Wikipedia as a cult of knowledge

Wikipedia has been accused of being a cult by a wide variety of detractors. And frankly, it’s true. But it’s not quite the kind of cult that most of its detractors allege. For instance, it’s not a cult of Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia’s remaining co-founder), as most of the everyday editors barely even know who he is; they are so far isolated from his influence that they don’t even come close to sipping the Kool-Aid. It’s only at the top echelons of Wikipedia governance where Jimmy’s influence makes itself known, but that has been waning heavily in recent years after a long series of missteps from an aloof “leader” who, every time he steps in, seems to do so with only half knowledge, and is as likely to inflame a conflict and leave it unresolved as he is to resolve it.

No, the only way in which Wikipedia can be truly be described as a cult is in the manner in which nearly all of its members value knowledge. I have never seen such a uniformly inquisitive group of people before. Wikipedia is the largest collection of free knowledge on the planet, and a cult of knowledge has grown up simultaneously with it. Simple informal discussions amongst Wikipedia participants have a palpably different feel than anything else I’ve experienced. Everyone relishes learning new things. Wikipedia articles are linked frequently, not only because Wikipedia is the common thread linking the participants together, but simply because reading Wikipedia’s articles is an excellent way of learning new things. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the more anti-intellectual American society at large.

In the past few days I’ve read about everything from naval armaments in World Wars I and II to local towns in my area to science fiction novels. Scarcely a day goes by in which I don’t refer to Wikipedia on something. When I’m not in front of a computer and someone mentions a topic that I have insufficient knowledge of, I keep it in my mind until I next get in front of a computer and then look it up on Wikipedia. Most of the Wikipedians you will interact with do likewise. Thus, there’s never a dull, silent moment in a conversation amongst Wikipedians, because there is never any lack of subjects to discuss in a cult of knowledge.

12 Responses to “Wikipedia as a cult of knowledge”

  1. TP Says:

    I’m sorry, but every member of a cult thinks highly of their cult.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    You may do well to read this. There are many issues on which I disagree with Wikipedia.

  3. William Says:

    I’d also like to point to Mormonism to refute TP’s claim. I guess almost any group would do, but I’m pretty familiar with that particular group.

  4. TP Says:

    Yes, I did read that, and you are perhaps not so indoctrinated as some. But “the only way … Wikipedia can be … described as a cult is … knowledge?” I don’t think so.

    I don’t think of Mormonism as a cult. That is a label applied by larger Christian denominations that want to distance themselves.

    Define cult. Any small tightly-knit group has a shared POV. When that POV deviates enough from the mainstream, outsiders call it a cult. Wikipedians certainly share an unusual POV, including ideals like “anyone can edit”, NPOV, and consensus. Utopianism is generally a sign of a cult.

    Cults generally reject people who don’t share their POV. Most large groups cannot be cults.

    Furthermore, Wikipedia used to be a place for fun conversations, but not anymore.

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    I don’t see how you can attack Wikipedia as being a cult for its “anyone can edit” strategy. That’s the entire reason the site is as useful as it is, why it’s a top ten website. That doesn’t make it cultish, that makes it successful. I guess you would’ve attacked the first blogging communities too because they were the first sites to really allow reader participation?

    And by the way, it’s a pretty fair assessment to call all religions cults. If we want to talk about irrational beliefs, Wikipedia is hardly the king.

  6. TP Says:

    Oooookay.

    You think calling something a “cult” is an attack.

    I don’t.

  7. Cyde Weys Says:

    You can’t really argue that the word “cult” has negative connotations through and through.

  8. TP Says:

    Okay, I’ll try to be more precise.

    1. I am not attacking Wikipedia.

    2. “Cult” is always a label applied by outsiders. No one ever thinks their own group is a cult. If you think about this, you may understand my initial comment better.

    I repeat: define cult. Most arguments boil down to different definitions. I offered you a non-judgmental definition based on my observation of which groups have been labeled cults. My definition isn’t the only one, for example Catholics like to call Mormonism a cult, which I disagree with. You haven’t really offered a definition, other than “Wikipedia isn’t a cult.” As I explained, you aren’t objective about that.

  9. Cyde Weys Says:

    “Cult” is not necessarily always a label applied by outsiders. People can be perfectly aware of the fact that they are in a cult, but are either unable or unwilling to leave. For instance, The Children of God was certainly a cult, yet many of its members likely stayed in it for the related sexual benefits. Sure, cults tend to take a lot of your money and your time, but there are all sorts of trade-offs which would make it worth it. It’s not true that all people in a cult are true believers.

    Even if I ever was a “true believer”, I have more of an outside view of things now, and I don’t really see Wikipedia as a cult. Is it a social networking site? Yes. Are many parts of its processes popularity contests? God yes. But people come from Wikipedia for all sorts of different reasons, and find a multitude of ways to derive value from their involvement. Most editors are thoroughly unaware of the larger machinations farther up the chain. Just look at the dismal turnout of the Board of Trustees election going on right now. Considering how many hundreds of thousands of people edit Wikipedia regularly, we’re on track to have only a few thousand total votes.

    So far you’ve disagreed with my definition of cult, but you haven’t really offered up any evidence that Wikipedia is one. So, do you think that Wikipedia is a cult, and if so, why? Hopefully you understand that you saying I’m biased does not necessarily mean that the reverse of what I am saying must be true.

  10. TP Says:

    You seem to be mainly interested in proving that, objectively, Wikipedia is not a cult.

    I’m more interested in understanding why people would label Wikipedia a cult.

  11. Cyde Weys Says:

    There are all sorts of people who label Wikipedia a cult. You might want to head over to The Wikipedia Review (Google it) and ask them.

  12. TP Says:

    Yes, I know about The Wikipedia Review. They are not the only ones.