Ten years ago today, one of the greatest information resources on the Internet — perhaps the greatest – was born.Â Without commissioning a single expert, the English version of Wikipedia has grown toÂ encompass 3.5 million articles. That number goes up to 17 million if you include all the otherÂ language editions of the online encyclopedia. Â Â Â
Observers often speak of Wikipedia as a product of the democratization of media. Just likeÂ each personÂ 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, WikipediaÂ is better characterized as an intellectualÂ arena in whichÂ market mechanismsÂ have been adoptedÂ with a view to generating truth.Â Â An individual who contributes to Wikipedia effectively “sells” information.Â The person who reads a Wikipedia article and accepts what’s been written thereÂ has essentially “bought” the information.Â
This intellectual mode of exchangeÂ conduces to the production of truth both through competition and the aggregation of dispersed knowledge.Â On Wikipedia, sellers must vieÂ against eachÂ otherÂ to gain the favour of buyers by providing the mostÂ correct andÂ complete information on the topic at hand. Errors and ommissions thus get weeded out through the editing process. And, as FriedrichÂ HayekÂ pointed out, market forces assimilate into pricesÂ all the bits of relevantÂ knowledge held by numerous, separately located, individuals. Similarly, Wikipedia enables a couple of amateur astronomers in Perth and Seville to bring their unique insightsÂ to bear on an article on Saturn, which an expert on the ringed planet may not haveÂ known.
Despite the many criticismsÂ that have beenÂ made about Wikipedia’s accuracy overÂ the years, the online encyclopedia holds up ratherÂ well.Â An oft-cited studyÂ determined that a selection of Wikipedia’s science articles were equal inÂ accuracy toÂ those in the Encylopedia Britannica. Several years ago, I analyzed Wikipedia’s articles on seven great philosophers, comparing their contents to the consensus viewÂ culled from several histories of philosophy. While I identified significant ommissions, there were no errors.
Happy 10th birthday Wikipedia! Your success is yet more proof that markets work.