The site’s innovations have always been cultural rather than computational. It was created using existing technology. This remains the single most underestimated and misunderstood aspect of the project: its emotional architecture. Wikipedia is built on the personal interests and idiosyncrasies of its contributors; in fact, without getting gooey, you could even say it is built on love. Editors’ passions can drive the site deep into inconsequential territory—exhaustive detailing of dozens of different kinds of embroidery software, lists dedicated to bespectacled baseball players, a brief but moving biographical sketch of Khanzir, the only pig in Afghanistan. No knowledge is truly useless, but at its best, Wikipedia weds this ranging interest to the kind of pertinence where Larry David’s “Pretty, pretty good!” is given as an example of rhetorical epizeuxis. At these moments, it can feel like one of the few parts of the internet that is improving.
One challenge in seeing Wikipedia clearly is that the favored point of comparison for the site is still, in 2020, Encyclopedia Britannica. Not even the online Britannica, which is still kicking, but the print version, which ceased publication in 2012. If you encountered the words Encyclopedia Britannica recently, they were likely in a discussion about Wikipedia. But when did you last see a physical copy of these books? After months of reading about Wikipedia, which meant reading about Britannica, I finally saw the paper encyclopedia in person. It was on the sidewalk, being thrown away. The 24 burgundy-bound volumes had been stacked with care, looking regal before their garbage-truck funeral. If bought new in 1965, each of them would have cost $10.50—the equivalent of $85, adjusted for inflation. Today, they are so unsalable that thrift stores refuse them as donations.
Wikipedia and Britannica do, at least, share a certain lineage. The idea of building a complete compendium of human knowledge has existed for centuries, and there was always talk of finding some better substrate than paper: H. G. Wells thought microfilm might be the key to building what he called the “World Brain”; Thomas Edison bet on wafer-thin slices of nickel. But for most people who were alive in the earliest days of the internet, an encyclopedia was a book, plain and simple. Back then, it made sense to pit Wikipedia and Britannica against each other. It made sense to highlight Britannica‘s strengths—its rigorous editing and fact-checking procedures; its roster of illustrious contributors, including three US presidents and a host of Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners, novelists, and inventors—and to question whether amateurs on the internet could create a product even half as good. Wikipedia was an unknown quantity; the name for what it did, crowdsourcing, didn’t even exist until 2005, when two WIRED editors coined the word.
That same year, the journal Nature released the first major head-to-head comparison study. It revealed that, for articles on science, at least, the two resources were nearly comparable: Britannica averaged three minor mistakes per entry, while Wikipedia averaged four. (Britannica claimed “almost everything about the journal’s investigation … was wrong and misleading,” but Nature stuck by its findings.) Nine years later, a working paper from Harvard Business School found that Wikipedia was more left-leaning than Britannica—mostly because the articles tended to be longer and so were likelier to contain partisan “code words.” But the bias came out in the wash. The more revisions a Wikipedia article had, the more neutral it became. On a “per-word basis,” the researchers wrote, the political bent “hardly differs.”
But some important differences don’t readily show up in quantitative, side-by-side comparisons. For instance, there’s the fact that people tend to read Wikipedia daily, whereas Britannica had the quality of fine china, as much a display object as a reference work. The edition I encountered by the roadside was in suspiciously good shape. Although the covers were a little wilted, the spines were uncracked and the pages immaculate—telltale signs of 50 years of infrequent use. And as I learned when I retrieved as many volumes as I could carry home, the contents are an antidote for anyone waxing nostalgic.
I found the articles in my ’65 Britannica mostly high quality and high minded, but the tone of breezy acumen could become imprecise. The section on Brazil’s education system, for instance, says it is “good or bad depending on which statistics one takes and how they are interpreted.” Almost all the articles are authored by white men, and some were already 30 years out of date when they were published. Noting this half-life in 1974, the critic Peter Prescott wrote that “encyclopedias are like loaves of bread: the sooner used, the better, for they are growing stale before they even reach the shelf.” The Britannica editors took half a century to get on board with cinema; in the 1965 edition, there is no entry on Luis Buñuel, one of the fathers of modern film. You can pretty much forget about television. Lord Byron, meanwhile, commands four whole pages. (This conservative tendency wasn’t limited to Britannica. Growing up, I remember reading the entry on dating in a hand-me-down World Book and being baffled by its emphasis on sharing milkshakes.)
The worthies who wrote these entries, moreover, didn’t come cheap. According to an article in The Atlantic from 1974, Britannica contributors earned 10 cents per word, on average—about 50 cents in today’s money. Sometimes they got a full encyclopedia set as a bonus. They apparently didn’t show much gratitude for this compensation; the editors complained of missed deadlines, petulant behavior, lazy mistakes, and outright bias. “People in the arts all fancy themselves good writers, and they gave us the most difficult time,” one editor told The Atlantic. At Britannica rates, the English-language version of Wikipedia would cost $1.75 billion to produce.
There was another seldom remembered limitation to these gospel tomes: They were, in a way, shrinking. The total length of paper encyclopedias remained relatively finite, but the number of facts in the universe kept growing, leading to attrition and abbreviation. It was a zero-sum game in which adding new articles meant deleting or curtailing incumbent information. Even the most noteworthy were not immune; between 1965 and 1989, Bach’s Britannica entry shrank by two pages.
By the time the internet came into being, a limitless encyclopedia was not just a natural idea but an obvious one. Yet there was still a sense—even among the pioneers of the web—that, although the substrate was new, the top-down, expert-driven Britannica model should remain in place.