Tech Rewind: How Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia came to be

On the birthday of Ward Cunningham, creator of the first-ever wiki, we look back how his invention eventually led to the birth of Wikipedia

Originally co-founded by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and Internet project developer Larry Sanger, the technological and conceptual origins of Wikipedia actually predate them by several years.

Wikipedia logo

Internet pioneer Rick Gates best known for his online search game, The Internet Hunt, where contestants were supposed to answer questions using means online sources like Usenet, FTP, Gopher and Telnet, was the first to propose an online encyclopedia.

Gates proposed in an Usenet newsgroup to collaboratively create an encyclopaedia on the Internet on October 22, 1993. The idea, which would go on to be called Interpedia is considered a precursor to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia had its initial origins for a free-online English language web encyclopedia project named Nupedia, which was an undertaking of a web portal company named Bomis on March 9, 2000. Jimmy Wales, who was one of the founders and owners of Bomis, is credited with defining the goal of making a publicly editable encyclopedia. Wales came up with the broader idea of an open-source, collaborative encyclopedia that would accept contributions from ordinary people and he invested in it to achieve that purpose.

Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. Pic/AFP

It was Larry Sanger who chanced upon the critical concept of combining the three fundamental elements of Wikipedia, namely an encyclopedia, a wiki, and essentially unrestricted editorial access to the public during a dinner meeting with an old friend Ben Kovitz in January 2, 2001. Kovitz a computer programmer and introduced Sanger to Ward Cunningham's wiki, a web application which allows collaborative modification, extension or deletion of its content and structure. The name wiki has been derived from the Hawaiian term which meant quick. Sanger feeling that the wiki software would facilitate a good platform for an online encyclopedia web portal, proposed the concept to Wales to be applied to Nupedia. Wales intially skeptic about the idea decided to give it a try later.

Ward Cunningham
Ward Cunningham, the creator of the first wiki. Pic/YouTube

The credit for coining the term Wikipedia goes to Larry Sanger. He initially conceived the concept of a wiki-based encyclopedia project only as a means to accelerate Nupedia's slow growth. Larry Sanger served as the "chief organiser" of Wikipedia during its critical first year of growth and created and enforced many of the policies and strategy that made Wikipedia possible during its first formative year. Wikipedia turned out to contain 15,000 articles and upwards to 350 Wikipedians contributing on several topics by the end of 2001.

Worried about the quality of the conent due to the policy of open editing, where anyone can edit the encyclopedia due to its open source nature, Jimmy Wales would awake during the night and monitor what was being added. Nonetheless, the cadre of early editors helped create a robust, self-regulating community that has proven conducive to the growth of the project.

Jimmy Wales attracted controversy when he attempted to downplay Larry Sengar's contributions to Wikipedia after the latter exited the company on March 1, 2002. By the summer of 2001 Wikipedia had outgrown Nupedia and quickly took off as an entity of its own. This resulted in the new online community being "overrun" by what Sanger described as "trolls" and "anarchist-types", who were "opposed to the idea that anyone should have any kind of authority that others do not". Sanger decided to alter the original policy, including "Ignore all rules", "Neutral point of view", and "Verifiability" by proposing a stronger emphasis for expert editors, individuals with the authority to resolve disputes and enforce the rules. He ultimately decided to leave the project after tiring of endless content battles and feeling he had a lack of support from Wales. Larry Sanger was the only paid editor of Wikipedia, a position he held from its launch in January 15, 2001 till his departure in March 1, 2002. This position has since ben left vacant.

Earlier, after Larry Sanger's departure, Jimmy Wales has gone on record mulitple time to assert himself as the sole owner of Wikipedia, publicly disputing Sanger's designation as co-founder. Both Wales and Sangers were publicly identified as Wikipedia's co-founders as early as September 2001. Sangers as a rebuttal to Wales' comments accumulated an assortment of links on his personal webpage that confirmed his status as co-founder. Jimmy Wales went to the extent of editing his own biography in late 2005 by removing references to Sanger as Wikipedia's co-founder and also modified references to his firm Bomis in a way that was characterized as downplaying the sexual nature of some of his former company's products. Though initially arguing that he made the edits solely to improve the accuracy of the content, Jimmy Wales apologized for editing his own biography, a practice generally discouraged on Wikipedia.

Originally, Bomis planned to make Wikipedia profitable and was intended as a collaborative wiki for the public to write entries that would then be fed into the Nupedia review process of expertise. But the success and popularity of Wikipedia exceeded Nupedia by leaps and bounds and thus it was shut down in 2003, shortly after Wikipedia's second anniversary.

Wikipedia has attracted criticism and controversy due to its open source nature, where content was freely editably by anyone without any or few restrictions. Co-founder Larry Sanders himself has been highly critical of the web portal after his departure and criticised Wikipedia in an article stating that it is not perceived as credible among librarians, teachers, and academics when it does not have a formal review process and it is "anti-elitist."

Graphic and inappropriate sexual content like child pornography, sexually explicit images depicting nudity that were uploaded on Wikipedia over the years, have created much furore.

Wikipedia gained early contributors from Nupedia, Slashdot postings, and web search engine indexing. On August 8, 2001, Wikipedia had over 8,000 articles, which increased to 13,000 by September 25 and had grown to approximately 20,000 articles and 18 language editions by the end of 2001. Wikipedia went on to reach 26 language editions by late 2002, 46 by the end of 2003, and 161 by the final days of 2004. The English Wikipedia passed the mark of two million articles on September 9, 2007, making it the largest encyclopedia ever assembled, surpassing even the 1408 Yongle Encyclopedia, which had held the record for 600 years.

On January 18, 2012, the English Wikipedia participated in a series of coordinated protests against two proposed laws in the United States Congress--the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)--by blacking out its pages for 24 hours. More than 162 million people viewed the blackout explanation page that temporarily replaced Wikipedia content.

Wikipedia Seigenthaler biography incident
Wikipedia pages also suffered from major cases of vandalism most notably in May 2005 when an anonymous editor introduced false information into the biography of American political figure John Seigenthaler by falsely presenting him as a suspect in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The article remained uncorrected for four months. Seigenthaler called Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and asked whether he had any way of knowing who contributed the misinformation. Wales replied that he did not, although the perpetrator was eventually traced. This incident led the veteran American journalist to describe Wikipedia as "a flawed and irresponsible research tool". It further led to policy changes at Wikipedia, specifically targeted at tightening up the verifiability of biographical articles of living people.

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