Wikipedia's heritage: vision, pragmatics, and happenstance

Joseph M. Reagle Jr.

"… the brain of a whole mental network will be the Permanent World Encyclopedia." – H.G. Wells, World Brain, 1938.

This essay explores development of globally available digital reference works from their first imaginings to contemporary cases. My hope in undertaking such a project is to identify technical and social aspects of digital reference work production that can contribute to an understanding of a prominent contemporary exemplar, the Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia. Why did it take over 50 years for the vision of "[w]holly new forms of encyclopedias" (Bush 1945: §8) to be realized? The answer, presented in this essay, was that it required an alignment of a coherent goal, technical practicality, and serendipity: vision, pragmatics, and happenstance.

The scope of this paper is the early history of global digital reference works. However, this description of the phenomena, global and digital, is problematic in ways I hope will be addressed in the course of this paper. Even so, I feel it is necessary to qualify them briefly at the outset. With the term "global" I'm speaking to more than an encyclopedia with the largest circulation or number of editions. The visions told of in this essay speak to a radically accessible resource: low-cost, if not free. Additionally, the accessibility is not only in consumption but in production: a widening of participation and a bridging of differences. Furthermore, I use the term "digital" for simplicity's sake. One might also generally call them micro, computer, electronic, or networked reference works. But I won't for reasons I won't belabor here. Nor will I strictly limit myself to reference works. As I'm ultimately attempting to contextualize the development of the Wikipedia, it is the final arbiter of my scope. For example, while Project Gutenberg is not an encyclopedic project, it is important to this story nonetheless.

Consequently, after noting some of the difficulties historians of reference works have had in assessing the potential of digital works, I consider the relationship between visions of a global digital reference work, the pragmatics of actual development, and the seeming happenstance that finally married the two.

1 Reading the past and predicting the future

Before I begin my account of the roots of the Wikipedia, it's interesting to note how relatively recent histories of the reference work considered new technology.

Two of my favorite books on the history of the reference work seem the weakest, or at least the most dated, when it comes to recent events. This is not meant as a criticism but a recognition of the difficulty in speaking of technology and the future. For McArthur (1986) in Worlds of Reference: Lexicography, Learning, and Language from the Clay Tablet to the Computer the implication of the computer is how it might be of use to traditional reference work compilers with respect to scanning, storing, indexing, and sorting information. In the chapter entitled "Shaping things to come: the priests of high technology" McArthur deems it necessary to define a processor, memory, input and output, and speculates on the implications of artificial intelligence (AI). It is not easy to place the Wikipedia within this prediction. First, while the Wikipedia is enabled by the Web, the technology could otherwise be a magical black box. One need not concern oneself with processors and I/O, only with the basic notion of making a link and the syntactical conventions of Wiki. Second, the Wikipedia's radical openness is the antithesis of "priests of high technology." Instead of reconsidering the future accessibility of information and its enabling technology, McArthur instead chose to place a speculative bet for the "things to come" on a technological fad: artificial intelligence. Fortunately, the Wikipedia is not beset with the ethical dilemmas of living computers that McArthur raised, but the same old problems of humans engaged in the drama of social life.

Stockwell's (2001) A History of Information Storage and Retrieval hits a little closer to the mark with the benefit of an additional 15 years. In the chapter entitled "Using the great electronic encyclopedia" Stockwell notes that one might view "encyclopedias as early attempts to produce hypertext on paper... [b]ut printed encyclopedias can no way compete with the multimedia components of their CD-ROM hyper-text counterparts" (p. 199). He then provides a brief description of six CD-ROM encyclopedias, nine different search engines — only one of which remains prominent today (i.e., Yahoo) — and a brief mention that some CD-ROM encyclopedias have a Web edition. However, writing, or at least published, in the same year that the Wikipedia launched, Stockwell notes:

… [t]he very nature of the burgeoning World Wide Web precludes their examination here. The breakneck pace of technological advancement has resulted in a "here today, gone tomorrow" situation on the Internet. Web addresses are tenuous at best.

Yet, it was the tenuous "Wild Wild Web" that would produce one of the largest encyclopedic projects in history. Oddly, we have to go further back in time to find a vision of the future more like the present.

2 Visionaries

The first call for a worldwide encyclopedia was prompted in part by technology but predated computer networks by decades. In 1936, H. G. Wells advocated a world encyclopedia, or, as he liked to call it, a "World Brain." Given the advances of microfilm technology and the insecurity of the interwar period, Wells hoped that a world encyclopedia could "solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all that scattered and ineffective wealth [of information] into something like a common understanding" (p. 920). This was not simply an educational resource, but an institution of "adjustment and adjudication; a clearinghouse of misunderstandings" (p. 921).

Given the resources of "micro-photography" Wells felt: "the time is close at hand when a student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in exact replica" (Wells 1938:54). He proposed that the encyclopedia be in a single language, English, as it was difficult to otherwise conceive of a polyglot project satisfying his goals of social unity. Yet, it is also difficult to conceive how any such project could be genuinely universal when limited to a single language. Wikipedia's pragmatic path began as an English language work, and this version remains the largest, but grew to include many other languages. While policy for the Wikimedia projects at large continues to be discussed on the English-language e-mail lists and the "Meta" Wiki, articles now provide links to their alternative language versions.

An additional feature of Wells' proposal was that it "should consist of selections, quotations, and abstracts as assembled by authorities — one need not create summaries" (Wells 1936:921). While this is novel relative to the traditional reference work, it is actually true to one of the encyclopedia's roots: the commonplace books in which Renaissance scholars collected excerpts and notes from their readings and sometimes shared with each other (Yeo 2001:155). Interestingly, Wells may have used this liberal sentiment of borrowing in the creation of his own book The Outline of History , for which he was accused of plagiarism by Florence Deeks and whom he dismissed for "conceiv[ing] the strange idea that she held the copyright to human history" (Keats 2002). I am often led to think that the history of reference works is also a history of plagiarism.

Wells thought the examples of The League of Nations, the Committee Intellectual Cooperation in Paris, and the World Congress of Documentation were models, in spirit and application, for his own project; yet, "The World Brain" never materialized and is now unknown to most besides bibliophiles and historians. (Interestingly, a similar spirit was present in the United Nations University Millennium Project's goal of convening hundreds of scholars, futurists, and decision-makers so as to organize and "improve global thinking about the future." An old version of a Wikipedia page noted the project had encyclopedic intentions though this text was removed since it could not be sourced.)

Whereas Wells perceived a social need that might be served, in part, by technology, Vannevar Bush was an engineer who also forecast limited social implications of his vision. In 1945 Bush published the famous As We May Think essay in the Atlantic Monthly. In this article he identified a glut of information that confounded researchers and impeded progress. (For example, Mendel's laws of genetics was lost to science for a century because "his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it" (Bush 1945: §1)). This "growing mountain" of information could be managed by a memex: "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory" (§6). The bulk of the essay contains the prescient predictions for which it is famous: speech recognition, reliable computing, intuitive user interfaces, the Web and the Semantic Web, and indexing and associative searching. He, also addressed its encyclopedic potential. Noting that for a nickel, the Britannica could be placed on 8.5 x 11 microfilm form and mailed anywhere for a cent, Bush predicted "wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified" (§8). Thus science and mankind might continue to advance without abandoning the wisdom of hard-earned experience, including that of the "cruel weapons" first used in World War II and that could terminate human progress and life altogether.

3 Pragmatics

From the predicted trajectories of historians and bold visions of big thinkers, I now turn to the pragmatists: those with an encyclopedic vision and a possible means of achieving it, though few succeeded.

3.1 Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg was started in 1971 by Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois. Through friends, he gained access to a Xerox Sigma Five mainframe computer at the university's Materials Research Lab. Such a machine was extraordinarily expensive, and consequently, access to it was a valuable privilege. In fact, much of the introductory materials on the project stresses that such access was worth hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars!

At any rate, Michael decided there was nothing he could do, in the way of "normal computing," that would repay the huge value of the computer time he had been given ... so he had to create $100,000,000 worth of value in some other manner…. (Hart 1992)

Envisioning a time when computers would be widely accessible — indeed, this computer was one of the first 23 that would become the Internet (Hart 2005; Zakon 2005) — Hart began typing in the copy of United States Declaration of Independence he happened to have in his backpack:

… and project Gutenberg was born as Michael stated that he had 'earned' the $100,000,000 because a copy of the Declaration of Independence would eventually be an electronic fixture in the computer libraries of 100,000,000 of the computer users of the future. (Hart 1992)

Beyond being one of the first free publicly accessible cultural resources on the Internet, Project Gutenberg is relevant to the history of the Wikipedia for two additional reasons.

Initial contributions to Project Gutenberg were like those of Hart's Declaration of Independence : a single contributor typing in the whole text. (Marie Lebert's (2004) claim that Hart typed in the first 100 books is contrary to Hart's (2006) own recollection that "… I had plenty of help, even back in those days, thought it was mostly anonymous, and even _I_ did not know who typed most of the first dozen or two that I didn't do.") In time, the majority of texts being submitted were scanned and interpreted by Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Yet, this is an imperfect technology, because books age and typefaces can be quite varied. The greatest challenge to Gutenberg Project was how to apportion and coordinate the work of volunteers who might have enough time to correct a chapter's worth of work, but not a whole book. In 2000 Charles Frank launched Distributed Proofreaders, a complementary project to Gutenberg that would "allow several proofreaders to be working on the same book at the same time, each proofreading on different pages" (Proofreaders 2004) In addition, each page of the work undergoes two proofreadings that are reconciled by a "post-processor." The importance of distributed proofreading is that it permits massive collaboration. Research on free and open-source software (FOSS) development have identified this characteristic of content production as "micro-contributions" (Benkler 2002; Sproull, Conley, and Moon 2004) Indeed, Distributed Proofreaders' maxim is "a day a page" — but on average readers proof 10 or more pages a day. This feature of permitting many contributors to produce overlapping work in bite sized chunks — though often becoming a consuming passion — is a powerful motif in open content communities.

Project Gutenberg was also responsible for one of the first publicly available reference works on the Internet, or a least part of it: Volume A of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. In January 1995 Project Gutenberg published the first volume of the 1911 edition, which had passed into the public domain. However, the work did not continue given difficulties and disagreements about its production. Work has since resumed; in October 2004 part one of volume 2 was posted with much fanfare. Documentation about Project Gutenberg has an almost mythic character as seen in its redemptive story of creation above and of eventual return to an ancient struggle in the excerpt below:

On the morning of October 8, 2004, near his library window overlooking a quiet lake in upstate New York, David Widger ran a series of final checks and verifications on a partitioned element of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yes, that same EB11 which has long been known as a formidable processing challenge throughout the Project Gutenberg community. This latest approach towards its digital conversion did little to diminish that reputation…. This "slice" of EB11 was not simply another single project being posted to the PG shelves, but the final component in a varied and impressive collection [that marked] the completion of Distributed Proofreaders' 5,000th unique title produced for Project Gutenberg and the digital public domain. (Proofreaders2005)

Questions of how to incorporate the 11th edition into the Wikipedia - and even the Interpedia - were also to prove contentious. In 2002 all 28 volumes of the 11th Britannica were published at . Some saw this as an opportunity to populate the Wikipedia with high quality materials — the 1911 edition was considered one of the best references of Western knowledge at the start of the 20th century — even if dated. Yet, copyright, trademark, and substantive issues were to prove difficult. The organization that published the 28 volumes online claimed the copyright on the work they posted, arguing that their addition was a value added improvement upon a public domain work. Additionally, even if the text was now in the public domain the term "Encyclopaedia Britannica" remained a trademark. For this reason, the Project Gutenberg version is referred to as the Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Yet, even the terms of the Gutenberg Encyclopedia proved to be confusing to some Wikipedians who wished to cite the source of the work (Britannica or Gutenberg) without violating trademarks and their associated licenses. And substantively, some thought that any material from a 1911 work was of little use, even for historical subjects. While some material was imported as a starting point for subsequent editing, these difficulties and the extraordinary growth of home-grown content has rendered the issue moot.

However, besides the two obvious connections between project Gutenberg and Wikipedia, there is a lesson central to the theme of this paper. A strength of Project Gutenberg was that the simple vision of sharing accessible e-books was directly satisfied by technology available at the time: type existing public domain books into a networked computer in "plain vanilla ASCII:" ASCII is the legacy standard for representing characters because it concisely represents digits and the Roman alphabet used by early computer and network developers; it is still in use today. However it has no representation for accented characters, much less non-Roman scripts. And, a file of ASCII characters is rather sedentary. No underlines, italics, or bolds — Project Gutenberg represents all of these as uppercase. Nor does ASCII concern itself with links or other hypertextual innovations. This term "plain vanilla ASCII" is repeated in full, like a mantra, in Project Gutenberg materials; Michael Hart was well-known for his opposition to relying solely upon more sophisticated textual representations such as PDF or HTML: documents, with few exceptions, must at least be available in "plain vanilla ASCII" which could then be complemented by other formats (Hart 2006). While frustrating to some, this insistence may have prevented the project from becoming ensnared in endless debates about formats and permitted it to achieve the success it has.

3.2 Interpedia

Unlike Project Gutenberg, the Interpedia project was an ambiguous vision among a plethora of technical options. In October 1993, when the project was proposed by Rick Gates on the USENET newsgroup (Wikipedia 2005i) the Internet was reaching a critical mass. Non-technical members of universities and IT companies were beginning to use e-mail and USENET. Computer hobbyists who typically communicated via dial-up bulletin board systems were developing Internet gateways so they too could access the Internet. And most importantly, new applications, and their network protocol and document formats, were proliferating. In addition to FTP (file repositories and transfer), e-mail (correspondence between specified recipients), and USENET (discussion forums), three new technologies were vying as the next prominent Internet service. WAIS (Wide Area Information Service) retrieved documents based on keyword queries. Gopher permitted one to browse information using menu traversal: to dig down into a publisher's taxonomy from general to specific. And, of course, there is the Web.

The conundrum of which system to use is noted in the Interpedia's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document:

The gopher system is widely available but is not sufficiently easy to use to satisfy many people, and it does not support hypertext. Perhaps gopher software could be improved, but it doesn't seem appropriate yet.

The WWW has many advantages over earlier approaches (e.g. gopher), but is not to everyone's liking. Many people do not like navigating around in hypertext, and insist that an encyclopedia must provide keyword and/or alphabetical access. Perhaps the WWW could be improved to support the Interpedia project, but it doesn't seem quite appropriate yet. It might be a good starting point though. (Wilson and Reynard 1994:question 2.6).

Additionally, Doug Wilson wrote, "the term Interpedia is ambiguous – to some it means the text, to some software, and to others what we will have when we have both" (question 1.2). A consequence, in part, of this technical uncertainty was an ambiguity in vision. Would the Interpedia be part of the Internet, or, if it references existing services, would it be something "that ends up *being* the net" (question 1.1). This confusion is further demonstrated in answer to the question on other parallel projects to the Interpedia, the FAQ lists FTP and Gopher based resource guides, collections of electronic art, and the Web itself (question 4.5) as complementary projects.

For about half a year Interpedia participants were relatively active on the mailing lists and USENET group. Yet, perhaps because of these ambiguities and the explosive growth of the Web the project never left the planning stage. Even so, this project is of interest for three reasons. First, in response to the hypertextual identity crisis of self/other in a networked world, project participants envisioned at least a core or default set of encyclopedic articles. Articles could be submitted by anyone and quality and legitimacy would be arbitrated by a collection of decentralized seal of approval systems. No acceptance or rejections were necessary, instead, a seal "indicates that some article is good" and would be used by both people and the software to govern the accessibility of articles (question 4.2). Second, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica also proved to be a source of controversy as a strategy for initially populating the Interpedia. (In fact, Michael Hart was an Interpedia member; other members eagerly anticipated Project Gutenberg providing all 28 volumes. As noted, the first, and only, volume of the 1990s was posted in January 1995). Third, the process and culture of Interpedia would be facilitated by editors, whose responsibilities were "to act in good faith in the advancement of the Interpedia" (Wilson and Reynard 1994: question 3.5.2). This notion of contributors acting in good faith anticipated a cultural norm that I've argued elsewhere (Reagle 2005) is central to the Wikipedia's culture.

3.3 Distributed Encyclopedia

While the actual Interpedia project fizzled, its newsgroup continued to be a forum for the occasional question or reference for years to come. The notion of an Internet based Encyclopedia was no longer novel, and as the '90s progressed the Web became the obvious substrate for any such project. In hindsight, the formation of such a reference work just seemed to be a matter of time. Yet, on the question of how such a project would work, no such clarity was present. Ideas and half-starts came and went — or as Stockwell noted, "here today gone tomorrow." In 1997 Jorn Barger posted a message entitled "Beyond the Interpedia" to the newsgroup. He wrote, "from time to time, people ask if the Interpedia project — to get a full, free Encyclopedia on the net in some form — is still happening anywhere" (Barger 1997). The "closest descendent" known to Barger was the Distributed Encyclopedia.

However, beyond this newsgroup posting, there are very few references to this project on the Web today. Its project pages themselves can only be found in the Internet Archive and do not give the impression of being more than a manifesto (Encyclopedia 1999) of a very small, if not single, number of authors. Still, it is an interesting case because the project's introduction clearly reflects the stabilization of a number of pragmatic questions: it would benefit from many contributions and it would be distributed, meaning there will be no central authority (beyond simple stylistic conventions) nor repository: each article will be hosted by the author and linked to from a central index at the project.

The irony here is that while it became clear that the Web would play a fundamental role, and an enormous strength of the Web is its hypertextual and decentralized character, the Wikipedia itself is not decentralized in this way. It is not a collection of articles, each written by a single author, strewn across the Web. Instead, many authors can collaborate on a single article, stored in a central database which permits the easy versioning, formatting, and stylistic presentation that makes the Wikipedia a coherent whole.

3.4 Nupedia

At the start of 2000 two men who had known each other from the relatively small world of philosophical e-mail lists in the mid-90s exchanged e-mail again, setting in motion a course of events that would eventually lead to the Wikipedia.

Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, an Internet enthusiast since his days of playing in Multi-User-Dungeons (MUDS) in college (Barnett 2005), had been toying with the idea of an Internet Encyclopedia. When Larry Sanger e-mailed him about a blog-like successor to "Sanger and Shannon's Review of Y2K News Reports" — Y2K passed without much incident and both Sanger and Shannon were looking for new (funded/sponsored) activities (Shannon 2000) — Wales counter-proposed his encyclopedia idea and asked Sanger if he would be interested in leading the project. Interestingly, each man's academic career path made for an interesting and fruitful collaborative potential. Wales obtained a bachelor and Masters degree in finance, but didn't write his dissertation at Indiana; he instead made a fortune as an options trader. During the explosive growth of the Internet market Wales also began investing in, and founded his own, Internet business. Sanger (2000i) was a philosophy doctoral candidate finishing his dissertation on Epistemic Circularity: an Essay on the Justification of Standards of Justification . (This topic was to influence Sanger's approach to addressing issues of bias and neutrality in both the Nupedia and Wikipedia.) Both men were well-educated, comfortable with technology, familiar with the norms of online community and discussion, and between them had the financial, philosophical, and academic resources behind them to launch and sustain such a project. (Interestingly, Wales, the Ph.D. ABD (all but dissertation) insisted his new employee finish his own.)

In February of 2000 Sanger moved to San Diego to start work at Bomis, Wales' Internet portal company. In the months before the March 9 public announcement, Sanger drafted many ideas and policies in discussion with Wales and another Bomis partner, Tim Shell (Sanger 2005), about how to run Nupedia. In the March 10 PC World article about the launch, the project was presented as ambitious, open, and in need of contributors (Gouthro 2000). In the article, it is noted that Nupedia was inspired by other open-source projects like Linux and the Open Directory Project; the goal was to be open to all expert contribution and free of charge to all users; Sanger's quoted aspiration was for the Nupedia to become "the world's largest Encyclopedia." Similarly, the signature appended to the very first Nupedia e-mail sent to the list states " building the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind" (Sanger 2000).

Unlike the Interpedia — and certainly the Distributed Encyclopedia — Nupedia shows the benefit of the resources of Bomis (Wales) and efforts of Sanger. Wales wrote to the Nupedia list:

The company behind Nupedia, Bomis, Inc., has a great deal of experience designing and promoting high-traffic websites. We intend to put that experience (and the profit from that!) behind the Nupedia project to insure that it is a success. (Wales 2000)

In the course of the first year Sanger was the picture of frenzied cheerleading activity. In March, Sanger reported the project had 602 members and of the 140 who had filled out membership forms "about 25-40% of these (or 35-56) are Ph.D.'s or otherwise clearly bona fide experts" (Sanger 2000). By the summer the first article (atonality) was formally published and the Advisory Board was in place (Sanger 2005). By November version 3.31 of the remarkable Editorial Policy Guidelines (Nupedia 2000) was published. Software was frequently updated throughout the year. And, throughout, Sanger was always trying to recruit new members, including the offering of T-shirts, coffee cups, and an end of the year membership drive with cash prizes. By January 2001 there were approximately 2000 people on the Nupedia e-mail list (Sanger 2005).

Yet, despite these efforts and progress, Nupedia was struggling. The recruitment efforts are evidence of the difficulty in procuring commitments from volunteers for the significant work entailed in writing an article and seeing it through the complex Nupedia editorial process.

3.5 GNUPedia/GNE

In January 2001, the same month in which the Nupedia mailing list had reached 2000 subscribers, a tumult of controversy erupted on the popular geek news site Slashdot. Richard Stallman, father of the Free Software movement which was an inspiration to the Nupedia project, announced a competing project led by Hector Arena. Under the aegis of the Stallman's GNU organization the GNUPedia would implement a proposal Stallman had drafted in 1999 for a "free universal encyclopedia and learning resource." (GNU stands for "GNU is not Unix" and the project set out to replace the proprietary Unix system with a similar but free system.) Stallman's proposal for a "free universal encyclopedia" had been presented in various venues in 1999 (i.e., the SIGCSE conference in March and the MacArthur Fellows Reunion in October (Stallman 2005hdo)), but only came to be known publicly when it was made available on the Web as part of the controversial GNUPedia project announcement in 2001. Stallman (1999) outlined a vision of single author articles distributed throughout the Web but indexed by the central project — much like the Distributed Encyclopedia. This vision purposely eschewed any type of central authority besides a commitment to freedom, meaning any article linked to must satisfy the criteria of permitting universal access, mirror sites, translation into other languages, quotation with attribution, and modified versions. Additionally, contributions from educators (whose disciplines were thought by Stallman to becoming increasingly commercialized), peer review and endorsements were encouraged — similar to Interpedia seals of approval. (In January of 2006 it is expected that Wikipedia will enable a feature that will finally permit readers to rate the quality of articles.) Given the lack of central control, these criteria would be enforced by compliant articles or indexes refusing to link to any encumbered article failing to satisfy these requirements.

Again, the Web-like assumption of decentralization is present. And "freedom" was ensured by the same reciprocity required by copyright licensees that govern most of Free Software: non-free is kept separate from the world of the free. Most importantly, the proposal recognized important challenges previous projects fail to meet: contributors should appreciate that "small steps will do the job" when one "takes the long view" (Stallman 1999).

Even so, this humble and ambitious sentiment of the tortoise getting there in the end wasn't enough; an actual system was never realized. Because the name and the announcement were not meant to intentionally interfere with Nupedia, GNUPedia refocused as a "library of options" or "knowledgebase" and changed its name to GNE, a recursive acronym, like GNU, standing for "GNE is Not an Encyclopedia." Stallman (2005) wrote to me that this incident was a simple case of confusion as he was in discussion with multiple people about encyclopedic projects without remembering that they were distinct, but he wanted to ensure any such project would respect freedom in any case. Yet, while GNE project participants wrestled with their own issues of their new purpose and how to manage the moderation of contributors, at the same time expressing concern about the centralization and complexity of the Nupedia process, Wikipedia quickly overtook both.

3.6 The Web and Wikis

To understand the success of Wikipedia one must also understand a failing of the Web as we know it, but not as it was first conceived. In his memoir of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee (1999) notes that as of January 1993 there were nearly 50 different web browsers (p. 67), inspired by his original Web client and roughly implementing the HTTP, HTML, and URL specifications Berner-Lee drafted. However, one was to stand out among others: Mosaic and, subsequently, Netscape. Unfortunately, some Mosaic developers were seemingly intent on overshadowing the World Wide Web and failed to implement a critical feature: the ability to edit a web page.

Marc and Eric [Mosaic developers] explained that they had looked at that option and concluded that it was just impossible. It can't be done. This was news to me, since I had already done it with the World Wide Web [client] on the NeXT -though admittedly for a simpler version of HTML. (p. 70)

Consequently, for many people the Web became a browsing only medium unless they were savvy enough to know how to manually publish web pages, or were fortunate enough to use a proper Web client, such as the early Arena or AOLPress clients. Until, that is, the Wiki.

"Wiki wiki" means "super fast" in the Hawaiian language, and Ward Cunningham chose the name for his Wiki project in 1995 to indicate the ease with which one could edit Web pages. In a sense, Wiki captures the original conception of the World Wide Web as a browsing and editing medium. The Wiki makes this possible by placing a simple editor within a Web page form and the functionality of formatting and linking on the Wiki server. Consequently, if a page on the Wikipedia (an encyclopedia on a Wiki server) can be read, it can be edited. With a Wiki, the user enters a simplified markup into a form on a Web page. To add a numbered list item with a link to the Wikipedia one simply types: "# this provides a link to [[Wikipedia]]". The server-side Wiki software translates this into the appropriate HTML and hypertext links. To create a new page, one simply creates a link to it! Furthermore, each page includes links through which one can sign in (if desired), view a log of recent changes to the page (including the author, change, and time), or participate in a discussion about how the page is being edited on its Talk Page — and this too is a Wiki page. These powerful features are representative of Cunningham's (2004) original design principles for Wiki: that it be open, incremental, organic, mundane (simple), universal, overt (there's a correspondence between the edited and presented form), unified, precise, tolerant, observable, and convergent (non-redundant content).

As already alluded to, at the beginning of January 2001 there was an increasing frustration associated with the Nupedia productivity. The need to publish more articles, as well as a greater popular interest in contributing, was not well matched by the expert dependent multi-step editorial process. Hence, the stage was set for the introduction of a Wiki. On January 2, Sanger had lunch with an old Internet philosophy friend Ben Kovitz, during which Kovitz introduced the idea of Wikis to Sanger. Sanger immediately saw this as a possible remedy to Nupedia's problems, permitting wider "uncredentialed" contribution and collaboration on articles that would then be fed to Nupedia's "credentialed" editorial review. Within a day, Sanger proposed the idea to Wales and Nupedia's Wiki was announced (Sanger 2001lsm) on January 10 in a message entitled Let's make a Wiki :

No, this is not an indecent proposal. It's an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not….

As to Nupedia's use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE "open" and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk. They're also a potentially great source for content. So there's little downside, as far as I can see…. If a wiki article got to a high level it could be put into the regular Nupedia editorial process…. On the front page of the Nupedia wiki we'd make it ABSOLUTELY clear that this is experimental, that Nupedia editors don't have control of what goes on here, and that the quality of articles, discussion, etc., should not be taken as a reflection of the quality of articles, review, etc. on the main part of the Nupedia website.

However, there was considerable resistance on the part of Nupedia's editors and reviewers to having any association with a web site in the Wiki format. Therefore, the new project was given the name "Wikipedia" and launched on its own address,, on January 15, 2001 (Wikipedia 2004hw).

3.7 Wikipedia

Since its start, the Wikipedia's growth has been extraordinary, with no sign of stopping. Within six months Sanger (2001win) announced that "the Wikipedia is now useful" and in September Sanger (2001) proclaimed on USENET that the "Interpedia is dead — long-live the Wikipedia."

Wikipedia proved to be so successful that when the server hosting Nupedia crashed in September of 2003 (with little more than 24 complete articles and 74 more in progress) it was never restored (Wikipedia 2004n). As of today, the original English version exceeds 850,000 articles, and there are scores of other active language Wikipedias (2004wa). The Wikimedia Foundation, incorporated in 2003, is now the steward of Wikipedia as well as a new Wiki based dictionary, compendium of quotations, collaborative textbooks, and repository of free source texts.

And while this is a remarkable realization of a 60 year old vision, the end of this story is not as happy as it might otherwise be — nor is it really the end, just where I finish this tale. In the first year of Wikipedia's life, its radical openness and explosive growth was never reconciled with the Nupedia's goal of an authoritative expert-driven reference work. Once it was clear that a Wiki had promise, Sanger tried to introduce the idea again for the Nupedia:

But by the summer of 2001, I was able to propose, get accepted (with very lukewarm support), and install something we called the Nupedia Chalkboard, a wiki which was to be closely managed by Nupedia's staff. It was to be both a simpler way to develop encyclopedia articles for Nupedia, and a way to import articles from Wikipedia. No doubt due to lingering disdain for the wiki idea--which at the time was still very much unproven--the Chalkboard went largely unused. The general public simply used Wikipedia if they wanted to write articles in a wiki format, while perhaps most Nupedia editors and peer reviewers were not persuaded that the Chalkboard was necessary or useful. (Sanger 2005)

Stretched between continuing frustration with Nupedia's progress, problems with unruly Wikipedians, and a widening gap between the two, Sanger failed to save the Nupedia project and alienated some Wikipedians who saw his actions as increasingly autocratic. Additionally, with the burst of the Internet bubble, Sanger, among many, was laid off from Bomis and resigned his Wikipedia role shortly thereafter. Subsequent commentary from the sidelines, particularly since it pertained to a need for Wikipedia to respect the authority of experts, has prompted additional criticism. In April of this year, Sanger published his memoirs of Nupedia and Wikipedia — a source among the many of Sanger's writings to which I am indebted — which sparked a controversy over whether Sanger even deserved credit as a cofounder of Wikipedia. An interesting fact that fell from this discussion was Wales' recollection of being introduced to Wikis before Sanger's proposal by Bomis employee Jeremy Rosenfeld:

[Sanger:] I just don't know what you could possibly [be] thinking. Why don't you clarify for the list what you meant, precisely, in light of the facts as I have presented them? Surely you're not accusing *me* of having lied since practically the beginning of the project?

[Wales:] Gee, settle down. I'm not accusing anyone of lying about anything. I'm just adding an interesting bit of historical trivia. In mid-December, Jeremy showed me Ward Cunningham's wiki and suggested it would be a possible solution for the constant complaints he was aware of that I had about your top-down-community design for Nupedia. When you showed me the same thing a few weeks later, that was great. (Wales 2005)

While this incident is evidence of the difficulties inherent to history (i.e., who determines who is a founder or inventor and how?), this debate and recent Wikipedia history is not within the scope of this essay, instead I will now return to the question of vision, pragmatics, and happenstance.

3.8 Conclusion

A mentor of mine wisely noted, "historians stink at predicting the future." Yet, as one can see in the contention over the "founding" of the Wikipedia, the historical craft of "predicting" the past from its meager crumbs in the present seems similarly perilous. In this brief tale we encountered those looking back, forward, and those struggling in their present to implement an encyclopedic vision. No one got it quite right. But people, being people, try, and try again. And that story is revealing in at least two ways. Even unfulfilled visions, failed projects, and erroneous predictions tell us something about those people and their time. Furthermore, I think this particular history speaks to the alluring and enduring notion of an almost emancipatory project of human knowledge production and dissemination: a global digital encyclopedia. My thesis — which others might one day consider off target — is that in this history one can detect possibilities in the shifting spheres of vision, pragmatics, and happenstance; interesting things happen when those stars align. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the expectation (i.e., the Distributed Encyclopedia and GNUPedia) that once it was clear the Web would be a platform for such an encyclopedia, it would also be decentralized. But, the Wikipedia is centralized, in part, because Wikis made editing the Web possible again, the loss of which was seemingly another chance event. Wikis have other features that make it useful (e.g., versioning, simple inter-Wiki linking, etc.) for an encyclopedia — though, seemingly, Wales himself thought such a notion would not be received well and Ward Cunningham predicted that the result would be more a Wiki, than an encyclopedia (Sanger 2000). In any case, perhaps some sort of open and free global digital encyclopedia was inevitable, but the Wikipedia — with its unique history — is the one we got.

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5 Appendix: A timeline

1936 Wells' World Brain: a vision of a worldwide emancipatory encyclopedia using microfilm

1945 Bush's Memex: a vision of a hypertextual knowledge space and new forms of encyclopedias

1965 Nelson's Xanadu: a vision of hypertext

1971 Hart's Gutenberg: a simple vision of providing e-books through achievable means ("plain vanilla ASCII")

1991 Berner-Lee's World Wide Web: a vision of hypertext deployed via HTTP, HTML, and the URL

1993 Interpedia: an ambiguous vision lost among too many options

1995 Cunningham's WikiWikiWeb: making the Web easy to collaboratively edit

1999 Distributed Encyclopedia: fixing on the mechanism of the Web, notes that many people contributing a single essay that is then indexed would be useful

1999 Stallman authors his manifesto "The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource" and presents it to SIGCSE 1999 (New Orleans) and the MacArthur Fellows Reunion

2000 Distributed Proofreaders: distributing the task of proofreading among many

2000 (March 9) Nupedia launched: an open-source inspired expert driven and free Encyclopedia

2001 (January 10) "Let's make a Wiki"

2001 (January 16) GNE Project Announced

2001 (September) "Interpedia is dead — long-lived Wikipedia"