No Gatekeepers

New technologies help illustrate why central planners aren't needed.


For years, people assumed encyclopedias had to be created by professionals. Then Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales attempted to create an encyclopedia without central planners.

That sounded like a terrible idea to the old gatekeepers—people who hired experts to carefully fact-check and edit every encyclopedia entry. When they heard that Wales would crowdsource an encyclopedia, one Encyclopedia Britannica editor sneered, "The user who visits Wikipedia is a visitor to a public restroom."

But today research shows that Wikipedia is as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia is now the sixth most visited website, and the hardcover Encyclopedia Britannica no longer exists.

"It's a bit sad in a way," says Wales. "I love Britannica. But I love candles, too, and I sure wouldn't give up my electric light."

When I say Wikipedia is crowdsourced, I mean that millions of readers edit the entries. Their power to correct things is weighted according to the reputation they acquire from the "crowd." Without being paid, this army of amateurs takes pride of ownership. They work hard to keep their entries accurate.
After model/actress Anna Nicole Smith died, someone changed her Wikipedia entry to something vulgar. It was fixed within minutes.

The amateur editors specialize, says Wales. "There is a group of people who say, look, we've got all these entries about bridges, we want to make sure they're all really good, because we love bridges; we're bridge fanatics. I mean, who knew bridge fanatics exist?"

But they do. So do fanatics who want to get things right about Roman history, bacteria, spy novels and so on.

That this could be accurate without strict central planning is hard to grasp. Even Wales started out thinking that some kind of planner was necessary. He hired a Ph.D. in philosophy to edit a more centralized online encyclopedia, Newpedia. It failed.

But Wikipedia, without a central plan—just a few simple ground rules—flourished. Wales likens the lesson to economist Friedrich Hayek's insights about why decentralized, free-market decisions are wiser than centralized, socialist planning: The crowd possesses "local knowledge" that experts can't begin to replicate.

Many of today's most popular websites—Google, Indiegogo, Facebook—thrive because they gave more control to users than to the founders. They also help users get things done without relying on gatekeepers at publishing houses, mainstream media or colleges.

Defenders of government and central planning often say that there are some things we just can't leave to individuals, things that require government central planning, such as road building. But often that's not true either.

In Britain, a highway was damaged by heavy rains. The local government promised to repair it. "After three weeks, they said it's going to be three months. After three months, they said a year," entrepreneur Mike Watts told me.

Mike's wife then told him he should build the road. Although he had no road-building experience, he agreed to try. He went to the local pub and persuaded a farmer to let part of his land be used for the project.

Government said it would take a year to rebuild the road. On TV one bureaucrat said, "you can't just do what you want … (Everything must) conform to highway standards!"

But Mike built his "private road" in just 12 days. He paid for it by collecting a $3 toll. Drivers cheerfully paid because Mike's road saved them so much time. (British private toll roads like this are where we got the word "turnpike." Private tollbooth operators would lift a "pike" to let the horses through.)

After Mike started giving interviews about the success of his road, the local government got embarrassed and quickly finished work on its road. Mike had to shut down. He at least managed to break even.

Both he and Wikipedia are reminders that human beings can still do great things, big and small, when they stop waiting for permission from above.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: After Copenhagen: The Myth of Civilized Censorship

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  1. Whatever.

    Next you’ll tell me that people could figure out how to talk to each other without central committees deciding the definitions of each word, or something.

    1. How did we develop the capacity for speech, before the committees to develop it could speak? PROOF OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN!

      1. Not to be to Facebook-y, but, LIKE!!

        1. AAAAH!! TOO, not to

  2. Stossel is far off-base on three main points that he attempts to sell with this opinion piece. First, that Jimmy Wales was “founder” of Wikipedia or “created” it. The idea was pushed on Wales by his employee Larry Sanger. Sanger coined the name “Wikipedia”, and Sanger issued the first public call for participation, then shepherded Wikipedia through its tumultuous first year of growth. Second, that “today research shows that Wikipedia is as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica”. The most recent popular research comparing Wikipedia with EB was conducted in 2005 (hardly “today”), and the result was not that Wikipedia was on par with Britannica, but that it was 34% more error-prone. The third mistake Stossel makes is perpetuating the popular notion that falsehoods or vandalism in Wikipedia are “fixed in minutes”. I’m in the middle of a month-long experiment to see how obvious vandalisms are addressed by Wikipedians, but I can already say that (thus far) none of my foolish edits have been reverted — and some have persisted for many days, across thousands of page views. I’ve found that using Wikipedia is very much like using a public toilet. It’s useful in a pinch, but it shouldn’t be anyone’s preferred (com)mode of information consumption. Stossel seems impressed, nonetheless. Shallow journalism attracts shallow admiration, perhaps?

    1. agreed. Wikipedia is simply a different gate keeper. It’s fraught with politics of who edits and accepts and edit as truth, etc.

      It’s cool, but it’s not a solution.

    2. Who gored your ox? There are many more recent studies than the 10 year old nature study. Just because your google-fu is too lousy to find them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

      A few examples don’t defeat the general rule. Most vandalism is fixed quickly, but some persists for a long long time, more an indication of popularity than accuracy. Is your life perfect?

      How shallow are you? I’ve seldom seen anyone so excited without having some undisclosed skin in the game.

      1. He’s probably an out of work former encyclopedia editor.

      2. Strange that the Wikimedia Foundation blog would itself report in 2012, “Since that time [the 2005 Nature survey], however, there have been relatively few independent analyses of Wikipedia article quality, despite the enormous growth of the project.”

    3. Wikipedia can be very accurate on non-controversial subjects. Besides, where else are you going to find an extensive article on the philosophy of Toilet paper orientation

      1. What’s this assumption about the roll being on the holder at all? If I install the roll in the bracket, it keeps running into my knee because my bathroom is small. Therefore, it sits on the corner of the sink where it’s not annoying me.

        1. Free range toilet paper…

        2. If you’ve got cats , and a convenient drawer , I recommend you keep the rolls in the drawer .

    4. Stossel is far off-base on three main points that he attempts to sell with this opinion piece.

      [citation required]

  3. I was asked a few years back to review some websites about musical instruments put out by various museums. They ranged in quality from rather bad to quite good, but one problem with them all was that the curators couldn’t really know enough about their subjects. In areas where I have expertise I found errors, which leads me to believe there were other errors I couldn’t detect by myself.

    I compared the experience with Wikipedia, where I could have simply fixed the problems or I could have added relevant information that was not included by the curators. I don’t know about the comments above about error rates, but one thing to keep in mind is the sheer amount of information in Wikipedia. No centrally planned encyclopedia could (a) address the sheer level of detail that Wikipedia does or (b) be as up to date as Wikipedia. With traditional encyclopedias you would have to wait years for information to appear in new editions, while on Wikipedia you can often have reasonably well constructed articles on events the same day they occur. While such breaking articles are likely to contain many errors (due to the inherent uncertainty of breaking news), they are fixed quickly and they typically represent the best consensus at the time, which means that there would be no more reliable source (real or hypothetical) to compare them against. Thus Wikipedia has actually created new kinds of content that did not exist in the world at all just a few decades ago.

  4. There was a yahoo article last week on 3D printing houses and I went into the comments…

    Everyone lost their minds over the idea that people banging on nails would no longer have anything to do (of course, pneumatic air guns also exist). It was everything I expected from yahoo comments.

    The bigger issue is, building codes being written to make 3D house printing unfeasible.

  5. Have I mentioned I like Stossel?

  6. I like Wikipedia. I’m a big movie fanatic. I like to use Wikipedia as a means of picking the best movies from particular directors. A lot of the info comes from IMDB, but it’s way easier to navigate on Wikipedia.

  7. With any luck, the Wiki of Mormon will will soon send the gold plate edition the way of its contemporary, The Encyclopedia Britannica.

    How ISIS will react to the Wikoran is aother matter .

  8. While, I’m a big fan of Wiki…

    There is this.

    Dear Wikipedia,

    I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip?there is no truth in it at all.

    Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”?in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor?that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator?”but we require secondary sources.”

  9. Defenders of government and central planning often say that there are some things we just can’t leave to individuals…

    Apparently government is not composed of individuals.

  10. No gatekeepers are needed dude.

  11. Wikipedia is almost useless for anything that has become politicized.

    1. True .
      It’s good for physics except for anything related to “global warming” .

      Some years ago I tried to correct some basic errors on the page about “black body temperature” — as did several other people in the comments .

      They were unfixed by whoever had the most clout and the tenacity of a true believer .

      I understand Wikipedia “fired” one of the worst offenders , but their problem with bias on politically charged issues remains .

      Still , it’s one resource in a market place of ideas and better than the swill that comes out of the global government climate propaganda machine — which has yet to criminalize rational riposte — tho they do their damnedest .

  12. I think if you want examples of spontaneous order that works, there are better places to look than Wikipedia. Wikipedia is mainly useful as a starting point for research. Its many editors are so political and so biased that pretty much all pages on controversial subjects are scrubbed of useful content, or get changed back and forth until they provoke a scrubbing by management (which is as biased as everyone else).

  13. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start…
    This is where to start???.


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