone in the general public edit Wikipedia.” If you do a search for “openness” on Google, you’ll find the first result is the Wikipedia entry for the term, an entry that concludes self-referentially: “Wikipedia and its related sites are examples of openness in the web environment.”
Many distinguished commentators have picked up on this theme, further inflating and spreading the myth of “complete openness.” In a 2005 article, MIT’s Technology Review offered a typical description of Wikipedia when it stated that “anyone can publish or edit any article instantly.” Mitch Kapor, one of Wikipedia’s most eloquent advocates, has spoken often, in glowing terms, of Wikipedia’s supposedly unfettered openness. At a talk at Berkeley last November, for example, he said, “Anyone can edit any article at any time. Not only is this approximately true, it is literally true, which is one of the most striking things.” Stewart Brand, in describing a speech by Jimmy Wales on April 14, 2006, praised Wikipedia’s “total openness to participants, especially new ones,” saying that “problems are dealt with completely post facto.” Note the rhetoric here, which is telling: “completely open-ended,” “literally true,” “total openness,” “completely post facto.” And note, too, that none of it is accurate.
I bought into the myth myself, I’m ashamed to say. In composing my requiem for Wikipedia yesterday, I originally wrote, “There was a time when, indeed, anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia.” No, it turns out, there was never such a time. It was a myth from the very start.
But “openness” is only the very tip of the mythical iceberg that Wikipedia has become. The bigger myth is that Wikipedia is an emanation of collective intelligence or, in the popular phrase, the “wisdom of the crowd.” In this view, Wikipedia has a compeletely flat, non-hierarchical structure. It is a purely egalitarian collective without any bureaucracy or even any management. There’s no authority. Here’s how Kapor puts it:
What people assume is someone has to be in charge if it’s going to be any good. And I love talking to people about the Wikipedia who don’t know about it because it helps people find their deep-seated unexamined belief that authority is a necessary component of all working social systems. Having grown up in the Sixties and kind of having problems with authority, I love this because it’s a great counter-example. It’s no longer theoretical. In a conventional sense, nobody is in charge.
This myth made the leap into the very center of the mainstream press a couple of weeks ago when Time magazine named Jimmy Wales one of the “hundred people who shape our world.” The profile of Wales ended with a flight of fancy:
Today Wales is celebrated as a champion of Internet-enabled egalitarianism … Everyone predicted that [Wikipedia's] mob rule would lead to chaos. Instead it has led to what may prove to be the most powerful industrial model of the 21st century: peer production. Wikipedia is proof that it works, and Jimmy Wales is its prophet.
The reason Wikipedia’s “mob rule” did not lead to chaos is because there is no “mob rule” at Wikipedia. Wikipedia has laws, written down in good bureaucratese, and it has a hierarchy of administrators and what Wales calls “good editors” to “police” the site. Here is how Daniel Pink, in a 2003 Wired article, described Wikipedia’s very un-mob-like “power pyramid”:
At the bottom are anonymous contributors, people who make a few edits and are identified only by their IP addresses. On the next level stand Wikipedia’s myriad registered users around the globe … Some of the most dedicated users try to reach the next level – administrator. Wikipedia’s 400 administrators … can delete articles, protect pages, and block IP addresses. Above this group are bureaucrats, who can crown administrators. The most privileged bureaucrats are stewards. And above stewards are developers, 57 superelites who can make direct changes to the Wikipedia software and database. There’s also an arbitration committee that hears disputes and can ban bad users. At the very top, with powers that range far beyond those of any mere Wikipedian mortal, is Wales.
As I’ve said in the past, Wikipedia is an amazing achievement, with considerable strengths and considerable weaknesses. But it has become wrapped in a cloak of myth that many people, for whatever reason, seem intent on perpetuating. Wikipedia is not an egalitarian collective. It is not an example of mob rule. It is not an expression of collective intelligence. It is not an emergent system. What might in fact be most interesting about Wikipedia as an organization is the way it has evolved, as it has pursued its goal of matching the quality of Encyclopedia Britannica, toward a more traditional editorial, and even corporate, structure. We need to bury the Wikipedia myth if we’re to see what Wikipedia is and what it isn’t – and what it portends for the organization and economics of content creation in the years ahead.