Reviews of The Wikipedia Revolution
Last month saw the release of The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia, by Andrew Lih (Fuzheado), which has been widely reviewed in mainstream newspapers. This week two Wikipedians share their perspectives on the book.
Review by Raul654
- Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this book, and am mentioned by name in it. I also made a few small contributions to the afterword.
Andrew Lih's book The Wikipedia Revolution is probably the single most comprehensive discussion of Wikipedia's history that has been written. Lih's insider understanding of Wikipedia, along with his cogent explanation of technical aspects of the site (in which his background in computer science is apparent) make this book unique among the many thousands of pages that have been written about Wikipedia.
The book is organized as follows:
- Chapters 1 through 3 are about the early days (Ward Cunningham, Bomis, and Nupedia).
- Chapter 4 is part history and part technical primer (the early slashdotting, server load, etc).
- Chapter 5 describe aspects of editing Wikipedia (dot maps, gdansk, bots).
- Chapter 6 describes how each of the language versions have their own culture and technical issues
- Chapter 7 is about governance
- Chapter 8 is about controversies
- Chapter 9 is about Wikipedia "making waves" — the world's response to us.
As someone who participates only in the English language community, I found chapter 6 (describing the cultural and technical issues facing non-English Wikipedias) particularly interesting. The end of the book includes a novel feature — an afterword collaboratively written by several high profile users. Although the afterword does, to some extent, repeat some of the things said earlier in the book, it also provides a heretofore unexplored perspective of the community — the community's view of itself.
I don't agree with all aspects of this book. Just to give one example, based on personal observations, I think Lih overstates the influence Sunir Shah's Meatball wiki had on Wikipedia (Meatball was marginally important when I started editing Wikipedia back in 2003. I doubt most of the people reading this in the Signpost today have even heard of Meatball.) For the issues Wikipedia is facing today, while the book gives a good overview, it is not comprehensive. It mentions one arbcom case, Wikiprojects exactly once, and featured content of any kind exactly twice (two passing mentions of featured articles, the second of which was in the context of saying that they degrade over time — an effect that, like the Yeti, is talked about much but for which relatively few concrete examples have ever been shown.) In short, Lih has left himself plenty of material to cover should he ever decide to do a sequel. And, in fairness, nobody else has written that book yet either.
The Wikipedia Revolution is an excellent retrospective - invaluable documentation of where Wikipedia came from. It's hard not to appreciate the sheer amount of work that Lih put in to sifting through the vast (vast, vast) archives to pull out the nuggets he quotes so liberally throughout the book. For anyone who wants to know where Wikipedia came from, this book is for you.
Review by Ragesoss
The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia is a valuable, if incomplete, reflection on Wikipedia's past and future. Author Andrew Lih presents his book as a history of Wikipedia, but journalist Noam Cohen describes it better, in his recent New York Times essay, as the project's "first serious memoir". The book has much to offer, especially to Wikipedians like me who joined only after the technical and social foundations were laid by the first waves of usenetters, hackers, and Slashdotters. It is a compelling narrative and a fun read (even if it had me constantly wishing for an edit button to deal with little issues of style and grammar).
From hacking to wikis to Wikipedia
The early chapters are based in part on interviews with wiki inventor Ward Cunningham and (as Lih diplomatically describes them) Wikipedia's "principal enablers" Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, supplemented with mailing list posts and other documents and interviews. Lih weaves the stories of wiki software and of Wikipedia into the heart of the better-known histories of the world wide web, hacker culture, and the free software movement.
In this telling, Wikipedia is no longer a surprise left-field project that came out of nowhere in the wake of the dot-com bubble. In fact, its emergence seems almost overdetermined; the collaborative encyclopedia is part of the trailing edge of a networked computing revolution decades in the making.
Your friendly neighborhood encyclopedia
Lih does nicely explaining why Wikipedia works as well as it does. As Jimmy Wales and many other Wikipedians have observed, most people have good intentions. This is what makes communities possible, on-line and off. The social dynamics of Wikipedia find their parallel in the street culture of cities; Lih draws on the writings of activist and social critic Jane Jacobs, who argued that trust and familiarity (not overt authority or technological control) were what made streets and parks safe. (Noam Cohen explores the Wikipedia-as-city metaphor further in his essay, which was inspired by his reading of The Wikipedia Revolution. Nicholas Carr explores the seamier side of the sprawling Wiki-metropolis in his response to Cohen, "Potemkinpedia".)
Lih's optimistic perspective on Wikipedia culture—the "street culture" of the greatest "city" of its kind—comes through in his consistent use of the language of "community" to describe participants and in his choice of examples illustrating the social dynamics of the project. It is a perspective that Wikipedia's critics would no doubt take issue with, but it captures the essence of why—all theory to the contrary, per the zeroeth law of Wikipedia—it seems to work much of the time in practice. However, for all his emphasis on the software story that leads up to Wikipedia, Lih spends little time exploring the ways software has structured the community (and vice-versa) since the project's early formative period. As Aaron Swartz observed in his 2006 essay "Code, and Other Laws of Wikipedia", "technical choices have political effects"; the programmers—led by Brion Vibber, whom Lih mentions only in passing—surely ought to play a bigger role in future retellings of Wikipedia's story.
Wikipedia's place in the world
Despite some omissions and simplifications, Lih tells a satisfying story about Wikipedia's creators, from "chief instigators" to programmers to writers. But, in the mode of memoir rather than history, Lih merely asserts—rather than explains—why readers have so enthusiastically embraced Wikipedia. In the first chapter he writes that "Wikipedia became an instant phenomenon because of both supply and demand": great demand for "balanced and reliable content" and an excess supply of knowledgeable volunteers. Yet the balance and reliability of Wikipedia's content and the authoritative knowledge (or lack thereof) of its contributors have been exactly the grounds on which the project has been most strongly challenged.
The Internet has brought unprecedented access to a wide range of the sorts of content that, before the age of Wikipedia, were widely accepted as authoritative: major newspapers and magazine; books from reputable publishers; scientific literature. Rather than explaining Wikipedia's success, the consideration of informational supply and demand over the period of Wikipedia's rise reveals a paradox that requires deeper explanation. Why would the public turn to Wikipedia at a time when the supply of reliable content was greater than ever (and, in fact, is what made Wikipedia possible)? The wider cultural and economic currents that have shaped Wikipedia's reception among the non-editing public will no doubt make for a whole new way of understanding Wikipedia's history, but are not addressed much in this book.
The relationship between Wikipedia and other media will only become more complex as the business models of traditional "reliable sources" continue to disintegrate—in part because of the success of Wikipedia and other online information sources. What might Wikipedia look like in a world without the newspaper industry?
The need to evolve and adapt—and to better understand our project's place in society and its historical roots—is all the more urgent with the recent news that Encarta, the project that revolutionized the idea of an "encyclopedia" a generation before Wikipedia, is shutting down just sixteen years after it started. As other Wikipedians conclude in the collaboratively written foward-looking "Afterward" of The Wikipedia Revolution, our project can either "remain complacent with what it has achieved, or it can attempt to find innovative ways to remain on the cutting edge of collaborative Internet projects."