The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Science shows Wikipedia is the best part of the Internet

Wikipedia logos at a Wikimedia conference in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2005. (Boris Roessler/European Pressphoto Agency)

It’s fun to imagine what would have happened if Alexander the Great had the chance to walk into an ancient Starbucks and connect his laptop to a primeval ethernet cable. Perhaps he’d just end up on Twitter under the name “@realAlexander,” boasting about all the political enemies he killed. (Sad!)

But maybe, instead, he would have been able to fulfill his quest to build a repository of all human knowledge. While he made some strides toward this goal by building the Library of Alexandria, that project didn’t last.

If only he had Wikipedia! More than 2,000 years after the Library was founded — and within a span of just a decade — the website has not only far surpassed the ancient collection; it has also become the most advanced platform to learn new information in the history of the world.

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It’s easy to bemoan the partisanship and downright nastiness of the Internet, but Wikipedia offers some much-needed optimism online. Despite the fact that the website is constructed by millions of anonymous contributors, new research shows that it reduces ideological segregation and is remarkably good at finding neutrality, even on the most contentious topics.

The first-of-its-kind study — by Shane Greenstein, Yuan Gu and Feng Zhu of Harvard Business School — uses keywords and phrases to examine how the amateur editors tweaking the thousands of Wikipedia articles interact with one another. The study specifically focuses on articles regarding U.S. political parties and found that contributors who have a strong point of view, on average, are 15 percent more likely to edit an article with opposing viewpoints. In other words, contributors tend to engage with opposing viewpoints during the editing process, sparking fruitful dialogue when writing articles about contested information.

That’s not to say that Wikipedia is immune to the mean-spiritedness seen in the darker corners of the Internet. On the contrary, epic stories of “edit wars” litter the history of Wikipedia. Historians have raged over whether to use B.C./A.D. or B.C.E./C.E. notation to discuss when Jesus was born. Pop music aficionados have battled over whether Nelly Furtado is Canadian or Portuguese-Canadian. And pray you never get involved in the long-standing feud over how to pronounce J.K. Rowling’s last name (even though the author herself pronounces it “rolling”).

Regardless, this new research shows that Wikipedia editors of different opinions have strived for consensus over time. That’s opposed to Facebook or Twitter, where people are siloed into their own self-reinforcing echo chambers.

“It gives us hope!” said Greenstein, a Harvard Business School professor. “You do get [both sides] trying to destroy the other. But what seems to hold it together is to have one paragraph for both sides. Space is free for all intents and purposes, and we can … edit each other’s paragraphs for accurate points of view.”

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This is good and important news. After all, the developed world relies on Wikipedia to get information. It remains the fifth-most-visited site in the world, attracting nearly 8 billion page views in August alone. There are 5.2 million articles just on English Wikipedia, and it’s still growing by about 20,000 articles a month.

Consider this a version of the “miracle of aggregation” — that large groups of people are able to act rationally and solve problems despite having vastly different interests. The biggest obstacle facing libraries is the lack of resources to collect and process all of the information they need to organize. Wikipedia solves that problem by distributing it among millions of contributors, each with his or her own area of expertise. In a political climate marked by increased partisanship and fears that the United States is ripping apart politically, the fact that we’re still able to rally around the idea of building a reliable store of knowledge is comforting.

Part of the reason that Wikipedia ends up being productive is the way the site is designed. Greenstein notes that the site encourages experts within particular topics to form close-knit communities. They become well-acquainted with one another and learn to respect opposing opinions, mostly because there is something important at stake: the public record.

This is not the case on Facebook or in the often-vile comments section of any major news outlet. Most people who interact in these spaces only do so superficially, dropping their angry opinions without ever returning. A few might respond to rebuttals with insults or dismissals. Overall, there’s really no incentive to engage with each other’s viewpoints.

But the good news here is that when people do engage, they’re capable of greatness. Ironically, Wikipedia specifically declares in its “Five Pillars” that the website is not meant to be an “experiment in democracy.” Still, the essential democratic characteristic of the site — giving the masses equal voice, even at the risk of silly and ugly arguments — is what makes it successful.

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