The People's Republic of Wikipedia

by CynthiaYockey on November 8, 2009

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for drawing my attention to the review by Evgeny Morozov at Boston Review of The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih, who joined Wikipedia when it was only two-years-old and quickly became an administrator. The review and comments are well worth reading — here are some highlights from the review and the comments (boldfacing mine):

In many cases, however, notability cannot be determined even by following thoughtfully developed guidelines. It is, for example, much harder to verify the notability of a figure from the 1920s than from the 1990s. Most of the important characters of that earlier era are gone from public memory, and newspaper archives from those days cannot be accessed easily online (where Wikipedians spend most of their research time). Given that the flow of articles on Wikipedia far outweighs the attention span of its editors, the latter often have to make the same tough choices that print editors do: why waste a day improving one hard-to-nail-down article when one can improve a hundred?

This creates enormous knowledge gaps in Wikipedia and further alienates well-informed subject experts, particularly those who may know much that is hard to verify online. The subject experts—who usually have great demands on their time, as well—are forced to engage in pointless intellectual debates with Wikipedia’s bureaucratic guardians, many of whom are persuaded only by hyperlinks, not cogent arguments. This raises participation costs—busy experts quickly give up and leave the site—and creates tension between “experts with an attitude” and “verifiability freaks,” which partially explains those gaps.


However, high-brow entries also suffer because Wikipedia’s economics of knowledge creation are fundamentally unsound. As long as an hour of research yields less “Wikipedia value” than an hour spent planting one hundred commas, few enthusiasts will do the intellectual heavy-lifting. Besides, one cannot learn much about Chabrol from a cursory Google search. Thus, the real tragedy of the Wikipedia method is that it reduces intellectual contributions to such granular units that writing a 2000-word entry on Chabrol in one sitting feels like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And if you do go to such lengths to improve the site, you do not want the bureaucrats—who may know nothing about Chabrol—to judge your contribution. There is something unappealing about the value system of a project that prizes, say, movie reviews quoted from college newspapers over elaborate entries in the authoritative Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, simply because the latter does not have an easy-to-link Web site.

Here is my favorite comment:

17 | Omits Wikipedia’s Porn Server Past

It’s amazing that all mention of Jimmy Wales’ earlier career serving up porn websites has vanished into the unWikified abyss. For the longest time, Wikipedia’s pages were served from the same racks that ran a little St Petersburg porn backend empire. Wikipedia’s founding DNA owes a lot to its birth environment. The single greatest analysis of Wikipedia was done by Encyclopedia Dramatica:

“The People’s Communist Republic of WikipediaⓀ, commonly shortened to simply Wikipedia, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in which participants play editors of a hypothetical online encyclopedia. The goal is to try to insert misinformation as well as pushing a point of view that is randomly assigned at signup, while preventing any contrary information from being entered by others. Players with similar misinformation will generally form guilds in order to aid one another. Wikipedia players gain more authority as they progress, with “Administrator” and “Double-O Licensed” rankings granting them access to game processes not available to others.” — posted 11/06/2009 at 18:21 by realist

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Graumagus November 9, 2009 at 11:35 am

The MMORPG analogy is literally the only one that makes sense describing how Wiki really functions.

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