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How Wikipedia’s silent coup ousted our traditional sources of knowledge

Yves Herman/Reuters

How Wikipedia’s silent coup ousted our traditional sources of knowledge

Yves Herman/Reuters

As Wikipedia turns 15, volunteer editors worldwide will be celebrating with themed cakes and edit-a-thons aimed at filling holes in poorly covered topics. It’s remarkable that a user-editable encyclopedia project that allows anyone to edit has got this far, especially as the website is kept afloat through donations and the efforts of thousands of volunteers. But Wikipedia hasn’t just become an important and heavily relied-upon source of facts: it has become an authority on those facts.

Through six years of studying Wikipedia I’ve learned that we are witnessing a largely silent coup, in which traditional sources of authority have been usurped. Rather than discovering what the capital of Israel is by consulting paper copies of Encyclopedia Britannica or geographical reference books, we source our information online. Instead of learning about thermonuclear warfare from university professors, we can now watch a YouTube video about it.

The ability to publish online cheaply has led to an explosion in the number and range of people putting across facts and opinion than was traditionally delivered through largely academic publishers. But rather than this leading to an increase in the diversity of knowledge and the democratisation of expertise, the result has actually been greater consolidation in the number of knowledge sources considered authoritative. Wikipedia, particularly in terms of its alliance with Google and other search engines, now plays a central role.

From outsider to authority

Once ridiculed for allowing anyone to edit it, Wikipedia is now the seventh most visited website in the world, and the most popular reference source among them. Wikipedia articles feature at the top of the majority of searches conducted on Google, Bing, and other search engines. In 2012, Google announced the Knowledge Graph which moved Google from providing possible answers to a user’s questions in the search results it offers, to providing an authoritative answer in the form of a fact box with content drawn from Wikipedia articles about people, places and things.

Perhaps the clearest indication of Wikipedia’s new authority is demonstrated by who uses it and regards its content as credible. Whereas governments, corporations and celebrities couldn’t have cared less whether they had a Wikipedia page in 2001, now tales of politicians, celebrities, governments or corporations (or their PR firms) ham-fistedly trying to edit Wikipedia articles on them to remove negative statements or criticism regularly appear in the news.

Happy 15th birthday Wikipedia! Beko, CC BY-SA

Wisdom of crowds

How exactly did Wikipedia become so authoritative? Two complementary explanations stand out from many. First, the rise of the idea that crowds are wise and the logic that open systems produce better quality results than closed ones. Second is the decline in the authority accorded to scientific knowledge, and the sense that scientific authorities are no longer always seen as objective or even reliable. As the authority of named experts housed in institutions has waned, Wikipedia, as a site that the majority of users believe is contributed to by unaffiliated and therefore unbiased individuals, has risen triumphant.

The realignment of expertise and authority is not new; changes to whom or what society deems credible sources of information have been a feature of the modern age. Authors in the field of the sociology of knowledge have written for decades about the struggles of particular fields of knowledge to gain credibility. Some have been more successful than others.

What makes today’s realignment different is the ways in which sources like Wikipedia are governed and controlled. Instead of the known, visible heads of academic and scientific institutions, sources like Wikipedia are largely controlled by nebulous, often anonymous individuals and collectives. Instead of transparent policies and methods, Wikipedia’s policies are so complex and numerous that they have become obscure, especially to newcomers. Instead of a few visible gatekeepers, the internet’s architecture means that those in control are often widely distributed and difficult to call to account.

Wikipedia is not neutral. Its platform has enabled certain languages, topics and regions to dominate others. Despite the difficulty of holding our new authorities of knowledge to account, it’s a challenge that’s critical to the future of an equitable and truly global internet. There are new powers in town, so alongside the birthday cake and celebrations there should be some reflection on who will watch Wikipedia and where we go from here.