A NUPEDIA (Wikipedia)

"Order, unity and continuity are human inventions just as truly as catalogues and encyclopedias."

Charles Van Doren captivated the American public in 1957. Americans were transfixed by the televised game show Twenty-One, on which Van Doren answered question after question correctly for a run of two months starting December 5, 1956. The clean-cut Ivy League university professor exemplified class and scholarship; he was on the cover of Time magazine. Before he left the show, he would rack up $138,000 in winnings,6 a fairly extravagant sum in an era when cars cost $2,000.

But then he fell from his pedestal. It was revealed that his wins were a fraud, that he had been given all the questions and answers beforehand. As dramatized in the 1994 movie Quiz Show, Van Doren testified in front of the U.S. Congress that he had helped deceive the public.

That’s where most people’s familiarity with Van Doren ends, leaving him a disgraced academic who in the aftermath resigned from Columbia University. What most people don’t know is that he resurrected his career to become an accomplished author and an editor at the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, living a more modest life of teaching and writing. In 1962, his views on encyclopedias would be prescient, describing exactly what would transpire on the Internet: "Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too," he wrote in his essay "The Idea of an Encyclopedia." "It should stop being safe—in politics, in philosophy, in science. . . . But what will be respectable in 30 years seems avant-garde now. If an encyclopedia hopes to be respectable in 2000, it must appear daring in the year 1963."

Of course there was no Internet back then, but Van Doren already envisioned what we see today. His career was made and destroyed with the new media technology of the time—television. He saw the influence that technology was having in the media sphere, and how it would radically change the field of knowledge and how we build it. It is ironic that the vision for Wikipedia, a source criticized for its sometimes dubious contributors, was brilliantly predicted by an academic who was a rehabilitated fraud.

Van Doren’s words have turned out to be an interesting touchstone for what has rapidly become one of the most popular sites on the Internet. Wikipedia has indeed been radical and has transformed the world of encyclopedias in just a few years, eclipsing nearly all established tomes in every language in the world. Wikipedia is such a fixture on the Internet today that its mantra, "Anyone can edit any page at any time," is familiar to many, even if they’ve never edited it themselves. But Wikipedia didn’t start out as the radical all-inclusive encyclopedia run by volunteers that we know today.

Its beginnings were entirely conventional. The original project, called Nupe-dia, was designed as a for-profit venture that specified a regimented screening and production process. It was built around a centrally placed editor in chief managing an inner circle of academically accredited editors to control and direct the work of volunteers. Other than the use of electronic means to promote conversation among participants, its working process was not much different from the encyclopedias of yesteryear.

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