Republic domain

by julian dibbell

Village Voice (New York, NY)
February 15, 2005, Tuesday

In olden times, when music was “sold” on shiny discs called “CDs”
and people took photographs with cameras instead of telephones,
there was this thing called an ency-clopedia, which cost as much
as a round-trip to Hong Kong, took up more shelf space than a home
entertainment center, and contained basic information on every topic
worth knowing about. Four years ago, a couple of dotcom dreamers
were inspired to reinvent the encyclopedia in the freewheeling,
massively collaborative image of the Internet itself. The result was, today the biggest encyclopedia ever compiled, with over
1 million copyright-free online articles and growing–every word of
it composed and edited by, literally, anybody who feels like it.

No, really. Go to any Wikipedia entry you choose–“Jack Fingleton”
(cricket batsman, pictured below), “Drunk Driving,” “Pataphysics”–and
click on the Edit This Page tab. Bingo: Whatever you write immediately
becomes the last word on the subject. And if this sounds like a
recipe for mob rule, that’s because it is. But mob rule turns out to
be a surprisingly good way to write an encyclopedia. Typos abound,
and especially in articles on controversial topics like the Armenian
genocide or George W. Bush, the constant wars between opposing camps
of revisers can reduce texts to a state of almost Heisenbergian
indeterminacy. But outright factual errors generally get corrected
fast (within minutes, on average), and in the range and depth of
its articles, Wikipedia handily holds its own against encyclopedias
produced the old-fashioned way. Funny: It’s almost as if the great
intellectual unwashed could be trusted to manage its own culture.