The Origins of Wikipedia: How It Came To Be [Geek History Lesson]

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history of wikipediaThese days, nearly anyone that has spent any time on the Internet has heard of Wikipedia. It is nearly as well-known as Google, and just as much a common household word.

For those of you that were active on the Internet prior to 2000, then you may recall what I would call the “rise of the Wikis” – a period in Internet history when a new form of content generation technology was developed. Wikipedia wasn’t the first Wiki – that honor falls upon the shoulders of Ward Cunningham, who developed the software known as WikiWikiWeb for the Portland Pattern Repository.

How, what is the history of Wikipedia itself? Wikipedia was actually born from an earlier project known as Nupedia, funded by Bomis.com, a company jointly owned by Jimmy Wales, Michael Davis and Tim Shell. In those early years, funding came from Bomis, while the ideas and the momentum came from Jimmy. However, another major driving force in the development of Nupedia – and later Wikipedia – was of course Larry Sanger.

In 2000, after hearing about the “free, collaborative encyclopedia” project, Larry contacted Jimmy to learn more about the project, and shortly thereafter, Jimmy hired Larry to lead the entire project. As it would turn out, Larry’s driving influence and hard work combined with Jimmy’s vision, would produce one of the most prolific and successful digital collaborative encyclopedia projects that the world has ever known.

How Wikipedia Got Started

In an effort to get some insight about the history of Wikipedia from the folks that run the site, I contacted the organization with a request for a brief interview. I heard back from a representative from Global Communications at the Wikimedia Foundation. He asked me to keep his actual name out of the article, so I am going to respect his wishes.

For most of the questions I sent, this representative – who I’ll call Tom – simply referred me to four references for a full, detailed history of Wikipedia. I will share those here for any of you interested in reading a more comprehensive history than I can lay out in a single blog article. Tom wrote:

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“These are some heady questions and I think most of them are much better answered in some of the definitive books that have been written on Wikipedia. I can recommend Andrew Lih’s book, The Wikipedia Revolution. The first couple of chapters have a great explanation of the history of Wikipedia, its relation to Nupedia, good statistics on how quickly Wikipedia gained traction (great place for answer to #1 and #2), etc.”

He also suggested  Good Faith Collaboration, by Joseph Reagle as a good primer. Of course he also referenced Wikipedia page on Wikipedia itself, as well as the page on the Wikipedia Foundation. Great links, and I’m sure the books are excellent reading – an approved history from the Wikipedia Foundation.

origins of wikipedia

While Jimmy Wales remains the face most associated with Wikipedia, to be honest, I think one of the most detailed and impressive insider versions of the origins of Wikipedia actually came from Larry Sanger, the man who did most of the heavy lifting – the programming and policy development for Nupedia, and later the programming management and the day-to-day policy enforcement at Wikipedia.

In 2005, Larry wrote an amazing personal memoir about his perspectives about Wikipedia’s history. It is long, and it took me nearly an hour to read from start to finish, but I recommend it to everyone looking for a raw, inside view about what went on in those early years.

In it, Larry described being hired by Jimmy and being allowed a certain degree of flexibility to form the policies and procedures that would result in this new collaborative, online encyclopedia.

Larry was fair, and made it clear that he was not the visionary behind the project, but he was in fact the guy that put hammer to chisel to shape the stone. Larry explained,

“To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy’s, not mine, and the funding was entirely by Bomis. The actual development of this encyclopedia was the task he gave me to work on.”

wikipedia history

So, what did Nupedia have to do with Wikipedia? Essentially, Nupedia was the brainchild. Larry worked with experts – both academics with Ph.D degrees as well as people that were esteemed experts in their fields. The early goal of the project, according to Larry’s memoir, was to develop an “academically-respectable project”.

There were also a few core policies developed and agreed upon by both Larry and Jimmy, which essentially became integrated into the culture and core value system of Wikipedia as well – those were a strict policy of neutrality. Both sides of any topic – particularly controversial ones – would receive “press” space on the article. Secondly, articles would not be signed by a single author, but instead formed through a collaboration of many authors – without a single one receiving credit for it.

The belief was that ultimately, such a collaborative article would evolve into a singular version of collective truth about any topic. Whether that has held true remains debatable. You can see from his memoir that Larry struggled mightily with people sabotaging the process to keep their version of a topic published. He describes dealing with countless “trolls” and others that would manipulate pages against Wikipedia policies (2).

It is a part of the “collaborative editing” process that remains a constant challenge for Wikipedia, even today.

Policies Solid, But Procedure Flawed

The process eventually worked out would flow like this; volunteer contributors would submit articles to the “Nupedia Advisory Board”, where it would go through a seven step process of review before anything would get published the the encyclopedia.  This was the first stage of a process that would go through many iterations, as those developing the system saw how the system was broken.

The first article made it through the system in July of 2000.  By the end of 2001, only 25 articles had been published, and nearly 150 were still in the process of review.

wikipedia history

In parallel to this process, Jimmy launched Wikipedia as a place where “non-approved” contributor articles would be published while in queue for publication in Nupedia. This is where the system appeared to split.

Upon its launch, Wikipedia exploded. This explosion forced Larry to spend more and more time maintaining and developing Wikipedia – not to mention managing the growing volume of content – and less time on the Nupedia project. Larry explained the situation as follows:

“I in particular was stretched thin. In 2001, I was both chief organizer of Wikipedia and editor-in-chief of Nupedia – and my own slowing work on Nupedia was obvious to all active Nupedia contributors. It might be better to say that Nupedia withered due to neglect….” 

However, the growth of Wikipedia couldn’t be denied. By January of 2001 there were 600 articles, and by May – only 3 months later – the site had published 3,900 Wikipedia articles. Every one of those articles was always being edited and updated by new users.

wikipedia history

The unexpected, rapid growth of the user base and published articles came from the “Google-effect”. Essentially, as Google crawled Wikipedia articles and displayed the results to users of the search engine, it attracted more users.

While there is nothing special about that – after all, that’s how it works for all websites – for Wikipedia it was a little bit different. More users meant more articles, and more articles meant more search engine results, which brought in even more users. It was a snowball effect that would send Wikipedia traffic – and content volume – into the stratosphere.

Problem Contributors

With that volume, came a nightmare scenario for Larry – how to deal with so many Internet trolls and anarchists that threatened to upset the accuracy of the content, and threatened the very values that the project was originally built upon. The conflict that arose, according to Larry, drove away “more valuable contributors”.

“There were many more who quietly came and quietly left. Short of removing the problem contributors altogether – which we did only in the very worst cases – there was no easy solution, under the system as we had set it up.”

In 2002, Larry was laid off as the entire tech bubble burst, but remained active in the project until 2003, when he left the project entirely based on what he called, “…a fundamental philosophical disagreement about how the project should be run.”

The problems that Wikipedia faces are part of what every website on the Internet today faces – how to censor unacceptable or offensive content, without actually censoring information. There will always be anarchists, or folks that simply have a problem with authority.

history of wikipedia

As the largest site on the Internet that offers “free access to information”, the issue is even more critical for Wikipedia. The idea of “free information” doesn’t allow for much censorship at all, so managing “problem contributors” can be complicated.

I asked the Wikipedia Representative if having so many contributors on the system have led to problems with writers publishing licensed content, and copyright issues through the years. Tom responded:

“No. The projects have been licensed according to GFDL and Creative Commons (here is the specific resolution that authorized CC licensing), two well-established free licenses with significant legal precedent. Our community of volunteers is also hyper-vigilant and routinely takes down non-free content. We only get a tiny, tiny number of DMCA takedown notices (maybe 10 per year). If you compare that to other top-five websites, you’ll see how remarkable that statistic is.”

The Future Of Wikipedia

The difficulties with trolls and “problem contributors” did not slow the growth of Wikipedia through the years. According to the Wikipedia Foundation page in 2005, the Foundation was approved as a non-profit “Adult Continuing Education” foundation. Contributors that donate to the Wikipedia Foundation can deduct that donation off their income taxes, in the U.S.

Wikipedia celebrated its “one billionth edit” on April 16th, 2010. As of 2012, there are nearly 4 million articles published on Wikipedia, and a user base of over 17 million users.

To close out this article, I asked Tom over at Wikipedia what the future vision of the organization and the Wikimedia Foundation is, and whether Wikipedia can continue to exist into the foreseeable future as a non-profit. His response :

“….the prospects are very good for the Wikimedia Foundation. Fundraising (primarily from the banners on Wikipedia, but also from some large donors and foundations) has grown impressively over the past few years. For more background on that, see the 2011 Fundraising report.”

According to that report, in 2011 there were over 1.1 million donations totaling over $24 million dollars. This represents about double the number of donations, and a 38% increase in donated dollars.

That means that so long as so many people believe in the idea of free access to information on the Internet, Wikipedia will continue on into the foreseeable future, without advertising.

Reference/Image Credits: “What is a Wiki” – Ward Cunningham, The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia – a Memoir by Larry Sanger, Wikipedia Foundation, 3777190317, Jimmy Wales at Shutterstock.com, Annette Shaff, Shutterstock.com, An Exhausted Businessman at Shutterstock, Exponential Growth at Shutterstock, 1000 Words, Shutterstock.com, Dusit, Shutterstock.com

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