Naysayers be darned, Wikipedia spreads its influence

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 new book, "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 on the Internet. And it became the technical underpinning for Wikipedia, the 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 himself. And he came to view the popular Web site as pioneering many of the ways in which society 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.

"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 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 intended it as the start of an online paid encyclopedia called Nupedia, but it swallowed that plan.

There have been some 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. 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 had 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 the users realize it or not, 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 June 13 to note his death a half-hour before there was any public notification of it. Another is that a topic is worthy of defining only if it has received significant coverage by reliable sources.

Lih marvels at the irony that traditional media, with 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.

Sites like Wikipedia, MySpace and YouTube, Lih says, 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."

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 — 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.

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