Wikipedia’s self-awareness

UPDATE April 2022. A 14 year-old blog post, here to remind us that Wikipedia has been a big, useful and thoroughly mature institution for a long time.

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual. John Broughton (O’Reilly 2008).

John Broughton’s a Wikipedia editor. His new book’s about the hidden machinery of Wikipedia, the tools used by editors and contributors to add, improve and, when necessary, remove Wikipedia content. What emerges is a picture of Wikipedia as a busy, dynamic, pyramid-shaped hierarchy with all the hard work going on in the middle layer—where the editors live. The rules they apply and the tools they use are fascinating and much subtler than the pop media coverage of the project could ever allow.

Broughton’s not interested in defending or explaining Wikipedia (it just doesn’t come up). His book is a how-to (a ‘Missing Manual’). This is as it should be: Wikipedia’s part of the landscape now, not a libertarian fantasy or a half-baked geek experiment. Practical books like this always arrive after the first, experimental, phase and before the later, ubiquitous phase. They’re an important sign. They say: “this phenomenon is real and durable.”

So we learn that what’s coming together at Wikipedia is an important institution with deep roots, a sophisticated social model and a rigorous framework for knowledge. Tools of real scholarly and pedagogic value are growing behind Wikipedia’s facade and, of course, the extraordinary thing about this experiment is that there’s nothing to stop any of us participating. I’m profoundly impressed, for instance, by what I learn about the system’s ‘notability’ process.

Something like 1500 entries are deleted per day, mostly because they fail to meet the collective definition of ‘notable’ (important enough for an encyclopaedia entry). But these deletions is not arbitrary. Many are hotly disputed on the site’s talk pages and just as many are reversed by volunteers (they’re called ‘inclusionists’) who wade in to provide some extra notability for threatened entries: by adding citations, for instance. One of these inclusionists is cult novelist Nicholson Baker, as he explains in this lovely piece from a recent NYRB (also a review of Broughton’s book).

Of course, Wikipedia’s not the answer. It’s not our era’s final position on planetary-scale knowledge sharing. In fact it’s a bit of a mess at the moment and seems to be showing signs of early-onset decadence. But I think this is probably a good thing. The idea that the first large-scale collaborative effort to organise knowledge should be the only one or in some way definitive doesn’t seem right: we should probably have a few goes at this at least.

If Wikipedia were to collapse or even to disappear, like the great library of Alexandria in 48BC, it would pretty soon be replaced—and perhaps by something with an improved contribution model or better governance. We’d miss it (I’ll bet those Alexandrian scholars missed their library too) but, sooner or later, it would be a footnote in a successor work’s index.

What’s fascinating here is the way the institution (is that the right word?) is quite systematically bootstrapping its own authority, growing processes and rules that deliberately and incrementally improve the body of work (no matter what the founder gets up to). This counters the Sunday newspaper orthodoxy, promoted by people who haven’t troubled to look at the way the thing actually works, that Wikipedia has a kind of diminished authority and that it can’t acquire real authority because it’s the product of amateurs. Wikipedia improves because it is self-aware…

I’ve written a piece about Wikipedia for Mark Ellen at The Word which comes out on 8 April.