20 Years of Wikipedia
What can we learn from it?
Wikipedia was launched 20 years ago by Jimmy Wales. After he made a fortune as an options trader, Wales decided to launch an internet business to join the dot-com boom. In 1996, Wales created Bomis, a porn search engine that funded his greater passion… an online encyclopedia!
I’ve always been fascinated by Wikipedia. First, by its ideological foundations:
“Wales cites Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek's essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society", which he read as an undergraduate, as "central" to his thinking about "how to manage the Wikipedia project". Hayek argued that information is decentralized—that each individual only knows a small fraction of what is known collectively—and that as a result, decisions are best made by those with local knowledge, rather than by a central authority. Wales reconsidered Hayek's essay in the 1990s, while reading about the open source movement, which advocated for the collective development and free distribution of software. He was particularly moved by "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", an essay which was later adapted into a book of the same name, by one of the founders of the movement, Eric S. Raymond, as it "opened [his] eyes to the possibilities of mass collaboration."” (source: from Wikipedia, of course!)
I love the idea of decentralizing knowledge. Because its content is freely reusable, Wikipedia is probably the first “unstoppable app.” This term is mostly used today for decentralized crypto protocols that no one can control once they’re launched, neither individuals nor corporations or even governments.
While Wikipedia is still managed and hosted by a centralized organization (the Wikimedia Foundation), it is highly censorship-resistant.
For instance, from April 2017 to January 2020, Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey. But it was replicated on mirror sites, and activists created a copy on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a decentralized network for storing and sharing data. Therefore, the Turkish edition of Wikipedia continued to grow during these three years, although slower.
Unfortunately, Wikipedia has been blocked in China since April 2019. But the Chinese edition of Wikipedia is thriving thanks to Chinese speakers outside mainland China and mainlanders using circumvention tools.
The situation in Russia provided another example of Wikipedia’s censorship-resistance. The most viewed pages of the Russian Wikipedia in January 2021 were:
The page of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the first one by far. And Wikipedia is the 13th most visited website in Russia. So even though in a modern Damnatio memoriae Putin never pronounces Navalny’s name in public and government officials always refer to him as a “mister” or the “Berlin patient”—when Navalny was hospitalized in Berlin after his poisoning—Russian citizens have access to the detailed account of his persecution—according to the European Court of Human Rights—and of his accusations against Putin.
Three other pages in the top 10 are related to Navalny: “Residence at Cape Idokopas” (or “Putin’s Palace,” as claimed by Navalny), the Yves Rocher case involving Navalny, and the pro-Navalny protests of January 23. These pages on the Russian Wikipedia aren’t censored or pro-Putin, contrarily to most Russian media. Indeed, anyone can edit Wikipedia, but anyone can also see the logs. So it’s easier to detect malign editors who want to promote their point of view by modifying some parts of an article. In contrast, it’s impossible to know whether a company or a government paid a journalist to write an article.
The Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t pay or own Wikipedia editors. So if the Wikimedia Foundation started to act detrimentally, anyone could launch a clone of Wikipedia with the same content and start a competitor. This is the equivalent of a hard fork in blockchain terminology.
And in the same way that copies of the Bitcoin blockchain exist in many formats, Wikipedia has also been stored on CD and in print, engraved on nickel plates sent to the moon, and encoded into synthetic DNA! If Wikipedia’s servers were all destroyed, we could rebuild the free encyclopedia overnight.
I’m also impressed by Wikipedia’s success. In 2005, four years after its creation, Wikipedia became the most popular reference website on the Internet. The same year the journal Nature concluded that Wikipedia was “close to [the Encyclopædia] Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries”!
Last and most important, Wikipedia makes knowledge accessible to anyone in their mother tongue. There are 317 languages with a Wikipedia and 298 open requests for new ones. Of course, most of them aren’t as good as the English Wikipedia and its 6 million articles. For instance, Tigrinya is the 116th most spoken language globally, with 11 million native speakers and official status in Eritrea and Ethiopia, but its Wikipedia only has 208 articles!
However, “smaller” languages are catching up quickly. Today 19 languages have more than 750,000 articles, the number of articles on the English Wikipedia when Nature declared it was as good as the Encyclopædia Britannic. And many languages spoken in emerging markets—such as Arabic, Vietnamese, Persian, and Turkish—are experiencing exponential growth.
And this is only the beginning. 7,117 languages are spoken in the world today, and Wikipedia only covers 5% of them. Wikidata was launched in 2012 to solve this problem. Wikidata is a structured database linked to Wikipedia. For instance, Napoleon’s entry on Wikidata includes all basic information about him (name, place of birth, date of birth, etc.). Wikidata entries can then be translated automatically into any language to generate content on Wikipedia.
For its 40th anniversary, I dream that Wikipedia will have thousands of languages, with millions of articles each. And as many and as good (maybe more and better?) articles in Tamil, Zulu, and Levantine Arabic than in Norwegian, Dutch, or French!
What will be Wikipedia in 20 years? What do you think?