A Wikipedia Administrator Tells the Web Site’s Story

By now, if you’re even moderately interested in Wikipedia, you’ve probably had the chance to read any number of lengthy articles on the Web site’s meteoric rise. So why bother with a whole book on the topic? In the case of Andrew Lih’s new tome, The Wikipedia Revolution, the answer is simple: The author is a longtime site administrator, and he has enough pull in the community to get Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, to write a foreword. So, for all intents and purposes, this is Wikipedia: The Authorized Biography.

Let’s get this out of the way now: The Wikipedia Revolution (subtitled How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia) paints a reasonably rosy view of the open-source encyclopedia. In Mr. Lih’s telling, Wikipedia’s neutral-point-of-view policy “has worked remarkably well,” its “clinical, just-the-facts style” is “endearing,” and the site itself is “a spectacular success.” Skeptics and agnostics, beware.

But that’s not to say that this is a dull hagiography. Mr. Lih, who has spent time as a professor at Columbia University and the University of Hong Kong, carefully identifies Wikipedia’s technological forefathers (there are useful sections on the pioneering work of Ward Cunningham and the legacy of Usenet) and chronicles Mr. Wales’s less-than-auspicious debut as a Web impresario (his first dot-com project, Bomis, was best known for “‘a guy-oriented search engine,’ with a market similar to Maxim magazine”).

The book’s strongest sections, though, come when Mr. Lih, a Wikipedia administrator since 2004, uses his inside knowledge to shed light on some seldom-discussed turning points in the site’s history. Look up the entry for any smallish American town, Mr. Lih notes, and you’ll probably be visiting a page created by Ram-man — a contributor who made “the most controversial move in Wikipedia history” by dispatching an army of robots to build articles out of data from the U.S. census. Dig into the history of the otherwise unassuming entry on Gdansk, Poland, and you’ll stumble upon “perhaps the most famous ‘edit war’ in Wikipedia history.”

This is interesting stuff, in part because it demonstrates how Wikipedia typically lurches toward a better understanding of itself: Someone makes a bold move, a brouhaha erupts, and Wikipedians work through the long-term implications, often in painstaking detail. (A note to folks chiefly interested in the brouhahas: Mr. Lih spends plenty of time on the sagas of Essjay, John Seigenthaler Sr., and Larry Sanger.)

The Wikipedia Revolution closes with one of those gimmicky flourishes that have become increasingly common in books about Web 2.0: There’s an afterword that was written collectively on a wiki. Truth be told, it’s kind of superfluous. But the rest of the book is definitely worth a read. —Brock Read

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