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The Wonderful — and Weird — World of the Wikipedia

September 2005

In 1906 the British scientist Francis Galton, then in his 80s and still very curious about everything, visited a country fair and came upon a contest to judge the weight of an ox after it would be slaughtered and dressed. After the contest he collected the tickets on which the guesses had been written, and calculated the average of all the guesses.

The correct weight was 1,198 pounds, and the average guess was 1,197 — more accurate than the winning estimate.

This anecdote begins the fascinating book The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki (2004), which documents that often a group as a whole has as good as or better information than any individual expert in that group.

Another example. A submarine sank to the ocean bottom, and a naval officer was charged with finding the wreckage. Nothing was known other than the location of the sub when it sent its last communication. It was unknown how far after that it traveled, or what the malfunction was.

The admiral gathered a group of experts with diverse backgrounds: submarine technology, mathematicians, salvage specialists, etc. He had developed some scenarios had them individually bet on which was most likely.

He then used a formula to analyze their response and came up with a location that was different from that suggested by any individual expert. The sub was found 220 yards from that estimated location.

Surowiecki explains why the wisdom of crowds works and the factors necessary to make it work well (and how it sometimes breaks down). It’s important for the individuals involved to be diverse, independent, and decentralized. And he discusses a wide range of ways this has been implemented, from betting to the stock market to so-called decision markets.

I thought of this wisdom of crowds when I was recently looking at the Wikipedia web site. This is the world’s largest encyclopedia, with over 600,000 articles in English (nearly 10 times as many articles as the Encyclopedia Britannica).

Who writes this encyclopedia? Anyone can contribute who wants to. Who edits the articles? Anyone who wants to. Does a particular editor or expert or committee check to make sure the article is accurate? Nope. Or rather, every person visiting the page is checking on the accuracy.

The result has become a reference tool that’s useful beyond what anyone imagined it could be, given the open nature of the project. Some of the entries I’ve looked at have been just excellent. I did note one article that has inaccuracies. (Which means, of course, that I ought to go in there and correct it, which I plan to do.)

So what happens if, say, you go to a particular entry and simply insert (ohymygosh) an obscenity or deliberate misinformation or otherwise vandalize the page. A study showed that, on average, the damage is removed by another visitor in 1.7 minutes.

The whole thing can be a little disorienting at first. I kept trying to find a voice of authority. I went to the page that tells what the Wikipedia is and that gives various facts, such as how many articles it contains. This page is open for anyone to edit. I went to the page of instructions and policies for contributing to the Wikipedia, and that page can itself be edited by anyone. However, the home page itself is protected from editing. (But you can post suggestions.)

Occasionally Wikipedia wars do break out, according to an article in Time magazine. In the 2004 presidential election, the founder of the Wikipedia had to lock the articles on Bush and Kerry.

The Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, a former options trader, to satisfy his twin passions of encyclopedias and the Internet. He actually just used some simple, freely available software called wiki and developed by Ward Cunningham in 1995 (wiki.org). Cunningham wanted to create software that would let people collaborate on writing software manuals, confident that having contributions from many people with varied experience would help create something more complete and useful.

In practice, it has worked well and is now used in many different kinds of collaborative settings. But then with advent of the Wikipedia, the phenomenon has exploded, and there is now Wikinews (international news), (Wikibooks (free textbooks and manuals), Wiktionary (dictionary and thesaurus), Wikiquote (a substantial collection of quotations), and more. (Find links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page).

It’s all a weird and wonderful wisdom of the crowd.

© 2005 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen