Wikipedia is just the latest in a long line of encyclopedias. In fact, encyclopedias have been around in some form or another for 2,000 years. The oldest, Naturalis Historia, written by Pliny the Elder, is still in existence.
How do I know this? I looked it up on Wikipedia, of course. Is it true? Possibly.
Ten years after its founding, it’s hard to imagine what life was like before Wikipedia. When I was growing up, our family had a dusty set of encyclopedias that were at least 10 years old, which is fine if you’re looking up dinosaurs, but not so good if you want to know, for instance, who the current president of the Congo is. But though the limitations of the old encyclopedias were obvious, they were authoritative in ways that Wikipedia is not.
Like most people, I’ll take the tradeoff. I have no desire to go back to the days of printed Funk & Wagnalls. If someone would have told me back in 2001 that, within a few years, there would be a comprehensive, free online encyclopedia, I wouldn’t have believed them. Why would someone do that? How?
By now, we all know the story: Two Ayn Rand devotees, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, created Wikipedia in January 2001. The founding can be traced to a post by Sanger entitled “Let’s Make a Wiki” that was intended as a feature to Sanger and Wales’s other project, Nupedia. Wiki, Sanger explained in the post, was derived from “wikiwiki,” a Polynesian word for “quick.” “What it means is a VERY open, VERY publicly editable series of web pages,” Sanger wrote in the post.
As often happens, the feature grew out of proportion with its original intent. Wales, who was originally against the idea of a Wiki, became a strong proponent of it, while Sanger, who became estranged from the project in 2002, now charges that Wales hogged the credit for the venture. (Wales could not be reached for comment. To his credit, Sanger is mentioned as a co-founder on Wikipedia’s entry about its founding.)
Rooted in open source thinking, Wikipedia contributors began penning a voluminous number of entries (the site claims there are now 17 million such articles), which began showing up in Google searches, furthering the site’s growth and notoriety. Meanwhile, a subculture developed around Wikipedia, with self-appointed guardians doing their best to make sure entries were accurate and free of vandalism. As an authoritative 2006 Atlantic article on Wikipedia noted, “A study by IBM suggests that although vandalism does occur (particularly on high-profile entries like ‘George W. Bush’), watchful members of the huge Wikipedia community usually swoop down to stop the malfeasance shortly after it begins.”
“Truth” on the Internet
All of this made Wikipedia a pretty good reference, but one that you’d be wise not to take completely at face value. Wikipedia works best as an introduction to a subject. Since the articles usually cite references, readers can investigate further whether the claims are actually true. Despite this, Wikipedia soon earned a reputation for loopy reportage, an aspect best expressed in The Onion headline “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence.”
Such criticism, though, has it backwards. Wikipedia is, in the best-case scenario, an antidote for the echo chamber of the web. After all, good luck finding “truth” on the Internet. Facts may be facts, but they’re subject to so much spin that it can be hard to get a handle on what’s objectively real.
All the more reason why the idea of Wikipedia is laudable, albeit a bit impractical. Though Jimmy Wales could have made a fortune selling ads on the site, he decided to make the Wikimedia Foundation a non-profit charitable organization. But someone has to keep all those servers running and pay those 50 full-time staffers, which is why Wales appeared in a ubiquitous banner ad on Wikipedia asking for donations. The site eventually collected $16 million.
Can Wikipedia sustain itself for another 10 years? As The Economist recently pointed out, the number of Wikipedia’s English language contributors fell from 54,000 in March 2007 to 35,000 in September 2010, but here Wikipedia may be the victim of its own success. As the site gets more comprehensive, there are fewer entries that need to be written. One thing’s for sure — if Wikipedia ever does go away, it will be hard to believe it. After all, where will we go to confirm such a thing?
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Image courtesy of Flickr, quartermane.