Wiki-ki Yay? Not so Fast

Review of

Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014, 312 pp.

For people who work with information, Wikipedia is endlessly fascinating because of its swift emergence as an everyday source of usually reliable facts and observations about people, places, and things. Yet despite the curious self-organizing, egalitarian, and noncommercial features of Wikipedia, and its vast popularity among students and professionals alike, there’s never been a scholarly book-length introduction to how the Web encyclopedia works.

Until now. In Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia, Dariusz Jemielniak, a Polish scholar of organizations and management, provides a revealing insider’s account of Wikipedia. It runs so counter to the general belief about the encyclopedia that the book might be titled “Everything You Think You Know about Wikipedia Is Wrong.” Contrary to the belief of fans of Wikipedia that the online encyclopedia is an openly editable agglomeration of the world’s published information—a democratic artifact containing the “wisdom” of a highly organized and intelligent “crowd”—the process of construction and reconstruction depends on a hierarchical bureaucracy, with relatively few contributions from novices and newcomers. The bulk of the editorial work, it seems, comes from a core group of veteran editors who keep close watch on one another through digital means.

Common Knowledge Cover

Jemielniak, an associate professor of management at Kozminski University in Warsaw, wasn’t looking to challenge the received wisdom about Wikipedia when he joined as a volunteer editor in 2007. His book, the result of six years of study, is part scholarship and part memoir, the result of his decision to become a participant observer in what is arguably the most important collaborative community, not only in cyberspace, but anywhere in the world.

Print encyclopedias, of course, have a long history. Since the Enlightenment, they have played a crucial role in codifying and transmitting essential knowledge about the world. Diderot, the 18th-century Frenchman of letters, created the first Encyclopédie in the 1750s, describing in a subtitle his innovative work as “a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts” (or so Wikipedia informs me).

Encyclopedias became a staple of intellectual and literary life. By the 20th century, encyclopedias were carefully controlled collective endeavors led by distinguished editors, in which the reputations of contributors were as important as what their entries conveyed. The Encyclopedia Britannica illustrated the apotheosis of the vast multivolume, multipurpose tome, offering an answer to virtually any question. With less fanfare, hundreds if not thousands of important encyclopedias also populated the reference sections of libraries and the homes of esoteric scholars and middle-class suburbanites alike.

The Web killed the encyclopedia. Call the death a consequence of creative destruction. In a monumental unintended consequence, the rise of the Web altered the way knowledge is stored, codified, and valued. If technological change were only about substitution, about replacing one system with another, the Web should have spawned an online encyclopedia run and written by experts, most likely scholars and scientists, probably based at universities. Those scholars and scientists would probably be paid an honorarium for their written contributions, which would carry their byline and perhaps even a brief bio. The very cost of updating entries would mean that the Web encyclopedia would be more rigid and static than a living document, but trivial corrections, of errors and misapprehensions, would be made quickly and often.

Or so Jimmy Wales believed. Yes, the founder of Wikipedia had a false start, which unfortunately Jemielniak doesn’t say much about. It seems that Wales, now legendary for his visionary understanding of how total strangers could be mobilized to create and update a living account of all aspects of civilization, at first launched an encyclopedia written by experts, built around a model very similar to print encyclopedias from long ago. The only signal difference would be that the encyclopedia Wales envisioned would exist online, available only on a screen rather than in a bound volume. In short, what Wales called “Nupedia” would be pure substitution.

To his surprise, Wales received little interest from experts whom he thought might altruistically share their knowledge in exchange for the notional appreciation of a better-informed society. After about a year of pushing his Nupedia, Wales shifted gears. In January 2001, he launched Wikipedia, conceived of as a Web encyclopedia for which anyone could write and edit. Wales embraced a real-world experiment in harvesting the best of the proverbial “wisdom of crowds,” thus deeming experts an unaffordable luxury—and dangerously antidemocratic and elitist to boot. Within a year, the new Wikipedia offered 20,000 original articles. In its second year, the community wrote and edited 100,000 more articles. Thus Wales, on his second try, had “an instant success,” Jemielniak notes.

In time, Wikipedia became unstoppable, the Web equivalent of a personal research assistant. Pranks and vandal attacks, while requiring Wikipedia to become less porous, also reinforced its growing significance. (Who, after all, sprays graffiti on walls no one sees?) In 2013, the vaunted Encyclopedia Britannica stopped publishing a print edition. And now, wholly dependent on the ease and speed of an online encyclopedia, knowledge workers and curiosity seekers from around the globe could only complain about what appeared to many to be the high wall that had come to surround the process of constructing and maintaining Wikipedia entries. Not only did a thicket of rules and norms prevent newcomers from readily contributing to the encyclopedia, the daily grind of reversing acts of vandalism, well-intended lapses, sly reputation enhancements, and sheer stupidity made Wikipedia less open and more rigid.

In recounting the rise of Wikipedia, Jemielniak justly celebrates the achievements of the open-collaborative movement of knowledge organization. But he questions the price. A “growing body of rules tends to increase the power of old-timers and deter newcomers from participating in Wikipedia,” Jemielniak writes. Trust in procedures trumps the real-world credentials of contributors, and “encourages non-experts to participate.” But “Wikipedians” find it “practically impossible,” Jemielniak says, to use their contributions to the encyclopedia to advance their public reputation or career. No articles are signed, after all, and edits can be made without approval or even review of the principal author. These practices alienate experts, and “Wikipedia already suffers from low expert retention,” Jemielniak notes.

Not only are professional credentials and established reputations irrelevant, even real identities matter little. “Editing with a consistent identity” seems more important than participating with an accurate identity, Jemielniak writes. “Users are allowed to introduce themselves any way they want,” which “provides a clean slate for all participants.” While seeking to remove barriers to engagement and provide a greater diversity of experience and input, anonymity creates the potential for mischief and fraud.

Jemielniak recounts a revealing episode in which an active contributor, who embellished his personal biography to enhance the appearance of the quality of his knowledge of religious subjects, was quoted in a prominent article about Wikipedia in The New Yorker. In the aftermath, the Wikipedian was unmasked, and the widespread practice of contributors telling fibs about themselves to others in the community came under scrutiny. Jemielniak recounts how Wales tried and failed to curtail misrepresentation by contributors in their behind-the-scenes dealings with other editors. The backlash from Wikipedians who wished to preserve the ability to mask their true identities overwhelmed Wales, and he relented, though only after the perpetrator named in The New Yorker unceremoniously departed from the Wikipedia ranks.

To be sure, there’s something amazing going on when “expertise [is] no longer embodied in a person but in a process,” and in “the wisdom of crowds,” as Jemielniak (and many others) insist. But this crowd isn’t representative of human diversity, unfortunately. What Jemielniak worryingly labels as Wikipedia’s “disregard for formal expertise” distressingly carries over to categories of race and gender. More than 90% of the community’s editors and writers are men. Female participation may be declining. So small are the numbers of nonwhite contributors that Wikipedia doesn’t even bother to publish a breakdown.

Whereas Wikipedia promotes a discourse of equality and openness, the community, because of its lack of diversity and patterns of centralized control, seems closed to newcomers.

These shortcomings are no mere artifact of political correctness. Whereas Wikipedia promotes a discourse of equality and openness, the community, because of its lack of diversity and patterns of centralized control, seems closed to newcomers, which is especially troubling because the Wikipedia community would seem to need an infusion of newcomers if it wishes to attract the talents of women and people of color. Fears of elitism and benign autocracy abound. Near the end of his study, Jemielniak openly worries that “the seemingly chaotic, anachronistic, and laissez-faire organization” of Wikipedia “is, in fact, susceptible to extremely tight control through observation and registration of all behavior.”

So tight is that control that Jemielniak repeatedly likens participating in Wikipedia to serving time in a high-security prison. “Wikipedia resembles a Panopticon…everybody is watched by everybody else, and all actions remain on the record forever,” he writes. According to Jemielniak, the coterie of active editors who maintain a close eye on each other and other contributors have, perhaps unintentionally, created a conservative climate where members worry—even obsess—about offending others in their tribe as much as they toil to maintain the quality of their entries. The implication is that an environment of hypersurveillance, while ensuring accountability and enabling members to quickly identify and undo errors, also limits the range and depth of topics on offer.

For all his strengths as a chronicler of Wikipedia, Jemielniak has a few blind spots beyond the stubborn questions around race and ethnicity that he neglects. As a participant as well as an observer, he is sometimes too close to fellow Wikipedians. Because he’s a heavyweight within the Polish-language Wiki-encyclopedia, he draws on many examples from his Warsaw crowd, often with brain-numbing detail. Similarly, although his command of Wikipedia’s sprawling internal procedures is impressive, even breathtaking, his engagement with esoteric internal debates between contributors is tedious and bewildering at times. Finally, because his personal biography—white male geek—tracks the dominant profile of Wikipedians, he does little more than identify homogeneity as a social problem but not as a threat to the character and quality of whatever knowledge Wikipedia provides beyond the quotidian, the immediately verifiable, and the statistical.

He’s also prone to unsupported leaps on the subject of whether “Wikipedia is just one example of a broader revolution in knowledge production.” Here Jemielniak commits a flagrant category error by failing to acknowledge and account for the crucial distinction between the codification of existing knowledge and the creation of new knowledge. Scholarship, after all, is never the mere assembly of what is known but always strives to expand the territory of the known, to help us look at the world anew.

By never establishing and exploring the differences between curation and construction of knowledge, Jemielniak commits a dangerous conflation; he wants to present Wikipedia, and its organizational innovations, as essential to future styles of knowledge production. Yet Jemielniak repeatedly highlights the existence of Wikipedia’s prohibition against introducing any original research into articles. Everything must be sourced and, essentially, presented as secondhand information.

Serving as a broker of knowledge is of course an important achievement for a group of volunteers who are spread across the globe and presenting material in many languages (the English Wikipedia remains by far the largest encyclopedia). But assembling and managing knowledge, however significant, differs substantially from creating new knowledge. In his timely and thorough account of a seminal sociotechnical movement, Jemielniak fails to persuasively argue that a nonhierarchal, anti-elitist organization, working with scant monetary or reputational rewards, can either mount or sustain an enterprise devoted to knowledge creation. For Wikipedia, as for the Internet as a technoscientific system, there remain limits.

G. Pascal Zachary, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, is the author of Show Stopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft.

Cite this Article

Zachary, G. Pascal. “Wiki-ki Yay? Not so Fast.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 93–95.

Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Summer 2015