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You Can Look It Up: The Wikipedia Story

You Can Look It Up The Wikipedia Story The Daily Beast


In an excerpt from his new book, The Innovators, Walter Isaacson recounts the improbable story of the online encyclopedia that has proven its detractors wrong time and again.

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I just love this paragraph:

Jimmy Wales was born in 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama, a town of rednecks and rocket scientists. Six years earlier, in the wake of Sput­nik, President Eisenhower had personally gone there to open the Marshall Space Flight Center. “Growing up in Huntsville during the height of the space program kind of gave you an optimistic view of the future,” Wales observed. “An early memory was of the windows in our house rattling when they were testing the rockets. The space program was basically our hometown sports team, so it was exciting and you felt it was a town of technology and science.”

I also dig this part of the story:

After graduating from Auburn and a halfhearted stab at graduate school, Wales took a job as a research director for a Chicago financial trading firm. But it did not fully engage him. His scholarly attitude was combined with a love for the Internet that had been honed by playing Multi-User Dungeons fantasies, which were essentially crowdsourced games. He founded and moderated an Internet mailing list discussion on Ayn Rand, the Russian-born American writer who espoused an objectivist and libertarian philosophy. He was very open about who could join the discussion forum, frowned on rants and the personal attack known as flaming, and managed comportment with a gentle hand. “I have chosen a ‘middle-ground’ method of moderation, a sort of behind-the-scenes prodding,” he wrote in a posting.

Before the rise of search engines, among the hottest Internet ser­vices were Web directories, which featured human-assembled lists and categories of cool sites, and Web rings, which created through a common navigation bar a circle of related sites that were linked to one another. Jumping on these bandwagons, Wales and two friends in 1996 started a venture that they dubbed BOMIS, for Bitter Old Men in Suits, and began casting around for ideas. They launched a panoply of startups that were typical of the dotcom boom of the late ’90s: a used-car ring and directory with pictures, a food-ordering service, a business directory for Chicago, and a sports ring. After Wales relo­cated to San Diego, he launched a directory and ring that served as “kind of a guy-oriented search engine,” featuring pictures of scantily clad women.

The rings showed Wales the value of having users help generate the content, a concept that was reinforced as he watched how the crowds of sports bettors on his site provided a more accurate morning line than any single expert could. He also was impressed by Eric Ray­mond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which explained why an open and crowd-generated bazaar was a better model for a website than the carefully controlled top-down construction of a cathedral.

Wales next tried an idea that reflected his childhood love of the World Book: an online encyclopedia. He dubbed it Nupedia, and it had two attributes: it would be written by volunteers, and it would be free. It was an idea that had been proposed in 1999 by Richard Stallman, the pioneering advocate of free software. Wales hoped eventually to make money by selling ads. To help develop it, he hired a doctoral student in philosophy, Larry Sanger, whom he first met in online discussion groups. “He was specifically interested in finding a philoso­pher to lead the project,” Sanger recalled.

Sanger and Wales developed a rigorous, seven-step process for creating and approving articles, which included assigning topics to proven experts, whose credentials had been vetted, and then putting the drafts through outside expert reviews, public reviews, professional copy editing, and public copy editing. “We wish editors to be true experts in their fields and (with few exceptions) possessPh.Ds.,” the Nupedia policy guidelines stipulated.92 “Larry’s view was that if we didn’t make it more academic than a traditional encyclopedia, people wouldn’t believe in it and respect it,” Wales explained. “He was wrong, but his view made sense given what we knew at the time.” The first article, published in March 2000, was on atonality by a scholar at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

Imagine a wall where it's easier to remove graffiti than create it.

Unfettered, Wikipedia took off. It became to Web content what GNU/Linux was to software: a peer-to-peer commons collabora­tively created and maintained by volunteers who worked for the civic satisfactions they found. It was a delightful, counterintuitive concept, perfectly suited to the philosophy, attitude, and technology of the Internet. Anyone could edit a page, and the results would show up instantly. You didn’t have to be an expert. You didn’t have to fax in a copy of your diploma. You didn’t have to be authorized by the Powers That Be. You didn’t even have to be registered or use your real name. Sure, that meant vandals could mess up pages. So could idiots or ideologues. But the software kept track of every version. If a bad edit appeared, the community could simply get rid of it by clicking on a “revert” link. “Imagine a wall where it was easier to remove graffiti than add it” is the way the media scholar Clay Shirky explained the process. “The amount of graffiti on such a wall would depend on the commitment of its defenders.” In the case of Wikipedia, its de­fenders were fiercely committed. Wars have been fought with less intensity than the reversion battles on Wikipedia. And somewhat amazingly, the forces of reason regularly triumphed.

Amazing how fast it grew once the software was good enough:

One month after Wikipedia’s launch, it had a thousand articles, approximately seventy times the number that Nupedia had after a full year. By September 2001, after eight months in existence, it had ten thousand articles. That month, when the September 11 attacks occurred, Wikipedia showed its nimbleness and usefulness; contribu­tors scrambled to create new pieces on such topics as the World Trade Center and its architect. A year after that, the article total reached forty thousand, more than were in the World Book that Wales’s mother had bought. By March 2003 the number of articles in the English-language edition had reached 100,000, with close to five hundred ac­tive editors working almost every day. At that point, Wales decided to shut Nupedia down.

By then Sanger had been gone for a year. Wales had let him go. They had increasingly clashed on fundamental issues, such as Sanger’s desire to give more deference to experts and scholars. In Wales’s view, “people who expect deference because they have a Ph.D. and don’t want to deal with ordinary people tend to be annoying.” Sanger felt, to the contrary, that it was the nonacademic masses who tended to be annoying. “As a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tra­dition of respect for expertise,” he wrote in a New Year’s Eve 2004 manifesto that was one of many attacks he leveled after he left. “A policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia’s first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respect­ing and deferring politely to experts.” Sanger’s elitism was rejected not only by Wales but by the Wikipedia community. “Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid ed­iting Wikipedia,” Sanger lamented.

Sanger turned out to be wrong. The uncredentialed crowd did not run off the experts. Instead the crowd itself became the expert, and the experts became part of the crowd. Early in Wikipedia’s devel­opment, I was researching a book about Albert Einstein and I noticed that the Wikipedia entry on him claimed that he had traveled to Al­bania in 1935 so that King Zog could help him escape the Nazis by getting him a visa to the United States. This was completely untrue, even though the passage included citations to obscure Albanian websites where this was proudly proclaimed, usually based on some third-hand series of recollections about what someone’s uncle once said a friend had told him. Using both my real name and a Wikipedia han­dle, I deleted the assertion from the article, only to watch it reappear. On the discussion page, I provided sources for where Einstein actu­ally was during the time in question (Princeton) and what passport he was using (Swiss). But tenacious Albanian partisans kept reinserting the claim. The Einstein-in-Albania tug-of-war lasted weeks. I became worried that the obstinacy of a few passionate advocates could under­mine Wikipedia’s reliance on the wisdom of crowds. But after a while, the edit wars ended, and the article no longer had Einstein going to Albania. At first I didn’t credit that success to the wisdom of crowds, since the push for a fix had come from me and not from the crowd. Then I realized that I, like thousands of others, was in fact a part of the crowd, occasionally adding a tiny bit to its wisdom.

It's the hive mind:

Wikipedia took the world another step closer to the vision pro­pounded by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 essay, “As We May Think,” which predicted, “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.” It also harkened back to Ada Lovelace, who asserted that machines would be able to do almost anything, except think on their own. Wikipedia was not about building a machine that could think on its own. It was instead a dazzling example of human-machine symbiosis, the wisdom of humans and the processing power of computers being woven to­gether like a tapestry. When Wales and his new wife had a daughter in 2011, they named her Ada, after Lady Lovelace.

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