It’s time I acknowledged the source I often draw on for background information about the subjects I write about: Wikipedia. In contrast to the print books it was modeled after (such as Encyclopedia Britannica), Wiki is still a teenager, and yet it has been hailed as “the world’s greatest encyclopedia.” The site was only 20 years old on Jan. 15, and yet it has more than 55 million articles in 313 languages.
It is currently the second most visited site on the web in the United States (after YouTube), with more than a billion visits a month. The Encyclopedia Britannica, first published in 1768 and for centuries the gold standard of the genre, had 65,000 articles in its last print edition. Since 2012, new editions have been available only online, where it currently ranks 40th in visits per month, with about 32 million.
The secret of Wiki’s success is a ridiculously simple principle — “Anyone can edit” — and it has produced a more or less responsibly curated, perpetually up-to-date and infinitely expandable source of information, almost all of it hyperlinked to multiple additional sources. As one example of its “up-to-date” quality, I appreciate the fact that whenever a new program shows up on one of the streaming channels that I watch, I can find an article about it on Wikipedia.
When it was launched 20 years ago by someone named Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia took off like a shot. Within a month, it had a thousand articles, a number that would have been impossible using a traditional editorial chain of command. Within three years, it had 200,000 articles, and it soon left print encyclopedias in the dust.
In the beginning, the notion that you could create a reliable encyclopedia article about anything that was not written by a credentialed expert was received with great skepticism. Initially teachers treated Wikipedia like the study guide SparkNotes — a shortcut for homework shirkers.
The turning point is said to have been a study published in the science journal Nature in 2005, in which academic scientists compared 42 science articles in Wikipedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica. The experts determined that Wikipedia averaged four errors per article and Britannica averaged three. By then, savvy teachers were already consulting Wikipedia regularly themselves.
The reason most people today who work in digital media have such warm feelings about Wikipedia may be that it’s one of the few surviving sites that adhere to the spirit of the early internet, to what was known affectionately as the “hacker ethos.” This is the idea of open-source software development. Anyone can get in the game, and a person doesn’t need permission to make changes.
Even today, no one is paid by Wikipedia, and anyone can change anything, with very few restrictions. I myself have made a few contributions to Wiki articles. No one can claim a proprietary interest. There are scarcely any hard-and-fast rules for writing or editing.
Wikipedia is also one of the few popular sites whose content is not monetized and whose pages are not personalized. Nothing is behind a paywall; you do not have to log in. There are occasional pop-ups soliciting money (in 2017-18, almost $100,000,000 was donated to the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation), but no one is trying to sell you something. There are no ads.
Wikipedia has some principles, of course. Contributors are supposed to maintain a “neutral point of view”; everything must be verifiable and, preferably, given a citation; and — this is probably the key to the site’s success with scholars — there should be no original research. What this means is that Wikipedia is, in essence, an aggregator site. Already existing information is collected, usually from linkable sources, but it is not judged or interpreted. There is also a semi-official indifference to the quality of the writing. You do not read a Wikipedia article for the pleasures of its prose.