The Power of the User
In the past there has been a huge disconnect between an average person on the street and their source of information. Once that gap began to close up when people began producing information on the internet, everyone was immediately cautioned not to believe anything they read unless it was said or written by a verifiable source (read: professionals). How could a random, unnamed person compete with Dr. X, who received their PhD after Y number of years of studying and doing research at University of Y?
In November of 2000, NASA set out to see if this divide was appropriate. Clickworkers was a project that had the public identify and classify the age of craters on Mars images from Viking Orbiter. These images have already been analyzed by the NASA scientists but decided to run this small experiment to test two things: 1) can the public handle this level of science and, 2) does the public want to get involved? Their findings would revolutionize the users role on the internet as just a recipient of knowledge. After just six months of being launched with over 85,000 visitors, NASA analyzed the public’s data and concluded that the task performed by Clickworkers “is virually indistinguishable from the inputs of a geologist with years of experience in identifying Mars craters” (Benkler).
Wait, wait, wait…did NASA just prove that internet users aren’t just out there looking to troll and that the internet is more than just a medium for porn?!! Sure, the average user is clearly not smarter than the space geologists at NASA but clearly there is knowledge in numbers. Internet users, when provided with a platform and easy-to-use tools, are a force to be reckoned with. This small project has now set the wheel in motion for one of the most controversial yet most used tool of our generation.
The Rise of Wikipedia
Jimmy Wales’s lifelong dream was to create an online encyclopedia. He initially set out to make Nupedia the old-fashioned way:
In attempt to lessen the burden on the experts, Wales launched a Nupedia wiki which was opened to the public. Just like in NASA’s Clickworker, what happened next completely shocked everyone involved. Within just a few days of its launch, the Nupedia wiki, or Wikipedia as it was dubbed, outgrew Nupedia. Wales, though initially worried about the validity of an encyclopedia created by the people, he saw the potential and ran with it. And rightfully so…
The Five Pillars of Wikipedia
In order for any egalitarian community to work effectively, there has to be some common grounds. Though the members of the Wikipedia community are essentially strangers to one another, it still functions because everyone agrees to the terms set out by the Five Pillars of Wikipedia:
1. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia
2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute
4. Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner
5. Wikipedia does not have firm rules
The first three principles aim to ensure that users do not stray from the original intent of allowing Wikipedia to be a comparable of information as professionally created encyclopedias like Britannica while the fourth is there to make sure that these strangers do not sink to chaos and the extreme cruelty that normally results from internet anonymity. The last principle is a beautiful reminder that although there is an original creator of Wikipedia, this is essentially YOUR project as much as the next editor. There are no rules because the people who are editing have good intention. This is information for the people, by the people.
Wikipedia has changed the way in which people interact with information. For better or for worst, the general public has subconsciously processed these principles and judge what they read based on the expectation one now has of wikipedia editors to not allow for vandalism and faulty information to stay up for long. There is now a standard that one must adhere to when writing and editing Wikipedia articles. If this standard is ignored, Wikipedia users would catch the error and would self-correct within minutes, hours maximum. The general public no longer takes in information as written and demand that at the very least, this standard of credibility and accuracy to be attempted.
Is Academia a Thing of the Past?
Before giving up hopes and dreams of entering this exclusive ranking, think of the importance of having true professional. True millions of users contributing small amounts of time is cool for the layman, we still need the professionals to provide the primary and secondary sources that are necessary for the accuracy of Wikipedia. Projects like Wikipedia and NASA’s Clickworker still need people who know what they are doing behind the scenes. Rather than putting professionals in opposition of users, we could start of a great collaboration — free and motivated “interns” alongside professionals working together to make the world a more knowledgeable place. In doing so, the spread of knowledge is no longer a one-way street controlled by the elite few.
But regardless of this beautiful image, these fear of taking over potential doom of academia and the professional markets that depended on being information privately owned has created much criticism of this open-sourced encyclopedia. As Robert Henry, a former editor of Encyclopedia Britannica, claims “Wikipedia is unreliable because it is not professionally produced.” Professors are also equally against the growing use of Wikipedia because of the threat it poses:
Many have spread this notion that since it is user-created that Wikipedia absolutely cannot be accurate. NASA’s Clickworker project showed, as well as the self-correcting system held together by the Five Pillars on Wikipedia, have proven after much analysis, user produced does not mean inaccurate and “shallow source of information.” We have yet to move into the era in which Wikipedia is an acceptable source in academic papers but I have a feeling we are not far from it now that it has become much better at regulating and expanding itself.
The Dangers of Wikipedia?
Dangers of the distribution of knowledge for the people by the people? You must be crazy!!! As wonderful as it is that we now can instantly look up information that is fairly accurate, have we created a generation of people unable to retain information? Are we now so dependent on Wikipedia that we no longer feel the need to commit anything to memory? As this XKCD comic suggest, has it all gotten out of hand? It is still too soon to even begin to look at the effect of Wikipedia on society but these are definitely dangerous scenarios that are not too far out of the question. A little support is good but complete dependency on any one source of information can lead to disastrous outcomes.