Democratizing Expertise, Thanks to Wikipedia

Two Wikipedians explain how it works and what motivates them to contribute to the site

Democratizing Expertise, Thanks to Wikipedia

Who are these people who contribute to articles on Wikipedia? World-renowned experts in their field? Not necessarily, and that’s the beauty of it all. Wikipedia flattens the hierarchy normally found around the notion of expertise, democratizing both access to knowledge and its diffusion. Two Wikipedians explained to MyScienceWork what they get out of contributing to the online encyclopedia and how the site operates behind the scenes to ensure the quality of its content.

Who are these people who contribute to articles on Wikipedia? World-renowned experts in their field? Not necessarily, and that’s the beauty of it all. Wikipedia flattens the hierarchy normally found around the notion of expertise, democratizing both access to knowledge and its diffusion. Two Wikipedians explained to MyScienceWork what they get out of contributing to the online encyclopedia and how the site operates behind the scenes to ensure the quality of its content.

This article was translated from French by Abby Tabor. It is the follow-up to Wikipedia, Sharing Democratically, originally published as Wikipédia, le partage démocratique.

 

“Every reader of Wikipedia is a potential writer or corrector.” The main consequence of Wikipedia’s principle of anonymity is to do away with the hierarchy of expertise. It sets the expert and the amateur enthusiast on equal footing. At the end of 2008, a poll conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation and UNU-MERIT found that 48% of contributors had higher degrees, 20% at the master’s level or higher. A certain number of academic researchers, then, are contributing to the content. In fact, according to Patrice Flichy, a sociology professor at France’s Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and specialist of innovation and information technology, “the quality of the content often depends on the subject covered. The quality of scientific subjects is higher than for celebrity biographies, for example. But the latter, just like sports or current event pages, are updated with impressive speed.”

The web, a tool of democracy © laurent hamels – Fotolia.com

When controversies arise, a discussion page is opened in the administrative section for the article in question. This page can be viewed by all and malicious or badly intentioned people are usually easy to detect. “An argumentation then occurs between contributors in which it is not possible for anyone’s status to outweigh another’s,” explains Patrice Flichy, who is also author of the book Le sacre de l’amateur (“The Consecration of the Amateur”). “Wikipedia is a place to reopen controversies. Everyone can play a role in it, equal to equal.”

As with the internet, the influence of Wikipedia on contemporary culture and society particularly stands out in two ways: its ability to put knowledge within reach of all and to give amateurs the opportunity to express themselves. “As I elaborate on in my book, the internet democratized expertise in a society remains very elitist. Ordinary individuals can access knowledge more easily. They can also produce something more easily. Thanks to the participative web, we are witnessing the rise in power of amateurs, passionate people who are neither novices nor professionals, but brilliant dabblers!”

“Moreover, the accessibility of knowledge has also modified the pedagogical relationship by providing students with more resources to challenge the claims of their teachers.”

Patrice Flichy then concludes, saying “we have seen an opening up between specialists, experts and amateurs. It’s what we can call ‘expertise from the bottom up’, the first meaning of ‘expertise’ being one who acquires knowledge through experience.”

 

The Wikipedian Experience

Kevin Benoit (@kyah117), a third-year business student and Pierre Rudloff (@Tael67), a web developer and student of applied foreign languages, both of Strasbourg, France, are regular contributors to Wikipedia. They explained what motivates them and shared with us their experience of this often gratifying, sometimes addicting, activity.

 

LB: Any contribution is an investment of time. What do you get in return?

KB: Contributing articles to Wikipedia essentially brings the satisfaction of having contributed to improving the site. Everyone uses it to find information or for school; the information has to be verifiable and of the best quality possible. Some contributors also identify as members of the Wikipedian community. So, the site becomes a social network in which discussions about controversial subjects take place. Le bistrot is a nice discussion space, open to all exchanges. (The English version is the Village Pump. –Ed.) Meeting up in real life happens sometimes, too.

PR: As with any volunteer work, getting involved in improving Wikipedia is satisfying. We feel like we’re doing a good deed, given the number of people who then read our contributions and use them. I contribute especially by adding my class and lecture notes. Then, I get immediate feedback on the use of this content by people taking the same class. Knowing how the site works also strengthens our critical thinking.  

LB: How is the quality of articles controlled?

KB: Many subjects (called “projects”), like public transportation or video games, are managed by communities. Their members take the responsibility of keeping a general eye on the content of the articles and of modifying mistakes or any malicious additions. The administration of “projects” occurs through a democratic voting system: this page that’s too commercial will be deleted, this user will have his contributions checked because they were considered inappropriate. For subjects that don’t have communities around them, the articles are watched over less. So, it can take longer for a mistake to be detected.

PR: In general, everyone follows the modifications made to pages to which he or she contributed. There is also software that automatically patrols the content and detects disrespectful key words or overly drastic changes. Certain users become “administrators” or “bureaucrats”. They have access to extra tools for controlling the content. On the other hand, we should train beginner contributors better – they can be young and inexperienced – to help them use the site better.

 

To find out more:

For more details about the Wikipedia story, you can check out its own Wikipedia page, which is, of course, very complete.  

Special Report Internet encyclopaedias go head to head Nature 2005 

Exploiting the web as a tool of democracy: new ways forward in the study and practice of digital democracy, a World Forum for Democracy 2013 Issues Paper by Amanda Clarke

Internet, un outil de la démocratie ? (Internet: A Tool for Democracy?), by Patrice Flichy (in French)