Whoever possesses a good internet connection has probably used Wikipedia at least once and has a bit of knowledge about it. But do people know why and how it was created, and what is its place in our virtual world?
When Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger created on the 15th of January 2001 their free and open-collaborative online encyclopedia, they would probably have never imagined the destiny their website would have in the future: Wikipedia is indeed not only one of the most consulted and famous online encyclopedias in the world; it has – thanks to its multiple particularities – a unique and irreplaceable position in our virtual environment.
Let’s begin with a brief history of Wikipedia, which bespeaks of its revolutionary aspects; even though its creation occurred well after the World Wide Web, these both inventions share common aims and ideals: the World Wide Web was indeed conceived as a means to connect people and make a place where information becomes more accessible. It intended to create a world of global democracy – so to say – where anyone, anywhere, can use a computer to learn more about everything and improve one’s knowledge.
Throughout worldwide hyperlinks access, everybody became allowed not merely to consume content but also to create it. For this reason, Wikipedia was viewed -and remains so- as a tool that was aimed to shake the plutocracy’s hold on established media and other elitist hierarchies.
More broadly, it has created a place for global citizens to express their views without being threatened by governmental censorship, which is an important step in mankind’s development.
This step was guaranteed by its success, which, in turn, keeps providing a great incentive for people to contribute to this tool of democracy.
The history of Wikipedia is not, though, exactly the one might think about when talking about such an influential website: in fact, Wikipedia was simply at its beginning the sideshow of Nupedia, another virtual encyclopedia created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, which at the time of its launching – October 1999 – already had the revolutionary aspects that Wikipedia possesses: a free encyclopedia that can be updated in real-time. Moreover, like its successor, it was a secondary, not a primary source, that quoted information from the media or academic papers rather than publish original research.
However, and this is a big difference with Wikipedia, Nupedia had a strict approvals process, as bespeak these words of Jimmy Wales: « it was very formal and very top-down, you had to be approved to write anything, and you were expected to submit a completed essay.» This long submission process put a quick end to Nupedia’s life expectancy, as the site only published twenty-one articles after a year. But Jimmy Wales and Larry Page had meanwhile already launched Wikipedia on the 15th of January 2001 as an experiment that ditched the checks of Nupedia.
The new site exploded: « one of the things that were interesting,» Wales remembers, « is that in the early days, people started writing things that were pretty good. They were very short and basic, but there was nothing wrong with them ».
Over time, several core policies were established, among which the fact that pages should be verifiable, meaning that other visitors can check the information comes from a reliable source. This is part of the principle of open-collaboration defended by Wikipedia, which can be defined as «any system of innovation or production that relies on goal-oriented yet loosely coordinated participants who interact to create a product (or service) of economic value, which they make available to contributors and noncontributors alike.»
There are now 321 Wikipedias in different languages and over six million entries on the English language site alone. Combined, Wikipedia’s editions comprise more than 56 million articles and attract more than 17 million edits and more than 1.7 billion unique visitors per month. Its speed is impressive, as the articles are edited 350 times a minute on average.
But Wikipedia’s valuable contribution to the internet may also be found elsewhere. Despite being in the top ten most-visited sites in the world in 2020, it is the only not-for-profit on this list. It is indeed hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, an American non-profit organization funded mainly through donations. Contrary to many websites, it stayed faithful to its non-profit objective while others progressively disappointed us by transforming the web into « an expensive place.» Likewise, Wikipedia remains free of any adverts and does not collect any data from its users., which is a considerable advantage in our world of mass surveillance.
Twenty years on from its humble beginnings, the online encyclopedia has managed to offer an alternative source of knowledge, that is a more technical (or specific) one, a one which is much more diverse, and by being so it has managed to displace established sources of knowledge. Though it has been criticized for its uneven accuracy and for exhibiting systemic bias (in 2018, nine out of ten editors were male), the great gift of Wikipedia is how it teaches us to question sources of authority.