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16th March 2022

A history lesson in the web’s largest online resource, Wikipedia

A vision for a cyberspace utopia created the world’s most extensive and read-reference information bank, and it’s still standing today
A history lesson in the web’s largest online resource, Wikipedia
Luke Chesser @ Unsplash

The Alexa Traffic Rank outlines the most popular websites by online ‘traffic’, and unsurprisingly Wikipedia is in the top ten. It is no doubt that this site is widely used, despite being branded ‘unreliable’ by many. But this reputation may not be entirely justified, especially given the history of the online database’s creation.

Wikipedia stands as an outlier from other sites on the list, given that it is non-profit and sustains itself almost entirely through donations. It pays just 250 employees – a number dwarfed by its 250,000 contributing volunteers. In order to understand how it has achieved this, we need to look at the early Internet culture from which it emerged – and is arguably one of the last living fossils still carrying the torch.

The ‘hacker ethic’ was a product of the cultural climate of the 1960s and a utopian vision for the future that cyberspace could allow. Reflecting the era’s increasing rebellion against authority, the hacker ethic promoted decentralisation and sharing of resources as a means of reaching an improved, more egalitarian world via technology.

Moving into the 1980s, this manifested itself as the ‘Free Software Movement’, whose followers encouraged the dispersal of open-source code and universally accessible free software in order to remove barriers to cooperation between individuals. 

Meanwhile, the internet was created in the 1960s by the US Defence Department as a mechanism to allow transfer of data between four computers across two states. In the following two decades it was expanded to connect further computers in various US universities.

However, it was not until the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee that the internet began to take shape into what we know it as today. With the genesis of the first web browsers and websites in the mid 1990s, the internet began to increase in popularity. The hacker ethic was retained, as its adherents recognised its potential to deliver their vision for the power of technology.

Drawing on the ability of the World Wide Web to connect people and the hacker ethic’s vision of decentralised information sharing, the first wiki was developed in 1995: WikiWikiWeb. This was a collaborative database of information about computer programming which presented contributions in a series of overlapping cards connected by hyperlinks.

Today it seems incredibly primitive in both appearance and ease of use: it didn’t even have a search bar. Importantly though, it introduced the wiki concept, where any user could create and edit pages on the host site without doing any coding. Honouring the free software movement, the code allowing others to easily create other wikis was publicly released –  free and without copyright restrictions. 

This wiki software was seized upon by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001 as an alternative to a pre-existing internet Encyclopedia project they had been working on. Coined ‘Nupedia’, it relied exclusively on contributions from vetted academics, whose articles were also subject to a rigorous peer review process. Although the output was reliable, it was slow, and failed to attract the traffic that Wales and Sanger had hoped for.

Wikipedia was initially launched tentatively as an experimental sister project to Nupedia.  Yet it quickly surpassed it, reaching 1 million articles in over 100 languages by the end of 2004. As of the time of writing, the numbers now stand at more than 58 million articles in over 300 languages. It dwarfs every comparable information resource. 

The success of Wikipedia has been baffling to many. I remember specifically being told in secondary school to never use it as a source of information, the justification being that ‘anybody can edit it’.

It is true that Wikipedia has hosted misinformation leading to controversies in the past.  This was particularly the case in the early years, when its exponential growth meant that the limited systems of self-moderation it had in place were temporarily insufficient.

One of the most notorious of these was the 2005 ‘Wikipedia Seigenthaler biography incident’, in which the journalist John Seigenthaler was falsely accused of having been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, since then, safeguards have been put in place to moderate articles involving current political figures or particularly contentious issues before publishing. This process has increased the detection and removal of ‘vandalism’, reverting articles to truthful accounts in only a matter of minutes.

Also, citations are required for any information which is not self-evident, and each article has an attached discussion page where editors can debate what should be included and how to present it. In fact, these discussion pages often demonstrate the (sometimes ludicrous) level of attention to detail which goes into the writing of a Wikipedia entry. The most bizarre example is perhaps the 40,000 words of discussion which went into the argument over whether to capitalise the ‘I’ in the article for the 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness. After the length of a short novel’s worth of debate, a consensus was reached that they should.

There can be no doubt that Wikipedia’s success has been enabled by the sense among its volunteers of being part of a positive decentralised community. There is a feeling that they are genuinely improving the world carrying forward the hacker ethic long after it has been forgotten in most other parts of cyberspace. The magnitude of this accomplishment is best understood when Wikipedia is compared to YouTube.

YouTube also started out with a vision of giving individuals the power to publish their own content simply for the satisfaction of putting it out there for the enjoyment of others. This was epitomised by their original – and now non-existent – slogan: ‘Broadcast Yourself’. This ideal has since been lost though. YouTube’s homepage is generally dominated by content made by large media corporations. And, the company is embroiled in various scandals involving promotion of extremist ideologies, censorship and the spread of misinformation. 

Meanwhile, Wikipedia has remained neutral and non-profit, and its reputation as a useful resource has only grown. Is Wikipedia perfect? No, of course not. But its writing guidelines make it remarkably consistent at presenting information clearly and succinctly across its millions of articles, and its neutral stance protects it from the biases affecting many other resources. 

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