Paul Ford on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary

I recently bought a facsimile of the original 1771 Britannica. Many of its entries were pirated from other sources by its editor, William Smellie. The preface apologizes for broken cross-references -- they couldn't get the tech right -- but they were in the middle of an enlightenment so they went ahead and shipped the alpha version. In the subsequent decades articles were added, errors fixed, until nearly everyone agreed: Pretty good encyclopedia.

bug_wikipedia.jpg Skip ahead a few centuries. It's easier, we're told, to ask forgiveness than permission. And Wikipedia's design makes it not just easier, but cheaper and faster; it keeps track of every change so that forgiveness is one reversion away. It accepts good edits in silence: That is how it confers grace. It forgives without confession: That is how it confers humility. Whether you want grace and humility on these terms is not really up to you; Wikipedians believe in forced conversion.

I added a page for "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (seemed appropriate) in March 2004. I made sure to include a spoiler alert. Watching the entry evolve under mass editing, it was hard to accept that I didn't have any rights over my own words, that "Bartleby" was not a territory to be protected. The process is a challenge to anyone raised to believe in the specialness of writing, taught to respect the boundaries that separate one book from another. Perhaps as a result I was never a very committed contributor; every now and then I anonymously fix a typo or add a citation. But I respect the people willing to do the work for their sense of mission, and enjoy the hilarious pedantry of the "Discussion" pages.

The facscimile Britannica sits on the shelves, in three volumes with faux-leather binding. I take it down and page through it for novelty, in admiration of the attempt to systematize and understand the world, with amusement at its follies. What will Wikipedia look like in 190 years? And: How exactly will they publish the commemorative edition? I don't know; I won't know. I do know that we are all Smellie now.

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Paul Ford is a writer and programmer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He publishes at Ftrain.com.

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