Writing about Wikipedia

Wikipedia is one of the most popular sites on the Internet (check its ranking here or here). It’s used in classrooms and to settle barroom disputes, but has also drawn accusations of sexism and anti-elitism. So what is it, other than a place to find facts? Where did it come from? Who should care? This fall I’ll be teaching a writing course themed around Wikipedia. As is my wont when designing a new class, I’ve been collecting articles and readings about the topic, and I’ll be sharing them here. I’ve split my findings into four posts. Today I’ll give an overview and some perspectives on the past and future of Wikipedia. In the coming weeks I’ll post about experts and expertise, about academic research and teaching, and about controversies involving Wikipedia.

Feedback is welcome: if you know of something even tangentially related to Wikipedia, especially if it might appeal to undergraduates, please let me know!

What is Wikipedia?

Globe Wikipedia defines itself as a “collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia,” and these adjectival characteristics are what make it unique:

That the site is “collaboratively edited” means anybody can edit it, regardless of credentials or expertise. You’re encouraged but not required to create an account (which will track your edits). Love it or hate it, this is the site’s defining characteristic: when people talk about Wikipedia, they almost always focus on this aspect. The site does have guidelines (the Five Pillars of Wikipedia), which are enforced by users, but the fifth pillar is “no firm rules.” Wikipedia users decide what is best. These users can be demanding, and Adeline Koh and Roopika Roksa’s useful guidelines for editing give a sense of what is required and how Wikipedians enforce these guidelines.

The site exists in 285 languages. The English, German, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Russian editions each contain more than a million articles. A few seconds looking at this map reveals just how fast Wikipedia is changing, and the global nature of the site (the map shows edits in real time; the link takes you to the English version, but you can select other languages. Or you can listen to an audio version).

You can read any article on Wikipedia without paying a dime: the site is paid for by donations and run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. There are no advertisements, a fact that isn’t without controversy (Jason Calacanis has argued that Wikipedia could raise $100 million a year even with subtle, non-invasive ads, money that could be funneled into philanthropic efforts. Founder Jimmy Wales responded on his own blog, claiming to be personally opposed to ads on the site but willing to leave the question up to the community). But Wikipedia is free in other senses, too: it operates under a Creative Commons license, meaning it can be remixed, shared, and adapted (provided the remix attributes properly and is similarly licensed).

On the tech side of things, Wikipedia is a “wiki,” and the most famous one at that. The word is Hawaiian, and means “fast” or “quick.” The crucial characteristic of a wiki is that is is collaborative: unlike, say, a blog, there’s no single owner or manager. The structure of  a wiki thus emerges from whoever uses it, and evolves to meet its users’ demands. Computer-savvy folks can look more at the specifics of the software and hardware.

For most users, Wikipedia consists of articles about topics. Behind the scenes, though, are two elements that make the site run: the talk pages and the history pages that exist for each article. The history pages preserve all the edits ever made to the site, while the talk pages allow users to discuss the changes they make: questions and controversies are worked out there.

Wikipedia’s History

Several book-length studies of Wikipedia consider its deeper history, looking to microfilm, index cards, the Oxford English Dictionary, or even the Library of Alexandria — I’ll say more about these books in a future post. The short version is this: Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, arising from an earlier project, Nupedia. Today Wales is the one most associated with the site, but Sanger claims that he “had the idea for a wiki encyclopedia, spearheaded the project, named it, led it in its first, seminal year, and formulated much of its original policy”. Wales has given lots of (mostly similar) talks about the project. One such talk is “The Intelligence of Wikipedia” (given in 2005 at the Oxford Internet Institute; it’s about 54 minutes).

In December 2005 a well-publicized article in Nature (behind a paywall) compared Wikipedia, favorably, to Encyclopedia Britannica, at least in its science articles. Things went up from there, as the site became more and more popular and widely used. Stacy Schiff’s “Know it All,” published in the New Yorker in 2006, just after the Nature article and the English Wikipedia’s one-millionth article, captures the excitement of the project and explains controversies like “edit wars,” when disagreeing users change and re-change articles.

Aaron Swartz memorial at Internet Archive in San Francisco
Aaron Swartz memorial at Internet Archive in San Francisco (Flickr)

Also in 2006, Aaron Swartz wrote a great series of essays about Wikipedia, which I summarized in an earlier post. The second essay, “Who Writes Wikipedia?” is definitely worth reading: Swartz responds to Jimmy Wales’s claim (see above) that most of Wikipedia is written by a relatively small but very active group. Wales counts number of edits, but Swartz shifts the methodology, taking a case study approach and determining that most of the actual content is provided by people who make just a few edits. This content is then “cleaned up” and made to look uniform by the select few Wales mentions. So really, Swartz argues, Wikipedia is an emergent, crowdsourced encyclopedia. It just has a dedicated team making sure it’s formatted properly.

Writing in 2008, Nicholson Baker in the New York Review of Books offers one reason why the site has become so successful: it’s “charmingly addictive.” Baker compares it to a kind of online game (his discussion of Wiki-vandalism is especially good). Together, Schiff, Swartz, and Baker perhaps explain Wikipedia’s rapid rise to prominence: it’s exciting, even in its controversies; it involves lots of people, even if they’re mostly making minor changes; and it’s addictive and fun.

Wikipedia’s Future?

As subsequent posts will show, the online encyclopedia has its critics, but none of these criticisms have proved especially damning, or really affected traffic to the site. If Wikipedia ever meets its end, the reasons are more likely to be technological than social. Much of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from Google, so its success is perhaps linked to the search engine (in 2010 Google donated $2 million to the Wikimedia Foundation; Mathew Ingram, writing for Businessweek, details the symbiotic relationship between the two). Wikipedia was also fairly slow in releasing mobile apps (for Android in January 2012, and for iOS a few months later).

Mark Bernstein makes two points about Wikipedia that might be worrisome in the future. The first is about how Wikipedia interacts with the rest of the Internet: “Wikipedia has pretty much turned its back to the Web. Links to the Web from Wikipedia are relegated to footnotes, and even these are frequently wikilawyered out of the encyclopedia.” The second is that Wikipedia’s built-in reliance on arbitrary categories raises major problems that will only get worse. Such arguments seem (to me at least) categorically different from claims about anti-elitism or sexism.

For a site that lives in a digital world, a failure to keep up could prove damning. On the other hand, Wikipedia has become so engrained in our culture that it’s hard to imagine life without it. And the site had its critics from the beginning. Founder Larry Sanger didn’t think an encyclopedia could exist without expert guidance, and Wikipedia’s relationship with “expertise” is a key element of its existence. That’s a topic I’ll pick up in my next post.



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