Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A recent email solicitation from a freelance writer made the rounds among faculty at the University of Virginia. “You are not on Wikipedia!” the author exclaims with apparent amazement, despite the fact that “academics who have accomplished much less have Wikipedia pages.” Anyone who knows Wikipedia also knows that you are not allowed to write your own entry. But thank heavens, our absence had been noted. “It’s time,” the solicitor concluded, that “you get one too.” For a fee, he would write it.

At first glance, this might seem to be yet another example of the market distorting processes of knowledge creation. Wikipedia is supposed to be a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, a place where the hivemind gets it right by fact-checking itself, not a pay-to-play guide to academia. Even though Wikipedia is not a standard encyclopedia, it operates on similar principles. Experts volunteer to write entries of significance to them: the subjects of potential entries don’t pay to be included. The freelancer’s offer might even offend the average academic: you cannot buy your way into the history books or the literary canon.

If the internet is the epitome of a free market, where anyone, and any ideas, can compete without gatekeeping, the university is defined not just by expertise, hierarchy, and reputation, but by its disavowal of the market. But we might want to pause here: academic “production” has never been located beyond the market economy, and academics might be more like this Wikipedia freelancer than they understand.

Modern universities authorize knowledge via a hierarchy of credentialed experts that is in principle—although not always in practice—meritocratic. The traditional encyclopedia epitomizes this system. Senior scholars working as editors decide which persons merit entries. Those who do, whether deceased or still living (encyclopedias have different rules on this), are usually more celebrated than the editors. These editors then invite other scholars, often even less well known than they are, to write the entries. The entire process presupposes a community of expertise within which relative merit can be rationally ascertained: those who are least prestigious record the lives of the most prestigious, a group selected by an expert class located comfortably in the middle.

The reward for being the subject of an entry, and even for editing and writing entries, is public recognition of one’s scholarly accomplishments. That recognition has market value: scholars’ salary is tied not just to their intellectual productivity, but to the recognition that their ideas are influential. To be important enough to deserve an entry means a scholar has produced work that matters; to be deemed qualified to edit or write entries means that one has demonstrated the expertise necessary to judge what matters. In turn, the writing of encyclopedia entries is itself productive work that may be rewarded—in raises and promotions—in the future.

Unlike Wikipedia, which is operated by a nonprofit foundation, reference works and scholarly journals are usually owned by for-profit publishers and rely on libraries for sales. Most editors and contributors receive little or no monetary compensation for their work. Instead, the compensation is reputational, with enhanced reputations leading to the rewards that only universities and granting agencies can give.

Scholarly production is, in other words, a form of work in which expert knowledge meets the market. But, because their intersection is mediated by powerful institutions such as nonprofit universities and foundations or for-profit entities like publishers, expertise can continue to imagine itself as disinterested knowledge that is not market-driven.

So where does this enterprising freelancer fit in all this? Wikipedia performs none of the functions we have described. It makes a profit for no one; most writers work anonymously for free, and without credentialing. And no university or group of academic referees regard a Wikipedia entry as a mark of status or achievement. Wikipedia’s model of intellectual authority is the exact opposite of anything academic: a democratic model where any and all individuals can create knowledge and have it recognized.

But Wikipedia is popular and has its proponents among the intellectual classes. In a recent New Yorker essay, Louis Menand describes the platform as “the major success story of the Internet era” founded on the premise that “Anyone can edit.” As Menand tells the story, despite those experts who doubted that a popularly edited encyclopedia could rival one produced by credentialed professionals, in 2005, Nature deemed Wikipedia to be nearly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica when it came to scientific entries.

Menand credits at least some of this success to Wikipedia’s so-called “hacker” ethos, a bottom-up and horizontal rather than top-down approach to knowledge sharing. Crucially, however, despite its populist ethic, Wikipedia also has rules. Wikipedia does not publish original research. Instead, it aggregates existing knowledge. To merit a Wikipedia page, a topic “must link back to multiple verifiable sources.” A “verifiable” source must be “reliable,” or as Wikipedia defines it, “ independent… with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy. Source material must have been published, the definition of which for our purposes is ‘made available to the public in some form.’”

In other words, Wikipedia has a symbiotic relationship with the academic marketplace and is less unmediated than we think. It relies on other institutions’ fact-checking and peer review processes, and the editorial rules explicitly advise that “the best sources have a professional structure in place for checking or analyzing facts, legal issues, evidence, and arguments.” Credentialing, and the forms of old school vetting and hierarchy that encyclopedias rely on, remain the gold standard for the sources that a Wikipedia entry relies on. Profit, not-for profit, and the indirect profits that academic careers generate are the not-so-hidden value embedded in all the footnoted facts that make up a Wikipedia entry

So why wouldn’t someone, like our brave freelancer, find another way to profit—and far more directly—from this complex market in knowledge production? Yes, it seems to subvert Wikipedia’s original intent, to share rather than commodify knowledge. But this direct importation of profit-making into the process may be far less troubling, both to the academics receiving the email and to Wikipedia itself, than the freelancer’s subversion of the various cultures of expertise that are embedded in the platform and in the university. His offer suggests that there is no need to bring scholarly expertise (much less a reputation) to the project, or the desire to promote the values of disinterested knowledge—that outward gaze that Wikipedia and the university share. Instead, the freelancer invites potential customers to turn the gaze narcissistically inward. Why wait to be recognized by others, when Wikipedia exists for every scholar to determine their own intellectual merit and pay to have it advertised? Why not pay to devise an entry as an exercise in personal branding?

Well, here’s why not: marginalizing disinterested expertise and the invention of reputation has its costs. A wide range of industries that practice these things are swallowing a range of occupations that used to rely on reputation. Why call the local taxi service you’ve trusted for decades when you can call an Uber for less? Why train employees in customer service when you can outsource that task to people several continents away for a fraction of the cost, or better yet, develop an algorithm for it?

We know that professional workers are not safe from trends that put profit above expertise and reputation. The thought “Why hire a tenure-track professor, when an adjunct can teach more students for a fraction of the costs?” has occurred to more than one board of trustees, and “Why pay the salaries for in-house radiologists when you can send those scans to India instead?” to corporate hospitals.

When pundits bemoan the growing distrust of experts and expertise, what they overlook is how many fewer of us there are. Expertise, as it has been conventionally understood, is being pushed out of the market by cheaper, more nimble services. In place of expert opinion, we defer to popular authority that is generated on the Internet by “voting” certain ideas, or people, up or down.

In our contemporary ecosystem, information is true if lots of people believe it.

This populist sense of what knowledge is, and who produces it, represents a shift from earlier forms of doubt or conspiracy theories that mobilized authority or expertise. For example, those who reject evolution on religious grounds reject scientific expertise, but claim a different, authoritative source: a religious text, and theological experts who in turn rely on some sort of authorizing institution – a church, a divinity degree –for their credibility and power.

But more recent conspiracy theories are Wikipedian in their construction, if not their sources: climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese; COVID-19 is not a threat and perhaps not a real disease at all. Videos and articles written for sketchy “news” sites circulate as sources. The veracity of these sources is, however, unimportant, as long as they are upvoted on the Internet or retweeted by an authority figure like the President of the United States.

This is not a new problem that arrived with our eager freelancer, with Wikipedia or with the internet itself. In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville found a key distinction between European feudalism and American democracy in the social source of authoritative beliefs. In the feudal world, people were expected to defer to the hierarchically constituted authorities of church and state. By contrast, the brilliance of American democracy was that people rejected hierarchy and its authority. They were expected to think for themselves.

But without leisure or expertise, those apparently empowered individuals were, in Tocqueville’s view, lost in the crowd, each “overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness.” But in numbers they could make a difference, and not always a positive one. It led to the tyranny of public opinion, and to the people’s belief that, in his wonderful phrase, “the greater truth should go with [be determined by] the greater number.”

In other words, if everyone believes it, it must be true.

Tocqueville had no way to foresee the internet, but almost 200 years ago, he grasped one of the key social principles that underpins the Wikipedia-ization of knowledge. In a society built on the notion that the individual’s belief is sacrosanct, experts and authorities must compete in the marketplace of ideas for their ideas to be popularly understood as reliable. But much of what expert knowledge must compete with today is knowledge that is outsourced and produced by people who don’t share the values that might make their ideas reliable. How can people tell the difference?

The answer is that they can’t. So, grateful though we were for our freelancer’s concern about our professional invisibility, we deposited his enterprising offer in the trash.

Laura Goldblatt is an assistant professor of English and Richard Handler is a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia

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