Back of the envelope

Is Wikipedia just the beginning?  Clay Shirky has turned off his TV and gotten down to work:

So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought.  I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching?  Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television.  Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

I thank Jules Sigall for the pointer.


But don't the two overlap? Every Wikipedia page on a TV show represents a cut in this surplus, because the author(s) had to spend the time watching the show--or at least researching it. Same with movies.

And does the back-of-the-envelope calculation take into account the time spent learning or researching the information, or just the time needed to write it down? If Tyler contributes one line to an economics entry, does that reflect the 15 seconds spent typing, or all his years in grad school? And what about when Tyler gets a 'Markets in Everything' idea from watching an ad? Does just the one ad overlap, or do you have to include all the ads necessary for Tyler to be present at that given moment?

"Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads."

Does anyone else think these numbers are fishy? I mean, do you actually watch the ads? I don't.

I suspect, however, that this is a case where self-selection works to our advantage. God knows how much Wikipedia would suffer if the average new entry was written by the average TV watcher.

Not only do many people not watch all the ads (tivo through, flip channels, use the restroom, get a snack...), but tv time is often multi-tasking time. I'm not much of a multi-tasker, but much TV takes so little brainpower that it's often also "news-
reading time," "dinner making/eating time," "gym time" or social time.

Creating a wikipedia entry, however, monopolizes a lot more of one's capacity.

I wonder if there really is this greater surplus or if Wikipedia (like similar online/distributed efforts) is simply more visible than other hobbies -- if you are a knitter or a hiker, your hobby doesn't leave much of a record. It would be near impossible to give a good estimate of how much time people have spent knitting or hiking because there's no good way to collect all of the evidence of people doing it.

Wikipedia does; you can give at least back-of-the-napkin numbers because edits leave a visible trace, complete with timestamps on user contributions.

Also, I wonder (but dare not examine too closely) how much Wikipedia effort actually comes out of work time rather than TV time...

To be fair, Shirky isn't saying that this will be the case 100% of the time. I think he's largely making a point. A LOT of free time goes toward watching TV and a lot of people who don't watch TV and/or don't go out to bars have a great deal of time on their hands. I found this out when I quit smoking, I had a great deal of free time durin the day that previously went to going outside to burn one.

He has a good talk here ( where he basically explains the thesis. I think that he is understating the structural work that goes on but that is kind of his point: the underlying structure matters less once it is properly and transparently deployed. Most people editing/reading wikipedia don't know how the administrative and technological architecture (and BOY-O! is there a lot of it) helps it keep afloat. But if you've got a chance, try to deploy mediawiki on your own webserver and see how quickly you begin to miss templates, catergories, edit buttons, and the like. It is really a different world.

As for the comment above me (Mr. Econotarian), try resubmitting those articles w/ a few solid secondary sources and references. Some of the time the deletion debate gets dumb, but usually if the sourcing is there (and a lot of editors like me have access to JSTOR, LEXIS, etc) someone will find it. It is, of course, best that you find it first so that it doesn't happen at all. But if you want some help with it, just post the turnpike article and tag it with {{rescue}}. Help will come. :)

Wikipedia represents not merely 100 million human-hours of effort, but thousands of years of human civilization.

Apples to oranges. Most people don't write anything. Wonks and nerds probably already spend more time READING Wikipedia than watching TV.

Comments for this post are closed