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A Brief History of Wikipedia

Simon Pitt | Internet | Sunday 26th April 2009

In 2001, if I didn't know something, I looked it up in a book, a method that seems almost barbaric in its backwardness. Now, of course, things have changed. If I want to know something, I can just stick it into Google. Even if I don't want to know something, I can stick it into Google. It's so easy to find information that whether I actually want to know it or not becomes almost irrelevant. In all likelihood, if I'm searching for something fact based, I'll end up, almost immediately, on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the best website in the world. This is a fact, and I can prove it on a graph, or, in true Wikipedia style, by linking to another website that says it. After all, if someone else says it somewhere, then it must be true.

A number of seemingly intelligent people have already vomited reams about the philosophy and nature of Wikipedia, and I do not intend to join in some sort of academic cock contest. Instead, I intend to look at how, why and in what ways the Internet and the major sites on the Internet have changed not only our lives, but also the way we think and work. Along the way I'll provide some (hopefully illuminating) information about the background to some of the major websites that we use and hear about all the time.

Wikipedia started life as an offshoot from the academically authorised encyclopaedia, Nupedia. Nupedia was the brainchild of rich businessman Jimbo Wales, who had made his fortune in "Bomis"; a search engine that classified all of human knowledge under one of three catchall headings: "Babes", "Science Fiction" or "Other". I don't know about you, but I find something weird about a forty-year-old man who still calls himself "Jimbo". Editor-in-chief of Nupedia was Larry Sanger, a sort of human cross between a potato and the Linux operating system. In eighteen months, after spending quarter of a million dollars, they had managed to amass a handful of articles. According to Wired Magazine, they had written twelve, a comment that Larry Sanger angrily rejected, pointing out that, actually, they had "just over twenty articles", a rather wonderful piece of anal pedantry that's just what you want from a man who looks like a potato.

Nupedia's progress was glacial, involving a seven-stage process to check articles for suitability. If, after a year, they had twenty articles, it was going to be a while before they managed to chart the whole of human knowledge. After all, twenty articles barely scratched the surface of different Pokemon characters, and they still had every Star Trek episode to analysis. Then, one day, Larry discovered something incredible. Like most incredible discoveries, this happened at dinner. He and his friend Ben Kovitz were in the midst of what was, in all likeliness, an incredibly boring conversation about firmware when Ben mentioned the subjects of wikis. A wiki was a new piece of software that the completely unheard of Ward Cunningham had invented for his similarly unheard of WikiWikiWeb. This started Sanger's mind racing about a different way of running their online encyclopaedia. Getting back after his Mexican dinner (thank Christ history recorded what sort of restaurant they were in at the time), Sanger set to work, and Wikipedia was born.

At first, Wikipedia was simply a less restricted version of Nupedia. But then something happened. People started writing new articles. This increased in rate. And then the increase in rate increased. And Wikipedia took off. It's incredible just how quickly Wikipedia went from being a rather dry and geeky website run by the director of an ex-porn site to one of the most useful websites in existence. Wikipedia was one of the first websites to break away from the Internet and enter real life. It's now acceptable to talk about Wikipedia in polite company, or on TV, in a way that talking about cnet or msfn, say, isn't.

But, exactly how useful is Wikipedia? People still dismiss things quoted from Wikipedia because they're from Wikipedia and "anyone can change it" - but is there any mileage in this? In December 2005, Nature published an article comparing the accuracy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica with Wikipedia. The same day the BBC reported Nature's findings saying that "Wikipedia is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopaedias Britannica". This sparked the first of what would become a continuing, and increasingly boring argument about how the accuracy of Wikipedia.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, predictably enough, struck back at Nature, saying "Almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading". In a twenty-page article of more than average vitriol, Britannica attacked Nature with an extravagance you rarely see in adult society, listing all of their mistakes, calling them downright liars and incompetent idiots who couldn't even read their own numbers. They might as well have gone the whole way and blamed them for the Second World War, the Irish Potato Famine and the increase in fossil fuel consumption. In case people didn't read their article, they also published a half page advert in the Times, where they took another massive shit on Nature, calling them downright liars and demanding an apology.

Loving a bit of slagging off, and not to be outdone, Nature published a point-by-point rebuttal, an Editorial and a formal response, where they seemed to take great pleasure in quoting Britannica verbatim and with an almost eerie politeness refuting their comments. The details, which are mainly about statistical analysis and whether or not Dirac's large number hypothesis is noteworthy, are so boring they make you want to eat your own face, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say, this shit slinging (the equivalent of five years old screaming at each other in the playground about who can do the biggest turd) is something you have to get used to if you spend any time with the Internet, academics or, indeed, anyone at all.

This, of course, is not the only time Wikipedia has been held up as either "the best thing in the world ever and the only thing you should spend your time doing" or "a bastardisation of all that is good in the world and a complete anathema to all that is holy". The argument races, and like most things, there is evidence either way, and so people selectively pick whatever twisted evidence backs up the bigoted opinion they had in the first place. Isn't debating great, eh?

This leads onto something that I will go on to discuss repeatedly, and possibly ad nauseum. Wikipedia contains an article about Wikipedia, about the history of Wikipedia, about Wikipedia's growth and about criticisms of Wikipedia (perhaps one of the best places to go if you want to know the latest theoretical problem with collaborative editing, as put together by a collaborative team). It also contains a statistic page and a special statistics page that provides information about page views for every Wikipedia page for every day ever, and growth information, to the byte for Wikipedia on any given day. This is a shocking amount of data. More data than you could ever actually use. For example, I could find out that the article about Harry Grant Dart, the nineteenth century American Cartoonist in the Boston Herald, got three page views on March 15th 2009.

Now, picture for a minute, not how many articles Wikipedia contains, but how much extra data it contains about the articles; how many statistics and size values and page views, and how much processing is done on all these values. And then think of the effort that's gone into processing all of this, and modelling its growth, and analysing its nature.

My thesis here is, that the Internet, for one reason or another, encourages a type of inward looking self-conscious self-obsession, that is on a scale we've never seen elsewhere. Take, for example, Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. Neither of these even have an entry for themselves in themselves, and they certainly do not contain anywhere near this level of statistics about their creation, development and growth. This is a particular Internet phenomenon. In the following few articles I will be offering, at times, views, opinions and comments, some conflicting, some sarcastic and some biased, about this and many other Internet trends. Ironically by creating a website about websites, I am, of course, perpetuating the very thing about which I am writing.



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