Mondo Wikipedia

Community and controversy as the online reference giant turns five

Last fall, students at the University of South Florida contributed to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, by writing entries for numpty, mohoger, japsoc, and gavilan. The definitions they gave were foggy (numpty, "tea from the land of nump"; gavilan, "a species of left-wing American focused solely on doom and gloom"). Their English professor, Alex Duensing, encouraged them to dream up more entries. When members of Wikipedia protested, he argued that his class had a "fundamental right to shape reality."

Currently the 19th-most-visited web-site in the world, Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) invites anyone, regardless of academic credentials, to write and edit articles. Much has been made of this cavalier attitude toward scholarship—some choose to replace complete entries with phrases like "toilet bowl" or "hi, mom!"—but it's hard to complain: This is free information. Self-described Wikipediholics spend several hours a day researching, summarizing, and reinventing the meaning of various concepts. "Everyone wants to learn," says Daniel Mayer, one of the site's top contributors, with more than 40,000 edits. "It's not like the Victorian model of education: one person dictating at the head of the classroom. There's no hierarchy. There's no teacher."

Users form groups (the Harmonious Editing Club, Typo Team, Association of Deletionist Wikipedians) to more efficiently argue over definitions. A recent flame over whether or not the "apple pie" entry should include the phrase "as American as mom and apple pie" went on for months. A British user, "Tagish-simon," accused U.S. contributors of simultaneously colonizing the idea of pie, motherhood, and family. "First Iraq, then Apple Pies. What next?" he wrote. The page had to be blocked, and one person temporarily quit the site. After the dispute died down, someone replaced the old photo with that of a cheesecake.

Clay Shirky, a technology and new-media professor at NYU, describes the site as a mix of political philosophies—"a creamy communist exterior with a crispy libertarian center." Wikipedia forces an uncomfortable issue for academics, he says. "Where does authority come from? Brands? Institutions? It's not so clear. And it never has been. That's why the site is so threatening."

Traditional scholars feel jeopardized by a population of nerds they hardly knew existed. In 2004, Robert McHenry, the former editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote an essay for Tech Central Station comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom: You never know who's been using the facilities. "If this were a private enterprise, like a multiplayer game, that'd be fine," he tells the Voice. "It's like, 'Let's play the encyclopedia game, kids!' But to take the product of this game and call it an encyclopedia—that's where the deception comes in. The project is anti-educational, anti-science, and anti–everything that I think is a value."

Last year, the contributor with the most articles featured on the site's homepage was 17-year-old user "Lord Emsworth," still in high school. He wrote long, detailed entries on British nobility. Users addressed him as "your lordship." "You don't really need credentials to look at a book and take out the information," says Matt Wolf Binder, a 15-year-old from Seattle who's earned many Wikipedia peer awards, called Barnstars, including the Random Acts of Kindness Barnstar, the General Awesomeness Barnstar, the Working Man's Barnstar, and the Lots of Barnstars Barnstar. "If someone researches a topic, it doesn't matter if Harvard certifies them."

In many cases, winning disputes is just a matter of having good friends. People gang up on each other to argue their points. When a top contributor (user name "Essjay") recently despaired over a deletion, he decided to quit the encyclopedia for good. (He's now back.) "He couldn't take crying over what was happening to the people he cared so much about," Essjay explained (in the third person) on his user page. More than 50 people posted notes online, begging him to stay. "You are who you are regardless of what happens on Wikipedia," one reader reminded him. Another was more frantic: "Is there something else going on in your life making you depressed? Please, please, see a doctor."

The site, which has more daily visitors than The New York Timesand USA Today sites combined, is as much an encyclopedia as a social outlet. Wikipedia has many rules, but they're all highly breakable. (One essay states: "Ignore all rules.") This philosophy, which some describe as the site's "essence," doesn't always inspire goodwill. In September, John Seigenthaler Sr., former editor and publisher of the Tennessean newspaper, discovered that his Wikipedia bio claimed he'd had a hand in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The fiction had remained online for more than four months, uncorrected. Jimmy Wales, the founder of the site, acknowledged that the entry was "disgusting" and announced a new rule: Users can no longer contribute without first formally registering. (This has apparently done little to stop vandalism: A few weeks ago, someone rewrote the "Jimmy Wales" entry and said he'd been assassinated—by Seigenthaler's wife.)

Wikipedia works on the premise that articles will steadily improve over time, in a sort of Darwinian process of natural selection. But users, who now have the power to change history—at least until someone catches them—aren't always aiming for the larger good. Last year, former MTV host Adam Curry edited the "podcasting" entry to give himself more credit for the technology's creation. He deleted other important figures in the field and inserted helpful phrases like "Thanks to Adam Curry . . . "

Even Wales has rewritten his own biography, altering sentences about the role of his former employee Larry Sanger. On four occasions he changed the phrase "Wales and Sanger set up Wikipedia" to "Wales set up Wikipedia." Fellow users barely questioned his decision to contribute. The culture of the encyclopedia is simple: If you see a problem, change it. If other people think you're wrong, no big deal— they'll change it. Nothing is permanent. One frequent user, Fang Aili, didn't understand why Seigenthaler made such a fuss when he could have just taken out the libelous information himself. "Umm . . . Why didn't he just press the 'Edit' button, for god's sake? THAT'S WHAT IT'S THERE FOR. Jesus Christ."

In 2000, Jimmy Wales, a futures and options trader with a fondness for Ayn Rand, decided to start an open-content encyclopedia called Nupedia. "I saw it as a kind of social event," he says, "the equivalent of a sports league—but for geeks." He hired an acquaintance, Larry Sanger, a philosophy grad student at Ohio State University, to begin recruiting scholars and experts. Unlike what became Wikipedia, Nupedia would have a relatively traditional format, with each entry undergoing a seven-step editorial process. The first article, published in the summer of 2000, took more than four months to complete. The subject was atonality.

By the end of the year, there were only 24 articles. As a side project, Wales used the wiki, a type of software that allows for constant collaboration, to create a second encyclopedia where people could mess around with the entries before they were formally reviewed. Sanger came up with the term Wikipedia ("a silly name for what was at first a very silly project"), and the site was launched on January 15, 2001, now referred to by some users as Wikipedia Day. Within a month, the encyclopedia had 1,000 articles. After a year, there were more than 20,000.

Whose idea it was to use the wiki is a point of contention: In a recent essay on slashdot.com, Sanger says he proposed the idea and Wales was initially skeptical. Wales disagrees. The concept, he says, came from another employee, Jeremy Rosenfeld. Confident in his version of the story, Wales went ahead and tweaked the Wikipedia entry for "Larry Sanger" to reflect what he believed was the truth. Sanger was not amused: "Jimmy, I notice that you removed 'conceived of' from the description of my relationship to the origin of Wikipedia," he wrote on a discussion page. "I didn't conceive of it? It seems to me I did; it was, in a very robust sense, my idea. You remember this, I'm sure."

From the beginning, Wikipedia has presented the notion that history was up for grabs. The site evolved into its own community before Wales and Sanger had a chance to evaluate how they should govern it. As Sanger describes it in his essay, Wikipedia "began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature," but the community soon expanded out of control. Within months, Sanger felt he'd already missed his chance to assert himself as an authority. His biggest mistake, he writes, was failing to recognize that Wikipedia was more than just an encyclopedia: It was its own "polity." It needed "a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter."

Sanger resigned from the site in March 2002. Funding for his position had run out, and he chose not to continue as a volunteer. The site had become a "boisterous outdoor bazaar," he says. He had taken on the role of bad cop and he was frustrated with users' unruliness (Wales was the good cop, removed from logistics yet providing all the money). "I found myself generally despised by the old Wikipedians," he tells the Voice. "Anyone with authority was bound to be unpopular."

In a 2004 article published on kuro5hin .org, "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism," Sanger (who recently launched his own encyclopedia, Digital Universe) acknowledges that the site is "very cool." But as a philosophy professor with a specialty in epistemology, he is concerned about the way it is seen in academic circles. The problem, he writes, isn't that Wikipedia is unreliable. It's that librarians, teachers, and professors will always perceive it as unreliable. It's too open to "trolls and fools."

Ward Cunningham, the man who invented the wiki 10 years ago, says he designed it in reaction to precisely this kind of assumption: the idea, barely thought out, that ordinary people can't be trusted. "No one has the right answers," he says. "Honest to God, what is truth? Can you tell me what truth is? If you want infallibility, go see the pope."

Cunningham uses the term "Web 2.0" to describe what he and many others see as a new phase in the development of the Internet, defined in part by the idea of a collective consciousness. If Web 1.0 was a shopping mall, this second phase is more of an ongoing conversation, he says. Many successful sites are community based, participatory, and free of charge (see MySpace, Craigslist, Flickr, Socialtext, Blogspot, Meetup, Dodgeball). In a widely read blog post, "The Amorality of Web 2.0," Nick Carr, the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, encourages people to acknowledge the trend for what it is: "The Cult of the Amateur."

Wikipedia draws its fair share of unstoppable armchair philosophers, but it also attracts people who—out of a sense of humanitarian duty, or boredom—just want to get the job done. The goal is simple: free information for the world. Wales, affectionately referred to as "Jimbo," compares working for the site to volunteering for the Red Cross. Contributors treat him like a rock star, honoring him on their user pages with various songs and prayers ("Credimus in unum Jimbonem/patrem omnipotentem"). The arguments over his encyclopedia entry are particularly heated. Some worry that his featured picture doesn't make him look dignified enough: Is his expression ironic? Or just silly? Wales, who never imagined he could attract such a following, says he feels like Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence: He thought he'd have to finish the job alone, but suddenly strangers were doing his work.

Some of the most faithful Wikipedians compare the enterprise to building the ancient pyramids: A vast collection of anonymous people make tiny, negligible contributions (a single clause, a comma deletion), and the result is a cultural monument. People have created their own Wikipedias in Slovene, Finnish, Arabic, Afrikaans, Tatar, and 200 other languages. Two and a half years ago, Wales started a new project, Wikibooks, with the hope of providing a cheaper alternative to textbooks (U.S. college students currently spend $5 billion a year on them). Writers have begun to collaborate on texts in many subjects, including microeconomics, linguistics, Shakespeare, Japanese history, wooing men, and raising chickens. There's no copyright charge for taking material off the site, but as of now, most of the books are slipshod and incomplete—not ready for classrooms.

Wikipedia will never be finished, so long as its participants are active. Seventeen thousand people contribute regularly. As Shirky puts it, most encyclopedias ask the questions "Who knows? Who has the facts?" Wikipedia asks something different: "Who cares?" With entries that are both impossibly minute ("Musashi Junior & Senior High School") and transcendent ("Life"), one has to wonder whether Wikipedia will eventually just bloat out of bounds. It's hard to predict whether it represents a paradigm shift or just an anomaly. The site is constantly changing, propelled by its obsessed community. "We forgive those who vandalize against us," writes one club, the Really Reformed Church of Wikipedia, on its user page. "Blessed art thou among Wikipedians/and blessed is the fruit of thy keyboard."

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