Introduction: Connections

Links and connections have been a powerful technical and social feature of encyclopedias, especially Wikipedia.
Introduction: Connections
Contributors (2)
Aug 22, 2019

Image credit: William Warby, Vasco da Gama Bridge, 2018.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia built on a wiki. And never has an application, compiling the sum of human knowledge, been so suited to its medium, easily interconnected web pages.

Encyclopedias have long been reliant on interconnections. In 1755, the Encyclopédie’s Denis Diderot wrote that the use of cross-references (or renvois) was “the most important part of our encyclopedia scheme.”1 This feature allowed the Encyclopédie’s editors to depict the connective tissue of Enlightenment knowledge and to dodge censors by way of facetious and satirical references. (The most famous of which was referencing articles on the Christian Eucharist from the article on cannibals.)

At the onset of each new informational medium, from paper, to microfilm, to silicon, connectivity was the killer app. There are many examples, but consider the names of the following.

Among the documentalists of the early twentieth-century, there was Wilhelm Ostwald’s brücke, a bridge, and Suzanne Briet’s indice, a pointer. Such documentalists advanced indexing and classification schemes to improve interconnections between information. Then, on the cusp of the digital age, Vannevar Bush famously wrote of the power of an electromechanical Memex laced with “associative trails.”2 This inspired the hyperlinks of the ’60s and the URLs of the ’90s.

However, creating HTML web pages interspersed with links is not so easy; the first wiki was launched in 1994 to make it so. To create and link to a new page, you simply wrote the page’s title in CamelCase, so-called because capitalizing “camel” and “case,” when conjoined, has two humps. You click that, and you are taken to a new blank page.

Wikipedia, then, appeared in 2001 almost by way of accident. Efforts at collaboratively creating an online encyclopedia had faltered for years. When a wiki was added to one such project, as an experimental scratch-pad, it took off: Wikipedia was born.

Just as the history of two centuries, from print to digital, reveals the importance of connection—call it a reference, bridge, pointer, trail, or link—Wikipedia’s two decades are also a story of connections.

Wikipedia is twenty!

This is a collection of essays about Wikipedia as the English language edition and larger movement approach their twentieth year. Many of the contributors are astonished by this milestone because we can remember when Wikipedia was young. Wikipedia illuminates connections between our past and present.

In Wikipedia’s early days, those of us concerned with history argued Wikipedia was the fulfillment of a long-pursued vision of a universal encyclopedia: the rousing end of a long story. But, of course, the story didn’t end.

Others sought to explain how Wikipedia worked in practice, given it was not easily explained by theory. New theories, including commons-based peer production, were offered with the belief that Wikipedia’s success would be followed by similar examples. Yet, Wikipedia is now a rarity in a world of proprietary and weaponized social media.

Similarly, those of us following the public discourse about Wikipedia remember it as the new kid on the block, upsetting traditional knowledge authorities. We can recall a former president of the American Library Association calling Wikipedia the dietary equivalent of a Big Mac.3 Now, Wikipedia is reported on as the grown-up of the web and as a bastion of (mostly) reasoned interaction.

Many of the educators among us first encountered Wikipedia when we were students. Even if our teachers were suspicious of the new site, we were thrilled to collaborate with others on something people would actually read. Now, as Alexandria Lockett notes in her essay, our students have never lived in a world without Wikipedia. Helping students contribute to Wikipedia is one of the most rewarding assignments we offer.

Finally, those of us who recognized the limitations of Wikipedia in its first decade hoped that the obstacles of complicated syntax, entrenched biases, and complex policies were tractable. A lot of effort has been spent on these concerns, and progress has been made. While it took time to develop and deploy the Visual Editor, it is now the predominant default on most Wikipedia editions. And there are now vigorous projects working to increase representation and participation. Even so, these problems are far from solved.

Insight from hindsight

The intention of this collection is to pause and ask: what have we learned?

Often, technology is seen as a stepping-stone to the future. Near its start, Wikipedia was labeled as an extraordinary revolution and a degenerate hive-mind. Yet, people are so caught up in tech’s present novelty and future implications they rarely reconsider their earlier thinking about the same. Wikipedia’s twentieth anniversary is a moment to do so. It’s not often we have such a hyped and controversial tech-phenomenon still doing what it was doing from its start—most become advertising platforms.

Consequently, in late 2018, this book project was launched with a request for essay proposals related to “Wikipedia @ 20.” Prospective contributors were asked what insights had they gained from these two decades of history. The saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is often used dismissively; we wanted to use it constructively. Contributors were asked to tell us about lessons learned, insights gained, and myths busted during their engagement with Wikipedia.

The resulting essays are grouped into three sections: hindsight, connection, and vision. This is an arbitrary division as each essay has elements of each, but some organization never hurt.

The first set of essays are retrospective; they are mini-histories on how Wikipedia has been produced and discussed relative to internal and external tensions. And the insight from these hindsights is that events flow in ways unexpected and contrary. Wikipedia has far exceeded its creators’ expectations and outlived the many predictions of its death. Similarly, as the authors of “From Anarchy to Wikiality, Glaring Bias to Good Cop” write, Wikipedia’s press coverage “has evolved from bewilderment at the project, to concern and hostility at its model, to acceptance of its merits and disappointment at its shortcomings, and finally to calls to hold it socially accountable and reform it like any other institution.” The peer-based production that the encyclopedia heralded had much utopian potential, but time has revealed unforeseen limitations. Among the many things Wikipedia is not, it is not a newspaper, but its content and readership is driven by the news. And, finally, provocatively, two essays argue that the project’s much-lauded volunteerism can be bad and the abhorred conflicts of interest can be good, under certain conditions.

The second set of essays demonstrate the richness of connections. Not only is the link essential in the story of encyclopedias and the web, it is a motif in many of the essays. In “Three Links,” the authors write that “working with the encyclopedia and its community has been a valuable forging ground, shaping each of us into links in a wide-reaching mesh of personal and professional connections.” Wikipedia brings together Wikipedians, teachers, librarians, scholars, and activists. Should you doubt the personal connection made via Wikipedia, one contributor was prompted to actively engage with Wikipedia via her husband. Another met his partner at an annual Wikimania conference. Wikipedia also spans national, cultural, and linguistic divides, as well as those between people, data, and machines.

The final set of essays speak to Wikipedia’s founding vision, best expressed in the famous provocation to “imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”4 Yet, access is not enough; the limits of human knowledge tend to be circumscribed by those documenting it. As the founders of Whose Knowledge? write, Wikipedia policies and culture make it difficult to “truly reflect the full breadth and depth of the world.” The essays in this section, too, are framed with personal histories that exemplify connections; yet, they are focused on realizing a future that no longer need be only imagined.

How this book is unusual

This book was not an easy undertaking and is unusual in a number of ways.

This is a collection of essays from an academic press for a general audience. This isn’t unheard of, but it requires care in conceiving of and reaching an audience. Our intention is to speak to the non-specialist reader interested in Wikipedia. MIT Press provides an excellent home for our band of essayists, many of whom are associated with academia, but that is not our exclusive target. Perhaps our readers are fond of using Wikipedia, or they read stories in the press about it with interest. Perhaps they even contribute to Wikipedia, a little or a lot. Or, perhaps, Wikipedia is part of their work. This isn’t an introduction to Wikipedia—a collection of essays is a poor vehicle for that. But, hopefully, if you find Wikipedia interesting, so will you find these essays.

As already noted, many of the essayists make use of Wikipedia as part of their work: scholars, teachers, librarians, journalists, and activists. Some are hobbyists and a couple are even professionals (i.e., having worked at the Wikimedia Foundation or paid to advise others on how to contribute). Many are more than one of these things. Many of the essayists are also multilingual and not all are writing in their native language. This variety is a strength, speaking to the connections between languages, professions, and enthusiasms across the movement.

The process for this book was also unusual. An academic collection is usually an expensive volume purchased by university libraries, to be read a chapter or two as needed. We wanted to move quickly and to yield an accessible and coherent collection. Gita Devi Manaktala, MIT Press’s editorial director, suggested we make use of PubPub, a new online collaborative publishing platform. Each essay began as a proposed abstract; those selected were given editorial feedback. Later, full drafts were posted on PubPub and open to peer, public, and editorial review. Finally, revised essays underwent external review toward final selection for the printed book. Both the online and printed versions are available under a Creative Commons license. Some difficulties with PubPub—such is the way of technology—and a change of editorship complicated this process. With the patience and diligence of many, we managed.

This is an unusual collection, but one we hope you will find worthwhile. It was produced in the wiki-spirit of open collaboration, contains varied voices, and speaks to the theme of insight from hindsight at Wikipedia’s twentieth year. What might you learn in reading these pages? Though Wikipedia was revolutionary twenty years ago, it has yet to become the revolution we need. The important work of sharing knowledge, connecting people, and bridging cultures continues.

Jake Orlowitz: I’d go with a colon or double-dash here