|An unlikely revolutionary: |
co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales.
[ There are two stories you could tell about Wikipedia.
One is that 20 years ago a web resource was launched that threatened academia and the media, and displaced established sources of knowledge. It was an encyclopedia anyone could edit - children, opinionated ignoramuses and angry ex-spouses. If I edited the page on particle physics to claim it was “the study of ducks,” the change would be instantly published. If I edited your page to call you a paedophile, that would be published too. Worse, although anyone could edit it, not everyone did: the editors were a self-selecting group of pedants and know-it-alls and overwhelmingly men. All of this led to biases in what soon became the world’s first port of call for finding out about anything. In time the site’s co-founder, Larry Sanger, would concede that “trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the asylum.”
But there is also another - increasingly plausible - story.
Namely, that Wikipedia is the last redoubt of the idealism of the early World Wide Web. From the moment of Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 paper with its proposal of how information could be connected and made accessible via a hyperlink, visionaries began to imagine a kind of global democracy, where anybody, anywhere, could use a computer to discover the world. Amid a raft of developments known (in a 1999 coinage) as “Web 2.0” - which allowed everybody not merely to consume content but also to create it - some dared to dream that we would all become digital citizens shaking the plutocracy’s hold on established media and other elitist hierarchies.
Bit by bit, most of the web let us down. Yes, we were given a voice - but it didn’t come for free. Websites like Facebook harvest our data in order to attract advertisers; screen addiction, raging tribalism, trolling and misinformation reign. Tech billionaires got far richer than the old press barons ever were, and the rest of us became not empowered e-citizens - but data sold to companies wanting to target us.
But despite being the seventh most-visited site in the world in 2020, Wikipedia still seems different. It is the only not-for-profit in the top 10, with no adverts, no data collection and no billionaire CEO. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers maintain and create pages for free, correcting one another and upholding an impressive veracity. As early as 2005, the science journal Nature found that Wikipedia “comes close” to the accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica online (to the displeasure of the Britannica’s editors). Back then, the young Wikipedia had four errors per science entry to Britannica’s three. Wikipedia may not have reached the ideal of Jimmy Wales, the site’s more prominent co-founder, of being “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” but it isn’t far off. In February 2020, Wired named Wikipedia as “the last best place on the internet.”
As Wikipedia leaves its teenage years, the question is - which of our two stories is more valid ?
Wikipedia’s creators might seem like unlikely revolutionaries. Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, where he was born in 1966, Jimmy Wales had a deep affection for his household encyclopedia. He would sit with his mother sticking in entry-updates sent by the publisher that referred the reader to a more accurate entry in a later edition. Speaking from an attic in his house in the Cotswolds during lockdown, Wales tells me that one entry that needed updating was the moon’s, for the good reason that “people had landed on it for the first time.”
Wales studied finance and went on to work as a trader. His intellectual heroes were the novelist and philosopher of selfishness Ayn Rand (one of his daughters is named after a Rand heroine) and the Austrian free market economist Friedrich Hayek, whose Road to Serfdom was a favourite of Margaret Thatcher’s. He spent much of his free time on the early internet, playing fantasy games and browsing, and became fixated by its potential. He quit his job and with two partners set up Bomis, which started as an information directory but developed into a men’s site (whose “Babe Engine” was basically a way to search for pornography).
Wales decided to create a free, virtual encyclopedia that could be updated in real time and that anyone could access. Like its predecessors, it would be a secondary, not a primary source - it would cite information from the media or academic papers, rather than publish original research - and it would have a strict approvals process. “It was really very formal and very top-down, you had to be approved to write anything, and you were expected to submit a completed essay,” he says. Nupedia launched in October 1999, with Larry Sanger - a philosophy graduate student whom Wales had met online via philosophy mailing lists - as editor-in-chief.
“There are now over 300 Wikipedias in different languages, and over six million entries on the English language site alone”
Thanks to the long submission process, the site had published only 21 articles after a year. Meanwhile, Sanger and Wales had come across the concept of “wikis” - collaborative, freely rewritable web pages that can be used to run group projects, collect notes or run a database (wiki is the Hawaiian word for quick). As an experiment, they launched another encyclopedia on 15th January 2001 that ditched the checks in favour of a wiki-style approach: Wikipedia.
Intended as a sideshow to Nupedia, the new site exploded. “One of the things that was interesting,” Wales remembers, “is that in the early days, people started writing things that were pretty good. They were very short and basic, but there was nothing wrong with them.” There are now over 300 Wikipedias in different languages, and over six million entries on the English language site alone. Over time, three core policies were established: pages should take a neutral point of view; contain no original research; and be verifiable, meaning that other visitors can check the information comes from a reliable source. Interestingly, none of these tenets is “accuracy”: the site effectively outsources this by resting everything on citations.
Two of the site’s servers crashed on Christmas Day 2004, and Wales had to keep the site “limping along” himself. Shortly after, he launched a fundraising campaign. Today, regular energetic campaigns, highly visible when you click on an entry, bring in over $100m a year for Wikipedia and other projects of the superintending Wikimedia Foundation, mostly from small donations - the average is $15.
Despite the incredible number of pages, there are fewer active editors than you might think: on the English-language Wikipedia only 51,000 editors made five or more edits in December 2020. A 2017 study found that in the site’s first decade, 1 per cent of Wikipedia’s editors were responsible for 77 per cent of its edits. An edit can be as small as a tweak to the formatting, or it could be starting a new page.
The site is now vast, with over 55m articles - the English-language Wikipedia alone would fill 90,000 books, giving it comparable volume (if not always quality) to a typical Oxbridge college library, available free to anyone with an internet connection, whether a rice farmer in Bangladesh or a physics student with out-of-date textbooks. Most impressive is its speed: articles are edited 350 times a minute. Wales says one of the first moments he truly saw Wikipedia’s potential was on 9/11. While television news was looping footage of the towers falling, Wikipedia’s network of volunteers were doing something different: “People were writing about the architecture of the World Trade Center, its history.” The site has come into its own during the pandemic, too, moving far more rapidly than established publications: since December 2019, there has been an average of 110 edits per hour on Covid-19 articles by some 97,000 editors.
|Edit wars: mention of Wikipedia’s co-founder, |
Larry Sanger, was famously removed from
Jimmy Wales’s entry - by none other
than Wales himself.
The passion and dedication of Wikipedia’s editors is clear, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always good at what they do. One sobering recent revelation concerned entries in the Scots language, a close cousin of English that is primarily spoken in the Scottish lowlands (and not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic). Thousands of Wikipedia pages in Scots had been created by someone who didn’t speak the language - a teenage user called AmaryllisGardener from North Carolina. Some words were still in English, others seemed to have been translated into Scots via a poor online dictionary. AmaryllisGardener sincerely thought he was being helpful, saying in a Wikipedia comment that he had started editing the pages when he was 12, and was “devastated” by the outcry (and abuse from other editors). Ryan Dempsey, a Scots language enthusiast from Northern Ireland who first flagged the errors on Reddit, tells me that he believes the errors went uncorrected for so long mostly because Scots is not very widely spoken, still less read, “and those fluent in it are more likely to be older and rural and so have less of an online presence.” After outing AmaryllisGardener, he realised that there were “many other editors who were far worse” on the Scots site.
The story was covered all over the world, but isn’t the best example of Wikipedia’s effectiveness: mistranslations - especially in little-read languages - are far more likely to survive than factual errors, given the requirement to cite facts carefully (you’ve doubtless seen a bright red “citation needed” mark next to an apparently innocuous statement). However, there have been many other controversies about accuracy. Lord Justice Leveson was blasted in 2012 after his report into the culture and ethics - and accuracy - of the British press listed one of the founders of the Independent newspaper as one “Brett Straub,” an unknown figure who erroneously appeared on the paper’s Wikipedia page.
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