Celebrating Wikipedia’s 20th birthday

Wikipedia asks you to imagine, in the words of Jimmy Wales, “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. Today, the 20th anniversary of the birth of the project, is a good time to stop, reflect, and take stock of the extent to which it has met its stated goals. In Wikipedia @ 20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution, a group of “scholars, teachers, librarians, journalists, and activists” tried to do just that. The contributors — all Wikipedians in one form or another — documented those two decades in a collection of essays that were a mix of scholarly and reflection. Many contributors tell their own origin stories as Wikipedians. Among them are people who were involved with the project nearly from the start. Others arrived later. Some encountered Wikipedia as students, but returned later as contributors. While each story is different, they shed light on very human experiences. This matters, I think, because far too often Wikipedia is portrayed as a faceless institution instead of an emergent property of thousands and thousands of people, each writing a little piece of the whole.

While these essays were written by people who are deeply committed to Wikipedia and the utopian ideals that underlie it, they do not approach the project as starry-eyed utopians. As much as they love Wikipedia, they highlight many of its shortcomings. In fact some of the most interesting things about this collection, when viewed as a whole, is how coherent it ends up feeling, with many strands running as a conversation through the book.

Some of the most powerful chapters are among the most meaningful and informative. Phoebe Ayers’ simply-titled “Wikipedia and Libraries” is about so much more than just those two. She writes: “I became a librarian because I wanted to help people. Specifically, I wanted to help people who wanted to find information on something”. If you’ve been fortunate enough to meet Phoebe, this sentence makes perfect sense. Or perhaps, if you read that sentence, Phoebe makes perfect sense. The chapter is substantial, filled with both her reflections on her experiences (and they central role they played in shaping the community) and deeply thought-out ideas about the future of Wikipedia and libraries.

Jake Orlowitz’s chapter “How Wikipedia Drove Professors Crazy, Made Me Sane, and Almost Saved the Internet” is another one which melds personal with deep thoughts about the project including this gem: “Wikipedia presents an antidote to both the rule of unassailable experts and the tyranny of unaccountable algorithms”.

“When you edit Wikipedia, you step into a great human endeavor, the largest collective project ever”. The opening line of the chapter LiAnna Davis and I contributed to the collection is meant to capture the vastness of what Wikipedia has achieved. But the size of Wikipedia and the extent to which it has met its absurdly lofty goals tends to overshadow the many ways it has yet to achieve so much of what it needs to.

The foundation of Wikipedia was a true “lightning in a bottle” moments, and the project’s imminent decline and demise have been predicted ever since. The opening chapter by Joseph Reagle (one of the book’s authors) discusses “The Many Reported Deaths of Wikipedia“. The combination of this chapter and the second one, Omer Benjakob and Stephen Harrison’s “From Anarchy to Wikiality, Glaring Bias to Good Cop: Press Coverage of Wikipedia’s First Two Decades“, provides a good overview of the history of how the project has been viewed by the outside world. Wikipedia’s status as “the last bastion of shared reality” is especially important in the current onslaught of fabrications and conspiracy theories that culminated in last week’s attack on the US Capitol. Brian Keegan’s chapter, “An Encyclopedia with Breaking News” complements these well, and delves into something I had never thought about — the way that the 9/11 attacks shaped the development of what was then a nascent project.

Wikipedia’s role in teaching and learning is central to many of the contributors’ experiences. Both Alexandria Lockett and Cecelia Musselman talk about what it was like to teach with Wikipedia in the days before Wiki Education or the Wikipedia Education Program when you just had to rely on your personal knowledge of Wikipedia to teach students how to become part of this community. In his chapter about teaching with Wikipedia, Bob Cummings focuses on a different part of the faculty experience — the need to step out of the comfortable role of expert and return to that of learner: “at one end, we react with outrage questioning the validity of a project which seems hostile to the very notion of expertise. And at the other end of the range we find engaging Wikipedia exhilarating. It allows us to be novices again or to be students in any field imaginable.”

Wikipedia’s “commons-based peer production” model is described by Yochai Benkler as “genuine alternative to neoliberalism”. By relying on policies of verifiability, notability, and no original research can create reliable content without telling the reader “trust me, I’m an expert”. Instead, as Bob Cummings phrased it, Wikipedia asks contributors who are experts (as so many of them are) to “[set] aside their role as experts when engaging with Wikipedia”.

But these very policies that create the basis for reliability also prevent Wikipedia from achieving its goal of being the “sum of all human knowledge” because so much human knowledge, especially outside the Western, academic context, is not set down in written, reliable sources. In her chapter “Why Do I Have Authority to Edit the Page? The Politics of User Agency and Participation on Wikipedia” Alexandria Lockett says: “Wikipedia serves as a subtle form of information warfare against colonized populations. The colonial act of erasing cultures includes the psychological condition of feeling as if you cannot and should not ‘disrupt’ the information architecture”. Similarly, in his chapter “Possible Enlightenments: Wikipedia’s Encyclopedia Promise and Epistemological Failure” Matthew Vetter points out that the policies of no original research, verifiability, and notability “maintain traditional Western textual practices”, “play a significant role in the creation of reliable content…[but] also serve to limit Wikipedia’s universality”.

Similar themes crop out throughout the book, notably in chapters 15 (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Community“), 16 (“Toward a Wikipedia from and for All of Us“) and 17 (“The Myth of the Comprehensive Historical Archive“).

It’s hard to write an account that does justice to the book in fewer words than there are in the book, and it feels wrong to skip over so many excellent chapters, but I need to stop somewhere. Full text of the book is freely available online at Wikipedia @ 20 on PubPub. Print and ebook versions are available from MIT Press and at major booksellers.


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