How can Wikipedia work when anyone can just change anything?

Change (photo by Meanest Indian - CC-BY)

Change - Damage - Decay (photo by Meanest Indian - CC-BY)

It’s truly remarkable that Wikipedia has become a valuable reference work. After all, it is the end result of hundreds of millions of uncontrolled edits by anyone who wants to click the “Edit” link. How can it work? Why has Wikipedia not decayed into a wasteland of propaganda, delusions and spam?

For sure, there are occasional temporary instances of vandalism, and a small number of pages are riddled with inaccuracies or garbled nonsense, but for the most part Wikipedia’s pages are informative and useful. Every day Wikipedia becomes more comprehensive and, on the whole, more reliable.

The key to Wikipedia’s success is that, on average, each edit is more likely to make Wikipedia better than to make it worse. Even if only 51% of edits were improvements, over a long period of time they would overcome the 49% of edits that were undesirable.

In reality, the percentage of “good” edits is much higher than 50%, and so the quality and reliability of Wikipedia has improved steadily and rapidly.

An important mechanism is the ability for any person to revert (undo) another person’s edit. It’s so easy to revert an edit that the effort required to vandalise an article is much greater than the effort required to repair that vandalism. Since only a tiny proportion of users are vandals, the long-term change is overwhelmingly for the better.

Despite this, there are a few tiny pockets of persistent vandalism. Pages on abortion, drugs, politics and religion are likely to suffer repeatedly. Here, and only here, Wikipedia brings to bear some more tools – the ability of administrators to temporarily lock a page or ban a user.

It is interesting to ponder whether Wikipedia’s experiment in mass participation could be applied to other aspects of society.

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