For millennia, humans have recorded and passed on their knowledge. Encyclopaedias have been around for at least 2000 years – with the 37 books of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, describing everything the Romans knew about the natural world, surviving to this day.
With the advent of the internet, encyclopaedic information and knowledge is accessible almost everywhere in the palm of your hand. Looking back, as the internet and software developed and became more widely used, it was inevitable that encyclopaedias would be made available digitally.
The first digital version of Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in 1994. At the same time several companies were setting up online-only encyclopaedias, such as Microsoft Encarta – also available as a set of CD-ROMs. However, whilst acknowledging the trend towards digital formats, these traditional encyclopaedias were still slow to write, edit and produce, with all content going through a rigorous editing and formatting process.
Around the same time, the concept of establishing a collaborative online encyclopaedia, with a community of online editors where anyone could contribute or edit, was conceived.
There were several successful attempts to make a collaborative online encyclopaedia before Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia, which is now one of the top 10 most visited websites on the internet.
The first collaborative online encyclopaedia, Interpedia, was proposed in 1994, but never made it beyond the planning stage. With the concept established, four others are known to have existed in the 90s before Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded Nupedia in 1999, the predecessor to Wikipedia.
Wales was a follower of Ayn Rand’s objectivism school of thought and an advocate for openness on the internet. He wanted knowledge to be more accessible and open source, being influenced by the free software advocate Richard Stallman’s plan, published in 1998, for a “Free Universal Encyclopaedia and Learning Resource”.
Nupedia was set-up as a volunteer-led encyclopaedia where articles would mostly be written by experts, then peer-reviewed before publication. The editorial process and desire for expert review slowed the project down, with each submission needing to go through a process bottleneck, constrained by the availability of a small number of people. Nupedia failed to grow as rapidly as Wales and editor-in-chief Larry Sanger were hoping – only 12 articles were written in the first year.
In 1995, Ward Cunningham had developed WikiWikiWeb, the first Wiki, a website that can be collaboratively edited and managed directly by its audience. Published in hypertext, an easy-to-learn coding language, Cunningham intended the WikiWikiWeb to be a place where programmers could share ideas. The main advantage of the wiki being it was editable by anyone – not just experts.
The premise behind Cunningham’s wiki appealed to Wales and Sanger and they used the software to start Wikipedia, initially as an offshoot of Nupedia then eventually as a standalone site. Although the Nupedia editing process remained cumbersome and slow, Wales and Sanger never expected Wikipedia to overtake it in usage and popularity.
Their announcement of the project was low-key. Wales wrote on Nupedia, “Humour me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes.” Unexpectedly, many of Nupedia’s contributors did. Soon the articles on Wikipedia outnumbered those on Nupedia and within a year there were almost 20,000 articles and around 350 “Wikipedians” – as the contributors to the site are known.
The idea that anyone could contribute, no matter whether a sentence or 100 articles was attractive to potential authors. The anonymity of contributions may have also helped. Unlike Nupedia, Wikipedians did not feel under pressure to ensure their contribution was expert standard.
As the project grew, so did its internationalisation. In the first few months after publication, French, German, Catalan, Swedish and Italian language editions were published. During these months, the “neutral point of view” policy was also codified, stating that articles must “represent fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” This policy was central to Wikipedia’s development – it had to be trusted as a source of unbiased knowledge – removing the level of single opinions or one-sided reporting on a topic.
The first few years after Wikipedia launched saw tremendous content growth in the number of articles. Within five years, the English-language site had over 1 million articles and by 2007 Wikipedia was ranked in the top 10 most visited websites, attracting almost 43 million unique visitors. It has grown to be one of the world’s most visited websites and a trusted repository of the worldwide knowledge, despite acknowledging its own flaws:
“Wikipedia is not a reliable source for citations elsewhere on Wikipedia. As a user-generated source, it can be edited by anyone at any time, and any information it contains at a particular time could be vandalism, a work in progress, or simply incorrect. Biographies of living persons, subjects that happen to be in the news, and politically or culturally contentious topics are especially vulnerable to these issues. Edits on Wikipedia that are in error may eventually be fixed. However, because Wikipedia is a volunteer-run project, it cannot constantly monitor every contribution.”
Why did Wikipedia succeed?
Wikipedia was not the first encyclopaedia to be made available online, nor was it the first to be use a collaborative content creation model and open-source platform.
Through a series of small steps, Wikipedia created a sticky value-adding service to a global audience – once available, the level of demand and growth was clear. Wikipedia was not a technology-led venture, it was built around a purpose – providing encyclopaedic knowledge in a digitally accessible online form. Building a simple online knowledge bank without the need for contributors to use new and bespoke collaboration software products, used for other collaborative encyclopaedia development, removed what was a significant barrier for contributors. Also, by anonymising contributions and making it commitment-free, it established a new standard for knowledge acquisition and sharing. As it attracted more people, both contributors and users acted as advocates.
Once used, Wikipedia engagement stuck, the brand grew and super-connectors spread the word both online and via the media.
Innovation is often talked about in terms of the latest product or technology, but Wikipedia used a widely accessible platform, web page creation, to focus on the value they had wanted to create at the outset of their venture – knowledge acquisition and sharing, at scale.
Wikipedia were neither the first nor last to take on the challenge and innovation continues. If Wikipedia ever goes offline, you can always access one of the most respected knowledge reference sources in the world – Encyclopaedia Britannica online.