Five hundred geeks, outfitted with their signature ponytails and Macs, laughed as Wikipedia founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales opened this talk with a Stephen Colbert clip last weekend at Wikimania 2006. Nearly all of the participants were there, in part, because they were writers, editors, or administrators for Wikipedia, the free, online encyclopedia which modestly aspires to "create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language." Its content is written and edited entirely by volunteers, working collaboratively. And last weekend, a bunch of them came together for what professor and "free culture" advocate Lawrence Lessig called, "Woodstock for the 21st Century." It was, after all, raining.
Wikipedia and its contributors are excruciatingly self-aware. Wikipedia has developed many charming quirks and in-jokes in its five short years of existence, nearly all self-reflexive, including a habit of obsessively linking to its own articles. But, far more interesting, it has also collectively developed a robust sensibility about what is permissible in its own pages. Nearly every Wikipedia user has occasionally come across a little tag at the top of an article: "Stop!" it says, "The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see the discussion on the talk page." This little tag, I'm convinced, is the secret to Wikipedia's success. And I'm not alone.
Neutral Point of View, or NPOV, as the cool kids say, is a central Wikipedia concept. But as Wales notes, neutrality is a richer, more nuanced term for Wikipedians than it is for the rest of us: "One of the great things about NPOV is that it is a term of art and a community fills it with meaning over time."
Nearly every statement from Wales, a self-avowed libertarian (not of the Libertarian party; "They're lunatics," he says) and fan of Friedrich Hayek, carries similar sentiments. It's clear that he already gets something most of the Wikipedians are still struggling to grasp. Order and rules generated by a community using evolved mechanisms—the neutrality requirement, for example—aren't antithetical to freedom. Wales has said part of the inspiration for Wikipedia were Hayek's writings on spontaneous order and information aggregation. Though Wales often emphasizes that Wikipedia is "an encyclopedia, not an experiment in democracy," he and other participants are very cognizant that the success of Wikipedia suggests exciting things for other types of open-source collaborations and movements.
Of his own role, Wales has said: "Queen of England—my power is decreasing over time. Soon, I'll just wave at parades."
But civil society abounds, with explicit roles. Several conference participants wore polo shirts or other logo items indicating their status as "admins" on various wikis. Two percent of Wikipedia's 200,000 registered users make about 75 percent of edits to Wikipedia's 1.3 million entries in English. Still, Wales noted, "It's important, especially in the larger communities, that our oldtimers take newbies and take them in hand."
As noble as all this sounds, Wikipedia is not without its own vanities and preoccupations. Wales notes "we have lots of flame wars and idiot fights." These squabbles aren't restricted to online interactions, either. The marvelously named Elija Meeks gave a perfectly decent presentation about criticism of Wikipedia and neutrality issues. When the workshop opened up to the audience for questions, the participants immediately got into a fight so obscure that is was impossible for a layman to follow—something about freezing profiles, or limited reverts, I think. The speaker calmly picked up his jacket and coffee, leaving the conference participants to duke it out.
"Wikipedia has lots of experience with one person who comes in and changes everything to say 'poop'," noted one speaker. These types of edits, known as vandalism, are usually caught within minutes and removed. But the challenge to neutrality comes when others make edits in good faith, but with bias. Or those contributors who are broadly helpful, but insert opinion only on a few issues. Wikipedians like to quote Alan Kay: "Point-of-view is worth 80 IQ points" when talking about how their collective POVs can create an NPOV product.
The touchstone story in discussions about neutrality and accuracy is the entry on John Seigenthaler, Sr., the retired journalist, one-time assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and James K. Polk biographer who made his own Wikipedia entry the subject of a hotly discussed USA Today editorial. As Wikipedia itself explains:
In May 2005, an anonymous user (who was later identified as Brian Chase) created a five-sentence Wikipedia article about Seigenthaler which contained defamatory content. The article remained largely unchanged for four months, until it was brought to Seigenthaler's attention.
Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia in September, and the content was deleted. He later wrote an op-ed on the experience for USA Today on November 29, in which he wrote "Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool." The op-ed prompted many commentators to write about the issue and the reliability of open editing models in the following weeks.
Referring to the controversy during his opening remarks, Wales got one of the biggest laughs of the weekend when he said: "Apparently there was an error in Wikipedia. Who knew?" He then went on to point out the entry was repaired, and then dramatically improved, within hours of the story's breaking.
This spirit—can you imagine a similar joke at a Britannica editorial meeting?—is what David Weinberger, author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" and former Howard Dean internet advisor, fingers as Wikipedia's major strength. "If you open up a copy of Britannica, says Weinberger, "you are right to believe that what you read is credible. Something gets credibility simply by being in Britannica, though it is not necessarily true. If you open up Wikipedia randomly, what you see is not credible. Simply being there doesn't give you some sort of probabilistic credibility." However, he says, because "Wikipedia is not shy about putting up notices about its own fallibility" it paradoxically becomes more credible. The notices "tell us that you're really interested in helping us get the truth."
Weinberger captured the essense of Wikipedia when he compared its contributors to squabbling rabbis. He was responding to the idea that Wikipedia's process bears more than a passing resemblance to Talmud (see The Internet and the Talmud by Jonathan Rosen for more on this.) "An unchanging text with absolute authority," Weinberger says, "literally surrounded by commentary of various degrees of authority. With the Talmud, there are even cases when God wins and the rabbis still won't shut up. This is useful, as long as we don't equate Jimmy Wales with the God figure."
One recurring discussion about neutrality centers on Wales himself, who admitted to tweaking his own entry to write former colleague Larry Sanger out of the story of Wikipedia's founding. Whether Wales should be referred to as Wikipedia's "founder" or "co-founder" has provided much fodder for his talk page over the years. Interesting, the neutrality of Wales's page is not disputed any longer, but the neutrality of Sanger's is.
Later in the day, though, the man himself couldn't resist a little joke about his deity status, though he says it's his rule not to meddle in the day-to-day activities of Wikipedia at all. His PowerPoint demonstration over, Wales requested that the lights be brought back up: "'Let there be light,' said Jimbo," he announced. And there was.