Review: The Wikipedia Revolution

When I first heard of Andrew Lih‘s new book about Wikipedia, I’m certain there was a questioning look on my face. I couldn’t help but think that a book about an encyclopedia wouldn’t be anything more than an exercise in pedantry.

Much like the rest of the globe’s Netizens, of course, I knew about Wikipedia. And as a Creative Commons blogger, open-source developer and avid user of all things GNU, Wikipedia’s philosophies were not unknown to me, either. But having just finished the book, The Wikipedia Revolution, I realized how little I really knew about the site and the movements that spawned it.Launched in the early days of 2001, Wikipedia was initially created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger as a way to use a community to generate content for feeding into their for-profit (but free access) online encyclopedia Nupedia. It didn’t take long for what started as a side project to eclipse its parent, and in the eight years since, it has blossomed into the world’s largest encyclopedia with nearly 3 million articles in the English edition alone, with 266 other language editions–from Afrikaans to Zeuws–as well.

Lih’s narrative shines not just by recounting Wikipedia’s creation, but by acting as a history of the modern Internet of sorts. It delves into the hacker and free software movements that were seminal in creating the ethos that would later be adopted by Wikipedians in their monumental quest to capture the sum of all human knowledge.

But not all that glitters is gold, and Lih, despite being an avid supporter and member of Wikipedia for more than half a decade, doesn’t shy away from turning the spotlight on the many problems that have faced, continue to face, and will face the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit”.

Lih discussed candidly the many lumps and bruises the site has suffered on its rise to being one of the most popular and most trafficked Web sites on the Net. He explained how just broaching the topic of advertising on the site caused the Spanish edition to revolt and fork into an independent project; and how a prank entry about journalist John Seigenthaler led to wide-spanning accusations that called into question the quality and future of the entire project.

Of particular interest to me was a chapter on the Chinese Wikipedia. Due to the multifaceted nature of the language (numerous dialects and two different writing systems) and the even more divisive political and ideological lines between various “Chinese” communities around the globe, it’s maybe no surprise that the Chinese edition of Wikipedia faced some major complications initially.

Starting in 2002, the Chinese Wikipedia was a mish mash of simplified and traditional writing. This, coupled with the political differences (particularly between Taiwanese and Mainland users), caused the edition’s growth to stagnate.

Enter ZhengZhu, an ambitious Wikipedia member who created a simple yet ingenious system that allowed for complex mapping between language systems by combining computer processing and human editing. The innovation was an astounding success and led to each Chinese edition page having seven additional tabs that allow readers to seamlessly switch not just between simplified and traditional characters, but also between variants for Mainland China, Taiwan, HK/Macau and Malaysia/Singapore. The system was such a success it was ported to other language additions that suffered from the same diversity (i.e. Serbian and Kazakh).

CN-Wikipedia

The one thing I was surprised not to see covered in the chapter about the Chinese Wikipedia was how the edition has been affected by periodic blocks of Mainland Chinese by the country’s infamous Great Firewall. While Lih attributes ZhengZhu’s language solution as being the spark of increased activity in recent years on the Chinese Wikipedia, I can’t help but think that the site now being accessible to the world’s largest Chinese population may also be playing a part.

The only other minor criticism I have of “The Wikipedia Revolution” is that it follows a somewhat convoluted timeline. While much of the book does attempt to lay out a linear history of the many groups, technologies and events that led to the information juggernaut we now know as Wikipedia, there are a few times when the author seems to forget what we’ve already been told, explaining again in detail things that could have been referred to directly. It’s a minor gripe with what was otherwise a fantastic and informative read.

What “The Wikipedia Revolution” gives more than anything else is a sense of scope and perspective on such a common fixture of our online lives. It highlights not just the revolution of wiki culture, but the evolution of collaborative human endeavors over the last quarter century. It lays out and gives credit to Wikipedia’s wonderful and varied pedigree.

It is also an evocative read for anyone who, like me, cut their online teeth with the ASCII art of BBSes, screens full of Usenet messages, and late night IRC chats.

Edit wars, vandals, libelous entries and community forks have all been weathered by the project and its legion of editors. Yet, despite its problems and criticisms, Wikipedia remains the go-to online reference for pretty much everything. The project illustrates what can be done when a bunch of “nobodies” put their minds to it. That is a truly inspirational story, and Lih has captured it well in the pages of “The Wikipedia Revolution”.

Learn more about Andrew Lih at his Web site, or follow him on Twitter. More about The Wikipedia Revolution can be found at the book’s Web site.

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