Three very different design paths

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 42
Digital Citation


Joseph Reagle

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"Wikipedia was an accident." I sometimes offer this (admittedly) exaggerated claim in response to those who confuse Wikipedia's current success with its uncertain origins. At the start, it was but the most recent contender in an age-old pursuit of a universal encyclopedia: a dream that the latest technology would provide universal access to world knowledge. Jimmy Wales's and Larry Sanger's first attempt at what would eventually become Wikipedia, the wiki-based encyclopedia that "anyone can edit," was neither of these things. So, by saying that Wikipedia was an accident, I don't mean it was unwelcome—far from it—but that it was a fortuitous turn of events unforeseen by even its founders. Moreover, it was evidence of contingency's role in technological innovation.

back to top  The Vision

In March 2000, Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia and its Nupedia progenitor, sent his first message to the Nupedia e-mail list: "My dream is that someday this encyclopedia will be available for just the cost of printing to schoolhouses across the world, including '3rd world' countries that won't be able to afford widespread internet access for years. How many African villages can afford a set of Britannicas? I suppose not many."[1] In this statement one can find a particular type of enlightened aspiration: A universal encyclopedic vision of increased information access and goodwill. For example, Denis Diderot, editor of the famous French Encyclopédie, wrote that a society of men bound together in a "feeling of mutual good will" to "collect all the knowledge that now lies scattered over the face of the earth, to make known its general structure to men among whom we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after us." [2] At the beginning of the 20th century, the hope that modern information technology might finally lead to the realization of this universal vision is seen in the works of a seminal "documentalist" and of a famous author: Paul Otlet's "Universal Bibliographic Repertory" and H. G. Wells's World Brain. They expected the novel technologies of the index card, loose-leaf binder, and microfilm to facilitate radically accessible information that also bridged the distance between people.

Given advances in technology and the insecurity of the interwar period, Wells believed that intellectual resources were squandered, that "we live in a world of unused and misapplied knowledge and skill" and "professional men of intelligence have great offerings but do not form a coherent body that can be brought to general affairs." He hoped that a world encyclopedia could "solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding." Given the advances in "micro-photography," Wells felt "the time is close at hand when a student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in exact replica." And much like one of Wikipedia's greatest strengths, it need not limit itself as a "row of volumes printed and published once and for all" but could instead be "a sort of mental clearing-house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified, and compared" in "continual correspondence" with all that was happening in the world [3]. Yet it was not until the wiki that this vision came to be even partially realized.

back to top  The Web

To understand the success of Wikipedia as the most credible realization of the universal encyclopedic vision, one must also understand a failing of the Web as we know it, but not as it was first conceived. In his memoir of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee describes his motivation for the Web as "a universal medium for sharing information." While today's Web was seen as a hobbled upstart by hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson, it falls short of even Berners-Lee's original vision, to which he now refers in its richer potential as the Semantic Web.

In any case, despite the Web's early limitations, or perhaps because of them, in January 1993 there were nearly 50 different Web browsers. These were inspired by Berners-Lee's original Web client and more or less implemented the early specifications for HTTP (network transport), HTML (content markup), and URL (resource locators/identifiers). However, one client was to stand out: Mosaic, and subsequently Netscape. Unfortunately, some Mosaic developers seemed intent on overshadowing the World Wide Web and failed to implement the critical feature of editing the Web: "Marc and Eric [Mosaic developers] explained that they had looked at that option and concluded that it was just impossible. It can't be done. This was news to me, since I had already done it with the World Wide Web [client] on the NeXT though admittedly for a simpler version of HTML." [4] Consequently, for many people the Web became a browsing-only medium until the arrival of the WikiWikiWeb.

back to top  An Internet Encyclopedia

While the technologies of the earlier half of the century failed to satisfy, computer networks inspired a new generation of information universalists. Consider how similar Ted Nelson sounds to his predecessors on declaring, "We have to save mankind from an almost certain and immediately approaching doom through the application, expansion and dissemination of intelligence." [5]

Although the idea of an Internet encyclopedia nearly coincides with the Internet's birth, an "Interpedia" became a topic of public discussion in the early 1990s. However, at that time there were almost too many technical options: Would it be based on Gopher, WAIS, or the new thing called the Web? In addition to the confounding array of options, Doug Wilson, maintainer of the Interpedia FAQ, wrote, "the term Interpedia is ambiguous—to some it means the text, to some software, and to others what we will have when we have both." [6] A consequence, in part, of this technical uncertainty was an ambiguity in vision. Would Interpedia be part of the Internet, or, if it referenced existing services, would it be something "that ends up being the net" [6]? When the Web became undeniably predominant a few years later, projects like the Distributed Encyclopedia and GNUPedia expected to naturally take advantage of one of the Web's greatest features: decentralization. Different articles would be maintained by single authors on unrelated websites. This is unlike Wikipedia, which is created through fine-grained and incremental collaborations by many at a single site.

It was not until the new millennium, with the Web almost ubiquitous and free and open source software providing the collaborative inspiration, that a serious commitment to a free online encyclopedia was made. After Larry Sanger earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, he wrote to Jimmy Wales, entrepreneur and fellow philosophy listserv subscriber, about a possible successor to his Y2K newsletters—the year 2000 had passed without much incident and Sanger was looking for new work. Wales counter-proposed his encyclopedia idea and asked Sanger if he would be interested in leading the project. So in 2000 Wales hired Sanger to launch and manage, "building the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind." [7] But Nupedia struggled: Its underlying collaborative software lacked functionality, and it was difficult to procure commitments from expert volunteers for the significant work entailed in writing and reviewing articles. The universal vision, providing a low-cost encyclopedia to "schoolhouses across the world," seemed reasonable. The technology, too, seemed capable of inexpensively supplying information throughout the world, and of facilitating the work of distant contributors. Yet something more was needed and it would be found only by what seems to have been an accident.

back to top  Wiki and Wikipedia

"Wiki wiki" means "superfast" in the Hawaiian language, and Ward Cunningham chose the name for his collaborative Web software in 1995 to indicate the ease with which one could edit pages. Cunningham, an advocate of software design patterns, attended a conference on pattern languages during which he agreed to collect and post user-submitted patterns if contributors sent him a structured text file, which he could then automatically process and post online. This was surprisingly difficult for many: "I was amazed at how people who sent me files couldn't follow even the simple rules. I was three pattern documents into this thing, and getting pretty tired of it already. So I made a form for submitting the documents." [8] This user-editable repository would come to be known as the Portland Pattern Repository—and the first wiki. In a sense, wiki captures the original conception of the World Wide Web as both a browsing and editing medium, the latter capability largely forgotten. Wiki makes this possible by placing a simple editor within a Web-page form, and the functionality of formatting and linking is carried out by the wiki server. Any browser can now edit.

In early January 2001, there was an increasing frustration associated with Nupedia productivity. The need to publish more articles, as well as a greater popular interest in contributing, was not well matched by the expert-dependent multistep editorial process. Hence, the stage was set for the introduction of a wiki. On January 2, Sanger had lunch with Ben Kovitz, a friend from Internet philosophy lists, during which Kovitz introduced the idea of wikis to Sanger. Sanger immediately saw this as a possible remedy to Nupedia's problems, permitting wider uncredentialed contribution and collaboration on articles that would then be fed to Nupedia's credentialed editorial review. Within a day, Sanger proposed the idea to Wales, and Nupedia's wiki was announced on January 10 in a message entitled, "Let's make a Wiki":

No, this is not an indecent proposal. It's an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not. As to Nupedia's use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE "open" and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk. They're also a potentially great source for content [9].

However, Wales was right: Nupedia contributors did resist Nupedia being associated with a website in the wiki format. Therefore, the new project was given the name "Wikipedia" and launched on its own address,, on January 15, 2001 [10].

Since its start, Wikipedia's growth has been extraordinary. Within six months Sanger announced that "the Wikipedia is now useful." In September 2001 he proclaimed on Usenet: "Interpedia is dead—long live the Wikipedia.... Interpedia's noble dream of creating a free, open encyclopedia lives on—not quite in the form imagined, but in a 'very' open and free form with which many early participants would probably approve." [11] Wikipedia proved to be so successful that when the server hosting Nupedia crashed in September 2003 (with little more than 24 complete articles and 74 more in progress) it was never restored [12]. Yet Sanger continued to be committed to an authoritative expert-driven reference work and was never fully reconciled with Wikipedia's radical openness and explosive growth. Then, with the burst of the Internet bubble, Sanger, like many others in the industry, was laid off (from Bomis); he resigned from his Wikipedia role shortly thereafter. Still, he continued to comment, criticize, and eventually compete with a new expert-friendly wiki project, Citizendium. The English version of Wikipedia now exceeds two million articles, having long ago subsumed most of the original Nupedia content. The Wikimedia Foundation, incorporated in 2003, is now the steward of Wikipedias in many languages, a wiki based dictionary, a compendium of quotations, collaborative textbooks, a repository of free source texts, and a collection of images that can be used by other Wikimedia projects.

Considering these remarkable resources and the long and dogged pursuit of the universal encyclopedic vision, Wikipedia's emergence seems inevitable. But when one looks more closely at the history, at the unfortunate neutering of the Web by the browser, at the productive laziness prompting the creation of the wiki, at chance emails and lunch conversations, it can equally be seen as a happy accident.

back to top  References

1. Jimmy Wales. Hi... nupedia-l. Mar. 11, 2000. <>

2. Diderot, D. "The Encyclopedia (1755)". In Rameau's Nephew, and Other Works, edited by Jacques Barzun and Ralph Henry Bowen. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001, 277, 283.

3. Wells, H.G. World Brain. London: Methuen, 1938, 49, 54.

4. Berners-Lee, T. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, 67–84.

5. Nelson, T.H. Literary Machines: The Report On, and Of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow's Intellectual Revolution, and Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom. 91.1. Sausalito, Ca.: Mindful Press, 1992, third chapter zero, 13.

6. Wilson, D. and A. M. Reynard. "Interpedia Frequently Asked Questions and Answers." Discussion Group. 15 Feb. 1994. comp.infosystems. interpedia. 27 Oct. 2005. <> See questions 1, 1.2, 1.1, and 4.5.

7. Shannon, P. "Regarding Sanger and Shannon's Review of Y2K News Reports." Forum. 11 Jan. 2000. Time Bomb 2000. 27 Oct. 2005. <>; and Sanger, L. "I Am a Clueless Newbie." Mailing list. 9 Mar. 2000. Nupedia-L. 7 June 2006. <>

8. Cunningham, W. "Correspondence on the Etymology of Wiki." Nov. 2003. Cunningham & Cunningham, Inc. 2005. 4 Oct. 2008. <>

9. Sanger, L. "Let's Make a Wiki." Mailing list. 10 Jan. 2001. Nupedia-L. 15 Nov. 2005. <>

10. "History of Wikipedia." Wikimedia. 8 Jan. 2009. <>

11. Sanger, L. "Wikipedia Is Now Useful!" Wikipedia. 26 June 2001. <> and "Interpedia Is Dead—Long Live Wikipedia." Discussion Group. 23 Sept. 2001. comp.infosystems.interpedia. 3 Nov. 2005. <*interpedia*&rnum=17&hl=en#bb038fa078a1bf8d>

12. "Nupedia." Wikipedia. 21 Dec. 2008. <>

back to top  Author

Joseph Reagle is an adjunct professor at NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication where he studies collaborative cultures. As a former research engineer at MIT's Lab for Computer Science he served as a Working Group Chair and author within IETF and W3C on topics including digital security, privacy, and Internet policy. A book, based on his dissertation, about Wikipedia collaboration should be available in 2009.

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