Wikipedia's Success and the Rise of the Amateur-Expert

Wikipedia's Success and the Rise of the Amateur-Expert

Christopher Sweet (Illinois Wesleyan University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-7230-7.ch064
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The Free Online Encyclopedia, as Wikipedia calls itself, is a radical departure from traditional encyclopedias and traditional methods of knowledge creation. This chapter is an examination of how a community of amateurs on Wikipedia has challenged notions of expertise in the 21st century. It does so by first looking at the roots of Wikipedia in a phenomenon known as the “wisdom of the crowds” and in the open source software movement. The reliability of Wikipedia is examined as are the claims made by major critics of the project. Throughout, epistemological questions raised by Wikipedia are addressed.
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Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical too. It should stop being safe—in politics, in philosophy, in science. (Encyclopedia Britannica editor, Charles Van Doren, 1962)

For most of the 20th century, having a print encyclopedia set on your home bookshelf was a hallmark of learning and education. While traditional encyclopedias are undoubtedly a valuable and authoritative reference source, the process of their creation from beginning to end is imbued with a certain level of elitism. Individual articles are written only by carefully selected experts, publication is tightly controlled by major printing houses, and access is limited to academic institutions, libraries, and those who can afford to purchase a set. In 2011, the 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica cost $1,395, putting it far out of reach for the vast majority of individuals (, 2010).

Well before the advent of the Internet, one of the most successful strategies for selling encyclopedias was through door-to-door salesmen. While unimaginable in the digital age, encyclopedia publishers found that it often required that intimate level of human interaction to convince customers to make such a substantial book purchase. In The Great EB: The story of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Herman Kogan recounts the heyday of the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman:

On any day or night of any week there is an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman sitting or standing in a living room, a kitchen, a study, a den, an office or in some less conventional place, with material from his sales kit spread before him as he “tells the story” to a potential customer. (Kogan, 1958: 299)

Salesmen were trained in the psychology of selling, they had to serve an apprenticeship under an experienced salesman, and they even went so far as to scour newspapers for the names of recent graduates to contact for a potential sale (Kogan, 1958). One evening in 1969, the Wales family of Huntsville, Alabama, was convinced to purchase a set of World Book Encyclopedias from one of these door-to-door salesmen (Schiff, 2006). Three years prior to that evening, the Wales family had welcomed a son, Jimmy Wales. Jimmy was educated in the private Montessori-influenced school where his mother taught. During this time Jimmy “spent lots of hours pouring over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias” (Lamb, 2005). Drawing in part on these early childhood experiences, in 2001 Jimmy Wales helped to found Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia quickly became more radical than anything Charles Van Doren could have dreamed of in 1962.

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