Now if there were an analogy between price-based decentralisation and Wikipedia's decentralisation, there would have to be a way for consumers to signal demand for knowledge by paying for it, and a way for the 'miners' of that knowledge to be compensated by digging deep into the earth of information, trying to find veins of wisdom running through the slag of trivia, or by refining the crude ore containing knowledge thinly spread, into the pure metal of subtle and profound wisdom.
There is no such mechanism in Wikipedia. It is paid for by an annual fundraiser which appeals for donations to collect 'the sum of human knowledge', without any mechanism for donors to sponsor chosen articles containing parts of that sum. Even if such targeting were possible, there is no way of directing donations to individual 'knowledge miners'. All editors of Wikipedia are unpaid volunteers*. This fact has already been noted by Harvard researcher Andreea D. Gorbatai in 2011, who questioned whether collective production such as in Wikipedia creates social utility.
Now there is a sort of reward system on Wikipedia whereby editors can achieve non-financial status similar to kindergarten 'stars'. But follow-ups on Wikipedia to Gorbatai's study concluded that this reward system was perverse, with greater recognition being given to editors producing large numbers of low importance articles than to editors producing small numbers of high importance articles. An article in the Wikipedia signpost concluded -
- It is interesting to compare the most prominent author of high importance articles at low production rates, Garrondo, with the most prominent author of low importance articles at high production rates, Ucucha. Garrondo has written one FA, Parkinson’s disease in 2011. Ucucha has produced 14 FAs on rare, Latin-named, mammal species. Garrondo has a lousy strategy for climbing up the WBFAN. However, when we look at the impact of the two editors' articles for the readers, there is little question. Because the single Parkinson’s disease article has 180 times the views as Ucucha’s average article, Garrondo achieved 13 times the total contribution to reader-viewed FA content. The problem is all our systems of rewards, all our tracking systems, all our unconscious assumptions, talk page remarks, and so on simply talk about number of stars…instead of the importance of them. We are incentivising the high production of low importance articles and discouraging the opposite. Yet the latter strategy is the more efficient way to serve the readers. [My emphasis]This provoked fury from Wikipedia's established editors. The discussion is here - beware the heated and often incoherent ranting.
There is another, more subtle, question here. The 'market mechanism' assumes that what consumers want is what they actually need (or rather, it makes no distinction but wanting and needing). There is an older tradition, dating from at least Plato, that the ordinary mass of human beings don't really know what they need, or what is really good for them. The most recent proponent of this view was Lord Reith of the BBC, who believed that broadcasting should be 'an authoritarian system with a conscience', carrying to the greatest number of people everything that is 'best' in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement, and to avoid whatever is 'harmful'. He was criticised for not giving the public what it wanted but he replied that few people know what they want, and fewer still know what they need. I discuss that in an old post here.
*Except for paid editors, of course, who are employed by public relations agencies or rich individuals to embellish articles about their clients, or themselves. But that's another problem.