Wikipedia And|Or?
Prophecy Fulfilled, Happy Accident, Informational Apocalypse

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In light of Wikipedia's 10th year anniversary, Dr. Reagle will ask three different historical questions about Wikipedia. First, is Wikipedia an amazing novelty or the fulfillment of a centuries-old pursuit? Second, despite its founding mythology, wasn't Wikipedia, in fact, just an accident? Finally, is Wikipedia a global boon or a harbinger of doom?

Birthday Tales: Was Wikipedia ...

cupcakes

  • an innovation or the fulfillment of a centuries-old pursuit?
  • a brilliant notion or an accident?
  • a global boon or harbinger of doom?

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Which -- if any -- of these tales are true?

Innovation and/or Prophecy?

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While Wikipedia is thought to be wholly novel, consider the following.

The Universal Encyclopedic Vision

A technology inspired vision seeking to wed increased access to information with greater human accord.

We can see Wikipedia antecedents in print, microfilm, and network projects.

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Denis Diderot

In 1755 Denis Diderot, editor of the Encyclopédie, foreshadowed collaborative good faith efforts, WP:NPOV and WP:V!

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Good Faith

"This is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will." (Diderot2001e)

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NPOV & V

"national prejudice [could be countered by] giving cross-references to articles where solid principles serve as the foundation for diametrically opposed truths [and that] If these cross-references, which now confirm and now refute, are carried out artistically according to a plan carefully conceived in advance, they will give the Encyclopedia what every good dictionary ought to have -- the power to change men's common way of thinking." (Diderot2001e)

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Paul Otlet: Universal Repertory

Paul Otlet was a "documentalist", internationalist, and pacifist ahead of his time.

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cabinets

Inventions to be Discovered

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Otlet wrote of "inventions to be discovered" including the reading and annotation of remote documents and computer speech.

His Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) was a bibliographic query language ahead of its time.

Production (Monographic Principle)

"This book, the 'Biblion,' the Source, the permanent Encyclopedia, the Summa [would] constitute a systematic, complete current registration of all the facts relating to a particular branch of knowledge. It will be formed by linking together materials and elements scattered in all relevant publications." (Otlet1990sbd)

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NOR

"Readers, abstractors, systematisers, abbreviators, summarizers and ultimately synthesizers, they will be persons whose function is not original research or the development of new knowledge or even teaching existing systematic knowledge. Rather their function will be to preserve what has been discovered, to gather in our intellectual harvests, classify the elements of knowledge." (Otlet1990sbd)

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H.G. Wells' "World Brain"

Like Otlet, his idea was not an immediate and solitary brainstorm; it was the culmination of a number of long-standing interests in index cards, universal socialism, and global institutions.

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Access

"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." (Wells1938wb)

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Speed

"A World Encyclopedia no longer presents itself to a modern imagination as a row of volumes printed and published once and for all, but as a sort of mental clearinghouse for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified, and compared. It would be in continual correspondence with every University, every research institution, every competent discussion, every survey, every statistical bureau in the world." (Wells1938wb)

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The Global Jigsaw

"We live in a world of unused and misapplied knowledge and skill I want to suggest that something -- a new social organ, a new institution -- which for a time I shall call World Encyclopaedia, is the means whereby we can solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding." (Wells1936iwe)

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This sounds a lot like Wales' comment on WP's mission to give freely the "sum of the world's knowledge" and the only way to do this is to "love our work and to love each other, even when we disagree". (Wales2004fls)

Furthermore, we see a similarity between his metaphor and Wikipedia's logo.

The Networked Universal Encyclopedia

Otlet and Wells were seminal in vision -- as was Vannevar Bush -- and in the networked age many attempts were made.

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Project Xanadu (1965)

Ted Nelson

Vision

"We have to save mankind from an almost certain and immediately approaching doom through the application, expansion and dissemination of intelligence. Not artificial, but the human kind." (Nelson1992lmr)

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Project Gutenberg (1971-)

Goal and Production

EB11 and the peer production of Distributed Proofreaders (2002-).

Michael Hart, Gregory Newby

Michael Hart and Gregory Newby

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Interpedia (1993)

Contribution

"Interpedia will be a reference source for people who have connectivity to the internet. It will encompass, at the least, articles submitted by individuals, and articles gleaned from non-copyrighted material. It will have mechanisms for submission, browsing, and authentication of articles. It is, currently, a completely volunteer project with no source of funding except for the contributions of the volunteers and their respective institutions. It also has no governing structure except for a group of people who have volunteered to do specific tasks or who have made major contributions to the discussion (see list, below). Everyone is encouraged to make a contribution, small or large." (WilsonReynard1994ifa)

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Distributed Encyclopedia (1999)

Contribution

"This is the idea behind the distributed encyclopedia. By now, there are about 20 to 40 million people in the internet. Most of them are, at least by today, university staff with a high knowledge. If anyone would just provide one essay about his or her personal subject, his or her spezialized knowledge, and if we provide a centralized way of accessing this knowledge by alphabetical order, we will have the biggest and deepest encyclopedia ever written. It's the first time, we can collect the knowledge we have and to make it public[ly] accessible." (Encyclopedia1999dei)

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"The Free Universal Encyclopedia" (1999)

Vision

"The World Wide Web has the potential to develop into a universal encyclopedia covering all areas of knowledge, and a complete library of instructional courses. This outcome could happen without any special effort, if no one interferes. But corporations are mobilizing now to direct the future down a different track—one in which they control and restrict access to learning materials, so as to extract money from people who want to learn." (Stallman1999fue)

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Nupedia (2000)

Scope

"Our goal is to grow Nupedia indefinitely, to set a new standard for breadth, depth, timeliness, and lack of bias, and in the fullness of time to become the most comprehensive encyclopedia in the history of humankind. Obviously, we're ambitious, but we're also smart, innovative, and hard-working. And we have serious, committed, long-term financial backing from our parent company and the help of several full-time, paid employees." (Nupedia2000an)

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Wikipedia (2001)

Vision

"Interpedia is dead -- long live the Wikipedia."

"Interpedia's noble dream of creating a free, open encyclopedia lives on -- not quite in the form imagined, but in a 'very' open and free form with which many early participants would probably approve. We started [Wikipedia] in January, 2001, and we now have over 11,000 articles." (Sanger2001iid)

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So
Was Wikipedia part of a long pursuit?

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Yes.

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Was Wikipedia innovative?

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Indeed

While, contrary to earlier expectations, it is not decentralized...

this enables incremental, asynchronous, and cumulative contribution with tools that support community and collaborative culture.

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Was it inevitable?

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No, it was a (happy) accident!

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Consider the following evidence of its contingency.

The Founders

Wales (Bomis) was running a men's oriented portal/web-ring. (LambWales2005q)

Sanger was a grad student whose Y2K project had fizzled. (Shannon2000rss)

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Wales and objectionable rubbish

"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." (Sanger2001lmw1)

"Wales braced himself for 'complete rubbish.' He figured that if he and Sanger were lucky the wiki would generate a few rough drafts for Nupedia." (Schiff2006kia)

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How would it support itself?

"Moreover, Bomis might well start selling ads on Wikipedia sometime within the next few months, and revenue from those ads might make it possible for me to come back to my old job. " (Sanger2002aam)

"However, with the ongoing hard times in the Internet economy, we do anticipate adding some forms of advertising to the site in the near future. One thing that we will do is make sure that ISBN links are affiliate coded." (Wales2002nww)

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Wales' uncertainty and Cunningham's certainty

"My question, to this esteemed Wiki community, is this: Do you think that a Wiki could successfully generate a useful encyclopedia? -- JimboWales

Yes, but in the end it wouldn't be an encyclopedia. It would be a wiki. -- WardCunningham "(PeopleProjectsAndPatterns2002wia)

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boyd's certainty

"I don’t believe that the goal should be ‘acceptance’ so much as recognition of what Wikipedia is and what it is not. It will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes." (boyd2005aw)

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A joke at best

"Now we have the latest endeavor that is a joke at best, Wikipedia.... I am afraid it is meant to be a communal encyclopedia of the people, by the people, and for the people, which shall not perish from the earth, even if it looks like a prank. Another page says that "Wikipedia is a collaborative project to produce a complete encyclopedia from scratch. We started in January 2001 and already have over 16,000 articles. We want to make over 100,000." That's ambition... the 6th edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia has 51,682 articles, so this is quite a tall order." (Jacso2002ppp)

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Betting pools

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People underestimated Wikipedia, even Wikipedians!

No longer a joke, but deadly?

Just when arguments that Wikipedia would never amount to anything ceased, new arguments about its imminent death took their place.

As well as arguments about Wikipedia's hand in the death of our culture.

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Boon or doom?

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e.g., Boon

"The Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the internet.... In theory it was a recipe for disaster, but for most of the time it worked remarkably well, reflecting the essential goodness of human nature in a supposedly cynical world and fulfil[l]ing a latent desire for people all over the world to cooperate with each other without payment. The wikipedia is now a standard source of reference for millions of people including school children doing their homework and post-graduates doing research." (Guardian2005pw)

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e.g., Doom & Death

"Every visit to Wikipedia's free information hive means one less customer for professionally researched and edited encyclopedia such as Britannica." (Keen2007cah)

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e.g., Doom & Dirt

""The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him." (McHenry2004fbe)

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Does this mean when you use Britannica you know who pissed in your books?

e.g., Doom & Dumb

"...[Wikipedians] continue to add to, and the intellectually lazy to use, the fundamentally flawed resource, much to the chagrin of many professors and schoolteachers. Many professors have forbidden its use in papers. A professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything." (Gorman2007jer1)

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WP in Higher Ed conference showed professors are encouraging students to contributed to WP -- an apparent rewarding experience.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia

... and a proxy in larger culture wars.

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Our understanding of reference works...

is influenced by the intention of the compilers, contemporaneous reception, and subsequent interpretation.

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e.g., liberatory

Foster Stockwell (2001his) argues the Encyclopédie's treatment of crafts was liberatory in that:

"Diderot helped set in motion the 'downfall' of the royal family and the rigid class system."

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e.g., expropriation

but Cynthia Koep (2002mma) argues it was an attempt:

"on the part of the dominant, elite culture to control language and discourse: in our case, the editors of the Encyclopédie 'expropriating' and transforming work techniques."

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A Mirror

Therefore we might understand debate about reference works to be as telling about the larger society as the work itself. As Harvey Einbinder (1964mb) writes in the introduction to his critique of EB:

"since an encyclopedia is a mirror of contemporary learning, it offers a valuable opportunity to examine prevailing attitudes and beliefs in a variety of fields."

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Webster's Third

Herbert Morton makes a specific form of this argument with respect to Webster's Third, published in 1961, and the alleged "social permissiveness" of society then.

  • "Ain't" appeared in the hallowed Second edition, and had, in fact, appeared in Webster dictionaries since 1890.
  • So, Webster's Second wasn't inherently conservative relative to the Third, only dated. And both editions, when published, employed the latest advances in lexicography.

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Encyclopedic anxiety

People used to criticize and complain about Britannica (e.g., McCabe (1947lfe) on castrati)!

Today, Wikipedia is the mirror in which people see (possibly distorted) reflections of aspects of the world they do not like.

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Collaborative practice

  • a maoist hive, or
  • a community?

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Universal vision

  • a foolish utopianism, or
  • unintended dystopia?

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Encyclopedic impulse

  • dedicated contributors, or
  • obsessive nerds?

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Technological inspiration

  • remix culture, or
  • death of scholarship?

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Many interesting tales to tell, but...

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Wikipedia is:

  • an innovation and the fulfillment of a centuries-old pursuit.
  • a happy accident that surpassed expectations.
  • a proxy in larger debates.

but most of all...

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Its progress is remarkable

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Before

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After

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Questions and Thanks

Questions...?

Thanks to...

Wikimania 2011 organizers

Deck credits

HTML5Slides produced with landslide.

Image credits

Wikipedia 10 year anniversary cupcakes

Mundaneum Tiräng Karteikaarten

Michael Hart and Gregory Newby at HOPE Conference

Ted Nelson cropped

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