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The activists' democracy

Mixed feelings about Wikipedia? There is no reason why.


[oslo, norway] There is a lot we can say about the time we live in, but boring it is not. If multiculturalism is not being discussed (possibly caricatured), it is climate or China. The future is so open that we do not even understand the present as a product of the past anymore.

One of this year's major themes seems to be the copyright of intellectual property. There are many arguments for disputing classical principles here. The artists get paid, and the quality gets better when there are royalty agreements and editorials involved in the production and distribution of intellectual property. But it is not always the prevailing system that is the best.

Take Linux and Open Source for example

the movement, which represents the opposite of Microsoft. All programs are free, and are the result of a long-running, ongoing programming effort performed by thousands of enthusiasts around the world. Linux is a genuinely anarchic product, based on trust and flat networking.

In another part of the information world, Wikipedia stands for the same values ​​as Linux. The opposite is Encyclopedia Britannica, the encyclopedia's answer to Microsoft (or was it the other way around?) Wikipedia is, as most readers know, a free online encyclopedia that currently exists in 250 language versions (both major variants of Norwegian are represented). Anyone who wants can write new or edit existing articles. In practice, most contributors are anonymous.

Wikipedia can be considered as a spectacular global hub. The English edition now contains about one and a half million articles. The Norwegian (Bokmål) is approaching a hundred thousand and is globally in eleventh place.

Unlike paper / DVD-based encyclopedias, Wikipedia can be seen as a living organism, possibly a self-correcting system. An administrator told me that the articles about certain famous people were regularly subjected to vandalism, but that it usually took less than an hour before the errors were corrected. This was also the experience of Canadian academic Alexander Halavais, who deliberately misread 13 articles to test the system. It took less than three hours for all errors to be corrected, and some of the errors could only be detected by specialists, such as the claim that anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass had lived in Syracuse, NY.

Still, many remain skeptical of Wikipedia. It has been shown that articles that are not read as often can contain some serious errors over time, and it is easy to find imprecisions, minor errors and inadequacies in this lexicon jungle.

Another danger is that articles can be tendentious and based on debatable priorities. As Michael Gorman, former head of the American Library Association, says, it's actually a problem that you never know if you're reading an article written by a specialist or by someone riding a fad. And he is right: some articles appear to be tendentious and twisted, and some are longer than they should be while others are shorter – but there are fewer than you might think.

I use Wikipedia quite often and in several languages, and I am constantly impressed by the thoroughness and the accuracy of many of the articles. Gaps are inevitable, but they fill up over time. Active users rate and recommend articles, and the body of text is constantly updated. It's almost as if WWW was created for the sake of this kind of collective project. Furthermore, when the articles are too short, too bad or full of small errors and irrelevant, it is your mistake. Wikipedia does not distinguish between us and them. All users are responsible for the content. More anarchist, it is difficult to imagine the production of knowledge. In that case, it had to be if the contributors were listed with their full name, but is that too much to demand?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo.

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