17 Million Democratically Composed Articles and Counting
Behind Google and Facebook, Wikipedia is arguably the most important site on the internet. Unlike Google and Facebook, it is not a multibillion dollar business made possible by heaps of venture capital and investment from Goldman Sachs. It’s a non-profit, open source, truly democratic operation run not by Silicon Valley whizzes, but all of us layfolk who have a little arcane knowledge and some time to kill on an idle Tuesday.
And now, it’s 10 years old. Which means we’ve been settling arguments, learning how stuff works, losing better parts of workday afternoons dusting up on Medieval history, studying scientific theorems (and forgetting them 10 seconds later), scrutinizing the family trees of super-heroes, and perusing the discographies of ’90s alt rock one-hit wonders for 10 full years now. And that’s something.
Wikipedia is even more worthy of celebration for being far and above the most Utopian online institution out there. It’s entirely user-generated and moderated, which means the information is donated by and doubled-checked by the global community. And it works. Despite the omnipresent accusations of Wikipedia’s “truthiness” and the definite occasional page vandalism you can run across, the quality of information on the site is incredibly high.
In fact, a study in the scientific journal Nature found that on average, the info provided in Wikipedia was just as accurate as the info found in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s a misconception that the data you get on Wikipedia is worse than “official sources” — which is pretty amazing, considering the absolute democratic nature of its operation.
So much so that social theorists have cited it as a potential model for the cooperative, democratic institutions of the future. Erik Olin Wright uses Wikipedia as one of the four examples in his treatise Envisioning Real Utopias. Wikipedia offers real-world proof that a massive community can democratically research, gather, share, and police a huge body of information — of its own free will, without monetary compensation — and have it be accurate and high-quality. That’s a powerful thing: it reveals both the power and efficacy of direct democracy, as well as a model for achieving results without capitalistic incentives.
Icing on the ideological cake is the fact that founder Jimmy Wales could easily have made a fortune to rival Zuckerberg’s had he decided to slap ads on its now-17 million pages. It would be an absolute money mill. But Wales opted instead to keep the site running in the community’s interest, and instead has operated Wikipedia as a charitable organization. Granted, he did launch a fundraiser last year to cover the site’s operating costs — and I gave without hesitation. (Okay, I donated like ten bucks, but still).
So, to one of the very few truly Utopian projects out there: Happy Birthday, Wikipedia.