How Wikipedia Works/Content/2

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Chapter 2. The World Gets a Free Encyclopedia[edit]

The World Gets a Free Encyclopedia
  1. Wikipedia's Mission
  2. Wikipedia's Roots
    1. Ancient Greece to Today: Encyclopedias
    2. Late 17th Century: The Modern Encyclopedia
    3. Wikipedia as an Encyclopedia
    4. The 1960s and 1970s: Unix, Networks, and Personal Computers
    5. The 1980s: The Free Software Movement
      1. Wikipedia and the Free Perspective
    6. 1995: Ward's Wiki
    7. 1997: Open Source Communities
    8. 2000: Online Community Dynamics
      1. Wikipedia as a Wiki Community
    9. 2001: Wikipedia Goes Live
    10. Wikipedia Today
    11. Unfinished Business
  3. The Wikipedia Model Debated
    1. Misinformation: The Seigenthaler Scandal
    2. Amateur Contributors, Authority, and Academia
      1. Wikipedia and Academic Authority
      2. Wikipedia and Experts
      3. Case Studies in Academic Authority
      4. Pseudonyms and Claimed Expertise
      5. The Crowd of Amateurs
  4. Summary


The hopeful dreams from the early days of Wikipedia have become reality. There is a free, online encyclopedia, and in Chapter 1, What's in Wikipedia?, you reviewed its content. But what led to Wikipedia's creation, and what is the philosophy behind the site?

In Serendipities, leading Italian academic and intellectual Umberto Eco closed his first essay with this thought:

After all, the cultivated person's first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia.[2]

In 1994, when Eco lectured to the University of Bologna on "The Force of Falsity," he naturally did not mean this statement literally. For him, the encyclopedia is metaphorical; a revision of beliefs is a sign of a civilization that can question itself, and fresh views and discoveries, such as a scientific advance or the exposure of a forgery, prompt new summaries of knowledge. But Wikipedia has allowed this metaphor to spring to life: Daily, thousands of people "rewrite the encyclopedia," and no one checks to see whether these editors have the appropriate degrees or credentials or are even dressed for the occasion.

Wikipedia combines the ideas of the encyclopedia, the wiki website, and free and open content to define how a free encyclopedia can be built by everyone. In this chapter, we'll explore these three ideas and how they have evolved, discuss the motivation behind the project and its early history, and examine the drawbacks to Wikipedia's method by discussing some common criticisms of the site, centered around a few case studies. In the last chapter of this book, we'll return to more recent history and the current organizational side of Wikipedia. In the meantime, as you read and edit articles and participate in community discussions, knowing Wikipedia's philosophical background and influences is key to understanding how it works.


[2] ^ See Umberto Eco, "The Force of Falsity," in Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, trans. William Weaver (New York: Columbia, 1998), 21.