The history of Wikipedia is something that has its own Wikipedia page and why wouldn’t it? The “most popular wiki on the public web in terms of page views” surely rises to level of notability required for Wikipedia entries. If you’re interested in the long history of Wikipedia, I suggest that you check out that page and the talk page. If you’re interested in a short version – read on. If you’d like to read more on the topic consider Joseph Michael Reagle Jr’s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia and Phoebe Ayers et al’s How Wikipedia Works and How You Can Be a Part of It. The latter has an excellent set of resources like cheat sheets in addition to a great historical narrative that reaches back to the 17th century. The former is a celebratory look at the culture and community of Wikipedia. I’ll also be working on a piece on the topic with Moya Bailey, so watch for that to come.
Here’s a very short primer:
Wikipedia is one instance of a Wiki, a web-based collaborative authoring environment. There are a variety of kinds of wiki software packages, including options for public, enterprise, and personal wikis. All wikis use either a simple markup language or a rich-text editor. Wikipedia uses MediaWiki and the associated markup language; there is also a visual editor available for Wikipedia, providing users with an interface that is more like that in a word document.
While the concept behind Wikipedia is as old as 18th century encyclopedias and discussions of a free knowledge web tool were started in the 1990’s, Wikipedia as such was launched on Monday 15 January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. A not-for-profit enterprise, Wikipedia is largely run and authored by a pool of volunteer editors. The WikiMedia Foundation is a related non-profit that employs staff dedicated to “encouraging the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual, educational content, and to providing the full content of these wiki-based projects to the public free of charge. The Wikimedia Foundation operates some of the largest collaboratively edited reference projects in the world, including Wikipedia.”
From the beginning, Wales and Sanger explored different notions of authority, credibility, and production – including beginning with Nupedia, an online encyclopedia authored by experts and designed to be rigorously peer-reviewed. That idea fell victim to some very familiar issues around time to completion (think the lag in traditional print publishing!) and limited pools of expertise. A more nimble side or “feeder” project was developed that rapidly overtook Nupedia – Wikipedia.
And so in 2001 the amazingly rapid growth of Wikipedia began. With that growth have come a number of challenges, not the least of which is the remarkably gendered participation in editing. According to the 2013 Gender Gap Revisited study, at least 84% of Wikipedians are male and 60% of editors are between the ages of 17-40, with 40% coming in at 29 years of age or below. This and other inequalities on the site, both in terms of editors (and here) and content have received press attention in the last year. Within the Wikipedia community, efforts like the Wiki Women’s Collaborative and the Teahouse have sought to address some of the issues that give rise to the disparity. Alternative wikis have also appeared, some like the Conservapedia seek to limit the influence of equity efforts and others like World Afropedia aim to address the English and Western-centric quality of English Wikipedia.