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“The Wikipedia Revolution”. Will it survive?

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THE WIKIPEDIA REVOLUTION: a book review
Andrew Lih’s take on “How a bunch of nobodies created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia”.

To those who ask whether a grassroots open source online community can deliver a significant and sophisticated product,  Wikipedia delivers a resounding “Yes!” But then comes the caveat, “to an extent”. And then the question, “can it last?”

Andrew Lih’s story of the roots and the rise of Wikipedia is a tale told with affection. He’s a confirmed Wikipedian who continues to chart its fortunes today at  :http://www.andrewlih.com/blog/category/wikipedia/.  
And Wikipedia is a big achievement to be defending: a freely licensed encyclopaedia written by volunteers, with more than 16 million articles in 273 languages (as detailed here on the Wiki Stats page http://s23.org/wikistats/wikipedias_html.php?sort=good_desc.)

But Lih also points up the flaws, from the temptation to indulge in editing “flame wars” to such shady practices as creating “sock puppet” alternate identities, and the more destructive activities of  “trolling” and outright vandalism.  

And he outlines the problems of scale: is it inevitable that there has to be more hierarchy, stricter rules, and slower progress, when the project embraces 16 million articles as it does today?

At the end of this post, I’ll look at some of the latest changes to Wikipedia, and the current debate on whether it’s heading in the right direction. Plus a link to the new Britannica, relaunched last month as a direct challenge to Wikipedia. But first, an overview of Lih’s book.

THE WIKIPEDIA CREED
The foreword by founder Jimmy Wales gives us the idealism upfront. “Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”

There’s a huge amount in the book about HOW Wikipedia works, as “the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit“. The achievement is based on the technology: the invention of wiki editing in 1995 by Ward Cunningham. It’s easily accessible: the programme’s “copyleft” license means  information can be freely reproduced.  It’s easily started: from the “stubs” onwards, you work with simple WikiMarkup language.  There’s room for debate, with the addition to the original wiki concept of  “talk” pages. It’s proved itself in crisis: Wikipedia can work at the speed of news.  Above all, Wikipedia is transparent: you can view the history of every single edit made.

We learn in detail about the environment that made Wikipedia POSSIBLE. Richard Stallman’s “copyleft” licence: allowing anyone to modify and distribute not only a work but its derivatives. The Free Software Foundation. The GNU General Public License. Linus Torvald’s open source LINUX software system. Netscape’s Open Directory Project.  And the meeting of Jimmy Wales and philosophy student Larry Sanger, who was driven by the concept of an open source collaborative encyclopaedia.  And a huge factor in Wikipedia’s continuing success has to be Google, whose page ranking algorithm herds viewers towards the site in their droves every day.

But here’s a thought provoking quote from founder Jimmy Wales :”Wikipedia isn’t a technological innovation at all; it’s a social innovation.”

Much of the interest of the book lies in WHY it works. WHY did the project open to the masses prove so much more successful than the professionals-only version? Lih’s answer is basically that it’s about the way in which Wikipedians interact: the way that with a very few basic rules, members of the community complement and coordinate and police each other. Why do thousands of volunteers spend thousands of hours adding to the sum of human knowledge?

These are the FIVE PILLARS that define Wikipedia’s character: it is an encyclopedia, it has a neutral point of view (NPOV),  it is free content, it has a code of conduct, but it does not have firm rules. From this, it seems to me Wikipedia has FIVE REASONS for success, which we could apply to very many other of the start ups that get to scale up, that win both page views and praise.

First, users are motivated to be Creative: Be Bold. Ignore All Rules. do Not Worry About Messing Up. Find a problem? SOFIXIT.
Second, users are motivated by Reputation: their work is a matter of pride among peers.
Third, users are motivated by Ownership: Wikipedia cannot be used for commercial gain.
(hence the cautionary tale of the Spanish Fork in 2002; and hence Microsoft’s failure with Encarta in 2005)
Fourth, Wikipedians’  actions are completely Transparent: every edit is recorded, every action saved.
And so, fifth, they Police themselves

As Jimmy Wales says, “the software does not determine the rules of Wikipedia.. It’s all about humans making decisions”.

So, it’s all about Wikipedia’s collaborative, open source culture. Lih quotes Eric S Raymond from “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”  He quotes Wales again on what the French Wikipedians called the “pirhana effect”: “you start with a tiny little article and it’s not quite good enough so people are picking at it and sort of a feeding frenzy and articles grow.” And by writing, they learn. You feed off, and shape the work of others: another Web 2.0 principle, “reuse and remix.”  From our class readings, I’d also quote Clay Shirky from “Here Comes Everybody”, when he says that Wikipedia solves the classic problem of Who will Guard the Guardians?  His answer – Everybody.

TWO CRISES
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Wikipedia. Lih takes us through the saga of the SPANISH FORK : when then CEO Jimmy Wales commented on the possibility of selling advertising in a 2002 email, Spanish Wikipedians copied their work and left en masse for an alternative project.  The result: the creation of the non profit Wikimedia Foundation.

Lih also shows us the huge reputational damage done by the false biography of journalist JOHN SEIGENTHALER in 2005.  For 132 days the Wikipedia article about Seigenthaler, formerly an assistant to Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy, falsely suggested he might have been directly involved with both Kennedy assassinations. The result: no new articles to be created by anonymous users, and a strict policy on the Biography of Living Persons.

ISSUES OF GROWTH
In the early days consensus was formed by email.  Wikipedia was a relatively intimate community. The problem was, that didn’t scale.

It was partly a problem of clashing cultures – ethnic, national, ideological. The classic example was the edit war over GDANSK or DANZIG. The battle raged for years over whether to prioritise the city’s Polish or German identity, mirroring the historic wrestling match over the territory itself.

But it was also, simply, that as Wikipedia grew more popular there was more vandalism. The front page had to be locked down. There were more troublemakers, “trolls”, who indulged in flame wars. It got harder to live by the axiom AGF or Assume Good Faith.

Lih references Eric Raymond’s hugely influential essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, but he tempers its idealism. He says “most wiki communities by now have seen that harnessing the benefits of oneness and radical inclusion means trolls are an unavoidable by product.” Larry Sanger’s departure in 2002 followed his clash with those he saw as “radically anarchical and uncontrolled.”

The result: Policing. Only Administrators could delete articles. Offenders could be blocked.

Lih writes (page 95)  “this was an important turning point where the small community practices had to be upgraded to a formal voting system. Wikipedia was not a small village any more.” He sums up gracefully “the plight of Wikipedia growing from small community to larger digital metropolis”.In Lih’s chapter called “Crisis of Community”, he pays tribute to those who fell by the way, the number of Wikipedia pioneers who just burned out.  As he describes it, the sense of a classic wikki culture is hard to sustain in the face of such high traffic. Some experienced Wikipedians felt that quality was declining; others tired of vandalism. Hence the Missing Wikipedians page – a tribute by traditionalists to those who got out  – last updated as of this post on 29th Sept 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Missing_Wikipedians

I found this the most thoughtful part of the book. Lih describes the wearing off of the “euphoria of exponential growth”. He writes that the “low hanging fruit” has been picked. The encyclopaedia is entering “a maintenance mode”.  “Wikipedia has also slowly morphed away from its free wheeling wikki roots as a general writing space. With protection, semi protection and flagged revisions, it has become a more regimented system….But the question for this community has always been: Are you here for the wiki-ness or the encyclopaedia-ness?…It stands at a crossroads.  Will the comment and the product hold together long term?”

THE AFTERWORD – THE ARGUMENTS CONTINUE
The book’s Afterword was published in print in 2009, it’s still available to update  at http://wikipediarevolution.com/wiki/Main_Page
As of writing this blog, the page has been accessed more than 18,000 times. But it was last modified in May 2009. Has the argument run its course, or simply gone elsewhere?

In the book, the afterword concludes by quoting the aphorism “The greatest enemy of a revolution is its success.” (a good quote, also to apply to Ken Auletta’s reading of the Google Revolution).
It raises two possibilities for Wikipedia: ” It can remain complacent with what it has achieved, or it can attempt to find innovative ways to remain on the cutting edge of collaborative Internet projects.”

THE CHALLENGE FROM BRITANNICA
Wikipedia is not alone. In 2008 Britannica got into the game of user-generated content, announcing that it would allow readers to become editors, and to be identified as such. On 21st September 2010 Britannica launched its updated online open space forum, described in this blog post from Michael Ross: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2010/09/new-britannica-better-easier-and-you%e2%80%99re-part-of-it/
On the face of it, I think this might be as much  complement as competitor to Wikipedia, given the focus on professional staff writers and expert opinion (“including Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners”). You can submit your own work, and “if it is accepted”, become an official contributor to the site.  

It will be interesting to track how many experienced Wikipedians choose to migrate. And how much traffic Britannica attracts. As of writing, according to Alexa.com, Wikipedia is still the seventh most visited website in the world.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on ““The Wikipedia Revolution”. Will it survive?

  1. i am a great fan of you. it is quite saddening that you are not appearing in bbc broadcast over india. are you still with bbc. kindly do reply to this mail.
    warm regards

    • Dear Lt Col Basheer,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. Yes I am still with the BBC! I am now based at the BBC’s HQ in London, but still following international news, and you will still see me on air. (I’m presenting BBC World News for example at 1800GMT next Tues thru Friday.) best wishes, Philippa.

  2. I quite like looking through a post that will make men and women think.

    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

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