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Wikipedia: The Story of Collective Knowledge

Wikipedia is a free, online, user-edited and user-contributed encyclopedia. It is also a stupendously simple and almost inevitable idea, but has proven to be nothing short of revolutionary.

Certainly, much has been made of Wikipedia over the years. It has served as a case study for the reliability of truth within crowd-sourced material, the strength of neutrality, 21st century educational practices, and the almost organic rise of an oligarchy from within an anarchy. But perhaps what has been most extraordinary is that with more or less a single spark, a good chunk of the web community set about piecing together a collective archive of everything that is. The ins and outs of Wikipedia’s history has more or less extended from this one point.

The first edit to go up on Wikipedia was made by one of its co-founders, Jimmy Wales (known in his community as Jimbo) on January 16, 2001. It read, “Hello, World!” But even then, Wikipedia was the result of years of hard work.

In 1999, Wales was living in San Diego after co-founding an online search portal and directory named Bomis. He had also begun to dream up the idea of a free web-based encyclopedia. Though he had exactly zero details of such a project worked out, he did know two things. The first was that everything about the encyclopedia needed to be open and free and on the web, inspired in part by the free software movement. The second was that the project should be led by a philosopher. So he contacted Larry Sanger.

Sanger was a graduate student (studying philosophy), and he and Wales had actually been online acquaintances for some time. When Sanger was pitched the idea of an online encyclopedia, he was as excited about its prospects as Wales. It was actually pretty groundbreaking. In the early 90’s, encyclopedia’s had gone digital, but had never really got past CD-ROMs. They failed to see the promise of the web. But Wales, and Sanger, both understood the potential almost immediately. With the patronage of Bomis behind them, the two began formulating what they called Nupedia. In early 2000, they officially launched the website.

Once they had a rough idea of what the site would look like, Sanger got together a group of graduate students and academics to act as volunteer contributors to the project. The first step was to cobble together an academic advisory board from this group and work out a rigorous vetting and editing process that ensured each article posted to Nupedia would be of the highest quality. They settled on a seven step system which required each Nupedia entry to be reviewed by several experts before it was officially published.

Sanger’s first principle was accuracy. Anyone could access the content free, and even take part in discussions about an article’s content. But the expert contributors were the gatekeepers of the site. Nupedia entries were therefore extremely thorough and well written, but certainly not quickly produced. After about a year of work, Nupedia had less than two dozen articles published.

For a small chunk of the web, Nupedia was an exciting idea. Even though members couldn’t submit official articles, around 2,000 people had joined the Nupedia mailing list, and started to get involved in the project any way they could. This mailing list was constantly abuzz with new ideas, conventions and content-related discussions.

It was around that time that both Sanger and Wales were introduced to the wiki. A wiki is essentially a website that anyone, including visitors, can edit and modify. As such, a wiki is a constantly evolving artifact, crowd-sourced from the many users of a site. The software was also incredibly simple to set up.

On January 10, 2001 Sanger first pitched the idea of creating a wiki to the Nupedia mailing list. In Sanger’s mind, this wiki would serve as a “feeder” for new and existing content. The wiki would be open to all users, and the hope was that visitors could begin to work through outlines and drafts of ideas. This would serve as a well of content for Nupedia experts to pull from, content that could be revised, rewritten and eventually published as an official Nupedia entry.

The community mostly agreed. Nupedia had a small, but dedicated, following that was tired of waiting in the wings. They were ready to contribute real content to Nupedia (even if it was only to get thing started). The wiki would give them a chance to do so. So that very same day, Sanger got a prototype of the a wiki up and running on nupedia.com.

Within a few days, both Sanger and Wales were able to recognize how popular this wiki could be. Users flocked to the wiki and began building up content very quickly. There were some contributors to Nupedia, however, that believed that this new wiki would deter from some of the work they were doing. So Wales purchased the pun-ridden domain Wikipedia.com (the .com in case they ever wanted to sell ads), and Sanger moved the wiki there. That was January 15, just 5 days after the initial prototype went up. The next day, Wales posted his first edit.

Fifteen days later there would be 600 articles already written.

Wikipedia was successful in part because it was, and still is, both decidedly a wiki and decidedly not a wiki. Under the hood, it used wiki software and modes of operation. But the wiki community online had already begun to formulate social norms, conventions and even hardcoded rules for how a wiki should work. Wikipedia naturally absorbed some of these conventions, like “meta” discussion pages, but discarded plenty of others. Perhaps most notably, most wiki’s insisted that pages begin as a discussion thread before a draft was submitted. Wikipedia entries, however, begin with a half-baked draft known as a “stub.”

Wikipedia in the early days

In just 6 months, Wikipedia had accumulated over 6,000 entries, available in several different languages. Wales and Sanger’s attention drifted away from Nupedia and towards the site that was a runaway success. The site would ride waves of popularity, as each time Google crawled the site or an article was posted on Slashdot, visitors would pour in.

Though Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites in the world, contributors have always been a much more close-knit group. In many ways, they have always been drawn to collectivity, and Wales first inspiration for a free encyclopedia was inspired by the open web and free software movements. These concepts blended together into a unique ideology that governs Wikipedia to this day.

Everything about Wikipedia, including its design, servers, and of course content, is managed at least in part by volunteers. Even the rules of Wikipedia are managed by Wikipedia users. Early on, Wales and Sanger set some basic guidelines, and then let things develop. The most important unwritten rule is that anyone is allowed to contribute as long as they are not there to vandalize the site. But to counteract opposing viewpoints and the natural conflicts that arise from controversial subjects, Wikipedia is defined by a “Neutral Point of View.” Wikipedia entries do not take sides. They can represent sides, but they cannot take an editorial point of view.

The rest of the rules and rituals of Wikipedia were made up along the way. At the top of the hierarchy has always been Wales, a monarch like figure with sparingly used absolute power. Below him, a group of administrators formed that could control the site’s content, software and users. Disputes became commonplace in article discussions, so an independent arbitration committee was convened to settle conflicts between editors. Additional servers were needed to handle increasing traffic, so a server team got together to help with the load. Even the site itself is paid for through donations. Common practices and editorial conventions gelled over time (bolding the article title, footnote formats, starting the article with a full sentence, etc), all of which was more or less decided upon through group consensus.

Wikipedia’s parent company, soon formed as a non-profit to prevent any and all outside biases. But the project was never much of a money maker, and in 2002, just a year after the project began, Sanger was let go. His influence, however, far outlived his time at the company. By the time he left, there were around 20,000 unique articles on Wikipedia in several different languages. Today, in 2017, there are almost 5.5 million.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has been in circulation for over 250 years. The World Book Encyclopedia for around 100. Wikpedia has been around for 15. It’s breadth and depth of content already far exceeds its competitors. And I’ll always think of it as a site uniquely of, and built for, the web.


Added to the Timeline

January 15, 2001 - Wikipedia

A free, user contributed encyclopedia, Wikipedia is launched as an offshoot of its predecessor, Nupedia. Unlike Nupedia, which demanded strict editorial guidelines for any article, Wikipedia allowed anybody to contribute or edit content, quickly amassing a large pool of crowd-sourced entries and becoming the de-facto source for information on the web.

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