Look it up: Wikipedia is turning 10

Wikipedia is 10 years old Saturday. It is the fifth-most-visited site on the Internet. About 400 million people use it every month.

What is extraordinary about this free encyclopedia, which contains more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages, is that it is written, edited and self-regulated almost entirely by unpaid volunteers. All the other most-visited sites are multibillion-dollar businesses; Facebook, with just 100 million more users, has been valued at $50 billion.

Visit Google in Silicon Valley and you find yourself in a vast complex of modern buildings, like the capital of a superpower. You have to sign a nondisclosure agreement before you even get through the door. The language of Google executives veers between that of a U.N. secretary-general and a car salesman. One moment we’re talking universal human rights, the next “rolling out a new product.”

Wikipedia is overseen by the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which occupies one floor in an anonymous office building in downtown San Francisco. You have to knock hard on the door to gain admission.

If Wikipedia’s founder and principal architect, Jimmy Wales, had chosen to commercialize the enterprise, he could be worth billions, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Putting it all under the not-for-profit umbrella was, Wales quipped to me, at once the stupidest and the cleverest thing he ever did.

More than any other major global site, Wikipedia still breathes the utopian idealism of the Internet’s heroic early days. Wikipedians, as they style themselves, are men and women with a mission. That mission, upon which they boldly go, is summed up in this almost Lennonist (that’s John, not Vladimir) sentence from the man they all refer to as Jimmy: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

To suggest that this utopian goal could be achieved by a worldwide web of volunteers, working for nothing, editing anything and everything, with the words they type immediately visible for the whole world to see, was, of course, a totally barmy idea. Yet this barmy army has come a remarkably long way in just years.

Wikipedia still has major shortcomings. The articles vary widely in quality, both from topic to topic and from language to language. Many of the entries on individuals are patchy and unbalanced. So much depends on whether there happens to be one or two Wikipedians genuinely knowledgeable in that particular field and language — and who happen to read the entry. It can be stunningly good on obscure corners of popular culture, and strikingly weak on some matters of mainstream interest.

On the most mature versions (in English and German, for example) the volunteer communities, backed by the foundation’s tiny staff, have gone a long way to improve standards of reliability and verifiability, especially by insisting on footnotes with source links. I find that you still always need to double-check before quoting any information you find there.

Another big challenge is to take this enterprise beyond the post-Enlightenment West, where it was born and remains most at home. The foundation aims to have 680 million users by 2015, and hopes that most of that growth will be in places such as Brazil, India and the Middle East.

Yet the puzzle is not why it still has obvious shortcomings but why it has worked so well. Wikipedians offer several explanations. It arrived relatively early, when there were not countless other sites for fledgling netizens to spend their time on. An encyclopedia deals (mainly) with verifiable facts rather than mere opinions, the common currency and curse of the blogosphere. Above all, Wikipedia struck lucky with its communities of contributor-editors. Given the scale of the thing, the corps of regular editors is amazingly small. About 100,000 people contribute more than five edits each a month, but the big, mature Wikipedias are sustained by perhaps 15,000 people total, who each make more than 100 contributions a month. They tend to be young, single, well-educated men. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, says she can spot a typical Wikipedian at 100 yards.

Like many of the best-known global sites, Wikipedia benefits from being based in what its former chief counsel, Mike Godwin, describes as “a free speech haven called the United States.” All its different language encyclopedias, wherever their editors live and work, are physically hosted on the foundation’s servers in the United States. They enjoy the legal protections of America’s great tradition of free speech.

Yet Wikipedia has been remarkably free of the kind of downward spirals of abuse famously captured by Godwin’s law (coined by that same Mike Godwin), which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” This is partly because an encyclopedia deals in facts, but it is also because Wikipedians spend a huge amount of time defending standards of civility against attempted vandalism.

Civility is one of the five “pillars” of Wikipedia. From the outset, Wales argued that it must be possible to combine honesty with politeness. A whole school of online etiquette — sorry, wikiquette — has grown around this, with acronyms such as AGF (Assume Good Faith). Uncivil persons are courteously argued with, then warned, before finally, if they persist, banned.

I’m not in a position to judge whether this holds true in its Dolnoserbski, Gagauz and Gagana Samoa versions. Wikipedia may have its own long tail of incivility. But if a language community persistently goes ape, the foundation ultimately does have the power to take its rantings off the server. (Wikipedia is a legally protected label, whereas Wiki-something else is not; hence WikiLeaks, which has nothing to do with Wikipedia and is not even a wiki.)

We do not yet know if the shootings in Tucson were in any direct sense a product of the vitriolic incivility of American political discourse, as heard on talk radio and cable channels. A crazy man may be just crazy. But America’s daily political vitriol is an undeniable fact. Against that depressing background, it is good to be able to celebrate an American invention that, for all its faults, tries to spread around the world a combination of unpaid idealism, knowledge and stubborn civility.

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.

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