Slate Discovers The Power Law
from the 1-percent-of-a-big-number dept
Last week Slate ran a story that breathlessly reported that Wikipedia isn’t as democratic as its boosters claim because most of the edits are made by the most active editors. We learn that “a small segment of highly active users author the majority of the site’s content.” But as Mathew Ingram points out, the real question is why anyone found this surprising. It’s true that a small fraction of Wikipedia users author a big chunk of the content. But it’s quite a leap to go from that rather obvious point to deriding “fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0.” In fact, Wikipedia is fundamentally different from older reference works like Britannica, and not just because it has an order of magnitude more content. In the first place, as Ingram points out, even if 1 percent of Wikipedia user base have an outsized influence on the encyclopedia’s direction, that still amounts to tens of thousands of people. No commercial encyclopedia could possibly afford to have that many employees.
The distribution of edits on Wikipedia is what’s known as a power law, and power law distributions are ubiquitous in human societies. You can find power laws in the distribution of income, website traffic, book and CD sales, city populations, and dozens of other phenomena. Indeed, democracy itself is subject to power laws; the most politically active voters contribute the vast majority of volunteers and campaign contributions. The fact that Wikipedians’ contributions follow a power law distribution doesn’t mean that Wikipedians are telling “fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0.” What makes Wikipedia different from traditional encyclopedias isn’t a more “democratic” distribution of contributions, but the vastly increased number of people who are able to contribute when the encyclopedia is organized in an open fashion. This has produced an encyclopedia that is far more comprehensive than any commercial company could hope to produce.