Wikipedia, an extremely open encyclopedia

Although most books are best written by one person, there are other kinds of publications that typically have more than one author - sometimes very many. Encyclopedias are one such important category.

Unlike Harry Potter and other novels, encyclopedias are a compilation of independent articles. Many different experts are asked to write articles related to their particular area of expertise. And because the articles for an encyclopedia don't need to be written in any particular order, all participants can be working on it at the same time. So it would seem that an encyclopedia could be compiled and published using Open Source methods. You may not be surprised to learn that there is such an encyclopedia.

Thirty-seven-year-old Jimmy Wales, a fan of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman, had a vision of his own for an Open Source project. Since Jimmy knew something about the dynamics of an Open Source project, he also realized that compiling an encyclopedia would fit the ideology of Open Source very well. So, in 1999 he founded the Nupedia project.

However, Nupedia didn't become what Jimmy had planned. Over a period of two years, the project swallowed a significant amount in grants and resulted in the publication of just twelve articles. Twelve articles in two years! So what went wrong?

In theory, the Nupedia project was open to all - anybody could contribute articles for it. In reality, you couldn't just sign up and become a contributor. If you wanted to write an article about something you had to send in an application, which had to be approved at some point, somewhere. All articles were checked and rewritten several times, by other experts - because that is how encyclopedias are usually written. And after two years, only twelve articles had passed this scrutiny! Obviously, that is not how to organize an Open Source project.1

In January 2001, the failed Nupedia was replaced by Wikipedia.2 It used the WikiWikiWeb technology which became widespread in the late nineties. A wiki is a web page that users themselves can read, write, and edit. Originally, wikis were used for group work or on Intranet pages used within a company, but Wikipedia has certainly proved what good use this technology can be put to on the Internet, where everybody has access to the pages.

In a wiki, each page has, for instance, a link at the end that allows users to edit the page immediately. And they don't even need to have a special program to do it - the page they want to edit opens up in the user's own web browser.3 In some cases, no user ID is needed to enable anyone to edit the page, but even where an ID is required it is only necessary to register, and as soon as that is done you are free to edit the page. Trouble-free participation in the editing process is crucial, as all sorts of checking, pre-censoring, and approval of new users is anathema.

Most people react with incredulity when they first hear of wiki technology. Surely it can't work for real! I admit I thought that myself, a long time ago.

If a page can be changed freely by anyone on the public Internet, isn't that asking for trouble? You might expect all sorts of vandals would be rushing in their hordes to make the most of this opportunity.

But despite access and efficiency being central to the wiki philosophy, when it comes to giving people their chance to contribute, this doesn't necessarily mean that no checking is ever done. In addition to writing new articles, the vast army of volunteers involved in the creation of Wikipedia are also involved in checking the changes that are made. On an encyclopedia site it is necessary to make sure the facts are right and that everything gets proofread, which is just as important as writing the articles themselves.

All wiki programs have convenient tools to make checking easier. All the latest changes are found centrally on a page of their own, which makes it easy to look them over. The Diff tool shows all changes, which means you don't have to read the entire page again if you don't want to. And if the changes were done out of malice or you just don't happen to like them, then changing things back is just as easy and accessible to everybody as it was to make the changes in the first place.

Of course there is some vandalism, but attempts to ruin things for others tend to be very short-lived. The vandals are so outnumbered by those who take the creation of the encyclopedia seriously that you rarely see the troubles in Wikipedia before they're gone. But some targets are just too tempting for mischief-makers. Today, you are no longer free to change the front page of the Wikipedia site, because it became a sport for some people to insert large pictures of penises on it.

Ants are a classic example of diligent workers. This is something that parents want to show their children, at some point taking them to an ant hill to gaze in wonder at how big a hill the tiny ants have built. (The lesson being that teamwork makes greater things possible, and that one should work hard… But you'll know all this because you too were taken to watch ants.)

I once read somewhere about a study which showed that about 20 per cent of the ants in an anthill do totally stupid things, such as tear down walls the other ants have just built, or take recently gathered food and stow it where none of them will ever find it, or do other things to sabotage everything the other ants so diligently try to achieve. The theory is that these ants don't do these things out of malice but simply because they're stupid.4

I expect you're thinking what I'm thinking, which is that you know of some human organizations in which the behaviour of at least 20 per cent of the people in them is just as idiotic! And that's why many of our organizations formulate ways of preventing the kind of problems that plague ant colonies. If a number of people do some stupid thing, we make a rule to say it mustn't be done. Then we need a rule that says everybody has to read the rules. Before long, we need managers and inspectors to make sure people read and follow the rules and that nobody does anything stupid, even by mistake. Finally, the organization has a large group of people who spend their time thinking up and writing rules, and enforcing them. And those not involved in doing that are primarily concerned with not breaking the rules, which means they do what they should be doing very carefully.

Critics of Open Source projects claim that their non-existent hierarchy and lack of organization leads to inefficiency. With nobody overseeing the whole, a number of people may inadvertently do the same work and others might do something totally unnecessary, something nobody will ever need. Instinct tells us that to avoid such problems we must increase the number of rules and managers and put more effort into planning.

However, Linux and Wikipedia prove the opposite is true. Rules and planning, that's the most pointless work there is. Instead, everyone should just go ahead, do what needs to be done and spend their energies on actual work. Planning creates Nupedias (and, according to Linus Torvalds, Hurd kernels), whereas the cheerful work that reminds you of an anthill produces the Linuxes and Wikipedias of the world.

This is particularly true when you factor in that not all planners are all that smart. Which means organizations risk having their entire staff doing something really inane, because that's what somebody planned. So, it seems better to have a little overlapping and lack of planning, because at least you have better odds for some of the overlapping activities actually making sense.

According to wiki philosophy most people can and want to do what's right - they actually want to do their best. Inhibiting this natural inclination with a plethora of rules and unnecessary checking procedures is rather more moronic than the limited amount of trouble caused by a small minority of aberrant "ants'. And despite what that 20 per cent of ants do, every summer millions of parents take their children to admire an ant hill, not to criticize it.

Of course, Wikipedia does have rules which writers should follow. The most important rule puts the wiki philosophy in a nutshell: If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.5

The two years spent working on Nupedia were essentially a waste of time. Once bitten, twice shy, they say - but apart from the lesson of experience, there wasn't much else to take away from it. At the time of writing, Wikipedia has just turned three. So, how is it doing?

In the early days of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales had the company of Larry Sanger, who was paid to work on Wikipedia for the first 13 months. This is an interesting detail, if you compare Wikipedia to Linux. Linus Torvalds spent about a year working alone on Linux before other programmers from around the world began little by little to produce an increasing share of the code for Linux. In both cases it took one person to get the process going and give them a shove in the right direction, after which they developed their own momentum and kept going.

If you happened to use Wikipedia in its first year, the subject you looked for often wasn't there, because nobody had yet written an article about it. In accordance with the wiki philosophy, the accidental surfer wasn't then greeted with an error message but instead with an empty field for text and a polite request for the person to write the missing article. Little by little the articles came together, though the quality of the entries varied. Some were written by kids in schools corresponding to junior high, writing in English which was not their mother tongue, while others were penned by learned professors. The voluntary nature of the work naturally influenced the articles. Early on, Wikipedia had a very comprehensive presentation on the headwords "beer' and "Linux'. The article on "Microsoft Windows', on the other hand, presented as obviously important the emulators which enable a user to run Windows software on Linux! You might say that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that is the way it is because of the people who write it and use it.

Today, Wikipedia has volunteer editors, so-called Wikipedians, in the thousands. In January 2002, i.e. when Wikipedia was a year old, a thousand articles were written or revised each day; in January the next year the number had doubled to 2,000 a day. At the time of writing, the number of articles is approaching 200,000 and in addition to that there are a total of 55 other-language versions of Wikipedia. For instance, there were already a hefty 3,200 articles in the Finnish Wikipedia.6

Interestingly, statistics show that in the summer of 2003, more people visited the Wikipedia website than visited the web version of the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica. The comparison isn't quite fair, though, as the Britannica's articles are only available to paying customers, but it does confirm that the three-year-old Wikipedia is the most popular Internet encyclopedia. And Jimmy Wales is actually planning to challenge the Britannica on its home turf. In the near future we will see the release of Wikipedia 1.0, a selection of 75,000 articles both in print and available on CD-ROM.7

Whenever there is talk of Wikipedia, people often point out that the king of all dictionaries The Oxford English Dictionary was also an Open Source project of sorts. The first edition, published in 1928, listed more than 400,000 English words in twelve volumes. The editors worked on the first edition for a total of 54 years, allowing the first Chief Editors to have died before it was actually published.8

Apart from the sheer number of words, the reason for the drawn-out process was that much of the OED was written by a large number of eager volunteers who were interested in linguistics. They collected words from newspapers and fiction as well as in markets and the local pubs. The words and their meanings were then mailed to the Chief Editor, whose job it was to coordinate the project. One of the better-known volunteers was J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), who is said to have laboured mostly with words beginning with the letter "W'. (For your information, Tolkien fans, the entries for warm, wasp, water, wick, wallop, waggle and winter were originally by him, so now you can rush off and read some more Tolkien wisdom.) Another volunteer, William Chester Minor, was convicted of murder and continued to send in his contributions from prison. And a Mrs Caland in Holland is said to have remarked that she couldn't stand her husband's never-ending work on "that wretched dictionary'.9 Although the OED in its final published form was not available for free copying, it would seem that the hacker spirit of working has been around for a long time.

  1. 1. So, how should an Open Source project be organized to make it as successful as possible? See Eric S. Raymond's famous essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar': http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/
  2. 2. http://wikipedia.org/
  3. 3. Typically, html code is not used when creating a wiki page, as that would be too difficult for an average web surfer. Instead, the contents of the page are written in a very simple code that resembles ordinary text and which the wiki program then converts into an html page.
  4. 4. OK, so there ought to be an acknowledgement here for the source of this story, but I've managed to lose it. Surely a little thing like that shouldn't keep a guy from telling a good story!
  5. 5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia#Policies
  6. 6. http://fi.wikipedia.org/
  7. 7. Wired magazine wrote about Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia in November 2003 . The article cites many other examples of using Open Source methods in various non-technical fields of human life. Some of them have been mentioned in this book, some not.
  8. 8. But please note that The Oxford English Dictionary is a dictionary, whereas Wikipedia and Britannica are encyclopedias. An encyclopedia aims to tell you "everything you ever wanted to know', whereas the aim of a dictionary is to catalogue all the words of a language together with a guide to their pronunciation, etymology and meaning. A parallel project to Wikipedia, called Wiktionary (http://wiktionary.org), aims to produce a multi-language dictionary. At the time of writing, Wiktionary has been around for a year and the English edition has more than 30,000 entries, which is rather less than 10 per cent of the first edition of the OED.
  9. 9. From The Meaning of Everything, The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, quoted at: http://www.ralphmag.org/CI/oed.html and http://www.askoxford.com/worldofwords/oed/wordsearchers/?view=uk

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