It’s hard to remember a time before Wikipedia, right? Most of us are completely used to having the service around as a general information center on just about any topic.
As of September 2018, Wikipedia had almost six million articles- equal to more than 2,500 print volumes of the old-school Encyclopedia Britannica.
Even more impressive, Wikipedia had 45 million articles across 292 different languages! In its 17 short years of life, Wikipedia has become a true worldwide phenomenon. Now we just take it all for granted. But aren’t you the least bit curious to know how this happened?
The Very Beginning
Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales and Jerry Sanger in 2001, a project that they had been thinking about for some time. Wales had a first try at an online encyclopedia with Nupedia, which started in the year 2000. Hoping to make a truly unique resource, Wales hired Sanger to be the editor in chief. Nupedia never really got off the ground, however, because it took too long to get the articles written. The time-delay of content creation sunk the enterprise.
Sanger talked to Ben Kovitz, however, about a new thing called “wikis”- a website where users worked collaboratively to create content. This was pretty revolutionary- the idea of anonymous groups working together to build content. Sanger, and then Wales, however, saw the potential in using a similar model.
This is why they named the new site “Wiki-pedia,” using the concept of a wiki and the idea of an encyclopedia.
Bomis, an early dotcom company based in San Diego, donated the bandwidth and the server for the project, and on the 15th of January 2001, Wikipedia was born.
Development of Content and Articles
Sanger, as well as many Bomis employees, wrote the first articles on Wikipedia, but the site didn’t really start gaining traction in content creation until it received coverage in The New York Times, who ran a story on the site in September of 2001.
The September story was the beginning of a boom. In the first year of its life, Wikipedia gained about 1,500 articles a month, for a total of 20,000 articles. The boom in content creation only steamrolled from there.
The ability to edit (a feature that both makes the articles better, but also has potential for abuse) was a popular feature, as people felt both engaged with, and tied to, the entries on Wikipedia.
Today, in 2018, Wikipedia averages 2 edits per second and 550 new articles per day.
How Wikipedia Works
Wikipedia only allows for the conventional and accepted wisdom on a topic. It disallows personal essays, dictionary entries, critical reviews, “propaganda or advocacy,” and “original research.”
Authors and editors are expected to report what is generally accepted, not any new ideas that may have sprung from their own research. Even a scholar or scientist who may have new knowledge based on their own original research gets no particular respect.
Outreach Around the World
Wikipedia started out as a service that existed only in English, but quickly expanded across the globe. The first non-English site was created in German in 2001, and that was quickly followed by (in order), sites in Calatan, Japanese, French, Chinese, Esperanto, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.
Back in 2002, 90% of all Wikipedia articles were in English. By 2014, only 14% of all Wikipedia articles were in English, with 85.5% of all articles in other languages.
In 2017, Wikipedia was the world’s fourth most popular website, topped only by YouTube, Facebook, and Baidu (the Chinese search engine).
Potential and Controversy
Wikipedia, for many, is the new Library of Alexandria- a way for us all to have access to valuable information for free. Wikipedia has the potential to be the world’s largest repository of human knowledge, and is available to anyone with internet access and a device.
Wikipedia is also a heretofore unknown example of collaborative writing and historical documentation. As one historian notes, for example, the entry on U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt has developed over the years as written by more than 500 authors who have made more than 1,000 edits. This is an impressive amount of collaboration. But is the result any good?
The founding idea (or founding myth) of Wikipedia is “objectivity.” They seek to be neutral. But humans are inherently biased. Since anyone can edit any entry, what stops people from making untrue statements, changing history to suit their religious or political perspective, or slanting interpretations their way? One example of this on today’s Wikipedia is the article on the Armenian genocide, a topic that brings out strong emotions and opinions, and is constantly changed as the two sides seek to make their perspective the “official” one.
This problem is added to the fact that Wikipedia ignores the idea of expertise. A scientist who has worked in a field for decades has conducted valuable original research and arguably knows more than anyone about a topic can be shut out by editors who don’t like what they’re reading (it was, in fact, this problem that led to Sanger exiting the project).
As historian and journalist Andrew Lih has said, despite the problems and flaws, “No effort in history has gotten so much information at so little cost into the hands of so many — a feat made all the more remarkable by the absence of profit and owners.”
The Future of Wikipedia
As the site continues to grow and become more international, it faces some inevitable tensions between different international sites. Increasingly independent non-English language versions sometimes don’t want to update to be consistent with the English language page.
Another worry is the increase in mobile users who will not contribute to the site. Wikipedia depends on user participation, and many worry that a decline in editors will mean a slow death for the site.
Whatever the future of Wikipedia may be, there is no doubt of the influence that it has had for, and on, an entire generation of people.