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Wikipedia turns 10!

Wikipedia is turning ten years old tomorrow, and a variety of people and publications have been writing about what it all means. You can see one roundup here. I’ve read a bunch of the articles and essays, and many of them seem to follow a standard template: a summary of Wikipedia’s beginnings, a sample of some of the obscure topics it covers, followed by thoughts about its future, including the usual concerns that its editor community is still too insular, too male, too first-world, too geeky. (All I can say about those concerns is that, if every technology-related project were critiqued on those four terms, there would be a lot of critiquing going around.)

One essay I did like was Clay Shirky’s, in The Atlantic, where he talks about the role Wikipedia has played in changing our perception of authority (in the knowledge sense of the term):

Defenders of traditional authority will object to the relativism of all this, but relativism is all we’ve got — the rise of the scientific method has taken away certainty and replaced it with nothing but process and probability. An authority isn’t a person or institution who is always right — ain’t no such animal. An authority is a person or institution who has a process for lowering the likelihood that they are wrong to acceptably low levels. And over the last ten years, Wikipedia has been passing that test in an increasing number of circumstances.

On a different note, as someone who makes his living off of wikis, I can say with little doubt that my career is due to Wikipedia. Most obviously, WikiWorks deals exclusively with MediaWiki, which is the software that powers (and was created to power) Wikipedia; but even disregarding that, I don’t think I, or the clients we work for, would have been involved in wikis if not for Wikipedia. Before I was a wiki developer and consultant, I was a wiki administrator; and before that, I was a Wikipedia contributor, and before that, a Wikipedia reader. I got into wikis as a direct result of my increasing fascination with Wikipedia over the course of late 2004 and 2005. It seemed very satisfying to me to see text get shaped by lots of editors, most of whom would never meet each other, on the path to some sort of platonic ideal of what each article should look like.

As for our clients: it’s doubtful to me that many companies or organizations would be using wikis if not for Wikipedia: both because it’s taught everyone what a wiki is, and because it’s served as the ultimate proof-of-concept – that the crazy-seeming notion of a site where anyone can change anything at any time can produce a really well-crafted set of information.

Its influence on the world of wikis is probably just a small aspect of the impact of Wikipedia: after all, from my real-world experience, the large majority of people who read Wikipedia on a regular basis have (sadly) no idea that any other wikis exist. Still, it’s important to me; and for all of us working now on the technological future of wikis, maybe we’ll be able to return the favor and teach Wikipedia a thing or two over the next 10 years.

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