Aaron Swartz’s Essays about Wikipedia

Looking through my Zotero library, I found a series of essays by Aaron Swartz, written back in 2006. I added these essays years ago, before I know who Swartz was. I heard about him (mostly on Twitter) only in the last year couple years, first regarding the JSTOR lawsuit and then about his tragic suicide. If you don’t know who Swartz is, I highly recommend Larissa MacFarquhar’s piece in the New Yorker, “The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz.”

I originally saved the essays because they’re about Wikipedia, and I returned to them because I’ve been very interested in Wikipedia lately (as I’ve written about on this blog, I had the students in my Romanticism course add to a Wikipedia page as part of an assignment about literary vocabulary). Though seven years have passed, Swartz’s Wikipedia essays are still worth reading.

In “Wikimedia at the Crossroads” Swartz talks about his attendance at Wikimania and his campaign for the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Directors (he was not elected). The second essay is the one most worth reading. “Who Writes Wikipedia?” challenges Jimmy Wales’s claim that Wikipedia is in fact mostly written by a small group of people (you can watch a 2005 webcast of Wales). Swartz concludes that although “insiders account for the vast majority of the edits,” they’re mostly just formatting: “it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.”

The third essay, “Who Runs Wikipedia?“, begins with the question, why did Wikipedia work? He argues that Wikipedia’s strength is in its users, not the governing organization. In “Making More Wikipedians,” he argues that to promote Wikipedia, Wikipedians need to recruit, “giving talks and tutorials to groups that you know about, explaining the core ideas behind Wikipedia, and giving demonstrations of how to get involved in it.” Apparently, in 2006 only 10% of people knew about Wikipedia. Now (according to Alexa) it’s the 6th most popular site in the world.

The fifth of Swartz’s essays, “Making More Wikipedias,” argues that “Wikipedia’s real innovation was the idea of radical collaboration.” The software matters less than the ethos and the culture. This isn’t to say that software doesn’t matter at all, though, as the final essay, “Code, and Other Laws of Wikipedia,” makes clear. For example, the interface has to be user-friendly, otherwise non-experts are barred from entry. Yet Swartz maintains that these are really political choices, not technical ones, and the Wikipedia community (not a for-profit company, even if run by Wales) should make the decisions.

I’m in the process of compiling a list of articles about Wikipedia, so if you know of any good ones, please let me know!

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