Wikipedia

The Answer Place

Wikipedia needs no introduction, which in itself is a kind of introduction, acknowledging its global role as our go-to information source.

The collection of online encyclopedias—with editions in more than 200 major languages—is the internet’s sixth most visited site, drawing more eyeballs than eBay, Amazon, or Twitter. It’s the only top website that’s non-commercial, open source, and, most important, created by users…and edited by anyone.

Impact

Ask Wikipedia

If you wanted to learn about Wikipedia, there’s a good chance you’d look it up on Wikipedia. With 18 billion page views monthly, it has become the default first (and often last) stop for research.

The software behind Wikipedia is relatively simple. But the site’s impact has been enormous. Its crowd-sourced articles tap into a worldwide community of experts and editors, democratizing the process of sharing and updating information.

Photo © Quim Dasquens

Escaldàrium: Festival of Fire and Water, Caldes de Montbui, Barcelona, Spain, July 2014

Wikipedias for smaller or embattled languages, like Catalan, Maltese, and Kiswahili, become rallying points for preserving cultural traditions. New editors are often warmly welcomed, rather than forced to prove themselves as in major-language Wikipedias.

Who to Believe?

We need reliable information. But how and where to get it? Ask an expert, or tap into the wisdom of crowds? There aren’t enough experts to update every topic. Yet crowds can be swayed by fads or drawn into “edit wars.”

Wikipedia’s solution? Trust crowds, but not for new information. Instead, have them summarize what’s already published!

”John Cena” article with references

Credit: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed August 19, 2016

”John Cena” article with references

Articles must cite sources! One of Wikipedia’s five pillars is “no original research”—a good editor accurately summarizes what is already published. This short article on a popular wrestler has 398 references!

”George W. Bush” article and revision history

Credit: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed August 19, 2016

”George W. Bush” article and revision history

Articles evolve with input from different editors. For controversial topics, past edits dwarf the current article. “George W. Bush” has had 46,008 002 edits by 14,507 editors—more than 3,000 encyclopedia pages!

Wikipedia in the classroom

Wikipedia in the classroom

Wikipedia board game, 2015

Wikipedia board game, 2015

Wikipedia University mug and T-shirt, ca. 2016

Wikipedia University mug and T-shirt, ca. 2016

A Work in Progress

Throughout history, most information sources were static. Printed encyclopedias took years to produce, and were updated only occasionally, if ever.

Wikipedia, by contrast, is a living resource, with continual corrections and additions. So it’s rarely outdated. But that makes it vulnerable to shifting interpretations, as well as attempts at self-promotion.

“United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016” article

Credit: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed August 19, 2016

“United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016” article

If as George Helgesen Fitch said journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” then Wikipedia is trying to be the next draft. Major breaking events can get Wikipedia updates within minutes, like the United Kingdom’s European Union exit (a.k.a. “Brexit”) on June 23, 2016.

”Tony Robbins” article with promotional content warning

Credit: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed August 19, 2016

”Tony Robbins” article with promotional content warning

How can Wikipedia prevent editors from using articles to promote themselves or their causes? Blatantly biased edits and articles get deleted. Others get warning flags, like this one.

Pages on surgery, hydraulics, and shipping technology, <em>Encyclopédia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts</em>, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, 1751-1772

Pages on surgery, hydraulics, and shipping technology, Encyclopédia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, 1751-1772

This massive project in Enlightenment France was radically inclusive. It sought to make all knowledge accessible to all and incorporated current information from various trades as well as the “high” subjects of traditional encyclopedias.

Complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1998

Complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1998

<em>Enquire Within (Upon Everything)</em>, 1884

Enquire Within (Upon Everything), 1884

Pop-culture encyclopedias

Pop-culture encyclopedias

Technology

Simple But Powerful

The brilliance of Wikipedia isn’t its software, which is technically straightforward. Rather, it’s the ideas behind that software—and its implementation.

Wikipedia articles accept constant additions from users worldwide. One key to making that work is the software’s built-in “undo” features, essential for a user-created resource where changes sometimes must be rolled back.

&rdquo;Computer History Museum&rdquo; article (top) and markup language (bottom)

Credit: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed August 19, 2016

”Computer History Museum” article (top) and markup language (bottom)

Clicking “edit” on a Wikipedia article lets you see and change the underlying, raw markup language. You can also choose a friendlier visual editor that looks like a word processor (not shown).

&rdquo;Computer History Museum&rdquo; revision history

”Computer History Museum” revision history

Open Source Collaboration

Open source software lets anybody study the underlying code, or copy it to create their own personalized version. “Open content” knowledge is similarly open to improvement and reuse.

Wikipedia is open content and powered by open source software. It is also the most famous “wiki”—software designed to enable collaborative writing.

Richard Stallman, father of the Free Software movement

Credit: By NicoBZH from Saint Etienne–Loire, France, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Stallman, father of the Free Software movement

The free software movement opposed proprietary control over code and inspired the later open source and open content communities. Wikipedia adapted key open source tenets, like sharing and the right to re-use other’s work, to its encyclopedia.

“Egyptian Hieroglyphics” on Quora.com

“Egyptian Hieroglyphics” on Quora.com

&rdquo;Computer History Museum&rdquo; revision history

”Computer History Museum” revision history

Creating a Community

If you build it, they will come. And write. And research. And edit.

Wikipedia is a global community with over 100,000 volunteer editors and writers. To ensure that other volunteers don’t undo their work, contributors need to follow the rules. That means summarizing published information, not presenting original research or opinions.

Wikimania conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006

Credit: By Gus Freedman (Wikimedia Foundation Inc.), CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimania conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006

Each year as many as 1,500 members of the Wikimedia community come together for a “tribal meeting” called Wikimania. Session topics range from copyright reform to supporting local editors to hacker tips.

Wikimedia Foundation offices, July 19, 2011, San Francisco, California

Credit: By Victorgrigas (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Foundation offices, July 19, 2011, San Francisco, California

Wikipedia has always had a central office of some sort, since it grew out of the commercial Nupedia. Today, the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation staff of around 280 oversees fundraising, computing infrastructure, and software.

Chart of Wikipedia roles, August 12, 2014

Credit: By PiRSquared17 (own work), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chart of Wikipedia roles, August 12, 2014

Wikipedia started simple. But today some editors are Administrators, or Bureaucrats, or Stewards, or Reviewers, or Researchers, etc. in a sprawling hierarchy. The organization’s policy documents would fill a 400-page book.

Attendee eating a Stroopwafel at Wikimania 2015, Mexico City

Attendee eating a Stroopwafel at Wikimania 2015, Mexico City

Barnstar

Barnstar

Wikimedia project lapel pins, 2015

Wikimedia project lapel pins, 2015

Meet the “Staff”

Why do so many people, from over 150 countries, donate their time?

Motivations are as diverse as the contributors themselves. They range from the urge to add to—or correct—common knowledge, to showing off expertise or keeping alive minority languages such as Maltese and Catalan.

Wikimania 2015, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City

Credit: By EneasMx (own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimania 2015, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City

Each year, the Wikimania conference pays special tribute to its host city. In 2015 Wikimania focused on quality control and digital rights in Latin America and other countries, like including Brazil, Spain, and Portugal.

Siska Doviana with Wikipedia Indonesia tutorial sign, Library of Goethe-Institut Jakarta, November 16, 2016

Photograph by Dwi Satria Utama, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Siska Doviana with Wikipedia Indonesia tutorial sign, Library of Goethe-Institut Jakarta, November 16, 2016

Siska Doviana started making thousands of edits to Indonesian Wikipedia from a keyboard attached to her mobile phone. She now heads the nonprofit Wikimedia Indonesia.

Justin Anthony Knapp, April 21, 2012

Justin Anthony Knapp, April 21, 2012

Editor survey, 2012

Editor survey, 2012

Boys club? Washington, DC, January 17, 2012

Boys club? Washington, DC, January 17, 2012

History

All the World's Knowledge

From ancient Egypt’s Library of Alexandria to 15th century China’s Yongle Encyclopedia, people have long sought to collect and organize the world’s information.

Twentieth century visionaries such as Paul Otlet and Douglas Engelbart conceived technologies to make that process collaborative, incorporating contributions from all kinds of people. But Wikipedia was the first to realize such collaboration on a large scale.

Palais Mondial (World Palace), later Mundaneum, Brussels, Belgium, ca. 1900

Courtesy of the Mundaneum Archives Centre

Palais Mondial (World Palace), later Mundaneum, Brussels, Belgium, ca. 1900

Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine sought to organize all the information in the world. Their Mundaneum had 15 million cards on thousands of topics. Otlet also experimented with microfilm, photocells, televised documents, and telex.

<strong>Left to Right</strong>-Don Andrews, Bill English, and Doug Engelbart using oNLine System (NLS), ca. 1968

Left to Right-Don Andrews, Bill English, and Doug Engelbart using oNLine System (NLS), ca. 1968

WikiReader, 2010

WikiReader, 2010

The Road to Wikipedia

The World Wide Web began as a collaborative medium, but its authoring features disappeared early. Ward Cunningham’s “wiki” software mimicked some of those lost capabilities.

In the late 1990s, a struggling commercial online encyclopedia called Nupedia launched a wiki to generate articles, which experts would then edit and refine.

<em>Wiki-Wiki</em> airport bus, January 25, 2007

Credit: By Andrew Laing (Wiki-Wiki!!!), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wiki-Wiki airport bus, January 25, 2007

Wiki inventor Ward Cunningham learned the Hawaiian word for “quickly”—wiki—when he took the airport bus in Honolulu. It struck him as the perfect name for his new, instant collaboration system: WikiWikiWeb.

<strong>Left</strong>-Ward Cunningham and <strong>Right</strong>-Original WikiWikiWeb

Left: Credit: By Carrigg Photography for the Wikimedia Foundation (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Left-Ward Cunningham and Right-Original WikiWikiWeb

The web had originally been designed as a collaborative medium. Cunningham’s “Wiki” software, WikiWikiWeb, was meant to add back that feature within shared bases of knowledge.

Ward Cunningham Video Poster

Ward Cunningham, Inventor of the Wiki

<strong>Left</strong>-Jimmy Wales outside of St. Petersburg, Florida, office, December 1, 2006 <strong>Right</strong>-Nupedia homepage

Left-Jimmy Wales outside of St. Petersburg, Florida, office, December 1, 2006 Right-Nupedia homepage

Jimmy Wales Video Poster

Jimmy Wales, Co-Founder of Wikipedia

Wikipedia Video Poster

Wikipedia Software Makers and Users

Going Live…Then Going Viral

After its 2001 launch, Wikipedia—the wiki created to generate raw articles for online encyclopedia Nupedia—swiftly eclipsed its parent. But explosive growth sparked tussles between owner Jimmy Wales and Editor-in-Chief Larry Sanger, author of editing rules that still govern Wikipedia.

Wales favored ditching the experts and trusting crowd sourcing. Sanger preferred keeping the experts, but ended up leaving himself.

Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief of Nupedia and Wikipedia

AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief of Nupedia and Wikipedia

Wales and Shell hired Larry Sanger as editor-in-chief of Nupedia. They had all met through a shared interest in libertarian philosophy.

Five pillars of Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed August 16, 2016

Five pillars of Wikipedia

When Wales and Sanger launched Wikipedia as a way to quickly crowd-source rough articles for Nupedia, Sanger came up with core principles that would later be formalized as the “five pillars” of Wikipedia.

First preserved Main Page of Wikipedia, December 20, 2001

First preserved Main Page of Wikipedia, December 20, 2001

German Wikipedia

German Wikipedia

Growing Pains

Dizzyingly fast expansion strained Wikipedia’s code. In 2002 volunteer programmers undertook a massive rewrite to handle the traffic.

Growth also brought headaches, from digital graffiti to bogus articles that chronicled everything from phony wars to the (fake) pet crocodile of 18th-century English poet Lord Byron. A reassuring study, however, claimed claims Wikipedia was is as reliable as the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica.

Heinrich Magnus Manske, core MediaWiki programmer

Courtesy of the Sanger Institute, Genome Research Limited

Heinrich Magnus Manske, core MediaWiki programmer

Magnus Manske was a major contributor to Nupedia and wrote the first dedicated Wiki software for Wikipedia, introducing many core features. He also started the German Wikipedia, the second after English..

(left) Seigenthaler incident and (right) Jar'Edo Wens hoax

(left) Seigenthaler incident and (right) Jar'Edo Wens hoax