Granite Geek: Wikipedia Turns Fifteen!

Jan 12, 2016

Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia, will be celebrating its 15th birthday this week with events across the globe. One those events will be held Saturday at Harvard University. For a look at Wikipedia’s first fifteen, we turn to David Brooks. He’s a reporter for The Concord Monitor and writes at GraniteGeek.org. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

So, you started using Wikipedia back in 2003. How would you describe the Wikipedia of 2003 compared to the Wikipedia of today?

Wikipedia was launched in 2001 by a couple of basically geeks who tried to create a traditional online encyclopedia and failed. So they had this ridiculous idea of creating an encyclopedia that anyone could edit. It sort of floundered for awhile and started taking off in 2003 which is when I heard about it and started playing with it.

Back then it was at the point that there was no articles for thinks like “stirrup,” you know, the thing you use on a horse. So I could create an article about stirrups. That’s how small it was. And even for several years after that, people on Wikipedia get very excited when one of the articles show up anywhere on a Google search.

You take credit for creating some New Hampshire articles.

Oh, sure. Anyone who started back then was creating, because there weren’t many. I created, I believe, White Mountains New Hampshire. I created an article for the US Presidential Primary, because that didn’t even exist. Back then it was three sentences, but now if you look at it, it’s this massive article, goes on for pages, with footnotes and pictures and links out to dozens of other Wikipedia articles and frenzied debate about, you know, how do you mention this, and when do you mention that.

Is there any prestige within the Wikipedia community for being able to say, “I created a particular page”?

I suppose so, yeah, to a certain extent. That and a dime will get you whatever a dime buys.

You also write that there’s been a long, slow decline in the number of people actively editing and writing articles in the English-language Wikipedia. Why is that?

Well, that’s a debate, and that’s kind of this underlying concern within the whole Wikipedia community. Obviously the site has grown enormously for years and years and years and has more than five million articles in the English language, there’s 260 some odd other languages. It’s just staggeringly enormous, almost entirely created by volunteers.

But the number of individuals who have done active editing has been slowly declining for about five years. It’s uncertain why. Some people think it’s because the culture within Wikipedia, like many things that’ve been around for awhile— there’s the established people that are grumpy about newbies and they scare newbies off. Other people think it’s just become pretty complicated. If you try to edit an article, you’ll see this weird mark-up that doesn’t make sense if you’re a newcomer, and a lot of people say “Forget that!” and walk away.

And then there’s the possibility that so many articles exist that there’s not all that much to do for newcomers. There’s nothing fun. I mean, it was really easy when I started to create an article. Now you’d have to go and update the demographics for Keene, New Hampshire in the 1980 census, which isn’t as much fun. So there’s three possibilities, but it’s not at all clear.

Has the quality of the information improved in the past 15 years, or is it constantly in flux?

“Constantly in flux” is the motto of any crowd-sourced site, particularly Wikipedia. In many ways, the information has improved unbelievably. I would have bet big money that Wikipedia would have died in a couple of years. I never, ever, ever would have guest that it would become what it is today. But it has problems. There’s vandalism, there’s just plain errors.

Vandalism, meaning?

Oh, you know, people go into an article and type in, “George is an idiot,” or deliberately put incorrect information so they can say, “Ha ha, I made Wikipedia wrong.”

A bigger problem actually is that a lot of places, including politicians and corporations, organizations have learned that Wikipedia articles are important, so they go in and massage them with PR fluffery, take out anything critical, and that’s actually almost a bigger issue, because it looks okay when you look at the article, but it is biased by the source. So any Wikipedia article needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

That said…it’s an astonishing accomplishment, despite its many, many flaws.