Theory of Wikipedia

Theoretical underpinnings of Wikipedia explored

Scholars and writers last week pursued an active dialogue that explored several theoretical approaches to understanding how Wikipedia works. Lawrence Lessig's blog served as a focal point for these discussions, but the theme was taken up elsewhere as well.

Although the most active conversation came on Lessig's blog, the impetus for it actually derived from his absence. Lessig takes a month off from internet activity each year to spend time with his family, and he started his vacation this past week. Among the guest-bloggers who will be filling in for him is Jimmy Wales, who is scheduled for two weeks later in August.

The price of aggregation

The discussion was precipitated by Lessig's first substitute, law professor Cass Sunstein, who spent quite a bit of time discussing Wikipedia as a mechanism for aggregating information. His emphasis was on comparing Wikipedia and similar phenomena with the way prices in a market economy also have a function of collecting information. Sunstein asked, "When, in particular, will wikis and the blogosphere fail as mechanisms for aggregating dispersed information?"

Wales revealed that he considers Friedrich Hayek's work on price theory "central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project." The analogy to prices prompted consideration of one particular economics-based tool for aggregating information, prediction markets. This turned attention toward the speculation then raging about whom George W. Bush would be nominating for the US Supreme Court vacancy, an example of the type of news event for which Wikipedia is a popular source (see related story).

In response to Sunstein's challenge, a few people questioned whether wikis even succeed at aggregating information in the first place. Sunstein posited that it depended on the Condorcet jury theorem: In a group whose members have more than a 50% chance of being right, the likelihood of their average answer being correct approaches 100% as the number of members increases; meanwhile, if their chance of being right is below 50%, increases in group size cause the likelihood of the average being right to approach zero instead. He noted, however, that market systems would probably work better because they provide additional incentive to get the information right.

Wikipedia and avatars

Another approach to understanding Wikipedia came last Friday from Rohit Gupta in the USC Online Journalism Review. He describes Wikipedia as "a sprawling metropolis under construction by purpose-driven swarms", finding a particular parallel to the city of Mumbai (Bombay). Mixing in analogies to Hindu mythology, his analysis is called "The avatar versus the journalist: Making meaning, finding truth". Tlogmer called it "the best article about wikipedia I've read in ... well, ever."

Gupta paints a very colorful portrait, filled with constant activity. To highlight the creative process on Wikipedia, he uses the image of avatars extensively, noting that "it is the central idea of creation in Hindu mythology". The avatar in this case is the persona adopted by individual Wikipedia editors, and Gupta observes, "Each person can be many avatars".

Having brought in the Hindu imagery, Gupta points out the similarity in how its popular mythology developed using methods similar to Wikipedia based on "authorless, collaborative texts". He goes on to make a comparison of online culture to the development of human civilization. In this comparison, he says, wikis mark the point at which society moves out from "cave-dwelling" into a more settled life that "resembles agriculture and farming more than anything else."

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