At 10, highlighting Wikipedia's past and future

The massively popular, user-created encyclopedia hits a decade tomorrow, having thrived despite a series of controversies. Now, with data suggesting its growth has plateaued, how will the project evolve over the next 10 years?

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

With just 20 simple words and two entries, it began: "Hello, world." And "Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes."

Written by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales on January 15, 2001, those four sentences ushered in one of the most widely used and important reference projects in history, let alone on the Internet: Wikipedia.

Tomorrow, Wikipedia turns 10 years old. It's hard to imagine that a tiny, user-created project founded by two unknowns behind the online expert-written encyclopedia Nupedia could have grown into a project featuring more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages, including 3.5 million in English, and more than 100,000 each in 32 other tongues. But Sanger and Wales, who had previously started Nupedia, which was having trouble getting off the ground, saw the virtues of a fairly new Web editing and creation tool called a wiki and decided to run with it.

Now, all those years later, Wikipedia is the fifth-most popular Web property in the world, attracts 410 million unique visitors a month, is used by 42 percent of American adults, according to a Pew Internet study, and has made Wales--currently a member of the board of trustees of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia--a household name, at least in technology circles.

Along the way, the project has gone through no small number of ups and downs. It has had its share of controversies, including the departure of Sanger in 2002 and subsequent public disagreements between him and Wales over whether he was a founder, and the infamous "Seigenthaler incident," in which the article about former Robert Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler was edited to include a baseless suggestion that he was involved in the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers.

As well, there's been no shortage of consternation over Wales' role on the Wikimedia board, and about whether Wikipedia is a real research tool or if it promotes laziness among students unwilling or unable to search for primary sources to cite.

But for the most part, the story of Wikipedia's first 10 years has been one of steady growth, a rise in stature, and a place among the most impressive user-created projects ever built.

Hits the 'sweet spot'
To Andrew Lih, the author of "The Wikipedia Revolution," deciding to study Wales' and Sanger's creation came from his realization that the project hit a "sweet spot" and addressed what he called a "gap in human knowledge between news and history books."

With Wikipedia, Lih continued, Wales and Sanger, and the community of thousands of authors and editors they inspired, were taking on that gap, having created a "continuously updated, changing state of human knowledge [that is] an archive living in front of our very eyes."

It's hard to argue that. In its early days, Wikipedia was seen as a poor-man's Britannica. But it has long since surpassed the size and scope of that venerable project, which has "hundreds of thousands of articles." Indeed, where content on Wikipedia was once seen as having questionable accuracy, given that it can be created by anyone, expert or not, a 2005 study by the journal "Nature" laid that notion to rest, concluding that the free, open-source encyclopedia's accuracy was on par with that of the for-profit, expert-written project.

In 2005, in a bid to explain Wikipedia to his readers, "Esquire" magazine writer A.J. Jacobs came up with an imaginative approach to demonstrating the way that the site's volunteer editors clean up inaccuracies. First, Jacobs wrote an error-plagued version of a story about Wikipedia. Then he posted the text to Wikipedia, letting loose the community on the article. Eventually, having had the story cleaned up and fixed by Wikipedia users, "Esquire" ran both versions--illustrating its evolution.

Was Wikipedia inevitable?
With the tremendous growth of the Internet in the late 1990s, as well as the emergence of numerous and powerful online communities, not to mention the development in 1995 by Ward Cunningham of the wiki, an obvious question is whether someone else would not have come up with the same idea as Wikipedia if Sanger and Wales hadn't gotten there first.

To Joi Ito, a well-known Internet investor and the chairman of the board of Creative Commons, the answer isn't clear-cut. Ito said that he thinks Wikipedia as we know it today may well have only arisen due to the set of specific circumstances that gelled around the site back in 2001.

"The core community back...when it started was really, really special," Ito said. "I called them 'bookworms for the common good.' I think that a community isn't a single person, but it really was like the Ocean's 11 or whatever Mission Impossible-like metaphor you want to use."

As Ito put it, serendipity certainly had a lot to do with it, but he suggested it's hard to argue with the fact that the decision by Wales, Sanger, and other early decision-makers to keep the project free and open-source, helped make it what it is. Had someone else come along and created an online encyclopedia, they might well have tried to make it commercial, and that might have limited its size.

Lih agreed.

"I don't think it could be what it is today without the free license," Lih said. "It [was] so important to grab the attention and passion of so many volunteers. If a project like that [had been] started by Microsoft or even Apple...if you are going to labor that long [to create or edit an article] on something owned by a for-profit, you're not going to have as many volunteers as if the mission is pure. That is something that is quite unique, and was a way to attract a lot of volunteers in a very small amount of time."

Further, Lih argued, Wales' personality had a lot to do with the project's success. After Sanger's departure, Wales was the unquestioned face of Wikipedia, yet Lih said that Wales found a smart balance between knowing when to stay out of the way and let the community do its thing and when it was necessary to assert his authority.

Ito suggested that this was a difficult balance to strike.

"I think the face of the organization has a huge impact on how the public perceives it," Ito said. "It's very difficult to have a project without a face. On the other hand, it's very tricky because leadership of open-source and online [communities] is really different, and most community members will feel that leaders get too much credit or that leadership is overrated.

Of course, the question of leadership of Wikipedia, at least in the early days, was in dispute, and likely led to the departure of Sanger from the project.

Wales was not available for comment for this story. For his part, Sanger, who has been critical of Wales and Wikipedia in the past, told CNET he has no regrets about having left the project. "I've had plenty of opportunities to get back involved in Wikipedia," Sanger said. "And as I've gotten farther and farther away in time from when I was involved and farther in psychological distance, I've had less and less desire to be involved."

These days, Sanger said, he rarely uses Wikipedia.

But Sanger, who is currently working on online educational video tools for children called WatchKnow, also said that he nonetheless has advice he thinks Wikipedia needs to take as it moves ahead.

First, he suggested that the site's board of advisors must begin to take the amount of pornography that can be found on the site more seriously, and find a way to label it so parents can filter it. And second, Sanger, long a proponent of expert authors, thinks that Wikipedia needs to "adopt a system whereby they allow experts to be...identified as such, and to give comment and ratings of versions of articles."

Limited growth
For any project that's grown as big as Wikipedia, there inevitably comes a point at which the trend line evens out.

To Lih, Wikipedia has reached that point, and those deeply involved in the project are only just starting to accept that fact.

One problem, Lih said, is that the opportunity for new volunteers to come to Wikipedia and create great articles has long since become rare. That, of course, is because, with 17 million articles, most subjects of human knowledge have already been broached. What's left is largely pop culture and current events, Lih said, meaning that the main impetus that drew so many of the early power users is harder to come by.

And at the same time, existing editors are more protective of the site than ever, keeping watchful eyes on favorite articles and regarding newcomers with what might be seen as suspicion.

"That kind of viral rush of [creating or] editing an article is hard to capture today," Lih said. And longtime volunteers "are not slapping newcomers on the back and saying, 'Welcome to Wikipedia.' It's, 'Hey, what did you just do? Unless you're doing something useful, go away.'"

That could lead to a problem finding the next generation of power users, Lih worries, a dynamic that threatens the site's future growth. "Where are the next 3.5 million articles [in English] going to come from," Lih said.

The next 10 years
But Lih doesn't think Wikipedia is in any way finished. Quite the contrary, the "Wikipedia Revolution" author thinks that the key to the project's next 10 years of growth lies in its ability to attract significant new sources of content.

And that's why he thinks it's crucial that the Wikimedia Foundation be successful in outreach efforts to cultural institutions like government, libraries, archives, and museums, that can provide the site with new material.

Another big effort will likely be a push to add large amounts of multimedia. But before that can happen, Lih said, tools must be created that allow for collaborative creation and editing of video and audio.

As well, despite being available in more than 270 languages, there are still many more to go, and that's something that seems like an obvious growth area for the project. Indeed, Wales told the Washington Post that he wants to see Wikipedia reach every language on Earth.

It may take some time before Wikipedia reaches that point, but then, the site isn't going anywhere. With 17 million articles and a still-loyal stable of thousands of authors and editors, there's plenty of horsepower to keep the site vital for the foreseeable future.

And what is its legacy, after 10 years. To Lih, Wikipedia has turned conventional wisdom on its head.

"There's a famous saying," he said, "'Winners get to write the history books.' This is no longer true. [Now], the people get to write the history books."