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Esquire wikis article on Wikipedia

Magazine writer puts online encyclopedia's collaborative, open-source ethos to the test.

When Esquire magazine writer A.J. Jacobs decided to do an article about the freely distributable and freely editable online encyclopedia Wikipedia, he took an innovative approach: He posted a crummy, error-laden draft of the story to the site.

Wikipedia lets anyone create a new article for the encyclopedia or edit an existing entry. As a result, since it was started in 2001, Wikipedia has grown to include nearly 749,000 articles in English alone--countless numbers of which have been edited by multiple members of the community. (There are versions of Wikipedia in 109 other languages as well.)

The idea is that, despite the fact that anyone can work on any article, Wikipedia's content is self-cleaning because its community keeps a close eye on the accuracy of articles and, in most cases, acts quickly to fix errors that find their way into individual entries.

It's the same argument programmers make about open-source software: Since everyone can see the source code, the community can collectively rid the software of errors better than a few developers at one company ever could.

With that dynamic in mind, Jacobs decided to craft an article about Wikipedia, complete with a series of intentional mistakes and typos, and post it on the site. The hope was that the community itself would be able to fix the errors and create a clean version that would be ready for publication in Esquire's December issue. The original version was preserved for posterity.

"The idea I had--which Jimmy (Wales, Wikipedia's founder) loved--is that I'd write a rough draft of the article and then Jimmy would put it on a site for the Wikipedia community to rewrite and edit," Jacobs wrote on the page introducing the experiment. Esquire "would print the 'before' and 'after' versions of the articles. So here's your chance to make this article a real one. All improvements welcome."

Neither Jacobs nor Esquire would comment for this story.

"For those haven't looked at Diderot's Encyclopedie recently, you should know that it is hopelessly incomplete," Jacobs' original draft began, typos and all. "For instance, it lacks entry on Exploding Whales. There's nothing on Troll Metal (rock music about goblins that eat Christians), autofellatio (a form of masturbation that be traced to the Egyptian creation myth) or Dr. Bombay (the physician warlock on Bewitched).

"No, you can only find those entries in one encyclopedia: The Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia that was launched in 2001 and has become biggest, most wide-ranging, most untamed reference work in history."

According to the Wikipedia page for Jacobs' story, the article was edited 224 times in the first 24 hours after Jacobs posted it, and another 149 times in the next 24 hours.

The final draft, which was locked on Sept. 23 to protect it from further edits, reflects the efforts of the many users who worked on it.

"What is the legal status of dwarf tossing?" the locked version begins. "Did people really worship Jesus Christ's foreskin as a relic? Where was crushing by elephant used as an execution method? And who is the mysterious galactic ruler Xenu at the heart of Scientology?

"You won't find the answers in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Only one place contains them all: Wikipedia. The free online encyclopedia has become the largest, most wide-ranging and most untamed reference work in history."

Along the way, the Wikipedia community worked under a few guidelines from Jacobs: "Use a punchy writing style--we're writing an article for Esquire; don't write like an encyclopedia--this is a feature magazine article; keep the word count close to the original--wiki isn't paper, but this article will be printed on paper."

And the users responded. According to the site, the original article was 709 words with 14 paragraphs, while the final edit was indeed punchier and included 771 words and 15 paragraphs.

Andy Baio, who wrote about the Esquire experiment on his blog, Waxy.org: Links, suggested the project provides a particularly apt example of how Wikipedians handle articles.

"I think it's great," Baio said. "Look at the activity. Every factual error was corrected within minutes, and the focus moved on to refinement, clarification and making the article more readable."

To Wales, the experiment was a good example of how a magazine might be able to use its readers to make for more complete journalism.

"It would be interesting to see things that might work well (with) factual articles about whatever," Wales said. "If somebody like Time does an article about an election season and lets people work on it, that might be fun."

But he also said that media organizations need to be careful about who they let interact with their work.

Wales pointed to a recent experiment in which The Los Angeles Times tried a "wikitorial" in which its readers could collaboratively work on editorials.

"It was more or less a complete disaster," Wales said, "because they didn't have a community built up, so they just had tons and tons of random people (involved). They had to take it down because there was too much vandalism."

Kelly Martin, a Wikipedia user who helped edit Jacobs' piece, said the experiment worked significantly better than an earlier trial in which a television station tried to get Wikipedians to co-edit an article.

"The directions and guidelines were far less clear (in the case of the TV station's experiment) and the end result was confused," Martin said. "This one seemed to do much better. I think the community was more aware of it this time, so we had more resources monitoring the article for inappropriate edits."

In any case, while Wales applauded Jacobs' effort, he remains conflicted on whether he would get behind similar projects. Ultimately, he said, it boils down to the Wikipedia community's reaction.

"I'm not sure I would recommend it as a way of explaining Wikipedia," he said. "Maybe it is pretty good. It worked pretty good, and the community found it fun and exciting."