In 1938, the science fiction writer H.G. Wells explored the idea of a world brain. He had the conviction that, for humankind to survive, “knowledge had to be attained by any available means.” He felt a new kind of encyclopedia was needed. This World Encyclopaedia should not be “a row of volumes printed and published once for all, but … a sort of mental clearing house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarised, digested, clarified and compared.” It would be like the brain of humankind, “bringing into critical scrutiny many apparently conflicting systems of statement” and helping dissolve archaic discords (World Brain, 1938).
We are still far from this utopia, but Wikipedia – which founder Jimmy Wales wanted to represent “the sum of human knowledge” – is clearly going in that direction. As a great gift to the world, he decided very early to make it multilingual. Today, Wikipedia exists in 285 languages. This massively multilingual approach to knowledge is something unprecedented in the history of mankind. One could say said that Wikipedia helps reverse the curse originating with the Tower of Babel, making possible with a click of the mouse to go from an article in English to its counterpart in another language. Contrary to a common misconception, most articles in foreign languages are not translated from the English version of Wikipedia but are the product of their community. Thus, there may sometimes be huge differences of perspective, notably between nations that have been in conflict in the past. In the long run, however, Wikipedia may help communities to become conscious of their own cultural and national biases and eventually to reassess them.
Non-dominant cultures have also found a new visibility thanks to Wikipedia. The openness to other languages bodes well for the future of small cultures and gives a new confidence to the possibility of preserving cultural diversity in spite of globalization. Also, global participation makes it almost impossible to ignore or distort events that are significant for a community, however small – which inevitably happens with a centralized encyclopedia. (In The Myth of the Britannica, published in 1964 and reprinted in 1972, Harvey Einbinder exposed some of its shortcomings, for example, its description of the Panama Canal as “an extension of the southern border of the USA.” The celebrated French Encyclopaedia Universalis did not have an article on Maurice Duplessis who had been the premier of Quebec for 15 years.)
This ignorance of smaller cultures is no longer possible because in Wikipedia there is no central authority, no metropolis from which a unique and dominant point of view is defined. Admittedly, this diversity brings its own problems: Wikipedia can easily become a battlefield between divergent opinions. An edit war occurs when contributors don’t agree on the correct word in an article, or its proper meaning, leading to successive reverts to previous changes. This kind of lengthy debate raged between Polish and German contributors to the English Wikipedia about the correct way to name a city on the Baltic Sea that was named Danzig under the Prussian regime but Gdansk when Poland became independent in 1919.
In many respects, Wikipedia can be seen as the heir to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751-1772). Both enterprises exceed any encyclopedia published before them in the number of articles, but Wikipedia’s scope is now much wider, of course, with almost five million articles, compared with 74,000 for L’Encyclopédie. Both are collective works: L’Encyclopédie had 160 contributors, while Wikipedia has some 70,000 active editors globally. Both are totally open to mundane knowledge: Diderot was the first to include articles on crafts and such things as the composition of cosmetic rouge – to the delight of Madame de Pompadour. Wikipedia is free, just as anyone was welcome to reuse the illustrations published in the Encyclopédie, thus foreshadowing the Open Source movement. In sum, both revolutionized the encyclopedic genre and made knowledge, in all its forms, more easily accessible to the public.
Today, on most topics, one will find much more information in Wikipedia than in any other encyclopedia. An important, and very controversial, characteristic of Wikipedia is that everyone can contribute. When he launched Wikipedia at the beginning of the era of social media, Wales took a bold leap of faith by making it freely editable by everybody, a decision that was widely criticized as irresponsible and derided by the media, as well as by librarians and academics.
These critics opened the door to competing projects, supposedly more reliable. Google launched Knol, whose articles were signed by a sole editor (whose ego was massaged by pictures, confirming that we are dealing with a real person); started in 2008, the project was terminated in 2012 for lack of visitors. Another counter-project is Citizendium, launched in 2006 by Larry Sanger, a former associate of Jimmy Wales, whose articles have to be vetted by experts. After eight years, it boasts 159 expert-approved citable articles, compared with the almost five million for Wikipedia.
To be sure, Wikipedia, being accessible to trolls and vandals of all types, must be used with caution; the page you are consulting may have been vandalized just a few seconds ago. However annoying, this process has been compared to democracy:
Like democracy, it is messier than planned systems at any given point in time, but it is not just self-healing, it is self-improving. … Wikipedia gets better over time. This improvement is not monotonic, but it is steady. (Clay Shirky, quoted in Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, by Axel Bruns, 2008).
Since there is no editor-in-chief, contributors are invited to reach consensus through discussions, sometimes intense and protracted, that baffle outsiders. Thanks to this formula, Wikipedia changes the playing field of knowledge by making it more democratic than ever. It also appears as a guarantee of validity because any information posted in an article is scrutinized by a variety of contributors who have the article in their watching list. Thanks to this system, any suspicious information can be quickly deleted or challenged.
The reward for helping develop the encyclopedia is the status or reputation a contributor gains in the community through his or her actions. The Wikipedia community is mainly a meritocracy built on the fact that its database is a glasshouse: every action is recorded, archived and visible to everyone today and in the future. The status of a contributor is measured by statistical tools surveying both the number of edits and the quantity of text added – a pie chart at the left shows the number of edits, while the right one shows the amount of text added. This figure is aptly named “Best editors.”
To enhance its quality, Wikipedia has introduced two categories of articles: good articles and featured articles. In order to be recognized as good or featured, an article has to undergo a lengthy peer-review process. For a period of four weeks, the community is invited to scrutinize the article submitted and to comment on any aspect. There are now more than 20,000 good articles and more than 4,000 featured articles. For the writer, a featured article is an achievement worthy of mention in a scholar’s CV.
Could thus expect professors to begin accepting references to Wikipedia, while educating their students on how to use it critically, like any other source. Since every version of Wikipedia is archived with a unique number and easily retrievable, verification is not a problem. Professors could also encourage students to contribute to the encyclopedia (another idea put forward by Wells for his World Encyclopaedia).
This is in line with a recent move by the Wikimedia Foundation aiming to convince academics to assign Wikipedia-related tasks as course assignments. This initiative has had good response from the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association. Both are actively encouraging scholars and students to help develop Wikipedia. In 2011, Erik Olin Wright, then the president of the ASA, wrote, “Since [Wikipedia] is a reference source for sociologically relevant ideas and knowledge that is widely used by both the general public and students, it is important that the quality of sociology entries be as high as possible. This will only happen if sociologists themselves contribute to this public good.”
The Wiki Education Foundation is also supporting this initiative. The foundation promotes digital democracy, with a goal of providing guidance and expertise through “Wikipedia instructors,” who design classroom assignments, and “Wikipedia ambassadors,” who support the instructors. By last September, the foundation had helped more than 300 instructors implement a Wikipedia assignment. After three years, 34 sociology classes have participated, with students editing 967 unique articles.
According to the American Psychological Association, using Wikipedia articles as an alternative to more traditional course assignments helps develop students’ communication skills for general audiences and teaches them the importance of accuracy in scientific writing, of logic, strength of argument, flow and clarity of writing, and how to write appropriate citations.
Scientific disciplines are going even further, experimenting with a co-integration of a scientific journal and Wikipedia. The journal PLoS Computational Biology produces “topic pages” that are a “record of educational materials suitable for the journal readership, which will seed a new Wikipedia page after publication in PLOS Computational Biology.
Since Wikipedia “embodies many of the values that academics hold dear,” Stephen Campbell recommends that historians “dedicate their precious few hours of spare time to improving Wikipedia” and calls on administrators “to integrate Wikipedia contributions into the publication requirements for tenure” (Perspectives on History, May 2014 edition).
By contributing to Wikipedia and by nurturing this important sector of the knowledge ecosystem, academics serve both the public good and their disciplines, sharing their interests in the meme pool of culture.
Philosopher Barry Allen writes that culture “contributes to the idiosyncratic architecture of every human brain” (Knowledge and Civilization, 2004). In that sense, by transforming the cultural ecology at a global level, Wikipedia is the closest thing to the “world brain” that Wells anticipated. “You see how such an Encyclopaedic organisation could spread like a nervous network,” he wrote, “a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a common medium of expression …”
Sometimes, utopias anticipate a reality they helped to forge.
Christian Vandendorpe is honorary Wikipedian in residence for the 2014-15 academic year at the University of Victoria. He retired as a professor of French literature from the University of Ottawa in 2007. This essay was based on a presentation he gave to a Wikipedia event organized by the INKE collaborative (Implementing New Knowledge Environments) and by the University of Victoria’s library earlier this year.