Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2011 Jan 05 | How many articles did Nupedia have?!?

I was recently asked by a journalist -- doing the fact-checking quality journalism aspires to -- what was the basis for the claim that Nupedia had 24 completed articles when it crashed.

"24 articles" is a frequently cited but rarely sourced factoid; I use this number myself in the book. However, it always fascinates me how nuanced things can get when you take apart the question. For example, I was recently asked by a colleague as to whether Ben Franklin started the first public library in America. (I'm very fond of Franklin.) As seen in the Wikipedia article on public libraries, it depends on what you mean by "public" and "library". (But I think beyond academic/historical quibbles it is a safe claim rather than some myth.)

In the case of Nupedia, a July snapshot of Nupedia's "Newest Articles" page actually lists all the articles from the famous first to the last (i.e., "Atonality" to "source code"). It lists 27 total articles in which 3 are briefer versions of longer ones. So in Nupedia's reckoning, that's 27 articles on 24 topics but, in short, I continue to say "24 articles" unless further clarification is needed.

In the book I cite Wikipedia's Nupedia article, which itself cites a 2004 Forbes article. Atypically, I chose to use the Wikipedia reference -- rather than Forbes -- because I find Wikipedia is often a more authoritative source upon itself and its progenitor than a source like Forbes. Why? Because of the article's Talk page where Wikipedians discuss the issue, with a complete reckoning by Michael Snow. The trick for scholarship then is why didn't I cite the Talk page? I'm still unsettled on this point, but I do cite Talk pages if I'm referencing the discussion, but as a factoid, I'm referencing the claim about Nupedia. The wrinkle here is that in its own small way, the claim that Nupedia had 24 complete articles is an unsourced claim -- masked by the Forbes source -- dependent upon original research in the talk page!

Posted by Ziko van Dijk at Wed Jan 5 13:17:32 2011
I wonder what have become of Nupedia if it had gone through - maybe the production in year 2,3,4... had been quicker. And I wonder how long it would have taken until someone else had come with the idea of a Wiki encyclopedia and make it a success.

It is like the file sharing started by Napster. Shawn Fanning worked so hard to get online as quick as possible because he was afraid that someone else would make it.

Strange thing sometimes in history: First, you wonder why it did not happen sooner, and having learned more about it, you wonder why it happened at all. First, you wonder why Churchill, Bismarck, Adenauer, Blair were given the sack (in such an ungraceful manner), and having learned about the case you wonder why their reign has lasted so long...

Posted by Joseph Reagle at Thu Jan 6 08:56:47 2011
Yes, that's one of the fun things in thinking about history. In hindsight, it seems as if something very close to Wikipedia was inevitable, but not even its founders even realized what they had created at the start.

Posted by Llywrch at Mon Jan 10 15:18:33 2011
I don't know if Wikipedia was inevitable: there were several further decisions which contributed to its success. For example, one decision was the aggressive incorporation of content from the various public domain or freely-licensed sources available on the Internet. I suspect that had this not been done, Wikipedia might have been no more than a "might-have-been" idea, known more for its libertarian slant than its usefulness. (And instead of teaching myself so much about a certain African country, I would have paid more attention to computer technology, & be gainfully employed.)


Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle