What a wonderful invention Wikipedia is. Created in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia contains, as of April 2008, a staggering 10 million articles in 253 languages. These articles are written collaboratively by volunteers from around the world and nearly all of them can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet. The idea that you can organise an encyclopaedia in this way is tremendously counterintuitive and has of course led to criticism. The satirical online magazine, The Onion, captured this feeling with its spoof headline “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence”.
Of course there can be some embarrassing mistakes and deliberate acts of vandalism but I think Wikipedia has more than proved its worth. In fact, Wikipedia along with the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the subject of a fascinating comparative study by the scientific journal Nature in 2005. In 42 randomly selected articles they found 162 mistakes in Wikipedia versus 123 in Britannica. What was most revealing was the reaction of the two. The Encyclopaedia Britannica issued a rebuttal and demanded a retraction; Wikipedia corrected the mistakes.
The basis of Wikipedia is in part the open source movement and the ideas of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek. The open source movement believes in free collaborative software for everyone – the operating system Linux is probably the most famous example of this. Hayek argued that all knowledge is incomplete and dispersed among many separate individuals; the closest you can get to truth comes by aggregating as many of these partial understandings as possible. You can clearly see both of these strains in Wikipedia.
So, for me this is the lesson of Wikipedia that with a handful of full-time employees, a legion of unpaid volunteers, a lot of decentralised decision-making and no public funding it is possible to create something as beautiful as Wikipedia. I’m not saying this will work in every situation but it does without doubt send out a very powerful message.