Illustrations: Timo Lenzen

An Oral History of Wikipedia, the Web’s Encyclopedia

Tom Roston
OneZero

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IIt’s hard to imagine the internet without Wikipedia. Just like the air we breathe, the definitive digital encyclopedia is the default resource for everything and everyone — from Google’s search bar to undergrad students embarking on research papers. It has more than 6 million entries in English, it is visited hundreds of millions of times per day, and it reflects whatever the world has on its mind: Trending pages this week include Tanya Roberts (R.I.P.), the Netflix drama Bridgerton, and, oh yes, the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

It was also never meant to exist — at least, not like this.

Wikipedia was launched as the ugly stepsibling of a whole other online encyclopedia, Nupedia. That site, launched in 1999, included a rigorous seven-step process for publishing articles written by volunteers. Experts would check the information before it was published online — a kind of peer-review process — which would theoretically mean every post was credible. And painstaking. And slow to publish.

“It was too hard and too intimidating,” says Jimmy Wales, Nupedia’s founder who is now, of course, better known as the founder of Wikipedia. “We realized… we need to make it easier for people.”

Now 20 years later — Wikipedia’s birthday is this Friday — nearly 300,000 editors (or “Wikipedians”) now volunteer their time to write, edit, block, squabble over, and scrub every corner of the sprawling encyclopedia. They call it “the project,” and they are dedicated to what they call its five pillars: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia; Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view; Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute; Wikipedia’s editors should treat each other with respect and civility; and Wikipedia has no firm rules.

Behind the site itself is the Wikimedia Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that takes care of the servers, fundraising, legal challenges, and many initiatives that advance the project. Its most essential task: delicately handling volunteer editors, about 40,000 of whom are most active on English Wikipedia and more than…

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Tom Roston
OneZero

Culture writer; Author of THE WRITER’S CRUSADE: KURT VONNEGUT AND THE MANY LIVES OF SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE [https://amzn.to/2YSavt0].