Wikipedia as an economic and societal metaphor
As an experiment of what happens when individuals collaborate in a sharply decentralised and strictly voluntary manner, nothing is more quintessential than Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia.
Wikipedia bills itself as “an online free-content encyclopedia project helping to create a world in which everyone can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” Not only does it meet all of these criteria, but this model has allowed it to thrive, in doing so delivering enormous benefits to global society.
English Wikipedia, as of writing, has over 6.3 million articles. These have been created and edited by a mix consisting mainly of non-paid, volunteer editors, with around seven percent contributing for professional reasons. Despite this, the project tends to maintain a high degree of accuracy — especially when considering that no encyclopaedia is intended as a scholarly source — and certainly maintains a very wide and every-growing breadth.
That is because of Wikipedia’s decentralised and voluntary nature, not in spite of it. Such a nature has allowed Wikipedia to cover far more subjects and be far more current than traditional encyclopaedias. It has allowed the project to fulfil its goal over making the vast expanse of human knowledge accessible by all with an internet connection across borders, jurisdictions and geographies.
None of this is to say that Wikipedia is a place of anarchy. It isn’t. There are rules and hierarchies. Articles of prominent subjects, which would otherwise be liable to frequent vandalisation, are protected so that only users with a certain level of experience can edit them. Editors can apply to become administrators. The community at large elects members to the Wikimedia Board as well as electing the Arbitration Committee and the Mediation Committee. At the same time, the project is largely self-organised, and policies are enacted by the community through discussion, which can also be used to repeal policies. Even these are not absolute. To quote one policy, “If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.”
Bots, designed by editors to make their work more efficient, catch and revert most vandalism in a timely fashion. They’re also used to perform other menial tasks, such as finding references containing dead links and tagging them as such.
The features that have made Wikipedia successful can be applied elsewhere. A system which embodies the permission-less, decentralised, collaborative nature of Wikipedia is in economics termed a market. Indeed, the features of Wikipedia can be identified also in everything from online marketplaces to the Tor Project. These may be exploitable for bad uses, but they’ve produced an immense amount of good as well.