Wikipedia at 15

Celebrate or hate it as you will, writes Scott McLemee, Wikipedia has metamorphosed from its beginnings as a gangly cultural interloper into the de facto reference work of first resort.

January 15, 2016

Wikipedia came into the world 15 years ago today -- and, man, what an ugly baby. The first snapshot of it in the Internet Archive is from late March of 2001, when Wikipedia was already 10 weeks old. At that point, it claimed to have more than 3,000 pages, with an expressed hope of reaching 10,000 by the end of summer and 100,000 at some point in the not unimaginably distant future. The first entries were aspirational, at best. The one about Plato, for example, reads in its entirety: “Famous ancient Greek philosopher. Wrote that thing about the cave.”

By November -- with Wikipedia at 10 months old -- the entry on Plato was longer, if not more enlightening: you would have learned more from a good children’s encyclopedia. Over the next several months, the entry grew to a length of about 1,000 words, sometimes in classically padded freshman prose. (“Today, Plato's reputation is as easily on a par with Aristotle's. Many college students have read Plato but not Aristotle, in large part because the former's greater accessibility.”) But encouraging signs soon began to appear. A link directed the reader to supplementary pages on Platonic realism, for example. As of early 2006, when Wikipedia turned five years old, the main entry on Plato had doubled in length, with links to online editions of his writings. In addition, separate pages existed for each of the works -- often consisting of just a few sentences, but sometimes with a rough outline of the topics to be covered in a more ambitious entry somewhere down the line.

The aspirations started to look more serious. There were still times when Wikipedia seemed designed to give a copy editor nightmares -- as in 2003, when someone annotated the list of dialogues to indicate: “(1) if scholars don't generally agree Plato is the author, and (2) if scholars don't generally disagree that Plato is not the author of the work.”

Yet it is also indicative of where the site was heading that before long some volunteer stepped in to unclog that passage's syntactical plumbing. The site had plenty of room for improvement -- no denying it. On the other hand, improvements were actually happening, however unsystematically.

The site hit its initial target of 100,000 pages in early 2003 -- at which point it began to blow up like a financial bubble. There were not quite one million pages by the fifth anniversary of its founding and 3.5 million by the tenth. Growth has slowed of late, with an average of about 300,000 pages being added annually over the past five years.

I draw these figures from Dariusz Jemielniak’s Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia (Stanford University Press, 2014), which also points out how rapidly the pace of editorial changes to articles began to spike. Ten million edits were made during Wikipedia’s first four years. The next 10 million took four months. From 2007 on, the frequency of edits stabilized at a rate of 10 million edits per seven or eight weeks.

We could continue in this quantifying vein for a while. As with the Plato entry finding its center of gravity after a long period of wobbly steps, the metrics for Wikipedia tell a story of growth and progress. So does the format’s worldwide viability: Wikipedia is now active in 280 languages, of which 69 have at least 100,000 entries. It all still seems improbable and inexplicable to someone who recalls how little credibility the very concept once had. (“You can edit this page right now! … Write a little (or a lot) about what you know!”) If someone told you in 2002 that, in 10 years, the Encyclopædia Britannica would suspend publication of its print edition -- while one of the world’s oldest university presses would be publishing material plagiarized from Wikipedia, rather than by it -- the claim would have sounded like boosterism gone mad.

That, or the end of civilization. (Possibly both.) What’s in fact happened -- celebrate or mourn it as you will -- has been a steady normalization of Wikipedia as it has metamorphosed from gangly cultural interloper into the de facto reference work of first resort.

In large measure, the transformation came about as part what Siva Vaidhyanathan has dubbed “the Googlization of everything.” Wikipedia entries normally appear at or near the top of the first page of the search engine’s results. After a while, the priority that the Google algorithm gives to Wikipedia has come to seem natural and practically irresistible. At this point, having a look at Wikipedia usually quicker and easier than deciding not to (as someone once said about reading the comic strip “Nancy”).

Another sign of normalization has been the development of bibliographical norms for citing Wikipedia in scholarship. It signals that the online reference work has become a factor in knowledge production -- not necessarily as a warehouse of authoritative information but as a primary source, as raw material, subject to whatever questions and methods a discipline may bring to bear on it.

In the case of that Plato entry, the archive of changes over time would probably be of minimal interest as anything but a record of the efforts of successively better informed and more careful people. But Wikipedia’s role as a transmitter of information and an arena for contesting truth claims make its records a valuable source for people studying more recent matters. Someone researching the impact of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, for example, would find in the Wikipedia archive a condensed documentation of how information and arguments about the event appeared in real time, both in its immediate aftermath and for years afterward.

I've been reading and writing about Wikipedia for this column for most of its lifespan, and it won't be five years before there's occasion to do so again. There's plenty more to say. But for now, it seems like Professor Wikipedia should get the last word.


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