History (Wikipedia)

In less than a decade, Wikipedia has singlehandedly invigorated and disrupted the world of encyclopedias, eclipsing nearly every established tome in every language in the world.

It has become so popular that people casually stumble across its content every day on the Internet, and it is increasingly referred to in books, legal affairs, and pop culture. Yet only a fraction of the public who use Wikipedia realize it is entirely created by legions of unpaid, and often unidentified, volunteers. Every article in Wikipedia has an "edit this page" button, allowing anyone, even anonymous passersby, to edit the contents of any entry.

Unlike most sites on the Internet that solicit "user-generated content," no registration, no email, no identification is needed before someone can change a Wikipedia page. It would seem self-evident that this "open editing" model would lead to uncontrollable chaos and absolute disaster, yet completely counter to intuition, it has produced the opposite—a highly popular, and highly regarded, online reference.

Since 2001, a faceless band of volunteers has self-organized to create an online community working successfully beyond anyone’s imagination. Even Cunningham, the creator of wikis, says Wikipedia took the idea further than he could have ever imagined.

The result is that Wikipedia has become the first destination of choice for many and now serves as an integral part of the Internet’s fabric of knowledge.

Wikipedia, "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit," is firmly in the ranks of the top ten Web sites in the world,1 sharing that rarefied air with the dot-com industry elite. No other reference site comes close in terms of traffic or popularity, and very few for-profit sites rack up the same staggering traffic numbers as the nonprofit Wikipedia.

The only "Web properties" that consistently rank above it—Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft—are all multibillion-dollar enterprises with tens of thousands of employees each. Wikipedia had a U.S. dollar operating budget in 2006 of less than $500,000, with fewer than a dozen paid employees.

Wikipedia’s Massive Growth

Wikipedia's Massive Growth

Wikipedia became an instant phenomenon because of both supply and demand. In an information age, with a sprawling labyrinth of information sources, balanced and reliable content is a rare commodity, in high demand. The Internet has a deep supply of volunteers willing to share a deep pool of knowledge, but they are widely dispersed geographically and logistically. Provide an online agora for these two elements to come together, and you have Wikipedia.

The success of Wikipedia is based on simple principles that appear as a radically new phenomenon but in fact extend the long tradition of a "hacker ethos" to a whole new generation of Internet users. Wikipedia built on this hacker culture to establish its principles of making an encyclopedia that is free, open, neutral, timely, and social.

The tech elite who first developed the Internet believed strongly in the freedom of cyberspace, in both aspects of "free"—free as in beer, and free as in freedom. Wikipedia continues that tradition by being disseminated widely and linked to extensively on the Internet. Its direct rivals in the English language, Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta, started as paid services requiring a log-in and password to access their pages. As a result, they are available only to an elite set of users, and have seen their influence and relevance drop over the years with Wikipedia in the same space. In contrast, no one entity owns a restrictive copyright to Wikipedia’s content. Companies and individuals alike are free to copy all of its articles and create derivative works, create new uses, and make money. That’s because content in Wikipedia is covered by a "copyleft" license, first pioneered by the "free software" movement, that demands that the information stay free for copying and modification.

Being "free" has unexpected advantages. Wikipedia has evolved from being simply a no-cost alternative into being a superior resource in its own right. Over the years, it has become deeper, broader, and more up-to-date than its traditional rivals. Because of its mission to stay free, it encourages participation— volunteers choose to donate their time and effort without feeling they are making a particular corporation or individual rich. This positive feedback loop has been a large reason for Wikipedia’s rapid growth in such a short time.

The Wikipedia project is radically different from other writing methods because it is open. It strives for transparency, to allow inspection for everything within the community. Each article has a complete chronological log of every change ever made, back to its point of creation. The actions of each user (anonymous ones too) are meticulously recorded and tracked in the system and can be observed by anyone else. This feature of "inspectability" is borrowed from the computer programming field, where revisions and decisions are tracked carefully for technical quality.

Openness is also a part of the hacker ethos as a way to inspect others’ work, to praise, to learn, to challenge, and to cooperate. It has typically been used by engineers to cobble together electronic parts or share computer programming tips with one another. But the application of this principle to creating content and sharing knowledge through Wikipedia is unprecedented in its scale.

Wikipedia can allow anyone to edit because any action can be easily undone by anyone else in the community. Only in the digital realm is it easier to repair things than to do harm. If Alice incorrectly changes a date, Bob can notice this and change it back with the click of a button. If a vandal attempts to insert incorrect information en masse, other users can thwart it easily and quickly. This crucial asymmetry tips the balance in favor of productive and cooperative members of the community, allowing quality content to prevail.

Most important, the only way to assemble the "sum of all human knowledge," as a collaborative endeavor from many individuals, was to have neutrality as the core editorial policy. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales refers to having a "neutral point of view" (NPOV) as the community’s only "nonnegotiable" policy, which "attempts to present ideas and facts in such a fashion that both supporters and opponents can agree."

If people on the Internet were to collaborate to create a global distillation of knowledge, there had to be something to bind together their work from very different viewpoints and backgrounds. The founders of Wikipedia had an impetus to be "co-labor instead of anti-labor," to prevent separate agendas splitting the site into polarized factions.

Therefore, it was decided early on that there could be only one version of each article presented at any single time. Participants had to work toward a single common article entry. Differing parallel versions of an article on [[Islam]]* would serve no one well—it would simply be too easy for factions to go off in their own biased corners. The earliest editor and leader of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, wisely enforced an NPOV policy, funneling people into the same virtual room to achieve consensus.

Wales acknowledged the impossibility of being truly neutral or objective, but he contended, "One of the great things about NPOV is that it is a term of art, and a community fills it with meaning over time."2 While it may be impossible to achieve true neutrality, the policy has worked remarkably well. The community has rallied around the idealistic vision of coming up with a single unified treatment of any given topic.

Because it has found a way to be "co-labor," the community has been able to work together around the clock faster than any twenty-four-hour newsroom. Wikipedia wouldn’t be as popular today without being timely and cataloging events as quickly as the news happens. In this way, it breaks out of the traditional role of an encyclopedia as a belated summary of history. Instead, it works at the speed of news. As fast as the news happens, like worker bees in a honeycomb, Wikipedians file, edit, and organize up-to-the-second dispatches into the Web site’s articles. Whether it was the [[2004 Indian Ocean earthquake]] and resulting tsunami or the [[7 July 2005 London bombings]], Wikipedians were updating articles every few seconds to reflect the latest breaking information. This function as a running log of history is quite unprecedented and uniquely fills a traditional "knowledge gap" created by the lag time between the publication of a newspaper and a history book.

In the English Wikipedia, where activity is nonstop, articles have become an instant snapshot of the state of the world, serving as a continuous working draft of history.

Given all the furious activity it takes to update the site, outsiders are fascinated as to why Wikipedians do what they do. Why would thousands of people flock to Wikipedia to contribute their time and energy for free?

For many, there is the thrill of contributing something that thousands—if not millions—of other people will read, or the satisfaction of helping further the recording of human knowledge. But Wikipedia survives and retains its passionate community also because it is social. You never know whom you will meet, strike up a conversation with, and as a consequence, learn from. Every Wikipedia article has an associated discussion page, to encourage debate and the exchange of ideas with others in the community. Imagine taking an online bulletin board, disassembling it, and spreading it across all the millions of topics and subjects known to mankind, each one with its own discussion group. Conversation among users happens continually when they edit an article, which can serendipitously launch interest in new articles and discussions. It’s this strong community of users, all working toward the same goal but in their domains of interest, that spawns new, passionate Wikipedians.

As with most Internet communities, Wikipedia had a dominant set of tech-savvy users at its core in the early days. But as it grew in size and importance, the throng of dedicated users grew to include more and more non-technical types—students, academics, lawyers, and artists. Those who were passionate about donating their labor to the project online found that they wanted to meet in real life. Wikipedia was a virtual product in cyberspace, but it was having implications in physical "meetspace."

This spawned real-life get-togethers. Meet-ups were planned, and starting in 2004, Jimmy Wales, like a prophet visiting his flock, went out to meet as many of the Wikipedians as he could. This fellow from a modest background in Alabama, who had never traveled outside the United States, was seeing the world, with passionate crowds to greet him, first in Europe and North America, then in East Asia and Africa. It was clear Wikipedia wasn’t a fad. It was a global phenomenon.

It all culminated in 2005 at the Frankfurt youth hostel. It was a last-minute affair, typical of how things got done in wiki culture. Following one of the core Wikipedia mantras—"Be bold!"—a group of German Wikipedians decided to organize a conference for editors from all over the world. In a matter of months, what was chatter in a bar became Wikimania, a conference done on a shoestring budget. What could be more wiki than sharing sleeping accommodations with strangers at a youth hostel? But it wasn’t just Wikipedians who came to this ad hoc, volunteer-organized summit. Corporations sent employees to see how Wikipedia operated. Internet pioneers came to observe what was happening. Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, made the trip on his own time. He had to come see in person what he considered the most exciting project on the Internet.

Press from all around Europe came to interview the minions who participated in the event. Inspired by the Wikipedia model, veteran journalist Danny Schech-ter showed up with a camera crew to make a Wikimentary about the community—a short video documentary that would be put on the Internet for anyone to alter and edit.

Wikipedia made a major impact that year on the Internet and the media, and accelerated its growth globally. It earned the prestigious Webby and Prix Ars Electronica Awards, and Wales was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2006.

But as the new elite digerati basked in the Wikipedia phenomenon, the project was not without its skeptics. With an eclectic and mercurial throng of volunteers, Wikipedia has faced its share of crises that come with being big on the radar screen.

In February 2002, just one year after its launch, Wikipedia was rising quickly, but it was still officially an experimental project of the for-profit company Bomis .com. When then-CEO Jimmy Wales mused on the Wikipedia email list whether to put advertisements on Wikipedia’s pages to generate revenue, it hit the community like a shock wave.

Influential members of the Spanish Wikipedia were so outraged by even a remote possibility of profiting from volunteer work that within days, they broke off into their own faction. So in 2002, very early in the Web site’s history, Spanish Wikipedians copied the entire contents of Spanish Wikipedia onto their own Internet server and asked community members to abandon Wikipedia in favor of this new alternative project, Enciclopedia Libre. It was a jarring setback and a stark lesson about the passionate community Wales had assembled. Despite pleas from Wales, Sanger, and others that advertising was only an idea for discussion, and not in the works, the damage had been done. Most of the Spanish volunteers had left. It would take years for Wikipedia’s Spanish-language edition to recover from what is now known as the "Spanish Fork." Some good did result from the episode. It convinced Wales and his partners that they had to spin off Wikipedia into a nonprofit entity to convince the community never to doubt its intentions.

Small internal crises were not uncommon. That was to be expected of such a diverse band of global volunteers. Disputes were largely confined within the small Wikipedia community, but with the site’s openness, rising popularity, and widespread use, external public relations crises were looming.

The explosion happened in 2005, when veteran journalist John Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece in the most popular American newspaper (by circulation), USA Today, titled "A False Wikipedia ‘Biography.’ " The column started out with a punch to the virtual gut of Wikipedians: Someone had edited Seigenthaler’s

Wikipedia biography, falsely implicating him in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

Seigenthaler thoroughly upbraided Wikipedia and what it stood for, as he described his futile attempt to track down the anonymous contributor who had put in the libelous prank statement. He bemoaned the helplessness he felt as the subject of a Wikipedia article that failed to go through the rigorous editorial process he expected as a journalist.

Wikipedia’s honeymoon was over. The embarrassment created a cascade of criticism by the traditional media, and many rounds of self-examination within the community. Wikipedia was no longer just a curious side project and a darling of the tech elite. It was in the big leagues now. People depended on it every day. One very wrong entry could overshadow thousands of great ones, and it affected people’s reputations and livelihoods.

And because it has become so influential and powerful, Wikipedia has become a target itself.

The authorities in the People’s Republic of China have blocked access to it for Internet users inside the country, ostensibly because the grassroots volunteer community and its content are too unpredictable for a government wanting to maintain control.

Nearly every Internet-enabled student depends on Wikipedia these days, to the dismay of many educators. Venerable study aids like CliffsNotes summaries look like creaky wooden carts next to the supersonic jetliner that is Wikipedia. But Wikipedia’s radical working model and uneven quality have resulted in it being "banned" for use in citations by a number of colleges and universities, and there is continual academic debate about the scholarly value of an encyclopedia put together by ordinary, uncredentialed common folk.

There are still enormous questions about the reliability of Wikipedia, though empirical use by millions of people suggests that the site is consistently helpful and, more often than not, accurate. But what about those articles that aren’t? How can they be identified? If Wikipedia is a minefield of inaccuracies, should one even be tiptoeing through this information garden?

On balance, it’s hard to argue that Wikipedia has been anything but a spectacular success, if only from the volume of visitors who keep returning and the growth of editions in more than fifty major languages. It’s easy to concentrate solely on the English-language version—it’s by far the largest and most high-profile. But in other languages, Wikipedia’s dominance is even more pronounced. In Germany and the Netherlands, the native-language versions of Wikipedia are ranked higher than any domestic news organization’s Web site.3 For many other cultures, in which there are no strong commercial incentives to create an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is the only comprehensive encyclopedia available at all. Therefore, the impact of Wikipedia has been more revolutionary and crucial for those cultures in the "long tail" of the language list.

Wikipedia has likely been introduced to millions simply because they use Google and other search engines. Do a random Internet search, and it’s hard not to find a Wikipedia entry in the top five results. The clear, clinical style of its articles on matters whimsical or serious makes it an instant favorite for many Internet users. With blogs and videos overflowing with personal viewpoints, and creative content that challenges one’s ability to sift out fact from fiction, Wikipedia has emerged as a respected distillation of knowledge that serves as a touchstone for getting at the truth—a factual yin to opinionated yang.

Wales is more pointed about this aspect of Wikipedia’s role: "We make the Internet not suck."4 In an age with dot-coms, pop-up advertisements, and spam, and with questions of provenance, reliability, and accuracy, people have found Wikipedia to be a haven. It’s where anyone can make a contribution to the intellectual commons and depend on reasoned and neutral articles as a result. It is something that by design is empowering and untainted by commerce.

But as it has earned respect as a crucial part of the Internet, even Wikipedia’s biggest fans recognize its problems. The Web site may be free of advertisements, but that hasn’t stopped entities from trying to exercise influence. Spammers, public relations companies, politicians, and those who can gain from crafting public perception have turned their sights to Wikipedia. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman famously noted this in his book The World Is Flat:

It is not an accident that IBM today has a senior staffer who polices Wikipedia’s references to IBM and makes sure everything that gets in there is correct. More young people will learn about IBM from Wikipedia in coming years than from IBM itself.5

There is value in trying to influence Wikipedia’s articles, transparently or surreptitiously. That has meant legions of volunteers act like street sweepers, constantly monitoring entries for bias.

The story of Wikipedia has inspired businesses, governments, and academics to reevaluate accepted truths about producing works of knowledge. Credentials and central control, once considered the most important parameters for generating quality content, now yield to new terms: crowdsourcing, peer production, and open source intelligence. What was once only done top-down is now being viewed bottom-up.

Books and essays have addressed the impact of projects freely driven by communities of scattered individuals: The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, Infotopia by Cass R. Sun-stein, and Everything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger.

This topic, however, goes in with a deeper focus on Wikipedia, explaining how it evolved to become the phenomenon it is today, and showing the fascinating community behind the articles and the unique online culture the site has fostered. While most people experience Wikipedia in their mother tongue, the impact of the site in other languages reveals a fascinating world of diverse online cultural norms. It’s a side of Wikipedia people rarely get to see, and the description of how different language communities have absorbed and adapted Wikipedia’s culture is unique to this topic. More important, the book takes on an issue few have addressed: where Wikipedia is going and what its challenges are in the future.

In the Afterword, "we" aim to tackle these big questions about the Web site’s future. The word "we" is not used in the abstract sense—Wikipedians, scholars, and luminaries were invited to help write this last section as a wiki. What better way to tap the collective knowledge of Wikipedians and thinkers than to put the subject on the Internet for an intelligent "crowd" to map out the future. It promises to be a unique publishing experiment.

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