Section 20.4. Wikipedia s First Few Months


20.4. Wikipedia's First Few Months

We decided to relaunch the wiki under its own domain name. I came up with the name "Wikipedia," a silly name for what was at first a very silly project, and the newly independent project was launched at Wikipedia.com on January 15, 2001. It was a ".com" at first because, at the time, we were contemplating selling ads to pay for me, programmers, and servers. It was easy to deprecate ".com" in favor of ".org" in 2002, after Jimmy was able to assure users that Wikipedia would never run ads to support the project.

I took it to be one of my main jobs to promote Wikipedia, and this resulted in a steady influx of new participants. I wrote on the Wikipedia announcement page January 24, "Wikipedia has definitely taken [on] a life of its own; new people are arriving every day and the project seems to be getting only more popular. Long live Wikipedia!" By the end of January, we reportedly[14] had 600 articles; there were 1,300 in March, 2,300 in April, and 3,900 in May. Not only was the project growing steadily, but the rate of growth was also increasing.

[14] "Wikipedia: Size of Wikipedia," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Size_of_Wikipedia.

Wikipedia started with a handful of people, many from Nupedia. The influence of Nupedians was crucial early on. I think, especially, of the tireless Magnus Manske (who worked on the software for both projects), our resident stickler Ruth Ifcher, and the very smart poker-playing programmer Lee Daniel Crockerto name a few. All of these people, and several other Nupedia borrowings, had a good understanding of the requirements of good encyclopedia articles, and they were intelligent, skilled writers. The direction that Wikipedia ought to go in seemed obvious to us all, in terms of what sort of content we wanted. But what we did not have worked out in advance was how the community should be organized, and (not surprisingly) that turned out to be the thorniest problem. Still, because the project started with these good people, and we were able to adopt, explain, and promote good habits and policies to newer people, the Nupedian roots of the project helped to develop a robust, functional, and successful community. As to project leadership or management, we began with me, Jimmy, and Tim Shell; Tim mostly stopped participating after the first few months.

The many rank-and-file users did the heavy lifting, and if there had not been a reasonable consensus among them about what the project should look like, it just wouldn't have happened. In any collaborative project, it is the contributors who are responsible for the outcome. Those early adopters should feel proud of themselves, because they were essential in shaping a thing of beauty and usefulness.

I recall saying casually, but repeatedly, in the project's first nine months or so, that experts and specialists should be given some particular respect when writing in their areas of expertise. They should be deferred to, I thought, unless there was some clear evidence of bias. In those first months, deference to expertise was a policy that at least I usually insisted upon, but not strongly or clearly enough. It was nearly a year after the project began that I finally articulated this view as a policy to consider.[15] Perhaps this was because, indeed, most users did make a practice of deferring to experts up to that time. "This is just common sense," as I wrote, "but sometimes common sense needs to be spelled out!" What I now think is that that point of common sense needed to be spelled out quite a bit sooner and more forcefully, because in the long run, it was not adopted as official project policy, as it could have been.

[15] "Deferring to the experts," http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Deferring_to_the_experts.

Some questions have been raised about the origin of Wikipedia policies. The tale is interesting and instructive. We began with no (or few) policies in particular and said that the community would determinethrough a sort of vague consensus based on its experience working togetherwhat the policies would be. The very first entry on a "rules to consider" page[16] was the "Ignore All Rules" rule (to wit: "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business"). This is a "rule" that I personally proposed. I thought we first needed experience with wikis before we could have rules about wikis. Even more importantly at that point, we needed participants more than we needed rules. As the project grew and the requirements of its success became increasingly obvious, I became ambivalent about this particular "rule" and then rejected it altogether. As one participant later commented, "this rule is the essence of Wikipedia."[17] That was certainly never my view; I always thought of the rule as being a temporary and humorous injunction to participants to add content instead of being distracted by (then) relatively inconsequential issues about how exactly articles should be formatted, etc. In a similar spirit, I proposed that contributors be bold in updating pages.[18]

[16] "RulesToConsider," http://web.archive.org/web/20010307211833/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/RulesToConsider.

[17] "Wikipedia talk:Ignore all rules," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Ignore_all_rules.

[18] "Be bold in updating pages," http://web.archive.org/web/20011111150732/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/Be_bold_in_updating_pages.

I also, for similar reasons, specifically disavowed any title; I was organizing the project but I did not want to present myself as editor in chief. I wanted people to feel comfortable adding information without having to consult anything like an editor. Participation was more important, I felt.

As we set it up, Wikipedia did have some minimal wiki cultural features: it was wide open and extremely decentralized, and (provisionally, anyway) featured very little attempt to exercise authority. Insofar as I was able to organize it at all, I guided the project through force of personality and what "moral authority" I had as co-founder of the project. Jimmy and I agreed early on that, at least in the beginning, we should not eject anyone from the project except perhaps in the most extreme cases. Our first forcible expulsion (which Jimmy performed) did not occur for many months, despite the presence of difficult characters from nearly the beginning of the project. Again, we were learning: we wished to tolerate all sorts of contributors to be well situated to adopt the wisest policies. However, this provisional "hands-off" management policy had the effect of creating a difficult-to-change tradition, the tradition of making the project extremely tolerant of disruptive (uncooperative, "trolling") behavior. And as it turned out, particularly with the large waves of new contributors from the summer and fall of 2001, the project became very resistant to any changes in this policy. I suspect that the cultures of online communities generally are established pretty quickly and then are very resistant to change, because they are self-selecting; that was certainly the case with Wikipedia, anyway.

So, I could only attempt to shame any troublemakers into compliance; without recourse to any genuine punitive action, that was the most I could do. In the first eight months of the project, this was usually sufficient for me to do my job. Wikipedia began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature. I always took Wikipedia's anarchy to be provisional and purely for purposes of determining what the best rules, and the nature of its authority, should be. What I, and other Wikipedians, failed to realize is that our initial anarchy would be taken by the next wave of contributors as the very essence of the projecthow Wikipedia was "meant" to beeven though Wikipedia could have become anything we the contributors chose to make it.

This point bears some emphasis: Wikipedia became what it is today because, having been seeded with great people with a fairly clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, we proceeded to make a series of free decisions that determined the policy of the project and culture of its supporting community. Wikipedia's system is neither the only way to run a wiki, nor the only way to run an open content encyclopedia. Its particular conjunction of policies is in no way natural, "organic," or necessary. It is instead artificial, a result of a series of free choices, and we could have chosen differently in many cases; and choosing differently on some issues might have led to a project better than the one that exists today.

Though it began as anarchy, there were quite a few policies that were settled within the first six months. This required some struggle, especially on my part. Since the project was a wiki, some participants thought that there should be no rules at all. But it was made clear from the beginning that we intended Wikipedia to be an encyclopedia, and so we pushed for at least those rules that would help define and sustain the project as an encyclopedia.

For instance, throughout the early months, people added various content that seemed less than encyclopedic. Many people seemed to confuse encyclopedia articles with dictionary entries, and eventually I wrote a page called "Wikipedia is not a dictionary."[19] As people found new ways not to write encyclopedia articles, I started "What Wikipedia is not":[20] I and others would note on an article's discussion page that some content did not belong in an encyclopedia, and then underscored the point by adding an entry to the "What Wikipedia is not" page. To take another example, Wikipedia was not to be a place for publishing original research. In fact, this is a policy that had been settled upon and even enforced in Nupedia days; enforcing it actually led to the departure of Nupedia's erstwhile Classics editor sometime in 2001.

[19] "Wikipedia:Wikipedia is not a dictionary," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_is_not_a_dictionary.

[20] "Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:What_Wikipedia_is_not.

Many of our first controversies were over these restrictions. At the time, I had enough influence within the community to get these policies generally accepted. And if we had not decided on these restrictions, Wikipedia might well have ended up, like many wikis, as nothing in particular. But since we insisted that it was an encyclopedia, even though it was just a blank wiki and a group of people to begin with, it became an encyclopedia. There is something simple, yet profound about that. I also like to think that we helped to show the world the potential that wikis have.

Another policy that was instituted early on was the nonbias or neutrality policy. This was borrowed from the Nupedia project[21] and was made a Rule to Considerin a very early version, the policy was put this way:

[21] "Nupedia.com Editorial Policy Guidelines," Version 3.31 (November 16, 2000), Part III, "General Nupedia Policies," http://web.archive.org/web/20001205000200/http://www.nupedia.com/policy.shtml#III.

Avoid bias: Since this is an encyclopedia, after a fashion, it would be best if you represented your controversial views either (1) not at all, (2) on *Debate, *Talk, or *Discussion pages linked from the bottom of the page that you're tempted to grace, or (3) represented in a fact-stating fashion, i.e., which attributes a particular opinion to a particular person or group, rather than asserting the opinion as fact. (3) is strongly preferred.

Jimmy then started a specialized policy page he called "Neutral Point of View."[22] I confess I don't much like this name as a name for the policy, because it implies that to write neutrally, or without bias, is actually to express a point of view, and, as the definite article is used, a single point of view at that. "Neutrality," "neutral," and "neutrally" are better to use for the noun, adjective, and adverb. But the acronym "NPOV" came to be used for all three, by Wikipedians wanting to seem hip, and then the unfortunate "POV" came to be used when the perfectly good English word "biased" would do.

[22] "NeutralPointOfView," http://web.archive.org/web/20010416035757/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/NeutralPointOfView. For the current version, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view.

In addition to these, I suggested a number of other rules. I believe I am responsible for the original formulations of a lot of the article-naming conventions, as well as the conventions of bolding the title of the article, starting articles with full sentences, making article titles uncapitalized, and much else. I think these policies were just a matter of common sense for anyone who understood what a good encyclopedia should be like. And of course I was not the only person proposing conventions. Moreover, actual project policy, or community habits, succeeded in being established only by being followed and supported by a majority of participants. It was then, we said, that there was a "rough consensus" in favor of the policy. And consensus, we said, is required for a policy actually to be considered project policy. For our purposes, a "consensus" appeared to consist of (1) widespread common practice, (2) many vocal defenders, and (3) virtually no detractors.

But that way of settling upon policy proposalsviz., by alleged consensusdid not scale, in my opinion. After about nine months or so, there were so many contributors, and especially brand-new contributors, that nothing like a consensus could be reached, for the simple reason that condition (3) in the previous paragraph was never achievable: there would after that always be somebody who insisted on expressing disagreement. There was, then, a nonscaling policy adoption procedure, and a crying need to continue to adopt sensible policies. This led to some serious problems in the community. But first, something more positive.

20.4.1. Why Wikipedia started working

This is a good place to explain why Wikipedia actually got started and why it worked. The explanation involves several factors, some borrowed from the open source movement, some borrowed from wiki software and culture, and some more idiosyncratic:


Open content license

We promised contributors that their work would always remain free for others to read. This, as is well known, motivates people to work for the good of the worldand for the many people who would like to teach the whole world, that's a pretty strong motivation.


Focus on the encyclopedia

We said that we were creating an encyclopedia, not a dictionary, etc., and we encouraged people to stick to creating the encyclopedia and not use the project as a debate forum.


Openness

Anyone could contribute. Everyone was specifically made to feel welcome (e.g., we encouraged the habit of writing on new contributors' user pages, "Welcome to Wikipedia!" etc.). There was no sense that someone would be turned away for not being bright enough, or not being a good enough writer, or whatever.


Ease of editing

Wikis are easy for most people to figure out. In other collaborative systems (like Nupedia), you have to learn all about the system first. Wikipedia had an almost flat learning curve.


Collaborate radically; don't sign articles

Radical collaboration, in which (in principle) anyone can edit any part of anyone else's work, is one of the great innovations of the open source software movement. On Wikipedia, radical collaboration made it possible for work to move forward on all fronts at the same time, to avoid the big bottleneck that is the individual author, and to burnish articles on popular topics to a fine luster.


Offer unedited, unapproved content for further development

This is required if one wishes to collaborate radically. We encouraged putting up their unfinished draftsas long as they were at least roughly correctwith the idea that they can only improve if there are others collaborating. This is a classic principle of open source software. It helped get Wikipedia started and helped keep it moving. This is why so many original drafts of Wikipedia articles were initially of poor quality, and also why it is surprising to the uninitiated that many articles have turned out very well indeed.


Neutrality

A firm neutrality policy made it possible for people of widely divergent opinions to work together, without constantly fighting. It's a way to keep the peace.


Start with a core of good people

I think it was essential that we began the project with a core group of intelligent, good writers who understood what an encyclopedia should look like, and who were basically decent human beings.


Enjoy the Google effect

We had little to do with this, but had Google not sent us an increasing amount of traffic each time they spidered the growing web site, we would not have grown nearly as fast as we did.

That's pretty much it. The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task, and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching stuff to the world. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. And the Google effect provided a steady supply of "fresh blood"who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Nearly all other project rules were either optional, or straightforward applications of these principles. The project probably would still have succeeded nicely even if it had moderated or tweaked some of these principles. For instance, radical opennessthat is, being open even to those who brazenly flouted and disrespected the project's mission, was surely not necessary; after all, without them, the project would have been more welcoming to the many people who felt they could not work with such difficult people. And if we had required people to sign in, that would not have made very much difference (although it probably would have made some in the beginning; the project wouldn't have grown as fast). Of course, we didn't have to use the GNU FDL[23] for the license. Certainly, we did not need to set the community up initially as an anarchy governed by some vague consensus: instead, we could have adopted a charter from the very start. The project could have been managed quite differently; there could have been specially designated and well-qualified editors. The project could have officially encouraged and deferred to experts. An article approval process could have been adopted without threatening the principle of posting unedited content for collaboration. Certainly, many of the later bells and whistlesthe arbitration committee, a three-revert rule, having administrators with the particular configuration of rights they have, etc.were not absolutely necessary to adopt in the precise forms they took. These differences would not have threatened the basic principles that made the project work.

[23] That is, the GNU Free Documentation License. Can be read at http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html. By 2000-2001, this license was the biggest thing going, as far as open content licenses were concerned; Creative Commons, at http://creativecommons.org, did not get started until 2001.

The basic principles that explain why Wikipedia could start workingand still does workare relatively simple, few in number, and above all, general. The more specific principles that Wikipedia adopted were a matter of historical accident. There was a great deal of "wiggle room." Those intent on studying or replicating the Wikipedia model would do well to bear that in mind.