Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.
— Jimmy Wales, Slashdot July 7, 2004
Jimmy Wales set Wikipedians an impossible task, of course, but as Wikipedia approaches its twentieth birthday in January we can, with the benefit of hindsight, assess how far we've come in achieving that goal. We can assess where we stand now – our successes and challenges – which leads us to planning for the future.
That's the goal of Wikipedia @ 20, an academic collection of 22 chapters, written by 34 authors and co-authors representing many aspects of the history, present, and future of the world's best online encyclopedia.
At 376 pages, it's a densely packed tome – you're not going to be able to read it all before Christmas – but perhaps it's not long enough to fully cover its immense topic. As a publication of MIT Press, it's academically oriented, but it's also a community collaboration much like its topic, and draws its authors from both the academic and Wikipedia communities. These overlapping communities give the book a rare combination of points-of-view. We can assess how well Wikipedia has worked in both theory and practice. Long-time Wikipedians will find many old friends and acquaintances, including the former Chairperson of the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees, Phoebe Ayers; Yochai Benkler, Heather Ford, Jake Orlowitz, and Benjamin Mako Hill. Wikimedia Foundation's Executive Director Katherine Maher writes the capstone chapter that reviews the past and present but focuses on the WMF's plans for the future.
Most authors give a brief history of Wikipedia from their specialty's point of view, so this book will be an invaluable source for the movement's history for the foreseeable future. Most authors also address their personal histories on Wiki as if their first encounter was a life-changing event.
Defining the scope of Wikipedia in less than a paragraph is difficult, but perhaps we can say "anything that might be part of human knowledge". Defining the scope of the book is also difficult, but let's say "anything that might appear in Wikipedia". Some fairly unusual topics appear, as you'd expect on any writing about Wikipedia. For example, there's a full chapter on using Wikipedia offline.
Bias is perhaps the most common topic mentioned, appearing in at least 13 chapters. Misinformation, disinformation, or fake news appear in at least eight chapters.
Of the five chapters in this history section, two offer the broadest coverage. Reagles's The Many (Reported) Deaths of Wikipedia (See In focus) and Omer Benjakob's and Stephen Harrison's "From Anarchy to Wikiality, Glaring Bias to Good Cop: Press Coverage of Wikipedia's First Two Decades” are complementary, the first reflecting general social and internal Wikipedia points-of-view, the second focusing on journalism's "first draft of history". Both show, with benefit of hindsight, that people and the press didn't understand what Wikipedia was and how it could develop.
Reagle documents how Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in the first couple of years did not expect much from Wikipedia. Sanger predicted that the English Wikipedia would reach 100,000 articles by 2007.
To shake things up, Wales and Sanger set up a wiki in January 2001. They hoped it would lead to some drafts for Nupedia, but their expectations were modest. Wales feared that the wiki would be overrun with "complete rubbish" and that Nupedians "might find the idea objectionable". My reconstruction of the first ten thousand edits to Wikipedia does show a lot of dreck, but it was fertile stuff, being produced and improved at a remarkable rate. Wikipedians hoped to one day have 100,000 articles—a scale a bit larger than most print encyclopedias. In July, Sanger predicted that if Wikipedia continued to produce a thousand articles a month, it would be close to that in about seven years. Amazingly, in less than seven years, in September 2007 the English Wikipedia reached two million articles, some twenty times Sanger's estimate.
— Joseph Reagle, The Many (Reported) Deaths of Wikipedia
The years 2001–2005, according to Reagle, were about developing an identity. Was Wikipedia an encyclopedia or something else?
By 2005 Wikipedia's success at becoming an encyclopedia had made it a target, whether for NeoNazis or "gamers and marketers" who would take advantage of a successful encyclopedia for their own purposes to the extent that they could destroy it. But Wikipedians met these challenges and through 2010 at least, grew rapidly into a very successful encyclopedia. But by 2009 there were signs of a decline in growth, in particular in a decline in the number of editors. Stabilization began about 2014, but it's common to see the period of decline described as extending into 2017.
Coverage in the press is divided by Benjakob and Harrison into similar periods and by the mid-2000s Wikipedia was the subject of stories in major newspapers.
Coverage … has evolved from bewilderment at the project to concern and hostility at its model, to acceptance of its merits and disappointment at its shortcomings, and finally to calls to hold it socially accountable and reform it like any other institution.
— Omer Benjakob and Stephen Harrison, From Anarchy to Wikiality, Glaring Bias to Good Cop: Press Coverage of Wikipedia’s First Two Decades
Other chapters in this section cover the history of the open source community, the history of breaking news coverage on Wikipedia itself, and the history of paid editing, as recounted by a paid editor.
Getting away from the past and into the present results in some controversy, and moving into the future is even more precarious.
The topics about the current state of Wikipedia are quite diverse ranging from Phoebe Ayers' chapter on libraries, to the reactions of academics to Wikipedia, to its use in education.
Perhaps the most shocking title here is "The Most Important Laboratory for Social Scientific and Computing Research in History". Yes, the authors, Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw, are referring to Wikipedia. However unlikely this title appears to be, the authors may have you convinced before the end of their second paragraph.
Twenty years ago, Wikipedia's founders could not have dreamed they were creating the most important laboratory for social scientific and computing research in history. And yet that is exactly what has happened. Wikipedia and its sister projects have launched a thriving scholarly literature. How thriving? Results from Google Scholar suggest that over six thousand scholarly publications mention Wikipedia in their title and over 1.7 million mention it somewhere in their text. For comparison, the phrase "Catholic church"—an organization with a nearly two-thousand-year head start—returns about the same number of mentions in publication titles. In under twenty years, Wikipedia has become one of the most heavily studied organizations of any kind.
— Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw, The Most Important Laboratory for Social Scientific and Computing Research in History
The WMF has its own active research program and sponsors a research showcase and research mailing list. The Signpost has a monthly column Recent research which reviews even more academic articles than the annual Mako Hill and Shaw presentation at Wikimania.
Some general topics of this research include the use of Wikipedia data for research on other topics, e.g. on natural language processing in computing. Other well-researched Wikipedia topics include the gender gap, the quality of Wikipedia's content, including specialized areas such as medical content. The social processes that lead to quality articles are also studied, as are the uses of Wikipedia in education. That's only about half of the topics covered in their chapter.
In the "Rise of the Underdog" Heather Ford emphasizes the importance of verifiability to Wikipedia. New features of the internet such as Amazon's Alexa, Google's Knowledge Panel, and Wikimedia's own WikiData have separated the reader or listener from the sources of information that are contained in Wikipedia's footnotes. This separation leads to battles on Wikipedia for control of the article's narrative.
If one can control how Wikipedia defines and represents a person, place, event, or thing, then one can control how it is represented not only on Wikipedia but also on Google, Apple, Amazon, and other major platforms.
— Heather Ford, Rise of the Underdog
Matthew Vetter challenges the application of the concept of verifiability in "Possible Enlightenments: Wikipedia's Encyclopedic Promise and Epistemological Failure".
Several chapters, including "The Myth of the Comprehensive Historical Archive", "Toward a Wikipedia For and From Us All" and co-editor Jackie Koerner's "Wikipedia Has a Bias Problem" rely on similar reasoning: verifiable sources are often viewed as those coming from the people and institutions that controlled print and other information technology in the past. But these old sources are considered horribly biased now.
(Wikipedia) conserves features of the genre that characterize its emergence from Western Enlightenment logic—especially practices and policies related to verifiability and reliability that are rooted in print-centric notions of knowledge curation. Going forward … how should we understand Wikipedia as a project that promises possible enlightenment? How should we understand Wikipedia as an encyclopedia that fails to fully represent global and multicultural diversity?
— Matthew A. Vetter, Possible Enlightenments: Wikipedia’s Encyclopedic Promise and Epistemological Failure
Jackie Koerner's chapter "Wikipedia Has a Bias Problem" has the most direct exposition of the problem. If you don't think you have a bias problem that affects other people on Wikipedia, you need to read this chapter. Writing about "reliable sources" she states:
The bias toward Westernized publications and knowledge-sharing
practices exaggerates the lack of diverse content on Wikipedia. If there is no source about a person (or a topic) to meet the standards of the Wikipedia community, then no article will be written. That person is excluded from history. By following policies like reliable sources, contributors are replicating and magnifying the bias already depicted by published sources.
— Jackie Koerner, Wikipedia Has a Bias Problem
This review has only been able to offer you a taste of the book. Six of the 22 chapters are described here in a couple of paragraphs each. If you liked the taste, and if you are a Wikipedian with an academic bent, an academic with a Wikipedia bent, a journalist with an interest in Wikipedia, or just a passerby who is amazed at Wikipedia, we recommend that you get the book or read the online version linked at the top of the article.
See two other articles on Wikipedia @ 20 in this issue