Wikipedia and Ants

December/January 2006/2007

An individual ant is pretty dumb. But a colony of ants is fairly intelligent. This perplexed scientists for a long time. How was it that a colony of dumb ants could find food so efficiently and carry out other functions so intelligently — without individual ants being able to do this on their own and without a leader?

Another long-unanswered question was how a flock of birds was able to coordinate its flight. Scientists determined that an entire flock would change direction at the same time, and in a fashion that made it impossible for some sort of lead bird to be signaling to the others to change direction.

In this instance and many similar ones, scientists tried to answer the question by first looking for a leader, some element in the system that was orchestrating the activity and creating order. In other words, a top-down system.

They eventually discovered that there is no leader, that the order emerged from the bottom up.  Each individual, following simple basic rules, leads to the emergence of orderliness that was more than the sum of the parts. (The simple rule for birds: stay close to my neighbor but don’t collide.)

I’m an expert in this, because I just read the book Emergence, by Steven Johnson. Seriously, it’s become a very useful principle that explains a wide range of phenomena — from the behavior of neurons to slime molds to ants and even to cities.

As I read the book I kept thinking about Wikipedia — the ultimate demonstration of the principle of emergence.

Wikipedia is counterintuitive — an encyclopedia that anyone can write. Including me. I am now a bona fide Wikipedian, spending a half hour each day editing articles, adding content, changing wording, deleting material that breaks the cardinal Wikipedia rule of maintaining a neutral point of view.

It’s counterintuitive because it works as well as it does. There are now about 1.5 million articles in English in Wikipedia, many of them just excellent. It’s become the most widely used encyclopedia. You’d think that there would need to be some sort of top-down control to maintain quality, that encyclopedia articles are best written by experts.

In fact, that was the original notion of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who started a free online encyclopedia called Nupedia that he intended to have written only by authorities in each field. In 2000 he found a partner, put together a plan, contacted scholars — and after a year he had 21 articles.

It wasn’t working. Then his partner told him about wikis, online collaborative environments for creating documents. Wales had the idea that maybe this could help expedite the creation of his authoritative encyclopedia. So in January of 2001 he put Wikipedia online and e-mailed his list of experts, saying that here was an opportunity to put up quick drafts of things they’re working on so that other people can contribute to them. His plan was to select the best for his authoritative encyclopedia.

What happened next surprised him: an explosion of content. After a year his Wikipedia had 20,000 articles and was growing exponentially. And much of the content was better than he expected.

To his credit, Jimmy Wales then had a brilliant insight: dump the authoritative encyclopedia and make Wikipedia the focus. This was a new phenomenon, and he was eager to let it develop.

Today Wikipedia has five employees. Yes, five. Imagine that — probably the largest collaborative enterprise in the world and almost no one at the helm.

But what has happened is an emergent orderliness. Jimmy Wales established five fundamental rules: no original research (everything must cite authoritative sources), neutral point of view, anyone can edit, be civil in interactions with others, and Wikiipedia does not have firm rules beyond these five fundamental principles.

Unleash millions of contributors bound by simple rules, and what emerges is the world’s largest encyclopedia. Like other emergent systems, this one is characterized by lots of local interactions following simple principles.

Of course, in those interactions arise many differing opinions, styles of writing, disagreements about facts. One of the amazing things about Wikipedia is that what has evolved is not just an encyclopedia but also an entire edifice of informal guidelines and administrators. Look behind the scenes of a controversial article on the corresponding Discussion page and you’ll likely see heated exchanges. And sometimes you’ll even see volunteer Administrators blocking people who violate the principles. Also, various mechanisms of mediation and arbitration have evolved.

And from this seeming cacophony of differing opinions emerges an encyclopedia, like a flock of birds in flight.

© 2007 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen