The Grant Shapps Affair Is a Testament to Wikipedia's Integrity and Transparency
In 1787 James Madison authored Federalist No 10 as part of a series of articles aimed at encouraging the American people to adopt the US constitution. His concern in that essay was "factions", which might be roughly analogous to political parties or interest groups in today's language. The danger was that "the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties".
Madison proposed several solutions to this problem which involved removing liberty and diversity—these were unacceptable options. The only genuine remedy was to have a large, vibrant and participatory republic that included the contributions of the many with an appropriate number of representatives to act as gatekeepers of democracy in the government. Two hundred and fourteen years later, a somewhat different and slightly less grand American experiment was founded: a free encyclopedia that anyone could edit named Wikipedia.
Common goods such as democracies or free cultural repositories can only exist through the hard work and goodwill of a large majority who dedicate their time and effort to cultivating them. There will always be those who choose to exploit these resources for their own ends and if we do not have vigilance on the part of others, these common goods will be spoiled.
It is good that British politicians such as Grant Shapps are among those who can edit Wikipedia, and it is also good that site administrators act as watchdogs against pernicious or inappropriate edits. What is undesirable is when someone seeks to undermine the wellbeing of those seeking to learn by editing in such a way as to make the encyclopedia a press release, an advertising platform, or a personal press. Whether Shapps himself did this is to some extent immaterial; what is most important is that these edits have been corrected, and whatever accounts made them have been stopped from editing.
Wikipedia is largely self-policing and investigates itself as members find inaccuracies, potential libel or petty vandalism, but it is also policed by the greater community that we hope to serve: the public. This encyclopedia only works if others read it, contribute to it, criticize it, and engage with one another to do the same. We need a mixture of lay people and professionals who can go about fixing tedious typos, update statistics, or add media to plain text, and a small few who are willing to act as custodians with access to the tools that ensure the encyclopedia has integrity by blocking and investigating potentially abusive users.
Wikipedia is not an experiment in democracy, anarchy or any other political philosophy, but a sui generis that brings together armchair historians with citizen journalists, university professors and video game enthusiasts, stay-at-home mothers alongside stamp collectors. Residents of every country in the world edit in almost 300 languages. In order for all their valuable voices to be heard and their knowledge to be shared, we need help.
The American ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the idea of the "tragedy of the commons", drawing upon the work of the British economist William Forster Lloyd. He argued that public goods such as land would be ruined by selfish interests as well as apathetic welfare. It is only through the careful and active management of these goods by the many that we can truly benefit the many. I'm grateful when someone finds a problem with Wikipedia because that means the system works. It also has the added bonus of attracting more eyes to potentially abused articles: this kind of scrutiny results in better articles and serves to eliminate undue bias.
It's a goal that is never achieved but that is always in mind. Unlike most corporate or state-controlled entities, abuses and the remedies for these abuses are transparent at Wikipedia. Everyone has a stake in a world where the sum of human knowledge is freely shared. Will you help us?