In Wikipedia We Trust

Trusting in trustworthiness

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Wikipedia

Of course you use Wikipedia. A decade or so ago, when the printed Encyclop√¶dia Britannica was still a thing, everyone who wasn’t a high-school essay writer griped about how Wikipedia was the worst, couldn’t be trusted, and wasn’t a real encyclopedia anyway. Today, it’s the fifth most popular web site on the internet. It’s still not a real encyclopedia in the traditional sense of the word. But it is trusted. When you browse to any page on the site, you visit with the expectation that everything you read there will either be correct, will include links to the actual information, or will have a parallel argument happening on the “Talk” page about how the content needs to be made even more accurate.

Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced property, but so are public landfills, and we seldom visit them. Other popular sites like Facebook and YouTube are used with the understanding that you can’t believe everything you see online. But that’s not the case with Wikipedia. Sure, people say it can’t be trusted. But they use it anyway, as if it is fully trustworthy, and that’s strange. As humans who have been burned or spurned in the past, we are quick to withdraw our trust. It only takes about a week before I start sniffing the milk in the fridge. Some of the most popular movies and TV shows are based on deceit, mistrust, and suspicion. And then there’s the 2016 presidential election.

But people do trust Wikipedia, despite it being edited by millions of people you’ve never met, and likely wouldn’t immediately trust in person. In a 2006 presentation, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, discussed the nature of trust on the site, comparing it to the same trust inherent in restaurants that put steak knives on every table. What’s to stop customers from stabbing each other? What’s to stop people from mucking up the encyclopedia? For Wales, trust itself is the reason that Wikipedia remains a trustworthy resource, and that by entrusting the public with a resource, they voluntarily make it a good resource.

When you prevent people from doing bad things [by locking down a resource], there is often very direct and obvious side effects, that you prevent them from doing good things…. This kind of philosophy of trying to make sure that no one can hurt each other actually eliminates all the opportunities for trust.
— Jimmy Wales

I don’t know if I would extend Wales’ philosophy to all aspects of my life. Opening my bank account as a public, trusted resource would probably end up bad, at least for me. And for complex resources such as a hydroelectric dam, where high levels of expertise are required for key components, a fully open and public management system could put the project itself, or things downstream from the project, at risk. But for resources where the bar to entry is relatively low, and the risk is dissipated across the entire system, public management seems to work.

Each year, the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, does one of those NPR-style fundraising drives. There are naysayers who insist that the Foundation is stealing your money and doesn’t need all of that cash. Whatever. All I know is that the tiny amount I donate to them each year doesn’t come close to the value I get from the site. If you, like me, think of Wikipedia as your first step on your way to more advanced research opportunities, then you might want to consider your own donation to the group.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wikipedia is trusted because the editors are often ruthless in their editing to upkeep standard guidelines they seem obsessed over. Yes I donate every year too because it is an invaluable resource that was nonexistent and mostly outdated.

  2. You make a good point about the tenacity of those editors. The “Talk” pages I mention in the article are evidence of that. Some of the discussions between the most active editors get quite heated, especially on controversial topics.

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