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Users united on the Internet for a 'Wikipedia Revolution'

The Baltimore Sun

YouTube. MySpace. iPod. CareerBuilder. Two words fused together with a capital letter in the middle: The construction seems like it has been standard form all our lives.

And yet, as Andrew Lih describes in his book that comes out today, The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia, so-called CamelCase was the way computer programmers designated topics that would be linked together on the Internet. And it became the technical underpinning for Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that launched in 2001, about the time the commercial world adopted the spelling quirk to name companies and products.

The first time Lih saw Wikipedia, he thought it was "garbage" - an implausible ant-colony system of volunteers compiling a huge, free online fact book. But he later became a volunteer editor for it himself. And he came to view the Web site that has become the ninth-most popular in the U.S. as pioneering many of the ways in which society now interacts with the Internet.

The act of thousands of people writing information anonymously for the sheer pleasure of having it used by others was a precursor to the blogging and social networking that has followed.

Wikipedia was one of the innovations that became the bridge between the early computer bulletin boards that techies were using to swap information in the early- to mid-1990s, before most people had an inkling of the Internet, and the social-networking phenomenon of today.

In between was the dot-com rush, when Web sites modeled after traditional stores burned through millions of investor dollars before flaming out after 2000.

"If you looked at the Web in 2000, it was fairly conventional; they were trying to reproduce the brick-and-mortar stuff online," Lih said, speaking by phone from his home in Beijing. "When Web 2.0 started, a lot of people rolled their eyeballs, but it became more like a digital commons."

Named for the Hawaiian word for "quick," Wikipedia now commands 97 percent of the online reference market, while more established names like Brittanica and others cling to the remainder. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger originally intended it as the start of an online paid encyclopedia called Nupedia, but it swallowed that plan.

There have been some embarrassing gaffes that cast serious doubts about its reliability. As part of a prank in 2005, journalist John Seigenthaler was described for months as having been involved in the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy erroneously was reported on Wikipedia as being dead after he collapsed during a lunch on President Barack Obama's Inauguration Day. And just weeks ago, the Wikipedia entry for former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said his longtime marriage was ended and that he'd had an affair with Diane Sawyer. The information was false and also apparently the work of a Wiki-vandal.

But by and large, people, including - to the dismay of teachers - many students, have come to rely on the site as the absolute authority.

Whether or not the users realize it, several core tenets shape Wikipedia, says Lih, a media professor at the University of Hong Kong and previously at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

One is "NPOV," no point of view in articles. Another is "no original research"; it has to come from established sources elsewhere - a tenet broken when someone updated Tim Russert's Wikipedia page to note his death a half-hour before there was any public notification of it June 13. Another is that a topic is only worthy of defining if it has received significant coverage by reliable sources.

Lih marvels at the irony that traditional media, with its bylined stories, layers of editing and stringent ethics codes, began to lose the trust of news consumers, who seem more than willing to take as gospel the information they peruse casually online, written by someone anonymously or under a pseudonym.

Communal information-sharing hardly began with the Internet, Lih points out. He cites Simon Winchester's research into the Oxford English Dictionary: To outdo the dictionaries of Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson in the 1850s, the Oxford English creators posted an appeal at libraries and bookshops to seek entries from volunteer writers. They built an oak shelving system to hold the hundreds of scraps of paper that began arriving daily. A Civil War survivor, who was later institutionalized in an asylum after shooting a man to death, turned out to be one of the most prolific - and accurate - contributors over 20 years.

Fast-forward to 2001 and Lih posits that sites like Wikipedia, MySpace and YouTube began to take off because many technically inclined people were looking for ways to stay productive or entertained after the dot-com companies they'd hoped to get rich at disintegrated. One of the real-life characters in his book is a North Carolinian named Seth Anthony, who became obsessed with creating tiny maps with red dots for countless "town" entries on Wikipedia and "like Forrest Gump, just kept on running."

A Yale law professor named Yochai Benkler wrote an essay that was widely circulated online that plumbed the phenomenon of people wanting to work for a common good without financial gain that has resulted in projects like Wikipedia, Creative Commons and blogs. His essay, "Coase's Penguin," referred to theories of Nobel economist Ronald Coase and the penguin mascot of Linux, the free open-source software built by the volunteer programmers that is the antithesis of Microsoft's Windows empire.

But Wikipedia is outgrowing its humble beginnings, Lih says. Its foundation has grown to a couple million dollars and supports a staff of more than 20. Meanwhile, English-language growth has slowed and versions in scores of other languages - from Yiddish to Klingon (oy!) - have taken root.

"There is increasing evidence in the last two years that the community is getting a little creaky. In 2009, you have millions of articles. It's not the same rush. It's not the same empowerment," he says, referring to the contributors. "How do you keep the energy up?"

The Wikipedia Revolution is a bit geeky in stretches, but overall is a fascinating reminder that the Web tools we depend on now as if they've always been around were hatched in anonymity not long ago by people not looking to turn a quick buck. Too bad they weren't running some of our mortgage lenders, too.

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