How Wikipedia Drove Professors Crazy, Made Me Sane, and Almost Saved the Internet
‘Balancing on the Brink.’ Eagle Peak summit, Chugach Mountains, Alaska, Paxson Woelber, CC BY 2.0
“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile
In 2007 I sat outside a Colorado mountain town's Starbucks, borrowing their wifi from my used Subaru, when I decided to find out what made Wikipedia work. I had been hearing more about the mysterious crowdsourced website and seeing it pop up in Google Search results. I thought the concept of an open encyclopedia was neat, but I wanted to understand something more essential: the theoretical underpinnings, the ideology and logic behind the site. I may be the first person who began their journey to becoming a Wikipedian by wanting to read its policies.
Three hours of digging through the site's seemingly endless rules, guidelines, and essays convinced me, a political theory major adrift in my twenties, that something significant was afoot. The community had created what the Enlightenment philosophers only dreamed of, its own body of common law, common sense, and common knowledge. As Denis Diderot, editor of the French Encyclopédie wrote in 1755:
The purpose of an encyclopedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race.
At this point Wikipedia was still a curiosity at best, and more commonly a joke. Looking back it's clear that is no longer the case. Wikipedia has gained ubiquity, influence, and legitimacy. A growing number of professionals and academics endorse critical use of the site, and those who don't or won't endorse it publicly admit to using it anyway. My favorite retelling of this fairy tale transformation comes from a poetic essay which saw the rapid transformation as early as 2008. "The Charms of Wikipedia" in the New York Review of Books called describes:
It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper. Some brought very fancy professional metal rakes, or even back-mounted leaf-blowing systems, and some were just kids thrashing away with the sides of their feet or stuffing handfuls in the pockets of their sweatshirts, but all the leaves they brought to the pile were appreciated. And the pile grew and everyone jumped up and down in it having a wonderful time. And it grew some more, and it became the biggest leaf pile anyone had ever seen anywhere, a world wonder.
Wikipedia's journey to legitimacy paralleled my own recovery from mental illness and development of the successful Wikipedia Library project. Lacking legitimacy creates a mountain to climb. When we get to the top, we feel like victors. But then, we see the terrain stretches well beyond our previous understanding, and we realize how little we have explored.
With Wikipedia and I now both in stable positions of influence, it's a time as much for deeper questioning as it is for celebration. Wikipedia's journey to legitimacy, as with my recovery, was enabled by boldness. That same boldness, however, has left us only partially capable of fulfilling our mission—for, what and who we have left out is as significant as what we have built.
“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions
In 2009 I returned sheepishly from my Colorado sedan to my parents' comfortable home in suburban Philadelphia. Despite the support offered, my mental health deteriorated, and my isolation from friends and family became nearly total. I edited most hours of the day or night while sitting in my attic bathtub. Though I was erratic and withdrawn, Wikipedia remained a constant place of intellectual stimulation, expression, and even combat.
Though I'd lost faith in my own direction and hold on reality, Wikipedia was an anchor for my shifting moods and a beacon of hope in reason and collaboration. The mission of the site made compelling sense, directed thousands of strangers to mutual understanding, and produced something entirely new and as close to real consensus as seemed possible to me. It was there for me the night before I went into the mental hospital, and there for me every day after.
In the weeks after my 13-day "retreat", I shied away from the activity of my Wikipedia article watchlist and wrote comics about the internal dialogues I was trying to resolve. My own mind was multifaceted, contradictory, wondrous, and fragile. I felt adrift and unformed; I didn't know where to go next. I knew, however, that when I did get around to logging onto Wikipedia as "Ocaasi" (a pseudonym based on my middle name Isaac), the debates felt tangible, and the progress of creating articles and resolving disputes felt rigorous and concrete. It was a space of freedom and experimentation, autonomy and self-expression, anonymity and community.
I wanted to make Wikipedia better. I wanted to prove that this seemingly anarchic model, this chaos of commentary and ferociously searching for reliable sources, among well-intentioned anonymous thinkers from every corner of the world, could transform the world. I wasn't yet ready to prove my own worth, but I sensed that on Wikipedia with a consistent and "clueful" use of one's voice and reason, one could establish a reputation within the community that would generate trust, respect, and recognition.
It is reason which breeds pride and reflection which fortifies it; reason which turns man inward into himself; reason which separates him from everything which troubles or affects him.
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
Wikipedia was becoming more and more visible by 2011, but it was still deeply misunderstood. People didn't look behind the scenes, or even know that they could. Wikipedia’s roots and philosophy weren’t accessible. Its way of processing facts into knowledge and discerning falsehoods from evidence was opaque.
Having multiple conversations one-on-one with new editors gave me a useful scripts for explaining Wikipedia's rationales, dynamics, and core principles. What I saw in Wikipedia was not a threat to knowledge, as many pundits claimed and dismissed, but a deep and evolutionary transformation of the search for knowledge that had driven philosophers for millennia. Wikipedia was not “the Britannica killer”; it was the Encyclopédie reborn in a digital age.
Wikipedia thrives because of a rigorous commitment to facts, understood through the lens of a web of policies as the proportionate summary of legitimate arguments from sources reliable for each claim. Achieving this is a deeply human process, the kind that scholars practice for years before achieving mastery. At the core of good information is human discretion. The 2008 book Digital Culture: Understanding New Media quotes Clay Shirky's prescient observations:
In fact what Wikipedia presages is a change in the nature of authority. Prior to Britannica, most encyclopaedias derived their authority from the author. Britannica came along and made the relatively radical assertion that you could vest authority in an institution. You trust Britannica, and then we in turn go out and get the people to write the articles. What Wikipedia suggests is that you can vest authority in a visible process. As long as you can see how Wikipedia's working, and can see that the results are acceptable, you can come over time to trust that. And that is a really profound challenge to our notions of what it means to be an institution, what it means to trust something, what it means to have authority in this society.
In this way, Wikipedia presents an antidote to both the rule of unassailable experts and the tyranny of unaccountable algorithms. On Wikipedia, though there are bots—semi-automated processes—of many types, the critical work of evaluating information is a process of community curation. Wikipedia aggregates human judgment, applies it to published sources, and marries it with computational power.
Wikipedia inspires and executes a commons of public fact-checking. I experienced this under pressure during the 2011 Arab Spring, which sparked the revolution and overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. While millions gathered in Egypt's Tahrir Square, I and five other determined and vigilant editors provided a first draft of history, as it was unfolding.
The article's talk page was our newsroom to decide when a source was legitimate, or how many sources were needed to confirm a claim for it to be ready to enter the live article. I took this task as seriously as any other before in my life, and it galvanized me with a faith in Wikipedia's dedication to reliable knowledge. Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim, on a February, 2011 60 Minutes broadcast, remarked of his country's triumph:
I call this Revolution 2.0. Revolution 2.0 is, is - I say that our revolution is like Wikipedia, OK? Everyone is contributing content. You don't know the names of the people contributing the content ... This is exactly what happened... Everyone was contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And that picture - no one is the hero in that picture.
“Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves.”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie
Wikipedia's role in breaking news, political campaigns, and scientific debates has only gained prominence. In addition to the pride I felt over being a part of this amazing project, I developed a new uncertainty about whether the public and media could survive the burgeoning onslaught of misinformation in its online ecosystem.
danah boyd, founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, pinpointed my critical worry in her 2018 SXSW Edu Keynote "What Hath We Wrought?
I’m not convinced that we know how to educate people who do not share our epistemological frame... I believe that we need to develop antibodies to help people not be deceived...We cannot and should not assert authority over epistemology, but we can encourage our students to be more aware of how interpretation is socially constructed. And to understand how that can be manipulated. Of course, just because you know you’re being manipulated doesn’t mean that you can resist it...We live in a world of networks now...So I would argue that we need to start developing a networked response to this networked landscape. And it starts by understanding different ways of constructing knowledge.
Critical thinking and ample facts aren't sufficient in an environment of weaponized information. We need to promote Wikipedia not as a collection of facts but as a way of knowing. Many people think of Wikipedia as the site that "anyone can edit"; but far fewer people understand that getting "published" on Wikipedia is like stepping into a gauntlet of both algorithmic and human filtering.
An individual edit must pass through targeted text-rejection filters to even make it on the page. Then neural network machine learning bots seek out nuanced patterns of vandalism. After that, thousands of whack-a-mole human “recent change” patrollers look at every suspicious new edit. Over the next few hours and days experienced editors are notified of updates to any article on their "watchlist", a feed of changes to articles in their specific areas of interest and expertise. At last, words are left for the eyes of millions of readers, many more of whom fix an error than add one. We congratulate people when they say, “I edited Wikipedia!” But the real marker is being able to say, “I made an edit to Wikipedia—and it stuck.”
Wikipedia is unique in the modern internet. It is anti-centralization, anti-monopoly, anti-advertising, anti-propaganda, anti-censorship, anti-clickbait. The media ecosystem has been under siege from corporatization and disinformation, and Wikipedia has been building a bulwark all along. We are pro-engagement, pro-citizen, pro-free knowledge, and pro-transparency. We are constantly engaged in fighting efforts to sway, corrupt, or destabilize the encyclopedia. So why did it take so long for people to trust it?
“Since men cannot create new forces, but merely combine and control those which already exist, the only way in which they can preserve themselves is by uniting their separate powers in a combination strong enough to overcome any resistance, uniting them so that their powers are directed by a single motive and act in concert.”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Like other tertiary reference works, an encyclopedia is only as good as the sources it is based on. On Wikipedia, there is a deeply rooted concern for citation reliability. If you imagine Wikipedia as a starting point for deeper research—which it should be—then each article is a comprehensive overview attached to a list of quality sources to explore, validate, and verify. Wikipedia is effectively the largest bibliography in human history.
This realization inspired me. I realized that despite all of its commitment to reliable sources, Wikipedia had no library to call its own. In 2011, frustrated by an inability to find sources on a biography that I was writing, I called up an online research database called HighBeam, which offered free trials for their $200/month service. The paid service was too much for me to sustain with no active income, but I couldn't accept being without half of the content I needed to draft good new articles if so much of it was locked behind paywalls where access to information required paying for a subscription.
When I reached HighBeam's customer service, I identified myself only as a Wikipedia editor. I asked for a free account to improve Wikipedia, and perhaps a couple more for some of my editing friends. The response changed my life, as the HighBeam representative on the spot said, "How about 1,000?" This was the beginning of The Wikipedia Library.
Back when I founded the program, librarians would only whisper to us at conferences that they too used Wikipedia. Stigma was omnipresent, and the running line was that Wikipedia was not reliable because anyone can edit it— just don't use it. Critical scholars viewed Wikipedia as a degradation of academic rigor, competent research, and of the authority of experts.
Just as my efforts to inform and change the single minds of new editors weren’t enough, it also wasn't sufficient to equip highly active Wikipedians with better digital resources. I needed to look beyond the core community to the pillars of expertise and authority in our society and change their minds. This meant overcoming a mountain of skepticism, dismissiveness, and inertia among researchers, scholars, teachers, and experts. I relished the task. After all, they just needed to understand Wikipedia like I did: as a repository of information guided by community and reason.
The academic critiques of Wikipedia struck me as curious since some of our earliest and most ardent contributors to Wikipedia were librarians. Wikipedians and librarians found common interest around a culture that valued reference skills, information literacy, and access to information. It was only through the familiarity of regular exposure to reasonably good experiences that changed minds, transformed denigration into acceptance and fostered legitimacy.
A boost to the alliance between Wikipedia and libraries came in the form of the #1Lib1Ref campaign. Short for 1 Librarian, 1 Reference—the viral initiative cooked up by my colleague Alex Stinson and I—asked every librarian in the world to add one citation to Wikipedia, as a gift to improve its reliability. In its 4th year now, #1Lib1Ref has added 25,000 citations and 4 million words—and on social media 40 countries have shared the campaign with 22 million people, 44 million times. #1Lib1Ref has helped popularize the notion that Wikipedians and Librarians have symbiotic, complementary roles to play in the dissemination of reliable information to the public.
Wikipedia is now deeply ingrained in the world's information gathering workflows. As we like to say, "discovery happens on Wikipedia." The traffic of 1.5 billion unique devices accessing Wikipedia 15 billion times every month with more than 6,000 page views every second is astounding. Wikipedia results are often on the first page on Google and excerpted in the popular "knowledge panel" summarizing the googled topic. As such, Wikipedia is used by almost everybody looking for information online. It's like the virtual front page of every library.
Seven years after starting The Wikipedia Library, active editors now have access to 100,000 free, high-quality academic journals, a sizable portion of the world's scholarship through their library. The program supports volunteers in their unpaid labor with access to research in a way that any research university worth its salt would do. In the battle against ignorance, I wanted Wikipedians overflowing with reliable sources. The project was initially just a volunteer effort; it expanded under an individual grant by the Wikimedia Foundation; then it then adopted as a core Foundation program. The Wikipedia Library now spans a team on four continents working with dozens of communities and publishers to improve Wikipedia's reliability and research.
At times the signs of Wikipedia's evolution into the mainstream are surprising, even to diehards like me. When I see headlines that Wikipedia is used by over 90% of medical students, incorporated into expensive library databases for background information, cited in federal court documents, and relied on by Fortune 100 companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Youtube, I can't believe how far we have come. Looking back on the journey, I beam inside with the validation of our mission: Wikipedia had made it.
And along with Wikipedia and the Wikipedia Library, I had made it, too. I had a stable regimen of psychiatric support from a quiver of medications and therapists, I had found a life partner—also a Wikipedian—and married her, nearly five years after we first met at Wikimania D.C. in 2012. It took me 10 years of wandering around Colorado and living back at home with my parents to get my head on straight. As I stabilized, my network of peers, colleagues, and friends filled with people dedicated to this unending, radical project.
It was a winding path, but at the core was a belief in human potential, the power of collaboration, and social interactions enhanced via technology. Intellectual curiosity was fuel for my reemergence and growth.
It was the drive to understand how communities function, and how knowledge is created and shared that hooked me on Wikipedia. Even when I was most wayward, I was craving deep puzzles—and Wikipedia was an endless bounty of ideas and questions and challenges. As project chronicler Bill Beutler of The Wikipedian put it in his essay " "All I Really Needed to Know I Learned Editing Wikipedia", Wikipedia was a fertile space to learn to live and be in a complex world:
So, does all this mean Wikipedia is perfect? Heck, no! What I mean is that it’s an excellent place not just to soak up the sum of all human knowledge, but also to learn how to conduct oneself in a society riven with conflict and ambiguity, where might sometimes seems to make right and in the end all one can really be certain about having the power to safeguard is one’s own integrity. Maybe that’s a dim view of the world, but when you consider all the bad things that happen every day, you know, getting into (and out of) an edit war on Wikipedia is a relatively safe and surprisingly practical way to learn some key lessons about life."
As I look around at the new challenges I face now—having moved across the country to Santa Cruz, inherited an intrepid 8-year old stepdaughter, and begun to grapple with what it means to have privilege and influence in the digital ecosystem—it is ever more clear to me that Wikipedia, too, is at a seeming apex that is, in fact, just the beginning of its next needed evolution.
“In truth, laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing; from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all possess something and none has too much.”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
The pillars and choices that set Wikipedia's legitimacy into motion also imbued it with the roots of its future flaws. Having achieved a high degree of ubiquity, and increasingly legitimacy, Wikipedia now faces new and deep challenges around equity and inclusion, marginalization and representation, global participation and awareness—systemic bias, in short. Reaching the top of one mountain—whether of public respect, or personal recovery—is funny in that way, because it makes life richer but definitely not simpler.
While Wikipedia outgrew critics’ skepticism of its early and teenage years, the community itself is only beginning to grapple with its entrenched gaps and inequities. In besting Britannica at its own game, had we accidentally recreated the same western-dominant, traditional structures of power and privilege? After all, the Enlightenment period I studied in college was not only a scientific resurgence; it was a period rife with inequality, enslavement, and domination. Enlightenment as a term now evokes as much shame as pride—for what it cost, and for who disproportionately bore that cost.
To keep these issues from seeming too abstract, or postmodern, I like to think about Emily Temple-Wood, the intrepid English Wikipedia administrator who was profiled in a story called "One Woman's Brilliant Fuck You to Wikipedia Trolls". Temple-Wood, a rare woman editor, and even an administrator since the age of 12, faced a torrent of rape threats, death threats, sexually explicit comments, and derogatory harassing remarks. They intruded on her Wikipedia talk page, and her personal email. They intruded on her life.
I remember the day when I was standing with Emily outside a conference room waiting to discuss, of all things, marginalization on Wikipedia. That's when another email hit, and it hit a nerve so deep that Emily threw her cell phone at the wall, in anger and disgust that she had been targeted again. Rather than lay victimized by the most recent attack, Emily made a profoundly badass decision: for every threat she received, she would write a new article about a woman scientist. For every violation of her emotional and psychology safety, she would etch another invisible woman into the record of history.
Wikipedia, as much as it is a playground for intellectual discourse, is also a battleground for women, people of color, indigenous people, people living outside North America and Europe, and LGBTQIA+ people (those once-called “minorities” indeed constitute a majority of the world). It is the white, western male editing core that is the geographic minority, and yet this group yields a tremendous amount of power. How did young, isolated, brainy, hobbyists—who took refuge in collaborative knowledge production—develop hostile practices of exclusion and abuse? How did meritocracy go so awry?
In his prescient essay "Free as in Sexist", Joseph Reagle posits that meritocracy itself is in no way a valueless orientation. A predisposition towards "openness" is on its face equal, but it is actually a choice on a spectrum that values liberty over something different. A community that chooses freedom from external constraints inevitably blocks off paths for the freedom to perform a host of constructive individual and communal tasks.
The distinction between so-called negative (freedom from) and positive freedoms (freedom to) were chronicled in 20th century political theory first in intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty". Development economist Amaratya Sen's 1999 book Development as Freedom went further to include not just freedom to associate and speak, or freedom to engage in opportunities, but also protection from relationships rife with power imbalances and exclusion from choices. Positive freedom requires intervention from group and institutional actors to give more people the likelihood of achieving what they want together.
While a more holistic conception of freedom is helpful, an orientation towards liberty in general ignores its opposite pole, elegantly framed by activist and Wikipedian Sumana Harihareswara: hospitality. In her powerful speech on nurturing learning environments, Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned she noted:
The Wikimedia movement really privileges liberty, way over hospitality. And for many people in the Wikimedia movement, free speech, as John Scalzi put it, is the ability to be a dick in every possible circumstance. Criticize others in any words we like, change each other's words, and do anything that is not legally prohibited. Hospitality, on the other hand, is thinking more about right speech, just speech, useful speech, and compassion. We only say and do things that help each other. The first responsibility of every citizen is to help each other achieve our goals, and make each other happy. I think these two views exist on a spectrum, and we are way over to one side, and moving closer to the middle would help everyone learn better and would help us keep and grow our contributor base.
Author of The Wisdom of Crowds James Surowiecki posits that in order for a crowd to be wise, and to match or outperform an expert, there must not only be a sufficient number of people, but they must be diverse in point of view, independent from one another in thinking and acting, and decentralized so they can aggregate many tasks. Wikipedia thrives with great numbers of people, who coordinate their behaviors loosely, from all around the world—but diversity is an area where we are far behind. Though political articles may balance well between left and right sides of the political spectrum, the broader landscape of volunteers looks a lot like me: white, male, college-educated, middle class, and from North America (or western Europe).
One irony of Wikimedia's ad hoc "do-ocracy" is how many rules it still has and how those rules advantage and disadvantage certain groups. The most stringent of Wikipedia's policies are those around notability and reliable sources. Put simply, these dictate what can exist on Wikipedia. And for generations past and living, for women of color, African scientists, queer activists, and trans artists, the ability to exist on Wikipedia is tantamount to existing online at all.
One of the most inconsistently applied areas of the notability guideline is with "underrepresented" topics. More than a tautology, these are topic areas on Wikipedia that have less coverage than the sources available about them warrant. This is a natural consequence of editors writing about what they know, and deleting what they do not. In a movement with significant demographic imbalances, the result—without intention or malice—is areas that don't receive significant coverage on Wikipedia despite meaningful coverage in other domains. Further, because they are unfamiliar, they receive more scrutiny when they are written.
There's a self-fulfilling belief in Wikipedia that people who have been forced to live on the margins of society and social power are of marginal notability. Attempting to right notability's wrongs can make it seem like one wants to overrepresent the marginal, but to achieve encyclopedic completeness, what we need to do is something totally different: correctly represent the marginalized.
Sometimes there is simply no information about these subjects available in sources that are reputable by Wikipedia's standards. But very often this is a conflation of how Wikipedians see importance when it intersects with a certain “otherness”and a perceived lack of status. Living on the borderline of society does not equate to being of borderline importance. Very often it is precisely the figures who move from the fringes to influence the mainstream who are shifting the frontier of how humans view themselves and treat others, making an outsized impact on the world.
When we make these judgments, we should not only look to "mainstream" sources for proof; we need to look specifically to the reliable sources in these communities from which these figures emerge to establish their notability. The typical criteria for notability of an article in Wikipedia is when multiple independent reliable sources exist about the subject. Here is a complementary definition: a person who had a noticeable impact on a community as recognized in that community's most reputable sources. Call that a "community standard" of notability.
Communities differ in the types of sources that exist about them. Power influences who is covered in "mainstream" written, academic sources. Marginalized groups are often best studied and reported on in sources Wikipedia deems "unreliable".
Wikipedia's definition for reliability in a source means having a "reputation for fact-checking and accuracy." In practice, this subjective rubric for evaluating the prestige of journals and books and newspapers leaves out whole swathes of knowledge including oral, indigenous, and community knowledge. Sources about marginalized people may be not be "centered", but like trade journals—which are generally accepted as good sources on Wikipedia—they're niche and reliable. They locate notability in the context of the relevant community and reflect the myriad ways that knowledge is circulated and verified in the world.
“What wisdom can you find greater than kindness.”
― Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile
In August of 2018 I had the privilege of joining a group of queer, indigenous, and anti-caste activists organized by the internet equity campaign Whose Knowledge?. Our task, in four days, was to write a book. Our Stories, Our Knowledges laid out in painful detail how Wikipedia and the broader internet serves the world, but it doesn't yet include or reflect the knowledge and contributions of so many people in it.
In a room where I was, for once, the only white man, I felt honored to be present with people whose lives were touched but not extinguished by oppression. I admired them, as it was clear they had so much knowledge I couldn't yet see, or would never have stumbled across on my own. Our task was not to destroy Wikipedia, but
to re-conceive of it through new eyes—and to bring new voices to it. The voices in that room were full of anger but also an incandescent yearning to make sure they were not ignored or made invisible again. In spite of the dispiriting state of their worlds, and the lack of articles about their cultures, there was pride and laughter—a warmth and care for each other.
I admire what we built in Wikipedia, but as I looked around that room I realized we need to remake it—as I had done to myself years before—all over again.