While the big-tech giants of Silicon Valley are drawing some much deserved scrutiny from the public and from lawmakers in the United States, Wikipedia – a tech giant in its own right – has remained above the fray.

This is not because Wikipedia is inherently a force for good – although it is most certainly that – rather there are two things that protect Wikipedia (and its users): Wikipedia does not sacrifice the privacy of its users and Wikipedia is not a social media site. The failure to recognize these distinctions represents an existential threat to Wikipedia and its mission of Free Knowledge. It’s easy to become complacent if you feel like your ends will always justify your means.

Wikipedia is unique among large websites simply by not being a social media site. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia – it’s a tertiary source. It does not contain original research or opinion (at least where most folks look). The proliferation of misinformation is often stymied by having to cite reliable sources (particularly when you also create guidelines for reliable sources). Further, the Wikipedia community works tirelessly to ensure the integrity of information on the platform. There are many problems with the information on Wikipedia – these problems are a reflection of the problems with the culture that created Wikipedia and not (for the most part) problems inherent to Wikipedia itself. Tertiary sources are cultural artifacts that reflect culture back on itself. Wikipedia is part of the culture, but it is not creating a cultural shift in the same way that social media does (for better or worse).

Wikipedia is also unique among large websites in that it doesn’t exploit user-privacy to turn a profit. The foundations of Wikipedia and Free Knowledge are the Free Software and Free Culture movements, which are themselves antithetical to the late-stage capitalism that has pushed many Silicon Valley unicorns into the exploitation of their user-base for short-term gains. That is not to say that this kind of exploitation is antithetical to Wikipedia itself – only that it hasn’t happened because the community involved hasn’t allowed it to happen: missing this distinction is an existential threat to Wikipedia as a bulwark of Free Culture.

The ends of Free Knowledge, however noble, can easily become corrupted if the means by which that knowledge is gained and disseminated are incompatible with the foundations of the Free Culture movement.

Much akin to the Euthyphro dilemma, Free Knowledge isn’t good because it’s what Wikipedia – a force for good – does; rather, the mission and values of the Free Knowledge movement are good for the world so (for now at least) Wikipedia is doing them.

Treating Wikipedia as a panacea for the myriad sins of Silicon Valley is not simply a disservice to Wikipedia, it endangers Wikipedia’s future by lulling those with an outsized influence on the movement and its direction into a false sense of certainty that – whatever the path – if Wikipedia’s doing it: it’ll be for the best.


My views are my own. My views do not represent the views of any employer I've had/have: past, present, or future. I'm probably not even qualified to have these views. I am an egg.