Saturday, July 4, 2009

Andrew Lih, _The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia_ (Hyperion, 2009)

Opening this account of the history and current reach of the World Wide Web’s phenomenally successful encyclopedia is a foreword by Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales. In it, Wales speaks briefly of some of the values guiding the project: individuals doing good, trusting each other, and using old-fashioned standards of clear writing and reliable references. His most important observation, though, building on these other values and view of beneficent human nature, is that Wikipedia grew as a kind of social software that both fostered and relied upon community.

That basic if imprecise idea guides much of the following account of the early years of technological developments that allowed Wikipedia to emerge. From Linux and Nupedia to WikiWikiWeb and Hypercard, the evolution and linkage of various innovations through the 1990s makes for a fascinating read. The individuals responsible at each step in the process, including Wales but also Ward Cunningham, the father of Wikis, and Larry Sanger, the original Nupedian, and others are also nicely drawn. Throughout, the imperative to create formative connections both between and for a networked community remains consistent.

In the middle of the book is a 50pp chapter that draws together various central issues but also covers a series of incidents and events, policies, and internal practices. It exemplifies the book’s strength and weakness. On the one hand, it delineates clearly the development and coordination of various technologies into a fully viable site for widespread public participation, production and usage. On the other, the recurrent attempts to make sense of these developments in broader social and cultural terms are frustratingly lacking. That sense-making is not necessarily required in an historical account, of course, but the recurrent suggestion here of metaphors and models to interpret the cultural significance of Wikipedia only highlights the failure.

Subsequent chapters are event-driven, showing how Wikipedia continues to be shaped, across languages, in face of different competitors and a changing web and mediascape, and finally how the project is managing growth. The book concludes with questions about the scaling of the project and the persistence of its originary values of community. Will increasing numbers of participants continue to do good and trust each other? Will the result, the “Wiki-ness” of Wikipedia endure? And crucially, how should the stewards of the foundation, like Wale, respond to the shift from being like a village where everyone knows each other to “more of a faceless impersonal metropolis” that is “driving the adoption of hard, cold, binding policies” (176).

As this challenge for the future suggests, the book dwells on the idea that we have come to describe as the wisdom, collaboration and dynamics of crowds. Yet detailing the Wikipedia case hardly settles the matter: did crowds create Wikipedia or did Wikipedia create the relevant crowds? More intriguing, the book seems to question the relationship between the individuals who developed Wikipedia and the crowds so regularly invoked by them as responsible for its growth. Are crowds possible, that is, without individuals orchestrating their collaboration?

Lih makes clear that the answer, at least in terms of the history of “the world’s greatest encyclopedia,” is no: remarkable, innovative leaders were as indispensable as the crowds themselves. In his Foreword, Wales underscores the socializing power wrought by technology and the World Wide Web. But he doesn’t pursue it, possibly because a fuller explanation would involve him directly in ways that run somewhat counter to better publicized tenets of community and collaboration. Perhaps the ultimate lesson here of Wikipedia’s creation and continuing growth is that an essential aspect of celebrating the creation and ongoing growth of global community of contributors remains the recognition of key leaders able to envision the scope and direction of that collaboration.


The Wikipedia Revolution also foregrounds another question. Going forward, how will we write – or, more to the point, research – histories of the digital age? The matter of research materials is a major concern: what will be the digital archives of sites and other projects that change and transform themselves so quickly? Again, one answer to this returns us to the issue of individual rather than collective voices. Invaluable to Lih and to us, for example, is Larry Sanger’s 16,000+ word account of the “Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia” from 2005, available at At least for the near future, when such individuals remain alive and available to provide their recollections, they will remain vital resources. Beyond that, particularly as access to and preservation of digital projects fades, the matter becomes murkier.

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