Wikipedia’s Market of Ideas

Ten years ago today, one of the greatest information resources on the Internet — perhaps the greatest – was born. Without commissioning a single expert, the English version of Wikipedia has grown to encompass 3.5 million articles. That number goes up to 17 million if you include all the other language editions of the online encyclopedia.    

Observers often speak of Wikipedia as a product of the democratization of media. Just like each person has a vote in a democracy, anyone can create or edit an article on Wikipedia. While this captures an important element of the Wikipedia phenomena, it fails to grasp a more significant feature behind the encyclopedia’s success.

Rather than manifesting a political process, Wikipedia is better characterized as an intellectual arena in which market mechanisms have been adopted with a view to generating truth.  An individual who contributes to Wikipedia effectively “sells” information. The person who reads a Wikipedia article and accepts what’s been written there has essentially “bought” the information. 

This intellectual mode of exchange conduces to the production of truth both through competition and the aggregation of dispersed knowledge. On Wikipedia, sellers must vie against each other to gain the favour of buyers by providing the most correct and complete information on the topic at hand. Errors and ommissions thus get weeded out through the editing process. And, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out, market forces assimilate into prices all the bits of relevant knowledge held by numerous, separately located, individuals. Similarly, Wikipedia enables a couple of amateur astronomers in Perth and Seville to bring their unique insights to bear on an article on Saturn, which an expert on the ringed planet may not have known.

Despite the many criticisms that have been made about Wikipedia’s accuracy over the years, the online encyclopedia holds up rather well.  An oft-cited study determined that a selection of Wikipedia’s science articles were equal in accuracy to those in the Encylopedia Britannica. Several years ago, I analyzed Wikipedia’s articles on seven great philosophers, comparing their contents to the consensus view culled from several histories of philosophy. While I identified significant ommissions, there were no errors.

The article, where I also elaborate on the notion expressed here of Wikipedia as a market of ideas, was published in Media Tropes in 2009. An earlier version is also available here.

Happy 10th birthday Wikipedia! Your success is yet more proof that markets work.

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