The ancient Library at Alexandria, once the largest on Earth, housed perhaps 500,000 volumes. Most were procured when Egypt's Ptolemy III decreed that each visitor to the city had to hand over every book and scroll in his or her possession, regardless of subject matter or language. These texts were then copied by scribes, the facsimiles shelved in the library, and the originals returned to their owners. At least that's what Wikipedia says, so take it with the proverbial grain of salt.
Next summer, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina will host Wikimania 2008, the annual confab for producers and proponents of one of the largest repositories of information in the modern world—one whose legions of articles, spanning hundreds of languages and seemingly countless disciplines, also come from popular contributions.
The English-language Wikipedia site reached the million-article milestone on March 1, 2006, after five years in existence. Astonishingly, just a year and a half later, this past September, that number had doubled to two million.
In all, there are some 9.1 million entries on the whole of Wikipedia. The entries span 253 tongues—including Choctaw, Voro and (yes) Klingon—and comprise more than 1.41 billion words. Wikipedia is the eighth-most-visited site on the Web and has become an invaluable resource for millions. It's far from perfect—even farther from infallible. Yet for all its ballyhooed flaws, it has fundamentally reshaped the way knowledge is disseminated and consumed. With just a few keystrokes, anyone can access a nutshell summary of almost any subject in world history, large or small, canonical or arcane, from the Brown Dog affair to the Destruction in Art Symposium to the Haines Index. Sometimes it's hard to imagine life without such a resource.
But Wikipedia didn't just spring up fully formed in our browsers. Since it was founded by online entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and academic Larry Sanger on January 15, 2001, Wikipedia has grown—immensely—with the steady accretion of contributions from volunteers the world over.
Who are they? And why do they do it?
Everybody's an expert
The fact that anyone can edit the thing, of course, is its blessing and its curse. Only a vast-scale collaboration could create such a sprawling and ever-growing store of knowledge in such a remarkably short time.
But it's also, as has been well-documented, left the site vulnerable to vandals, propagandists and propagators (conscious or not) of Stephen Colbert's infamous false "Wikiality" (wherein "any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true").
So while most hail Wikipedia as a revolutionary model of cooperation, a free and open ideal that strives for accuracy and truth through constant review by its millions of contributors, others cavil that it's unreliable and inaccurate, the kind of junky encyclopedia in which the entry for Britney Spears (4,219 words) is longer than the entry for Brittany (2,512).
As Web humorist Lore Sjöberg writes on Wired.com, "Wikipedia exists in a state of quantum significance flux. It's simultaneously a shining, flawless collection of incontrovertible information, and a debased pile of meaningless words thrown together by uneducated lemurs with political agendas. It simply cannot exist in any state between these two extremes."
Ignore it, make use of it or become addicted to it as you see fit. Wikipedia is a fact of life with or without your approval. And if its recent past is any indication, it's only going to get bigger—especially as related projects such as Wiktionary, Wikiquote, WikiBooks, Wikisource, Wikimedia Commons, Wikispecies, Wikinews and Wikiversity come into their own.
One thing that's impossible to deny is Wikipedia's sheer scope. There are 5,986,389 registered users on the English site alone. It's a given that the vast majority of those (your humble correspondent included) have never done much more than add a link or fix a fact or correct a misspelling. But that's just the point: Small contributions such as those, taken together with more substantial writing from thousands of others, have helped to make something great.
David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says that Wikipedia is "epically important. It's not just that it's generally a good encyclopedia. We've really proved something to ourselves: We now know without a doubt that some immense and immensely complex works of humans can be created by removing most of the elements of control."
Serious, regular contributors, or Wikipedians, usually register with the site and set up a "user page." That makes their entries more credible because they're accountable, by name (or at least pseudonym), for what they write. You can learn a lot about the sources of your information by looking up contributor's profiles (in the search window, type "user:[screen name]").
Wikipedians are a diverse group. Poke around their user pages and you'll see arrays of multi-colored "user boxes" proudly announcing that the contributor is nearsighted, or an atheist, or Catholic, or gay, or Swedish, or a teenager, or a backgammon player, or a golden retriever lover, or a pilot, or a Zen Buddhist, or a Jedi, or a Red Sox fan, or an advanced C++ programmer, or an Islay malt drinker, or a Tolkien reader, or a Lovecraft fan, or a guitarist, or a snowboarder, or a pagan, or someone who "advocates the use of more cowbell."
For his part, Alex Sawczynec (username: GlassCobra), 20, a Northeastern University third-year, is a Gryffindor, likes to watch Adult Swim, and prefers New York–style pizza. He's also a tireless reverter of vandalism and corrector of misinformation on thousands of Wikipedia's pages.
Although he'd been using the site since high school, Sawczynec confesses that the "stigma of being a nerd" prevented him from getting too involved at first. Finally, this April, he registered an account and started editing. In just eight months, he's already logged more than 7,000 edits across a wide spectrum of articles, from Cam'ron to Cesar Chavez to Insane Clown Posse.
Sawczynec has written some entries from scratch, as well—such as the entry on the Philippines' Manila Hotel. He's also gotten heavily involved in Wikipedia policy discussions. And, this past month, his diligence and tenacity helped him ascend to the rank of a site administrator, which allows him to block harmful users, delete pages and send some of the more contentious entries into temporary lockdown. Administrator is an elite title: There are only 1,427 administrators on the English-language site.
But "we try not to act like it's a status symbol," says Sawczynec. "We see ourselves as janitors, mainly. The symbol of the administrator is a mop. We are humble servants, just doing our best to clean up." (So it's not something he uses to impress the ladies at Northeastern keggers? "Oh, dear God, no.")
While Sawczynec confesses that his dogged monitoring and editing of others' contributions may stem from "being a bit of a control freak," he's adamant that, on Wikipedia, "no one person should have control of anything. Wikipedia is run and governed entirely by community consensus just so that control freaks don't let their heads get too big, and so that any one person can't screw something up too much."
Many and few
Looking at the Wikipedia "community," it can sometimes seem that the site is actually written and edited by a small cadre of diehards. In fact, even one of its co-founders believes that to be true.
"The idea that a lot of people have of Wikipedia," Jimmy Wales told blogger Aaron Swartz this past year, "is that it's some emergent phenomenon—the wisdom of mobs, swarm intelligence, that sort of thing—thousands and thousands of individual users each adding a little bit of content, and out of this emerges a coherent body of work."
Instead, Wales contended, Wikipedia was actually written by "a community ... a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers." Initially, he figured about 80 percent of the work was done by 20 percent of users. But he crunched the numbers and discovered something even more striking: nearly 75 percent of edits were done by just 2 percent of users.
Swartz, however, launched a study of his own, which found a marked difference between edit-intensive users, who contribute small fixes to existing entries, and those who actually wrote the bulk of articles. "Almost every time I saw a substantive edit," he writes, "I found the user who had contributed it was not an active user of the site. They generally had made fewer than 50 edits (typically around 10), usually on related pages. Most never even bothered to create an account."
In other words: it's generally the core crew of several thousand dedicated Wikipedians who combine to keep the site refined and readable, correcting mistakes and counteracting vandalism. But it's usually regular folks with special expertise (the self-proclaimed Dylanologist, the amateur horticulturalist, the military buff), writing one or two or five articles apiece, who've contributed the bulk of the content. Both groups are equally important to Wikipedia's success.
Broad and narrow
You don't need to be an administrator like Sawczynec to contribute to Wikipedia, nor do you have to be a diehard like S.J. Klein, 29, a Cantabrigian who works for the One Laptop per Child program. (Klein's username "Sj" should not be confused with "Essjay," a high-profile Wikipedia admin who, to the chagrin of many, was found earlier this year to have concocted an elaborate online identity as a tenured religion professor.)
"On the English Wikipedia, I've probably contributed to a few thousand articles," says Klein. "I have about 15,000 edits across different spaces. I've made almost that many contributions to the metaWiki, which is the organizational Wiki, and maybe five or six thousand edits across all the other projects, like WikiBooks and Wiktionary." Lately, Klein has been spending as many as 100 hours a week at his day job. But when he had more free time, he says he "used to spend 20 to 30 hours a week editing Wikipedia."
Klein sees nothing extraordinary about his commitment. "There are hundreds of dedicated editors who do this every week," he says. "Of course, there are also hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts who spend 20-plus hours a week playing World of Warcraft, building models or hanging out in chat rooms. Wikipedia just provides a way to work on widely read material in collaboration with others. This is the natural human desire to share what we know."
There are umpteen smaller ways you can contribute to the site if you're not ready to pen massive, multi-sourced treatises on the Halifax Explosion or Charles Stewart Parnell or Spaghetti Westerns.
There's also the ever-necessary role of the humble WikiGnome, a user who scurries about quietly behind the scenes, fixing typos, correcting poor grammar and repairing broken links. Or you could fight the righteous battle, claiming membership in Wikipedia's Counter-Vandalism Unit. ("This user screws vandals and treats them with no mercy," reads one profile's badge of honor.) But if you're up for something more, there's always the yeoman's work of penning new articles from scratch.
Just do it well. No doubt, you've sometimes stumbled upon what are called "stubs" in the Wiki wilderness—prosaic, bare-bones, not-especially helpful summaries. Stubs suck. If one is to undertake authorship, one should strive for quality. Source well. Write clearly. Consult with the Wikipedia Manual of Style, an exhaustive compendium of grammatical guidelines.
If your article is of a high-enough quality, it might get designated a "good" article—"no obvious problems, gaps, excessive information"—of which there are currently only 3,200. (One example being the entry on the International Space Station, which is 7,000 words long and cites 37 sources.)
It might even get the rarer "feature" designation—"Definitive. Outstanding . . . a great source for encyclopedic information"—of which there are just 1,752. (See the piece on Tourette's Syndrome, a crisp and information-packed 5,200 words, with eight book-length sources and 84 online references.)
But on a site with millions of them, why are so few articles considered merely good? It's a question, says Sawczynec, that answers itself. "There are literally millions of articles on Wikipedia. Because we struggle to get so many to even a readable quality, there's often not enough manpower to improve an article further. Our criteria for good articles are relatively strict: It took me the better part of a day to write the one that I've done." For featured articles, scrutinized by site editors for clarity, flow, structure and sources, the strictures are even more rigorous.
At Wikipedia, the old adage holds true: write what you know. Dereck Blackburn (username: Lostwars), 27, who splits his time between Cambridge and Denver, started contributing to Wikipedia a couple years ago. "At the time I started, there were only 750,000 articles. And a lot of them were in total disarray." So he set about to change that.
An aviation buff, Blackburn thinks the first article he wrote for the site was about the Greater Kankakee Airport in Illinois. Since then, he's started or contributed to almost 7,000 entries.
"Keep thinking about your world," he says. "What is it in your world that you know more about than anyone else does?" And while the site has become so exhaustive that it's getting ever harder to find topics that haven't already been covered, Blackburn says one can always telescope in. "Wikipedia has grown to the point now that it's OK to write about Walden Pond. And it's OK to write about the road that goes by Walden. And it's OK to write about a particular intersection of that road. The smallest, minute thing can be a Wikipedia entry."
Which raises a question: Does the site's exhaustiveness risk diluting what's really important? Sure, as was noted in a New Yorker article this past year, the site's millionth article was about a Glaswegian train station. Such a mundane locale would certainly never have merited mention in the august Encyclopedia Britannica. But consider that, in the 24 hours after the stub was created, "the entry was edited more than 400 times, by dozens of people." People do care about this stuff.
Yes, there's always the risk that Joe Sixpack will log on to write an article about himself. But as soon as it's noticed, it will be deleted. There are notability criteria for who's deserving of an entry. (If you're an author, for instance, "your book must have sold at least 5,000 copies," says Klein.)
And isn't that risk a small price to pay for a resource that—rather than a pricey set of bound volumes that are updated only every decade or so—is free, easily accessible, sprawling and constantly (often instantaneously) updated? To say nothing of one of Wikipedia's greatest features: the ability to learn as you teach.
Alexander Glazkov (username: Solarapex), 33, came to Boston from Ukraine eight years ago. His raison de Wiki is not so much to write what he knows as to teach himself about his adopted home as he writes. He's written short entries on the Kharkiv River in Ukraine, which he knows well, but also about the Quabbin Aqueduct in West Boylston and the Winsor Dam in Belchertown.
He's a member of the Massachusetts WikiProject and the Arizona WikiProject, and he also founded WikiProject Geology—even though, at the time, he didn't particularly care about rocks. "I found that geology didn't have a project, but it deserved to," he says. "Organizing this project, I became a fan of geology."
He's got the right idea, says Klein. "One usually makes a better editor of topics that one finds fascinating and new, rather than a topic on which one is a longtime expert." Otherwise, he says, one runs the risk of bringing long-held biases to the editing process. And anyway, it's much more fun to contribute to articles on subjects you'd like to learn about than ones you already know.
Vigilance vs. Vandalism
Wikipedia's controversies are well-advertised. And many of them stem from the fact that large swaths of the site lie dormant and unpatrolled indefinitely, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation. One of the reasons Sawczynec joined up was that he had great affection for the Wiki ideal, and wanted to protect it. But, he says, "to put it plainly, Wikipedia doesn't have nearly enough people as it needs to combat vandalism. We're constantly undermanned."
As an administrator, Sawczynec is forever scanning new edits—he has a watch list of about 4,000 articles of his own choosing, which is sprawling even by Wiki standards—ever ready to swoop in and undo misinformation.
"I keep an eye on a lot of pages that get vandalized a ton," he says. "Rappers, for example. You would not believe how often they get messed with. The page for Lil' Wayne? That gets vandalized. All. The. Time. I keep an eye on wrestling pages, which also get vandalized a lot. Movie pages get vandalized often."
And then there's the ne plus ultra of messed-with entries: George W. Bush. "It does get locked occasionally, but as a general rule, we try not to lock it unless there's constant vandalism from a lot of different people," says Sawczynec. "If there's a lot of vandalism from only one person, we wouldn't lock the page—we'd block the person. Basically, we try to take the measure that will still allow people the most access to the page."
But for all the quarrels that are inherent in Wikipedia's free-for-all setup, the site is just as remarkable for the sense of community it fosters. "It's so funny," says Blackburn. "The interface of it is very cut-and-dry, black-and-white. But a lot of times, it feels like a coffeehouse atmosphere. You have the actual articles, but you also have the discussion pages where people are arguing about knowledge, arguing about the littlest things."
On page after page in this vast virtual salon, smart people talk and talk about every subject under the sun. "You really get a sense of camaraderie or friendship with people from all walks of life," says Blackburn. "You also form a lot of relationships through people that have similar interests as you."
For the compulsively curious, Klein insists, Wikipedia is "10 times better than being in a library with a talented reference librarian. If you start editing an arbitrary page of historical interest—a page about a particular Roman emperor, or a Japanese historical story—you come back a couple weeks later and you have messages from people who care about that. And you can talk to them."
But, as with anything, there's always the risk of too much of a good thing. "Wikipediholism" is defined on-site, only half jokingly, as "an obscure form of OCD" whose sufferers "endlessly track and monitor the edits of users with whom they have become obsessed. This disorder can lead to a serious decrease in productivity in all other areas of the victim's life, like any other addiction."
There will always be discontent, both inside and outside Wikipedia's ranks. Recently, the English tech tabloid The Register reported that "controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia's core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site's top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown [sic] on perceived threats to their power," and that mistrust of this "ruling clique" had "rank and file ... on the verge of revolt."
(The hierarchy at Wikipedia, whose head office, the Wikimedia Foundation Inc., will be moving from St. Petersburg, Fla. to San Francisco this winter, is complicated. Learn about its "mix of anarchic, despotic, Democratic, Republican, meritocratic, plutocratic, and technocratic elements" at meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Power_structure.)
Indeed, some disillusioned former Wikipedians gripe about such bureaucratic heavy-handedness and/or the rabidity of some of the site's devotees, grumbling about "Swastikipedia." Meanwhile, Web sites such as wikipediareview.com and wikipedia-watch.org charge themselves with debunking what they see as the self-satisfied smugness of so-called Wikipediots. ("They have a massive, unearned influence on what passes for reliable information," the latter proclaims.)
Wikipedia's own co-founder, Larry Sanger, left the site in 2002—not just because he was uneasy with the potential for abuse and inaccuracy, but because he believed Wikipedia's populism went too far, to the point of disdain for experts and scholars. He's since created another reference site, Citizendium, which, striving for "credibility and quality, not just quantity," enforces stricter rules, and requires editors to post under their own names. (Having launched in March of last year, it currently has 4,200 entries.)
Of course, it's never heartening to learn of the CIA and the Vatican perpetrating propagandistic edits all over the site, or to hear American Library Association President Michael Gorman castigating Wikipedia for creating "a generation of intellectual sluggards incapable of moving beyond the Internet." But, by and large, Wikipedia is doing good work.
When Klein first discovered the site, in 2001, "It was really unattractive. There was no design, just text. I remember I wasn't particularly impressed." Now, having spent thousands of hours helping to build and refine it—and not just the English site; he also posts in German and in the Uto-Aztecan language of Nahuatl—Klein is convinced that it's one of the great projects of world history: "a completely free, public collection of modern knowledge about society." That's one reason language-specific Wikipedia content will be bundled into each One Laptop per Child computer shipped to the developing world.
It shouldn't be too staggering to see how big this has become. "We're now a people who dedicate most of our time to our online personas," says Diana Boston (username: OneWomanArmy923), 38, a non-governmental-organization worker who's originally from Whitman, and who's written on feminism, Émile Zola, abortion, responsible drug use and ducks. "I'm not surprised that an online encyclopedia of knowledge, where anyone can give their two cents, is a big hit."
Glazkov sees another factor fueling its ineluctable growth: a desire for a sort of immortality. "Wikipedia is a good way to leave a trace of your life. It's a great thing, to share your knowledge with other people."
"History has shown that, when there's a need for something that benefits society, there's no way that anyone can stop its progression," says Blackburn. "One of the most powerful things in our world is knowledge—whether it's a train timetable or the specific flora and fauna in your neighborhood. Everyone has a need for information. And most people have a desire to explore. That's what Wikipedia's there for."
This story previously appeared in the Boston Phoenix