Ethan Zuckerman on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary

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My colleague, Joseph Reagle, recently posted online on of the earliest snapshots of Wikipedia: the encyclopedia after its first ten thousand edits. (It's available online at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/~reagle/wp-redux/.) The 2,393 articles in this early Wikipedia range from "A Priori And A Posterior Knowledge" to "Zeus." 365 (15%!) of the articles addressed aspects of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, while 56 covered the United States and its Constitution. The article on Patti Smith's album Horses is longer than the entry on Paris, and the overall picture of topical coverage is similar to that of the bookshelves of a geek-inhabited college dorm room.

bug_wikipedia.jpgMighty oaks from little acorns grow. From its idiosyncratic origins, Wikipedia has grown into a remarkably complete, authoritative and useful resource, dominating the reference space and serving as the first response to many online queries. It's the 5th most visited site on the Internet and the most visited non-commercial site. It's an incredible resource for those who would remix, translate, extend and otherwise build on its open intellectual property, like the government of Thailand, which recently launched a project to translate the English Wikipedia into Thai via machine translation and human proofreading.

Wikipedia is a victory of process over substance. The larval encyclopedia Reagle has recreated wouldn't have been worth translating, or even preserving. But the process and ruleset that allowed contributors to explore and document their passions, to improve each other's efforts, to debate editorial decisions within the platform and to roll back errors and vandalism have allowed for constructive, collaborative effort that has, over time, created profoundly content. Wikipedia's victory was getting the rules -- and importantly, the rules for making rules -- right, and trusting that the process would lead to substance. The project is far from perfect -- it's incomplete, inaccurate in places, subject to the systemic biases that come from participation of some authors and not others. But it's also one of the wonders of the world, and something anyone who studies sociology, politics, or organizational theory should look upon with utter fascination.

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Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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