Wikipedia at 20: Did you know Will Ferrell was once not killed in a paragliding incident?
Its prose is flat, design rudimentary, but Wikipedia remains a triumph of human ingenuity
A broader and better balanced range of subjects has become Wikipedia’s chief challenge as it heads into its next 20 years. Photo Illustration: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images
It’s the information I don’t want from Wikipedia that always snares me. The detours. The footnotes. The link four lines into an entry that leads me to another page, which leads me to another, and ultimately I’m pinballing quite happily from one subject to another.
In this particular case the topic is “Premature Obituaries” – searched as a reference to how often Wikipedia’s demise has been predicted across its 20-year existence. But before I even scroll down to that page’s extensive list (did you know Will Ferrell was once not killed in a paragliding incident? Remember the Irish soccer team that faked a player’s death to postpone a match?), I’m met by a list of causes of premature obituaries.
Now I’m reading an entry on “List of Imposters”. Next I’m veering off into the page on Frederick Emerson Peters (“US celebrity impersonator and writer of bad checks [sic]” who passed himself off as Franklin D Roosevelt, among others). From there I bounce into “List of Fugitives from Justice Who Are No Longer Sought” and after that . . . well, I have to come blinking into the daylight again at some point.
Where were we? Oh yes, 20 years of Wikipedia, whose vision its co-founder Jimmy Wales once casually declared to be “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. It’s a line that appears simultaneously ambitious and self-deprecating. Wikipedia has always had a sense of being an enterprise reaching for an ideal it can’t attain, but believes the spirit will get it a decent part of the way there.
By 2004, when Wales made that claim, the site had already established itself as a phenomenon. As proposed on January 10th, 2001, by co-founder Larry Sanger, it was to be an encyclopedia to which anyone, anywhere, could contribute.
Sitting at home, you could write an entry on, say, derbies of the League of Ireland or the life of fictional EastEnders character Frank Butcher or the brain’s Basal Ganglia – or all three should you want – and anyone else could add to it, edit it, argue for its deletion. It would be free. It would be neutral. It would be not for profit.
The notion had a certain shock value that seems almost quaint to our current user generated, hivemind era. But it was a freewheeling, revolutionary intruder into the chunky multivolume, expert-led, expensive encyclopedias that had only recently migrated on to CD-Roms. (Wikipedia itself was an offshoot of another, more traditional project called Nupedia.)
The site’s growth was explosive. It had 1,000 articles within a month, 10,000 by September. Its hyperlink-heavy format found favour with the Google search algorithm, meaning that people noticed it – and began to rely on it – from early on. Today it has 6.2 million entries in the English language alone, 55 million in total across the more than 300 languages in which Wikipedia comes.
Its derivative sites now include Wikicommons (free-to-use images and media files), Wikiversity (open learning), Wikispecies (directory of species), Wikiquote (puncher-upper of wedding speeches), Wikivoyage (for when we used to travel) and several more.
It is all a touch bewildering – quite literally too much information. And it’s not a site you go to for the great prose. Given the amount of humans behind it, Wikipedia so often reads like it has been put together by machine. Its language is flat, dry, often a sequence of statements without flow or personality and riddled with footnotes or that infamous placeholder, “citation needed”.
What about Ireland?
Its entry on “Ireland” is typical: “The earliest evidence of human presence in Ireland is dated at 10,500 BC. Gaelic Ireland had emerged by the 1st century AD. The island was Christianised from the 5th century onward.” And so on. It reads like it was put together by committee, although this is sort of the point.
Go to the edit history of “Ireland” and you’ll find that committee in action. On November 30th, for instance, an editor shortened a section, arguing that there was “no need for so much talk of Britain”. As if we didn’t know that already.
But this glimpse under the bonnet – available on every page of Wikipedia – is a reminder of the editors and administrators busying away in a noisy engine.
These are people such as Steven Pruitt, who has made more than three million edits and created 35,000 articles en route to being the most prolific editor on English-language Wikipedia. Time Magazine included him in a list of 25 most influential people on the internet.
Or there was the 19-year-old in North Carolina who wrote nearly half the Scots Wikipedia articles until it was revealed last year that he had no knowledge of Scots. In many cases he had just dropped Scots words into English sentences – not helping the reputation of either Wikipedia or Scots. A notice on Scots Wikipedia, in Scots, still reads: “Followin recent revelations, Scots Wikipedia is presently reviewin its airticles for muckle leid inaccuracies.”
However, the jibes about Wikipedia’s accuracy compared with traditional encyclopedias were countered by studies from as early as the mid-noughties, and despite the occasional joker making quick-witted edits (“The First Law of Thermodynamics is do not talk about thermodynamics”) by the time most of us get to them, they’ve been restored by a less amused editor.
There is some artificial intelligence involved in keeping Wikipedia going, but it remains an ongoing triumph of human ingenuity. And in more profound ways, 2020 was a very good year for Wikipedia. Quietly so. Based in part on what it didn’t do.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube found themselves blamed for unleashing fake news, conspiracy theories and the variously horrific aspects of human nature. Wikipedia, meanwhile, found itself treated as a relative rock of impartiality. It had attained something of an old-school establishment feel about it. A website of record, to a certain extent.
Wikipedia’s roots in the early 2000s benefited it – even if they also now pose significant challenges.
The site’s aesthetics look rudimentary, an early-internet style compared with pretty much everything else out there. There is a lot of text. There are grids. It is littered with those hyperlinks and footnotes. There are occasional and restrained use of colours – if you want to appreciate, say, the many changing members of The Cure, its colour-coded timelines are simple yet brilliant.
There is usually a picture up top, and maybe others scattered elsewhere, but for a living document it is a relatively lifeless site. No videos play. No music blares. Nothing slides in or fades out. It looks like a site frozen in time, although not for much longer. Wikipedia will finally have a design overhaul this year.
It remains a ground-up exercise in the spirit of the 1990s internet. You can add to it if you feel motivated, but the vast majority of users don’t and aren’t expected to. For most of us, Wikipedia is a passive experience. You read. You click. You fall down a rabbit hole. And if that’s all you want of it, then so be it.
Yes, there are pleas for cash for the foundation that keeps it as a not-for-profit exercise, but there are no adverts. There is no sign-in required. There are no limits on what you can read, or a subscription service offering extras. Wikipedia can tell how many unique devices are visiting the site, but it doesn’t track unique users. It doesn’t gather private information to sell on elsewhere.
Most importantly, it attempts at least to hold fast to that ideal of neutrality. This has long been questioned, not least by its estranged co-founder Sanger (who accuses it of liberal bias), and also represented by the likes of Conservapedia, which was founded in 2006 as a supposed antidote to the “increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American” Wikipedia.
But in 2020, social media giants were engaged in almost existential crises over their role in censorship, free speech and the spread of dangerous disinformation. Wikipedia was largely absent from this, despite its internal debates about how to best represent the death of George Floyd (settling on “Killing of . . . ”) and whether it should black out the site in support of the Black Lives Matter protests (it didn’t).
But Wikipedia’s roots in 2001 have increasingly shown in other ways, most notably in the growing understanding that its supposed neutrality has not prevented it from reflecting and reinforcing deep biases.
“Over half of the world is now online,” explain contributors Adele Godoy Vrana, Anasuya Sengupta and Siko Bouterse in their essay in a recent MIT-published collection, Wikipedia @ 20.
“Nearly half of all women are now online. Three-fourths of those online today are from the Global South – from Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands. Yet the internet and Wikipedia – the encyclopedia of the world – don’t reflect this reality in either content or contribution. The largest open and free knowledge platform online was begun by white men from North America and Europe as a digital encyclopedia, extending a long enlightenment-driven tradition into cyberspace . . . Today, a relatively privileged minority of the world is still writing about the majority on Wikipedia.”
If Wikipedia has settled into some kind of establishment figure of sorts, its self-acknowledged need has become to shake up that establishment. To make itself more open to a wider range of contributors, but also a broader and better balanced range of subjects.
That has become Wikipedia’s chief challenge as it heads into its next 20 years. Sure, it’s good to bounce from topic to topic, to marvel at the endless expertise and/or enthusiasm of its contributors, to be grateful for Wikipedia when you’ve got an essay to complete, a table quiz to prep for, an Irish Times article to write.
But there is still much to learn about what exactly it means to aim for “the sum of all human knowledge”.