The internet is a lot like Tommy Carcetti.
Remember him? He was the idealistic and ambitious politician in The Wire, who gets exactly what he wanted but loses his soul in the process. Sure, he ends the show (spoilers) on a high. However, he’s wrung out every drop of his youthful idealism in the process of getting there.
The same could be said for the internet, circa 2020. In an era of trolling, fake news, and whatever the hell YouTube comments sections are, it’s lost a lot of the sunny utopianism that shone just a few short decades ago. Today, terms like “Information Superhighway,” the colloquialism which sounded so plausible in the 1990s, seem as outdated as that decade’s love of tie-dye and flannel.
Everywhere except Wikipedia, that is. With more than 100,000 editors working together to create and maintain millions of articles in hundreds of languages, Wikipedia has a good claim to being the greatest large-scale collaborative project in human history. Like a robot Mr. Rogers, Wikipedia reminds us that we weren’t all being naively optimistic about what the internet could be. And, while it’s by no means an inevitable end-product of digital culture, if we can only bring ourselves to follow its example, it shows us that there’s a pretty good, unusually cordial neighborhood out there.
So long as we all take turns picking up litter and mowing the communal grounds.
Good faith collaboration
“Wikipedia’s success is dependent on the technology of the wiki, allowing open contribution by through easy edits and reverts,” Joseph Reagle, a communication professor at Northeastern University and co-editor of a forthcoming essay collection Wikipedia @ 20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution, told Digital Trends. “But tech isn’t some magic pixie-dust. Wikipedia also succeeded because of its objective: represent what is understood by way of reputable sources — and because of the founding culture, especially the norm of ‘Assume Good Faith.’”
Assuming good faith isn’t a quantity that’s in ready supply online. Yes, the internet has segmented us into polarized tribes, but the only thing that often seems to connect those tribes is hating on other tribes. It’s less an endorsement of the people we associate with online, and more a Silicon Valley update on the Sanskrit proverb that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. All massaged by some cynical filter bubble-promoting, keep-you-angry-at-all-costs billion dollar algorithms. Wikipedia is different. While it might look like another piece of the Web 2.0 puzzle, the fact that its millions of users haven’t descended into a Lord of the Flies-style dystopia of warring factions isn’t by chance.
Bots are the immune system of the Wikipedia ecosystem, but the humans aren’t bad, either.
As Reagle points out, some of that is down to technology. Bots are the immune system of the Wikipedia ecosystem: unseen entities that keep proverbial viruses at bay. But the humans aren’t bad, either.
“Wikipedia fosters a sense of community through giving everyone the ability to have an equal say in how things are run,” said TheSandDoctor, a Wikipedia editor and member of the Bot Approvals Group. “We favor arguments [based] not on numbers, but on their strength of logic and footing in policy. As such, we end up finding a way to collaborate together, despite sometimes vast differences of opinion. Our non-congruence and vast size, mixed with our collaborative spirit and policies, give us the ability to rise above the animosity frequently seen on platforms on the internet.”
The wisdom of crowds?
There is something weirdly old-school about Wikipedia culture. It is animated by a spirit which feels as if it belongs more to the original hacker ethic that gave birth, via a long and complicated labor, to modern cyberculture. It celebrates pro-social and good faith norms, and values deliberation over dopamine-delivering one-click instant rewards. Heck, even its notion of what comprises transparency is one that belongs to a happier, more utopian time back when when “transparency” meant you could prise something open and prod around inside, rather than simply transparency of use.
In some senses, Wikipedia is a champion of dot-communism; a digital Ivan Drago that’s not been KO’d by Rocky. It represents a flattened hierarchy before the web became a breeding ground for trillion-dollar unicorns.
“What’s distinctive about commons-based peer production in the networked economy is that widespread ownership of the physical capital necessary — personal computers, internet connections and global communications — meant that cooperation of this sort could encompass many more people, cooperating more smoothly,” said Yochai Benkler, faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
The internet doesn’t seem particularly Marxist any more. Wikipedia is not, of course, a radical takedown of capitalism. It does, after all, ask users to chip in their spare change to keep it running. And bots protect the pages of capitalist superheroes like Milton Friedman as much as they do Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.
But it does show another way, which runs counter to the conventional “one-person, one-vote” free market fundamentalism of internet life. It’s a model of social relations of production based on cooperation and mutual obligation. In the Wikipedia version of the world, checks on power actually work as a regulating force.
“I am careful to distance Wikipedia from the notion of the ‘wisdom of crowds,’” said Reagle. “That idea requires people to have independent and decentralized beliefs. Yes, Wikipedia is big, and benefits from many incremental contributions. But it is a community, with a culture, which is central to its success.”
Not the end destination
What has changed in the years since Wikipedia appeared, he said, is the “naive assumption” that Wikipedia was the exemplar. Some people looked at Wikipedia and imagined that, with a trajectory as predictable as Moore’s Law, the rest of the web would surely follow it to a place populated by non-profit collaborative platforms. “Apparently, this sort of thing is the exception,” Reagle said. “[It’s] one we need to continue to develop and protect.”
“This sort of thing is the exception. [It’s] one we need to continue to develop and protect.”
Benkler agrees. “I don’t think commons-based production is a panacea,” he said. “But it certainly provides a degree of freedom in the design of production systems in general — and information in particular — that can offer some counterweight to the distortions introduced by purely market-based, or purely state-based solutions.”
The SandDoctor points out that something unique about Wikipedia is that it’s stayed true to its vision of making the sum of human knowledge available for free. It’s not a social network or entertainment website which feels the need to balance increasing users or getting clicks with providing serious information. That makes it a rarity — but a rarity that doesn’t necessarily have to remain as such.
“I think that parts of the model offered by Wikipedia could certainly be used elsewhere,” TheSandDoctor said. “Aside from being used on the sister projects of Wikipedia, it could probably be used on any platform that has a strong shared vision/common defined goal — where, in principle, everyone is of equal editorial authority and consensus is paramount above the opinions of individual editors.”
Here’s to Wikipedia’s next 20 years! Hopefully it will continue to provide faith in humanity for another two decades and beyond.
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