In the early days of Wikipedia, the universal online encyclopaedia which celebrated its 20th anniversary on 15 January, some members of the team debated whether, instead of attempting to be neutral about every topic in the world, the website could instead host parallel articles by worldview. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, remembered debating the idea with his colleagues. “Should there be competing articles, so that you would have the Catholic article on abortion, the evangelical Christian version, and the Planned Parenthood version?”
The team behind what was originally called Nupedia eventually decided against it, and the result was the encyclopaedia which has become the go-to reference on the internet. “I’m human, and I like to get my biases reinforced,” Wales told me when I recently spoke to him over Zoom. “But I think everyone believes that if they’re wrong about something, they should learn more about it.”
If the business model and user experience of the internet today is characterised by an unrelenting cynicism, Wikipedia, founded in 2001, was born from the cyber-optimism of the 1990s. “Wikipedia is from a different era, reflecting the values of almost the pre-dotcom days. It was the idea of people coming together to share knowledge in a non-commercial fashion,” Wales, 54, recalled.
The style and function of Wikipedia has changed very little over its 20-year existence. Articles can be written and edited by anyone. It is governed by a strict code of editorial neutrality – using reliable sources fairly and in good faith – that is enforced by an army of volunteer moderators. Pages do not include much multimedia content. And while web design has evolved away from 2001’s black text and blue links, Wikipedia hasn’t.
Excluding China’s largely separate internet, Wikipedia is the sixth-most visited website in the world. The English-language edition is the most comprehensive, with around 6.2 million articles, making it around 90 times longer than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Cebuano edition is second, thanks to millions of machine-translated articles (the south Filipino language has only about 19 million native speakers). Wales’s brainchild is probably the most comprehensive compendium of human knowledge in history – freely available and maintained by thousands of dedicated volunteers.
From virtually the beginning, the website was run as a non-profit, and it is now funded from endless donation drives. The contrast with Wikipedia’s peers such as Google, Amazon and Facebook could not be starker. The founders of these platforms and websites are worth more than the GDP of small countries, but Wales leads nothing more than an upper-middle class life in London, where he moved nearly a decade ago, having grown up in Alabama. “There are bankers here who make far more money than I ever will – but their lives are boring compared to mine,” he chuckled.
While Wikipedia’s peers have come under sustained condemnation for commodifying personal data, feeding conspiracy theories and undermining democratic norms, the encyclopaedia’s decentralised model has meant that its reputation has endured. In 2018, the Atlantic called Wikipedia “the last bastion of shared reality in Trump’s America”.
Wales’s post-Wikipedia ventures have received spottier receptions. In 2014, he launched Fandom, a website that allows fans of books, films and video games to compose detailed encyclopaedias. In 2017, he crowdfunded a new for-profit venture, WikiTribune, a site that sought to bring some of Wikipedia’s collaborative ethos to bear on the news business. The website failed to make much of an impact, eventually becoming WT Social, a social networking site, in 2019. (I first got to know Wales while interning at WikiTribune in 2017 and 2018.)
Wikipedia is a relic of a different internet, marked by relentless optimism and faith in the wisdom of crowds. The vision that, through endless edits open to anyone, human knowledge could be collected into a constantly updating compendium seems oddly quaint on today’s internet of Russian troll farms, vicious abuse and epistemic closure. But it worked.
[See also: Leader: The Big Tech reckoning]
Facebook, founded three years after Wikipedia, was driven by a similar ideal: connecting people could only lead to good. That is, until it didn’t, abetting genocide in Myanmar in 2016-2017, amplifying fake news and driving millions towards QAnon conspiracy. Facebook’s centralised, untransparent structure created a corporate behemoth that struggled with self-governance as its influence on societies and public debate grew.
Perhaps what saved Wikipedia from the same fate was that its overarching principle is editorial neutrality, not its bottom line. “There is a real commitment in the community to this idea of neutrality. It’s difficult to get right, and there is always something to debate, but that ideal is something people return to again and again,” Wales explained. “If you see something in Wikipedia and think, ‘oh, this seems pretty one sided,’ you can go in and start the conversation. How we deal with that conversation varies. But at least the possibility is there.”
Wikipedia is far from perfect. Its editors remain overwhelmingly white and male. While English-language pages are the most read and edited, pages in smaller languages are less scrutinised. For all of Wales’s idealistic talk of striving towards a single truth, different language editions of Wikipedia reflect subtly different realities. The Czech edition, for example, remains largely the preserve of Czechs, possibly reflecting biases and assumptions common within the country. Articles can be overtechnical and are open to manipulation by overpaid PR consultants. Yet by and large, the project is a success.
“Wikipedia is not a reliable source,” the encyclopaedia sternly cautions. But for most of us, it has become the default arbiter of truth on the internet. Perhaps some of the facts in the article above aren’t quite right. If so, you know why.
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden