Wikipedia’s Secret Sauce


As I’m sure you know, Queen Elizabeth II died yesterday at the age of 96. This morning, my son pointed out that all of the language on her Wikipedia entry had already been updated to use the past tense, and he marveled at the speed. Wikipedia, as I’m also sure you know, is a volunteer-written and edited project; there’s no one whose job it is to change the entries of the recently departed to make sure that the verb tenses are correct. And yet, it happens with alacrity.

A few minutes after my son made this observation, I noticed this thread on Twitter (from the fantastic “Depths of Wikipedia” account) that also marveled about how quickly Wikipedia’s editors updated the page. But unlike my son, the author of that thread also detailed how it happened. It’s a really interesting read in its own right, and you should probably spend a few minutes going through it. But I want to point out one thing she said, because it resonated with me: “A six-membered task force called WikiProject London Bridge cropped up to maintain the following articles. [A] reminder that everyone is doing this for free. They just think it’s fun and important.”

“They just think it’s fun and important.”

Wikipedia, I think, is one of the most misunderstood projects in the world. Mark Cuban — the billionaire entrepreneur who is on Shark Tank and is now trying to cut the cost of medications — also owns the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA team. In 2007, he decided to create a Wikipedia for the Mavericks, called “MavsWiki.” The idea was that fans of the basketball team would flock to the site to document the deep, rich history of the team, much like fans of everything else did just that on Wikipedia. 

It didn’t work and I’m nor surprised. In fact, the day after it launched, I emailed Cuban, offering to help. At the time, I was working for a company called Wikia (now “Fandom”), which specialized in creating Wikipedia-like communities and websites. Founded by the founder of Wikipedia himself, Wikia really understood what it took to build a thriving wiki resource. Cuban replied to my offer in under an hour (he’s a mensch, as far as I’m concerned) with the following note:

We are fine. It’s not a tough concept :)

(I replied back with “True enough.  But neither is shooting a free throw.” and wished him luck on the endeavor. He didn’t reply to that.)

As I said, MavsWiki didn’t make it — the site is long gone. Cuban’s mistake — and I think the mistake almost everyone makes — is that he believed that being Mavs fan would be enough incentive for some of those fans to create the content needed for the website to survive. But that’s not the right approach. For a project like Wikipedia to thrive, you need people for whom writing encyclopedia entries is fun; that is, encyclopedia fans who happen to like the Mavs. And honestly, even that isn’t enough, especially in the early stages. YOu need a community that thinks that the project is important.

And if you look at the early history of Wikipedia, you’ll see that’s exactly what happened. Pre-Wikipedia, the leading encyclopedia product was Microsoft Encarta. (Encarta effectively killed Britannica before Wikipedia had the chance. I’ve written about that before somewhere; if I can find it, I’ll share it on another Friday.) And the very-online world at the time didn’t like Microsoft. Microsoft was using copyright to restrict information flow, they believed, and that community preferred “copyleft” and open-source licensing for software — Linux and the like — over Microsoft Windows. Encarta was a “worst of both worlds” product to them: not only was it an effort to monetize facts and history via copyright, but it was also a Microsoft product. A small group of volunteers got together to create a free encyclopedia — free as in “free speech,” not just free as in “free beer” — and ultimately, some of them connected up with the people creating Wikipedia. They just thought it was important.

So, back to the Queen’s Wikipedia entry: the reason why it was updated so quickly, as the Depths of Wikipedia writer noted, is because there are people out there who think it’s important to keep such things updated (and yes, it’s probably fun, too). Wikipedia doesn’t happen via magic; its secret is simply that the people who work on it care about it.

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Took the day off for Labor Day.

Tuesday: How Spider-Man’s Nemesis Aided Real-Life Law Enforcement: Kingpin, master law enforcement entrepreneur?

Wednesday: What About Bob (dot com)?: A Microsoft product that bombed, but saved another one?

Thursday: A Little Alcohol Problem: A story of unintended consequences: how tiny bottles of booze led to big amounts of drinking.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend. 

1) “‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” (The Guardian, 34 minutes). Thie story — from the spring of 2017, note — shares the detailed plans that the UK put in place to react to news of the Queen’s passing. That plan went into effect yesterday, of course, giving this story new importance. 

2) “Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt” (New York Times, 22 minutes, July 2019). While writing Tuesday’s Now I Know, I went back and forth on how to best include this story on the downside of ankle monitoring. I couldn’t find a way to fit it in, but I wanted to make sure I shared it, so this is as good of an opportunity as any. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has some thoughts on the problems with electronic monitoring, here, if you’re so inclined.

3) “Was King Arthur a Real Person?” (Smithsonian, 20 minutes, September 2022). The answer is, basically, “no” (as suggested by Betteridge’s law of headlines), but the investigation goes down a path toward “but there’s more than you think.”

Have a great weekend!