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WikiPedia : Behind the Pages

A quick and dirty history of wikis

Wikis are web pages that allow visitors and users to change the content of the web page. This is achieved through the agency of server-side programs that are known as wikis. Every Wikipedia-like web site is based on a wiki engine, that allows users to edit the content. The first wiki engine was written in Perl by Ward Cunningham, for his programming web site. This was way back in 1995, and the web site was used by programmers for sharing ideas. This was called the Wiki Wiki Web, and the name was chosen from the Hawaiian word for “quick”. This simply intended for content to be generated rapidly, but Ward Cunningham had no clue how rapidly. Wiki-based sites took quite some time to take off though. Between 1995 and 2000, a few other wiki-based web sites came out, many written in other languages, but none of these really reached out to a massive number of people.

This was still the first decade of the web’s existence, and we should factor in the lack of penetration of the web on a global scale. Wiki engines were written in PHP, Java, Perl, and a number of other programming languages, and were used by some web sites with a mediocre amount of success. Wikis at that time didn’t stand out as an innovative new approach to content generation, and as such, their potential was not realized. A notable exception was senseis.xmp.net, a large web site dedicated to the chequers-like game of go, which has a large number of tactics, strategies and playing configurations.

Enter Jimmy Wales, who worked on a free online encyclopedia project called Nupedia. The content was generated by readers, and moderated by editors chosen for the job. To increase the number of articles, Jimmy Wales started a wiki-based encyclopedia, called it Wikipedia, and launched it in January 2001, just when internet junkies around the world where logging on to web 2.0. Wikipedia used MediaWiki, a PHP-based wiki. Six months and a thousand articles later, a link to Wikipedia was put up on Slashdot. Hoards of users jumped into the fray, and increased the article count to a staggering 20,000 articles by the end of the year. Wikipedia has been growing at an exponential rate ever since.

All of this, however, is ancient history. The nature and philosophy of wikis has evolved since 2002, a culture, a complex system of rewards and a set of protocols have evolved since then. Wikipedia has spawned a number of sister sites, including WikiNews, WikiText and WikTionary. Wikis have grown beyond Wikipedia too, with hundreds of highly specific and fan-run wikis always in continuous movement. A large number of people know Wikis from the outside, and have no clue about the drama behind the pages they refer to.

The Wiki hierarchy

Despite all it’s apparent openness, the Wikipedia editors have a notoriously strict set of principles, an irritating sense of altruism, and a strange and semi-official hierarchy based on their contributions to Wikipedia. Many editors casually change a few wrong spellings, improper language, or factual errors as and when they come across them. There are however, a dedicated number of editors who have taken it upon themselves to be responsible for the Wikipedia of their language. Disputes are not infrequent, and are often settled using votes.

Editors are also democratically chosen and promoted to higher levels – these give them more access to the web pages, power over other editors and users, and a host of tools to use at their disposal. The editors are at the lowest rung here, and many are happy to stay there. However, quite a few ascend to the level of Sysop or administrator. These are editors with extra powers over Wikipedia. They can change the locked or “protected” pages on Wikipedia, including deciding what goes on the home page of the web site. In the beginning of Wikipedia, all users had universal access, and everybody functioned as Sysops. In theory, this is still true, but in practice, some people have more privileges because of the size and scope of the project.

Bureaucrats are far fewer in number than the Sysops or editors, and have more power. They can settle disputes, appoint other bureaucrats, and have more administrative responsibility over the Sysops and other editors. They can for example, ban IP ranges, protect pages, block vandals and the like. Sysops can also do some of these things, but to a lesser degree. Bureaucrats manage, appoint and handle bots, which are scripts that automatically tweak, correct or change content on Wikipedia. Above the bureaucrats is the Arbitration Committee, known as the Arbcom. The Arbcom handles and settles disputes, and takes policy decisions across the project. The Sysops, bureaucrats and the members of the Arbcom are all democratically elected from the levels below. Sometimes, bureaucrats can appoint other bureaucrats when necessary. There is a pyramid structure to the organization, with around 15,000 Sysops, around 30 bureaucrats and 15 people in the Arbcom.

Above the Arbcom are the stewards. These are very rare, are involved more actively in the sister projects of Wikipedia, simply because the lower levels can operate Wikipedia efficiently. The stewards are also voted, and are called in when very important decisions have to be taken or disputes within the Arbcom have to be settled. These are high level policy decisions and the like. Above the stewards are the Founders, Jimmy Wales is one of these, but he is also a steward.

All of this might not affect the readers of Wikipedia, but drastically affect the editors. There is an inherent bureaucracy in the functioning of Wikipedia, and new editors might not be able to exploit the system as well as the old ones. Many editors tend to think of pages they have started as their pet projects, and follow it closely across the edits. There may be people with a different point of view who boldly change the content, as one of the policies encourages them to. This results in edit wars, and editors may revert pages to their original states, known as revert wars. There is a three time revert rule, after which the page is automatically locked, and requires higher authority to clear things up. Ideally, Wikipedia ensures that the articles have vastly different points of view, and cover the subject completely. However, practically, this is not true. A huge chunk of the content on the English language Wikipedia is biased towards America, and has content geared towards American users, and “reads” as if an American is reading it. Also, the content that is created about remote locations, little-heard of people and subjects, are almost always biased in some way or another, and often not accurate or comprehensive. The best way to find out how thorough an article is, is to check the number of edits using the history tab on any page. The rule of the thumb is that the greater the number of edits, the greater the accuracy of the article.

Vandals and Sock Puppets

There are vandals that sometimes get loose on Wikipedia. These are sometimes drastic, and deface a public personality, or the page of a corporation. The PR personnel of small and large organizations often edit the pages that they are interested in, in a way that benefits them. For large, multinational companies, a bias is not possible, but for smaller companies, slyly putting in a critical line about competition, or making bold claims without references or proof, is not difficult. Other kinds of vandals spread misinformation, most of which is hidden in a line somewhere and not easily detectable, even by experts on that subject. This can include propagation of myths, rumors and debatable information.

Another breed of editors is not above using multiple accounts to edit the same page, or keep a watch on content. This may be to influence voting, or to make it appear as if the majority of editors have a particular consensus about an article. Official policy requires all editors with alternate accounts to declare these accounts by linking to them from their user page, but this is not often done. Such accounts are known as “sock puppets”, “socks” for short, and the activity known as “socking”.

If you care to follow Wikipedia editors and users on IRC (#Wikipedia on irc.freenode.net), it becomes easy to follow some of the problems that Wikipedia editors and users face. Most of the chat is about certain articles, cleaning up portals, requests by editors for Sysop action and the like. Now and then, however, a new editor faces certain problems, and the shortcomings of Wikipedia become apparent. Reporting sock accounts for example, even after they are identified, is a long process, and the sock can do considerable damage before they are officially banned. There is a certain amount of red tape, and a procedural slowness for taking actions, which may be in place for the security of Wikipedia, but at the same time serves to slow down improvements of the encyclopedia. The bureaucracy is often resented, and most editors don’t even take the trouble to follow the procedures required to safeguard even their pet project, often requiring more effort than casual editors are willing to make.

Ribbons, barnstars and service awards

Wikipedia has a number of devices for appreciating the efforts of individual editors. Even if they are not promoted to Sysop status or beyond, other editors can put up barnstars to acknowledge the user’s contributions. Service awards are given to editors who dedicatedly reach a certain edit count, over a specific span of time. Ribbons are used to display barnstars or service awards in as little space as possible, so as not to clutter a particular user page.

There are eleven levels of editorial contribution service awards. From the lowest to the highest, these are Burba, Novato, three Grognard levels, and five Tutnum levels. When a particular number of edits are reached in the stipulated time period, editors can add the relevant badges, books or ribbons to their user pages. The books range from The First Book of Wikipedia for Novices, or Burbas, to the Book of All Knowledge for the highest level Tatnum. The editors on these levels can alternatively place service badges on their user profiles, the Tatnum levels have metal stars for each of the levels. These are iron, bronze, silver, gold, platinum and plutonium.

Wikilove and Wikiquette

Despite all shortcomings, Wikipedia is still the most visited reference source on the internet. Browsing a few pages every now and then does not give a true idea of the size and scope of the project. It is one of the biggest success stories of web 2.0, and the project is truly a political statement that people living in the last half of the twentieth century thought could never be made.

The project is non-commercial, with a creative commons license, and is considered by many as proof that human beings can create something for free that is better than commercial counterparts. The fact that Wikipedia put Encarta out of business vindicates this feeling, and Wikipedia editors have been generally functioning with good cheer and a strong communal feeling. It is still growing at a rapid rate, and there is a lot of ground left to cover.