'wikipedia' Episodes



Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Todays episode is on the history of Wikipedia. The very idea of a single location that could store all the known information in the world began with Ptolemy I, founder of the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt following the death of Alexander the great. He and his son amassed 100s of thousands of scrolls in the Library and Alexandria from 331 BC and on. The Library was part of a great campus of the Musaeum where they also supported great minds starting with Ptolemy I’s patronage of Euclid, the father of geometry, and later including Archimedes, the father of engineering, Hipparchus, the founder of trigonometry, Her, the father of math, and Herophilus, who gave us the scientific method and countless other great hellenistic thinkers. The Library entered into a slow decline that began with the expulsion of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145BC. Ptolemy VIII was responsible for that. Always be weary of people who attack those that they can’t win over especially when they start blaming the intellectual elite for the problems of the world. This began a slow decline of the library until it burned, first with a small fire accidentally set by Caesar in 48BC and then for good in the 270s AD. In the centuries since there have been attempts here and there to gather great amounts of information. The first known encyclopedia was the Naturalis Historiae by Pliny the Elder, never completed because he was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius. One of the better known being the Encyclopedia Britannica, starting off in 1768. Mass production of these was aided by the printing press but given that there’s a cost to producing those materials and a margin to be made in the sale of those materials that encouraged a somewhat succinct exploration of certain topics. The advent of the computer era of course led to encyclopedias on CD and then to online encyclopedias. Encyclopedias at the time employed experts in certain fields and paid them for compiling and editing articles for volumes that would then be sold. As we say these days, this was a business model just waiting to be disrupted. Jimmy Wales was moderating an online discussion board on Objectivism and happened across Larry Sanger in the early 90s. They debated and became friends. Wales started Nupedia, which was supposed to be a free encyclopedia, funded by advertising revenue. As it was to be free, they were to recruit thousands of volunteer editors. People of the caliber that had been previously hired to research and write articles for encyclopedias. Sanger, who was pursuing a PhD in philosophy from Ohio State University, was hired on as editor-in-chief. This was a twist on the old model of compiling an encyclopedia and a twist that didn’t work out as intended. Volunteers were slow to sign up, but Nupedia went online in 2000. Later in the year there had only been two articles that made it through the review process. When Sanger told Ben Kovitz about this, he recommended looking at the emerging wiki culture. This had been started with WikiWikiWeb, developed by Ward Cunningham in 1994, named after a shuttle bus that ran between airport terminals at the Honolulu airport. WikiWikiWeb had been inspired by Hypercard but needed to be multi-user so people could collaborate on web pages, quickly producing content on new patterns in programming. He wanted to make non-writers feel ok about writing. Sanger proposed using a wiki to be able to accept submissions for articles and edits from anyone but still having a complicated review process to accept changes. The reviewers weren’t into that, so they started a side project they called Wikipedia in 2001 with a user-generated model for content, or article, generation. The plan was to generate articles on Wikipedia and then move or copy them into Nupedia once they were ready. But Wikipedia got mentioned on Slashdot. In 2001 there were nearly 30 million websites but half a billion people using the web. Back then a mention on the influential Slashdot could make a site. And it certainly helped. They grew and more and more people started to contribute. They hit 1,000 articles in March of 2001 and that increased by 10 fold by September, By And another 4 fold the next year. It started working independent of Nupedia. The dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and by 2002 Nupedia had to lay Sanger off and he left both projects. Nupedia slowly died and was finally shut down in 2003. Eventually the Wikimedia Foundation was built to help unlock the world’s knowledge, which now owns and operates Wikipedia. Wikimedia also includes Commons for media, Wikibooks that includes free textbooks and manuals, Wikiquote for quotations, Wikiversity for free learning materials, MediaWiki the source code for the site, Wikidata for pulling large amounts of data from Wikimedia properties using APIs, Wikisource, a library of free content, Wikivoyage, a free travel guide, Wikinews, free news, Wikispecies, a directory containing over 687,000 species. Many of the properties have very specific ways of organizing data, making it easier to work with en masse. The properties have grown because people like to be helpful and Wales allowed self-governance of articles. To this day he rarely gets involved in the day-to-day affairs of the wikipedia site, other than the occasional puppy dog looks in banners asking for donations. You should donate. He does have 8 principles the site is run by: 1. Wikipedia’s success to date is entirely a function of our open community. 2. Newcomers are always to be welcomed. 3. “You can edit this page right now” is a core guiding check on everything that we do. 4. Any changes to the software must be gradual and reversible. 5. The open and viral nature of the GNU Free Documentation License and the Create Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License is fundamental to the long-term success of the site. 6. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. 7. Anyone with a complaint should be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. 8. Diplomacy consists of combining honesty and politeness. This culminates in 5 pillars wikipedia is built on: 1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. 2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view. 3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute. 4. Wikipedia’s editors should treat each other with respect and civility. 5. Wikipedia has no firm rules. Sanger went on to found Citizendium, which uses real names instead of handles, thinking maybe people will contribute better content if their name is attached to something. The web is global. Throughout history there have been encyclopedias produced around the world, with the Four Great Books of Song coming out of 11th century China, the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity coming out of 10th century Persia. When Wikipedia launched, it was in English. Wikipedia launched a German version using the deutsche.wikipedia.com subdomain. It now lives at de.wikipedia.com and Wikipedia has gone from being 90% English to being almost 90 % non-English, meaning that Wikipedia is able to pull in even more of the world’s knowledge. Wikipedia picked up nearly 20,000 English articles in 2001, over 75,000 new articles in 2002, and that number has steadily climbed wreaching over 3,000,000 by 2010, and we’re closing in on 6 Million today. The English version is 10 terabytes of data uncompressed. If you wanted to buy a printed copy of wikipedia today, it would be over 2500 books. By 2009 Microsoft Encarta shut down. By 2010 Encyclopedia Britannica stopped printing their massive set of books and went online. You can still buy encyclopedias from specialty makers, such as the World Book. Ironically, Encyclopedia Britannica does now put real names of people on articles they produce on their website, in an ad-driven model. There are a lot of ads. And the content isn’t linked to as many places nor as thorough. Creating a single location that could store all the known information in the world seems like a pretty daunting task. Compiling the non-copywritten works of the world is now the mission of Wikipedia. The site receives the fifth most views per month and is read by nearly half a billion people a month with over 15 billion page views per month. Anyone who has gone down the rabbit hole of learning about Ptolemy I’s involvement in developing the Library of Alexandria and then read up on his children and how his dynasty lasted until Cleopatra and how… well, you get the point… can understand how they get so much traffic. Today there are over 48,000,000 articles and over 37,000,000 registered users who have contributed articles meaning if we set 160 Great Libraries of Alexandria side-by-side we would have about the same amount of information Wikipedia has amassed. And it’s done so because of the contributions of so many dedicated people. People who spend hours researching and building pages, undergoing the need to provide references to cite the data in the articles (btw wikipedia is not supposed to represent original research), more people to patrol and look for content contributed by people on a soapbox or with an agenda, rather than just reporting the facts. Another team looking for articles that need more information. And they do these things for free. While you can occasionally see frustrations from contributors, it is truly one of the best things humanity has done. This allows us to rediscover our own history, effectively compiling all the facts that make up the world we live in, often linked to the opinions that shape them in the reference materials, which include the over 200 million works housed at the US Library of Congress, and over 25 million books scanned into Google Books (out of about 130 million). As with the Great Library of Alexandria, we do have to keep those who seek to throw out the intellectuals of the world away and keep the great works being compiled from falling to waste due to inactivity. Wikipedia keeps a history of pages, to avoid revisionist history. The servers need to be maintained, but the database can be downloaded and is routinely downloaded by plenty of people. I think the idea of providing an encyclopedia for free that was sponsored by ads was sound. Pivoting the business model to make it open was revolutionary. With the availability of the data for machine learning and the ability to enrich it with other sources like genealogical research, actual books, maps, scientific data, and anything else you can manage, I suspect we’ll see contributions we haven’t even begun to think about! And thanks to all of this, we now have a real compendium of the worlds knowledge, getting more and more accurate and holistic by the day. Thank you to everyone involved, from Jimbo and Larry, to the moderators, to the staff, and of course to the millions of people who contribute pages about all the history that makes up the world as we know it today. And thanks to you for listening to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you. Have a great day! Note: This work was produced in large part due to the compilation of historical facts available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020