This Day in History: Wikipedia was founded

On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia launched. Here's a brief history of its early years and their struggles.
In this photo illustration, a Wikipedia logo seen displayed...
In this photo illustration, a Wikipedia logo seen displayed... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

While educators were terrified by the idea of Wikipedia when it first became popular, the online encyclopedia has proven to be an extremely helpful resource. The website includes over 60 million articles, nearly 7 million of which are in English.

The idea that anybody could edit Wikipedia made many people anxious in its early years, but the community of editors that have sprung up is dedicated to making sure that nobody messes with the information for long. Nearly every article is filled with citations that readers can follow, which has made it a reliable way to dive into the background of a subject.

Wikipedia first launched on January 15, 2001. Read on for more information about why and how it was created.

View of the library of Alexandria, Egypt founded at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C.
View of the library of Alexandria, Egypt founded at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. / Leemage/GettyImages

Why was Wikipedia founded?

Traditionally speaking, information is collected and curated by a small number of professionals. While this system allows for a high degree of reliability and fact-checking, it is limited by nature. Even assuming those professionals had completely pure intentions, all people have limited knowledge and perspective.

Historically speaking, this means that the lives and histories of minorities are recorded far less frequently than information about those in power. This becomes even more common, given that those recording history frequently write with bias. The lack of history about certain events or people can then be weaponized against them in the future.

This was the key problem that Wikipedia and its predecessor Nupedia hoped to solve. In addition, they wanted this wider range of information to be accessible to everyone, breaking down some of the class barriers that often determine formal education levels.

"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."

Jimmy Wales
USA - Wikimania 2006 - Wikimedia President Jimmy Wales
USA - Wikimania 2006 - Wikimedia President Jimmy Wales / Rick Friedman/GettyImages

How was Wikipedia founded?

Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Wales claimed to have come up with the idea in graduate school, where he became hopeful that there could be a volunteer-driven source of information. Larry Sanger came in as the editor-in-chief, ensuring nobody took advantage of the service.

They originally created Nupedia as their core website, which had more of an expert-driven style. According to a 2006 post from The Guardian, the original process for going from submission to publication was extensive. Academic volunteers had to peer-review each article, and creating a new page was "a seven-step process."

"Jimmy was frustratingly brief in his instructions, he simply wanted an encyclopedia that everyone could contribute to and that would be released under what he called an open content licence."

Larry Sanger

Because the process had to be completed sequentially, there were only around 20 articles completed in the first 18 months. This process took way too long, which prompted the creation of Wikipedia. A wiki was a webpage where people could edit drafts of text concurrently, where all changes were tracked and could be reverted if need be. This was ideal for speeding up the process and effectively using volunteers.

"Originally it was the Nupedia Wiki - our idea was to use it as an article incubator for Nupedia. Articles could begin life on this wiki, be developed collaboratively and, when they got to a certain stage of development, be put it into the Nupedia system."

Larry Sanger

Wikipedia launched on January 15, 2001. It was intended as a way for people to submit potential entries for Nupedia, which Sanger and other volunteers would then check before uploading to Nupedia. Within the first year, there were over 15,000 articles.

Wikipedia / Anadolu/GettyImages

What was early Wikipedia like?

Early Wikipedia was a prolific space, but it was also a hectic one. Contributors added a wide variety of articles, many off which didn't quite fit Wales and Sanger's initial concept. This led to the creation of the "What Wikipedia is not" page, which is still in use today.

This page defined the vision for the website, including both content-based descriptors (Wikipedia is not a dictionary, Wikipedia is not a crystal ball, etc.) and guidance for the community on the philosophy behind the site (Wikipedia is not an anarchy, Wikipedia is not a battleground, etc.).

"Wikipedia is not any of a very long list of terrible ideas. We cannot anticipate every bad idea that someone might have. Almost everything on this page made it here because somebody managed to come up with some new bad idea that had not previously been anticipated."

What Wikipedia Is Not

Some of the volunteer editors attempted to challenge the hierarchy by fighting against Larry Sanger in edit wars. Others simply liked messing with established pages to mislead people.

This chaotic environment, along with financial considerations, led Sanger to leave Wikipedia in January 2002. In 2003, Wikimedia Foundation took over governing the project, setting rules and policies for how it would be run moving forward.

23 years later, Wikipedia has become one of the foremost sources of knowledge out there. In the last two years, the English version of Wikipedia has received approximately 253 billion page views.

While the Harvard Business Review found that the website is not as reliable as comparable encyclopedias on the whole, it is actually more reliable on a "per word basis," which is a pretty impressive feat.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Wikipedia is that it disproved the idea that people will only work for pay. The website has consistently demonstrated that people not only will work, but will do so zealously, in order to protect something they care about.

The 109 million registered contributors and editors currently on Wikipedia are proof that the Internet, despite all its obvious pitfalls, is a general win when it comes to equitable and accessible knowledge.

For more information about Wikipedia's early history, see:

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