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January 12, 2010

the French Encylopedia vs. Wikipedia

L'Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772) was a major contribution to Enlightenment civil society. Not only did it contain much knowledge (and maybe a dose of wisdom), but it specifically expanded civil rights and liberties by promoting classical liberal positions contrary to absolute monarchism, the army, and the church. It had 28 main authors, brilliant philosophes including Voltaire and Diderot, most of whom were amateurs in the sense that they were not paid to write--but they were a privileged and exceptional few. By my calculation, a new copy of the multi-volume first edition (beautifully bound in leather and illustrated) cost about as much money (456 livres) as an unskilled laborer earned in 16 months of work. The French Encyclopedia included many ground-breaking, highly original and even iconoclastic articles that changed disciplines and are still read today

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has about 318 times more articles and roughly 85,000 active contributors. It is completely free for anyone with Internet access, and it expands freedom not because of a particular editorial commitment to liberal values, but because it is a massive, uncensored, public forum. Although it was set up for traditional encyclopedia articles, users now create live news pages as well. For example, as Clay Shirky notes, the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 were tracked in real time on a Wikipedia page created within minutes of the first explosion.

Wikipedia announces, "Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute. Wikipedia's intent is to have articles that cover existing knowledge, not create new knowledge (original research). This means that people of all ages and cultural and social backgrounds can write Wikipedia articles. Most of the articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet, simply by clicking the edit this page link. Anyone is welcome to add information, cross-references, or citations, as long as they do so within Wikipedia's editing policies and to an appropriate standard."

Wikipedia and other peer-produced forms of knowledge demonstrate that sheer numbers of people can generate knowledge of great value. The value that they create is different from the contributions of the philosophes who wrote the Encyclopédie. I'm not sure there is a common coin with which we can compare the two, yet Wikipedia is certainly worthy of being named alongside the Encyclopédie. As proof, consider that the Wikipedia article about the Encyclopédie is itself a really good read.

There are also some interesting similarities. Although editors of the French Encylopedia chose authors, and Wikipedia is wide open, a Power Law applies in both cases--the most prolific 10% of authors contribute the majority of the content. In the former case, a man called "Louis de Jaucourt ... wrote 17,266 articles, or about 8 per day between 1759 and 1765." He sounds much like one of the dedicated enthusiasts who produces a vast supply of Wikipedia entries and keeps the whole thing alive.

January 12, 2010 11:39 AM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments



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