We're Smarter Than You Think

By Jimmy Wales
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 12:00 AM

In her essay for Outlook, Susan Jacoby presents a compelling, though perhaps naïve and myopic, view of intellectualism and the persistence of literature in the 21st century. It's unfortunate she didn't take the time to include in her argument the peculiar phenomenon of Wikipedia and its rapidly growing international language versions.

Like so many nervous academics of our age, Jacoby provides a view compounded by urgent pollster data, alarming statistics and factoids heralding in the age of ignorance at the hands of the digital revolution. I prefer to point to the statistics of projects like Wikipedia, a volunteer-driven, non-profit endeavor whose unique article count, in over 150 active language projects, will soon eclipse 10 million. Millions of people use Wikipedia every day, maintaining its ranking as one of the 10 most popular websites in the world.

Furthermore, when WIND Research Institute made a comparison of German language Wikipedia to the traditionally leading German-language encyclopedia, Brockhaus, for Stern Magazine, it found that Wikipedia was of higher quality. On a scale where 1 is the best and 6 is the worst, Wikipedia's average rating was 1.7, while Brockhaus average rating was 2.7.

Jacoby's essay offers a number of interesting insights. But it also overlooks some real gems on the contemporary intellectual scene. A concern about whether young people are wasting their minds has been intermittently fashionable throughout history. We are now living in an era where something remarkable and transformative is taking place.

I speak from personal experience. Over the last year I've had the opportunity to speak to young people in Asia, South Africa, India, and Europe. Imagine someone from an alien civilization reading Jacoby's essay and forming an opinion of young people. And then imagine that alien peeking in on one of my public lectures at a high school or university. Who is this person getting the reception of a rock star? Is he a musician? Perhaps some crude comic? No, he's ... the founder of an ... encyclopedia?

High school and college students all over the world are absolutely fanatical about Wikipedia. On Facebook, Wikipedia-related fan groups number in the thousands; one boasts close to 150,000 members. There are dozens of Wikipedia-related applications. On YouTube, you can find thousands of student videos singing the praises of Wikipedia.

Students write to me in volumes I can only hope to respond to, reporting on their own personal experiences and breakthroughs. These are not people whose use of the Internet has resulted in an "inability to concentrate for long periods of time;" as Jacoby says. I hear from students who have spent hours reading and learning from Wikipedia entries just for the sake of general knowledge. Better still, I hear about collaborative campus parties devoted to making thousands of quality improvements to young articles in one night -- or uploading gigabytes of public domain source material.

What stereotype do these teenagers and 20-somethings fit into? What can we expect of this generation, devoted to sharing and improving the world's knowledge, decades from now?

If Jacoby contends that "video" is eroding our intellect, I encourage her to immerse herself in the story of Wikipedia. This is a place where today's youth, in phenomenal numbers, are helping professors and graduate students to build a repository of living knowledge from all corners of this planet. This is not a project for the next decade or the century. It is a project for all time.

I encourage Jacoby to consider the power of the global, knowledge-based digital enterprises of the 21st century. These are the forces that are redefining intellect, knowledge and literature. Instead of fearing the power, complexity and extraordinary potential of these new platforms, we should be asking how we can gain from their success.

Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company