[Paleopsych] Wired 13.03: The Book Stops Here
checker at panix.com
Tue Apr 12 19:39:03 UTC 2005
Wired 13.03: The Book Stops Here
[I knew Jimbo from Objectivist lists. A rather short-tempered fellow, at
least with me. He also has given up on discussing Ayn Rand. Wikipedia is a
great resource. The current headmaster of my prep school (visit
http://fvs.edu) told me that the single most important skill for the world
of 2025 will be how to distinguish good from bogus information on the Net.
I agree completely, but the folks at the U.S. Department of Education are
only interested in what can be measured.]
Jimmy Wales wanted to build a free encyclopedia on the Internet. So he
raised an army of amateurs and created the self-organizing,
self-repairing, hyperaddictive library of the future called Wikipedia.
By Daniel H. Pink
Dixon, New Mexico, is a rural town with a few hundred residents and no
traffic lights. At the end of a dirt road, in the shadow of a small
mountain sits a gray trailer. It is the home of Einar Kvaran. To
understand the most audacious experiment of the postboom Internet,
this is a good place to begin.
Kvaran is a tall and hale 56-year-old with a ruddy face, blue eyes,
and blond hair that's turning white. He calls himself an "art
historian without portfolio" but has no formal credentials in his area
of proclaimed expertise. He's never published a scholarly article or
taught a college course. Over three decades, he's been a Peace Corps
volunteer, an autoworker, a union steward, a homeschooling mentor, and
the drummer in a Michigan band called Kodai Road. Right now, he's
unemployed. Which isn't to say he doesn't work. For about six hours
each day, Kvaran reads and writes about American sculpture and public
art and publishes his articles for an audience of millions around the
Hundreds of books on sculptors, regional architecture, and art history
are stacked floor to ceiling inside his trailer - along with 68 thick
albums containing 20 years of photos he's taken on the American road.
The outlet for his knowledge is at the other end of his dialup
Internet connection: the daring but controversial Web site known as
Four years ago, a wealthy options trader named Jimmy Wales set out to
build a massive online encyclopedia ambitious in purpose and unique in
design. This encyclopedia would be freely available to anyone. And it
would be created not by paid experts and editors, but by whoever
wanted to contribute. With software called Wiki - which allows anybody
with Web access to go to a site and edit, delete, or add to what's
there - Wales and his volunteer crew would construct a repository of
knowledge to rival the ancient library of Alexandria.
In 2001, the idea seemed preposterous. In 2005, the nonprofit venture
is the largest encyclopedia on the planet. Wikipedia offers 500,000
articles in English - compared with Britannica's 80,000 and Encarta's
4,500 - fashioned by more than 16,000 contributors. Tack on the
editions in 75 other languages, including Esperanto and Kurdish, and
the total Wikipedia article count tops 1.3 million.
Wikipedia's explosive growth is due to the contributions of Kvaran and
others like him. Self-taught and self-motivated, Kvaran wrote his
first article last summer - a short piece on American sculptor Corrado
Parducci. Since then, Kvaran has written or contributed to two dozen
other entries on American art, using his library and photographs as
sources. He's added words and images to 30 other topics, too - the
Lincoln Memorial, baseball player Carl Yastrzemski, photographer Tina
Modotti, and Iceland's first prime minister, Hannes Hafstein, who
happens to be Kvaran's great-grandfather. "I think of myself as a
teacher," Kvaran says over tea at his kitchen table.
To many guardians of the knowledge cathedral - librarians,
lexicographers, academics - that's precisely the problem. Who died and
made this guy professor? No pedigreed scholars scrutinize his work. No
research assistants check his facts. Should we trust an encyclopedia
that allows anyone with a pulse and a mousepad to opine about Jackson
Pollock's place in postmodernism? What's more, the software that made
Wikipedia so easy to build also makes it easy to manipulate and
deface. A former editor at the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica
recently likened the site to a public rest room: You never know who
used it last.
So the modest trailer at the end of a dirt road in this pinprick of a
town holds some cosmic questions. Is Wikipedia a heartening effort in
digital humanitarianism - or a not-so-smart mob unleashing
misinformation on the masses? Are well-intentioned amateurs any
replacement for professionals? And is charging nothing for knowledge
too high a price?
Recovery may take 12 steps, but becoming a junkie requires only four.
First comes chance - an unexpected encounter. Chance stirs curiosity.
Curiosity leads to experimentation. And experimentation cascades into
For Danny Wool, chance arrived on a winter afternoon in 2002, after an
argument about - of all things - Kryptonite. Googling the term from
his Brooklyn home to settle the debate, he came upon the Wikipedia
entry. He looked up a few more subjects and noticed that each one
contained a mysterious hyperlink that said Edit. Curious but too
nervous to do anything, he returned to Wikipedia a few more times.
Then one night he corrected an error in an article about Jewish
holidays. You can do that?! It was his first inhalation of Wiki crack.
He became one of Wikipedia's earliest registered users and wrote his
first article - on Muckleshoot, a Washington state Indian tribe. Since
then, he has made more than 16,000 contributions.
Bryan Derksen wrote the original Kryptonite article that Wool
discovered. While surfing from his home in Edmonton, Derksen also
stumbled upon Wikipedia and quickly traveled the path to addiction. He
read a few entries on Greek mythology and found them inadequate. The
Edit link beckoned him like a street pusher. He clicked it and typed
in a few changes. You can do that?! "I just got hooked," he tells me.
He's now made more edits than all but three Wikipedians - some 40,000
additions and revisions.
Number one on the list of contributors is Derek Ramsey, who has
automated his addiction. A software engineer in Pennsylvania, Ramsey
wrote a Java program called rambot that automatically updates
Wikipedia articles on cities and counties. So far, the man and machine
combination has contributed more than 100,000 edits.
String enough of these addicts together, add a few thousand casual
users, and pretty soon you have a new way to do an old thing.
Humankind has long sought to tame the jungle of knowledge and display
it in a zoo of friendly facts. But while the urge to create
encyclopedias has endured, the production model has evolved. Wikipedia
is the latest stage.
In the beginning, encyclopedias relied on the One Smart Guy model. In
ancient Greece, Aristotle put pen to papyrus and single-handedly tried
to record all the knowledge of his time. Four hundred years later, the
Roman nobleman Pliny the Elder cranked out a 37-volume set of the
day's knowledge. The Chinese scholar Tu Yu wrote an encyclopedia in
the ninth century. And in the 1700s, Diderot and a few pals (including
Voltaire and Rousseau) took 29 years to create the Encyclopédie, ou
Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers.
With the Industrial Revolution, the One Smart Guy approach gradually
gave way to the One Best Way model, which borrowed the principles of
scientific management and the lessons of assembly lines. Encyclopædia
Britannica pioneered this approach in Scotland and honed it to
perfection. Large groups of experts, each performing a task on a
detailed work chart under the direction of a manager, produced
encyclopedias of enormous breadth. Late in the 20th century, computers
changed encyclopedias - and the Internet changed them more. Today,
Britannica and World Book still sell some 130-pound, $1,100,
multivolume sets, but they earn most of their money from Internet
subscriptions. Yet while the medium has shifted from atoms to bits,
the production model - and therefore the product itself - has remained
Now Wales has brought forth a third model - call it One for All.
Instead of one really smart guy, Wikipedia draws on thousands of
fairly smart guys and gals - because in the metamathematics of
encyclopedias, 500 Kvarans equals one Pliny the Elder. Instead of
clearly delineated lines of authority, Wikipedia depends on radical
decentralization and self-organization - open source in its purest
form. Most encyclopedias start to fossilize the moment they're printed
on a page. But add Wiki software and some helping hands and you get
something self-repairing and almost alive. A different production
model creates a product that's fluid, fast, fixable, and free.
The One for All model has delivered solid results in a remarkably
short time. Look up any topic you know something about - from the
Battle of Fredericksburg to Madame Bovary to Planck's law of black
body radiation - and you'll probably find that the Wikipedia entry is,
if not perfect, not bad. Sure, the Leonard Nimoy entry is longer than
the one on Toni Morrison. But the Morrison article covers the basics
of her life and literary works about as well as the World Book entry.
And among the nearly half-million articles are tens of thousands whose
quality easily rivals that of Britannica or Encarta.
What makes the model work is not only the collective knowledge and
effort of a far-flung labor force, but also the willingness to abide
by two core principles. The first: neutrality. All articles should be
written without bias. Wikipedians are directed not to take a stand on
controversial subjects like abortion or global warming but to fairly
represent all sides. The second principle is good faith. All work
should be approached with the assumption that the author is trying to
help the project, not harm it.
Wikipedia represents a belief in the supremacy of reason and the
goodness of others. In the Wikipedia ideal, people of goodwill
sometimes disagree. But from the respectful clash of opposing
viewpoints and the combined wisdom of the many, something resembling
the truth will emerge. Most of the time.
If you looked up Jimmy Carter on Wikipedia one morning this winter,
you would have discovered something you couldn't learn from
Britannica. According to the photo that accompanied Carter's entry,
America's 39th president was a scruffy, random unshaven man with his
left index finger shoved firmly up his nose.
Lurking in the underbrush of Wikipedia's idyllic forest of reason and
good intentions are contributors less noble in purpose, whose numbers
are multiplying. Wiki devotees have names for many of them. First,
there are the trolls, minor troublemakers who breach the principle of
good faith with inane edits designed to rile serious users. More
insidious are vandals, who try to wreck the site - inserting profanity
and ethnic slurs, unleashing bots that put ads into entries, and
pasting pictures of penises and other junior-high laugh-getters. Con-
sidering how easy it is to make changes on Wikipedia, you'd imagine
these ne'er-do-wells could potentially overwhelm the site. But they
haven't - at least not yet - because defenses against them are built
into the structure.
Anybody who is logged in can place an article on a "watch list."
Whenever somebody amends the entry, the watch list records the change.
So when that anonymous vandal replaced a Jimmy Carter photo with a
nose-picker, all the Wikipedians with Jimmy Carter on their watch list
knew about it. One of them merely reverted to the original portrait.
At the same time, the user who rescued the former president from
Boogerville noticed that the vandal had also posted the nose-pick
photo on the "Rapping" entry - and he got rid of that image just four
minutes after the photo appeared.
On controversial topics, the response can be especially swift.
Wikipedia's article on Islam has been a persistent target of
vandalism, but Wikipedia's defenders of Islam have always proved
nimbler than the vandals. Take one fairly typical instance. At 11:20
one morning not too long ago, an anonymous user replaced the entire
Islam entry with a single scatological word. At 11:22, a user named
Solitude reverted the entry. At 11:25, the anonymous user struck
again, this time replacing the article with the phrase "u stink!" By
11:26, another user, Ahoerstemeir, reverted that change - and the
vandal disappeared. When MIT's Fernanda Viégas and IBM's Martin
Wattenberg and Kushal Dave studied Wikipedia, they found that cases of
mass deletions, a common form of vandalism, were corrected in a median
time of 2.8 minutes. When an obscenity accompanied the mass deletion,
the median time dropped to 1.7 minutes.
It turns out that Wikipedia has an innate capacity to heal itself. As
a result, woefully outnumbered vandals often give up and leave. (To
paraphrase Linus Torvalds, given enough eyeballs, all thugs are
callow.) What's more, making changes is so simple that who prevails
often comes down to who cares more. And hardcore Wikipedians care. A
Wool logs on to Wikipedia at 6 each morning and works two hours before
leaving for his day job developing education programs for a museum.
When he gets back home around 6:30 pm, he hops back on Wikipedia for a
few more hours. Derksen checks his watch list each morning before
leaving for work at a small company that sells medical equipment on
eBay. When he returns home, he'll spend a few hours just clicking on
the Random Page link to see what needs to get done. It's tempting to
urge people like Wool and Derksen to get a life. But imagine if they
instead spent their free time walking through public parks, picking up
garbage. We'd call them good citizens.
Still, even committed citizens sometimes aren't muscular enough to
fend off determined bad guys. As Wikipedia has grown, Wales has been
forced to impose some more centralized, policelike measures - to guard
against "edit warriors," "point-of-view warriors," "revert warriors,"
and all those who have difficulty playing well with others. "We try to
be as open as we can," Wales says, "but some of these people are just
impossible." During last year's presidential election, Wikipedia had
to lock both the George W. Bush and the John Kerry pages because of
incessant vandalism and bickering. The Wikipedia front page, another
target of attacks, is also protected.
If that suggests an emerging hierarchy in this bastion of egalitarian
knowledge-gathering, so be it. The Wikipedia power pyramid looks like
this: 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, people
such as Kvaran in New Mexico, who have chosen a screen name (he's
Carptrash) and make edits under that byline. Some of the most
dedicated users try to reach the next level - administrator.
Wikipedia's 400 administrators, Derksen and Wool among them, 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, known to everyone in Wiki-world as Jimbo.
He can do pretty much anything he wants - from locking pages to
banning people to getting rid of developers. So vast are his powers
that some began calling him "the benevolent dictator." But Wales
bristled at that tag. So his minions assigned him a different, though
no less imposing, label. "Jimbo," says Wikipedia administrator Mark
Pellegrini, "is the God-King."
The God-King drives a Hyundai. On a sunny Florida Monday, Wales is
piloting his red Accent from his St. Petersburg home across the bay to
downtown Tampa, where on the 11th floor of a shabby office building a
company called Neutelligent manages a vast server farm. In one of the
back rows, stacked on two racks, are the guts of Wikipedia - 42
servers connected by a hair ball of orange and blue cables. For the
next two hours, Wales scoots to and fro, plugging and unplugging
cables while trading messages with a Wikipedia developer on Internet
Relay Chat via a nearby keyboard.
Back in St. Pete, Wales oversees his empire from a pair of monitors in
Wikipedia's headquarters - two cramped, windowless rooms that look
like the offices of a failed tech startup. Computer equipment is
strewn everywhere. An open copy of Teach Yourself PHP, MySQL, and
Apache is splayed on the floor. It may be good to be God-King, but
it's not glamorous.
Wales began his journey in Huntsville, Alabama. His father worked in a
grocery store. His mother and grandmother operated a tiny private
school called the House of Learning, which Wales and his three
siblings attended. He graduated from Auburn University in 1989 with a
degree in finance and ended up studying options pricing in an
economics PhD program at Indiana University. Bored with academic life,
he left school in 1994 and went to Chicago, where he took to betting
on interest rate and foreign-currency fluctuations. In six years, he
earned enough to support himself and his wife for the rest of their
They moved to San Diego in 1998. The times being what they were, Wales
started an Internet company called Bomis, a search engine and Web
directory. He began hearing about the fledgling open source movement
and wondered whether volunteers could create something besides
software. So he recruited Larry Sanger, then an Ohio State University
doctoral student in philosophy, whom he'd encountered on some
listservs. He put Sanger on the Bomis payroll, and together they
launched a free online encyclopedia called Nupedia. Why an
encyclopedia? Wales says he simply wanted to see if it could be done.
With Sanger as editor in chief, Nupedia essentially replicated the One
Best Way model. He assembled a roster of academics to write articles.
(Participants even had to fax in their degrees as proof of their
expertise.) And he established a seven-stage process of editing,
fact-checking, and peer review. "After 18 months and $250,000," Wales
says, "we had 12 articles."
Then an employee told Wales about Wiki software. On January 15, 2001,
they launched a Wiki-fied version and within a month, they had 200
articles. In a year, they had 18,000. And on September 20, 2004, when
the Hebrew edition added an article on Kazakhstan's flag, Wikipedia
had its 1 millionth article. Total investment: about $500,000, most of
it from Wales himself.
Sanger left the project in 2002. "In the Nupedia model, there was room
for an editor in chief," Wales says. "The Wiki model is too
distributed for that." Sanger, a scholar at heart, returned to
academic life. His co-founder, meanwhile, became a minor geek rock
star. Wales has been asked to advise the BBC, Nokia, and other large
enterprises curious about Wikis. Technology conferences in the US and
Europe clamor for him. And while he's committed to keeping his
creation a "charitable project," as he constantly calls it
(wikipedia.com became wikipedia.org almost three years ago), the
temptations are mounting.
Late last year, Wales and Angela Beesley, an astonishingly dedicated
Wikipedian, launched a for-profit venture called WikiCities. The
company will provide free hosting for "community-based" sites - RVers,
poodle owners, genealogy buffs, and so on. The sites will operate on
the same software that powers Wikipedia, and the content will be
available under a free license. But WikiCities intends to make money
by selling advertising. After all, if several thousand people can
create an encyclopedia, a few hundred Usher devotees should be able to
put together the ultimate fan site. And if legions of Usher fans are
hanging out in one place, some advertiser will pay to try to sell them
concert tickets or music downloads.
It may feel like we've been down this road before - remember GeoCities
and theglobe.com? But Wales says this is different because those
earlier sites lacked any mechanism for true community. "It was just
free homepages," he says. WikiCities, he believes, will let people who
share a passion also share a project. They'll be able to design and
build projects together. So the founder of the Web's grand experiment
in the democratic dissemination of information is also trying to
resurrect GeoCities. While some may find the notion silly, many others
just want a piece of Jimbo magic.
During our conversation over lunch, Wales' cell phone rings. It's a
partner at Accel, the venture capital firm, calling to talk about
WikiCities and any other Wiki-related investment ideas Wales might
have. Wales says he's busy and asks the caller to phone back later.
Then he smiles at me. "I'll let him cool his heels awhile."
Wikipedia's articles on the British peerage system - clearheaded
explanations of dukes, viscounts, and other titles of nobility - are
largely the work of a user known as Lord Emsworth. A few of Emsworth's
pieces on kings and queens of England have been honored as Wikipedia's
Featured Article of the Day. It turns out that Lord Emsworth claims to
be a 16-year-old living in South Brunswick, New Jersey. On Wikipedia,
nobody has to know you're a sophomore.
And that has some distressed. Larry Sanger gave voice to these
criticisms in a recent essay posted on kuro5hin.org titled "Why
Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism." Although he acknowledges
that "Wikipedia is very cool," he argues that the site's production
model suffers from two big problems.
The first is that "regardless of whether Wikipedia actually is more or
less reliable than the average encyclopedia," librarians, teachers,
and academics don't perceive it as credible, because it has no formal
review process. The second problem, according to Sanger, is that the
site in general and Wales in particular are too "anti-elitist."
Established scholars might be willing to contribute to Wikipedia - but
not if they have to deal with trolls and especially not if they're
considered no different from any schmo with an iMac.
Speaking from his home in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches at Ohio
State, Sanger stresses that Wikipedia is a fine and worthy endeavor.
But he says that academics don't take it seriously. "A lot of the
articles look like they're written by undergraduates." He believes
that "people who make knowing things their life's work should be
accorded a special place in the project." But since Wikipedia's
resolute anti-elitism makes that unlikely, Sanger argues, something
else will happen: Wikipedia will fork - that is, a group of academics
will take Wikipedia's content, which is available under a free
license, and produce their own peer-reviewed reference work. "I wanted
to send a wake-up call to the Wikipedia community to tell them that
this fork is probably going to happen."
Wales' response essentially boils down to this: Fork you. "You want to
organize that?" he sniffs. "Here are the servers." Yet Wales
acknowledges that in the next year, partly in response to these
concerns, Wikipedia will likely offer a stable - that is, unchangeable
- version alongside its One for All edition.
But both Sanger's critique and Wales' reaction miss a larger point:
You can't evaluate Wikipedia by traditional encyclopedia standards. A
forked Wikipedia run by academics would be Nupedia 2.0. It would use
the One Best Way production model, which inevitably would produce a
One Best Way product. That's not a better or worse Wikipedia any more
than Instapundit.com is a better or worse Washington Post. They are
Encyclopedias aspire to be infallible. But Wikipedia requires that the
perfect never be the enemy of the good. Citizen editors don't need to
make an entry flawless. They just need to make it better. As a result,
even many Wikipedians believe the site is not as good as traditional
encyclopedias. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give Wikipedia a 7.8 in
reliability," Kvaran told me in New Mexico. "I'd give Britannica an
8.8." But how much does that matter? Britannica has been around since
before the American Revolution; Wikipedia just celebrated its fifth
birthday. More important, Britannica costs $70 a year; Wikipedia is
free. The better criterion on which to measure Wikipedia is whether
this very young, pretty good, ever improving, totally free site serves
a need - just as the way to measure Britannica is whether the
additional surety that comes from its production model is worth the
There's another equally important difference between the two
offerings. The One Best Way approach creates something finished. The
One for All model creates something alive. When the Indian Ocean
tsunami erupted late last year, Wikipedians produced several entries
on the topic within hours. By contrast, World Book, whose CD-ROM
allows owners to download regular updates, hadn't updated its tsunami
or Indian Ocean entries a full month after the devastation occurred.
That's the likely fate of Wikipedia's proposed stable, or snapshot,
version. Fixing its contents in a book or on a CD or DVD is tantamount
to embalming a living thing. The body may look great, but it's no
"You can create life in there," says Wikipedian Oliver Brown, a high
school teacher in Aptos, California. "If you don't know about
something, you can start an article, and other people can come and
feed it, nurture it." For example, two years ago, Danny Wool was
curious about the American architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie, whose
statue of Atlas sits nearby Rockefeller Center. Wool posted a stub - a
few sentences on a topic - in the hopes that someone would add to it.
That someone turned out to be Kvaran, who owned several books on
Lawrie and who'd photographed his work not only at Rockefeller Center
but also at the Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska. Today, the
Lawrie entry has grown from two sentences to several thorough
paragraphs, a dozen photos, and a list of references. Brown himself
posted a stub when he was wondering how many people were considered
the father or mother of something. Today Wikipedia lists more than 230
people known as the father or mother of an idea, a movement, or an
invention. And that number will likely be higher tomorrow. As the
father of this new kind of encyclopedia puts it, "Wikipedia will never
In 1962, Charles Van Doren - who would go on to become a senior editor
of Britannica but is more famous for his role in the 1950s quiz show
scandal - wrote a think piece for the journal The American Behavioral
Scientist. His essay, "The Idea of an Encyclopedia," is similar in
spirit to the one Sanger wrote late last year: a warning to his
Van Doren warned not that encyclopedias of his day lacked credibility,
but that they lacked vitality. "The tone of American encyclopedias is
often fiercely inhuman," he wrote. "It appears to be the wish of some
contributors to write about living institutions as if they were
pickled frogs, outstretched upon a dissecting board." An encyclopedia
ought to be a "revolutionary document," he argued. And while Van Doren
didn't call for a new production model, he did say that "the ideal
encyclopedia should be radical. It should stop being safe."
What stood in the way of this new approach was precisely what
encyclopedias prided themselves on. "Respectability seems safe," he
wrote. "But what will be respectable in 30 years seems avant-garde
now. If an encyclopedia hopes to be respectable in 2000, it must
appear daring in the year 1963."
Jimbo and his minions - from Einar Kvaran in his New Mexico trailer to
Lord Emsworth in his New Jersey bedroom - may seem daring today. But
they're about to become respectable.
Contributing editor Daniel H. Pink (dhpink at mac.com) is author of A
Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.
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