Jimmy Wales is working on something new


Torsten Kleinz

is a freelance journalist specializing in internet culture, business and consumer issues. Since the founding of Wikipedia, he has regularly reported on the developments and discussions of the online encyclopedia. kleinz.net

The story of Wikipedia

When "Wikipedia" went online on January 15, 2001, there was no telling how much they would like the idea of ​​Web 2.0. would have a say. The hobby project "online encyclopedia" of a small community quickly grew into an organization that had to face new problems with its exponential growth.

Screenshot of the Wikipedia predecessor Nupedia. License: cc by / 3.0 / de (Wikimedia)

Move freely through the net: visit websites, create your own content and exchange ideas - this was the vision of Tim Berner Lees when he invented the "world wide web" as a communication medium in 1989. In this respect, the idea of ​​a user-generated dynamic online encyclopedia was long overdue when it came to life with Wikipedia in 2001.

However, the lack of technical means for the interactive Internet was not the reason that Web 2.0 was a long time coming. The technology was ready for a long time: It didn't take much more than a web server, a database and some program code. But in the nineties, the increasingly popular web had developed into a consumer medium. Instead of creating content themselves, most users surfed the websites of commercial providers. The space for interaction remained strictly limited to web forums, chats and rather simple private websites.

And so in 1995 the first “Wiki” by the American programmer Ward Cunningham did not achieve a wide impact. Although it was just laid out in a generally understandable way. The program made it possible for every web surfer to create and change websites themselves remarkably easily - without programming knowledge or complicated formatting. This is underlined by the name of the system: "Wiki-wiki" comes from Hawaiian and means "fast" there. Actually, Cunningham had developed the new medium for personal use - but soon an enthusiastic, albeit very small, community emerged that kept creating new wikis and programming on new wiki systems.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales speaks to journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (& copy picture-alliance / AP, Anja Niedringhaus)
When the entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and the philosopher Larry Sanger met online in the 1990s, they jointly developed the idea of ​​creating an online lexicon as a free knowledge resource for everyone. The project went online in January 2000 under the name "Nupedia". Neither of them had heard of wiki technology, Nupedia was based on a rather sluggish content management system. The quality standards of the new encyclopedists were high: only recognized experts were allowed to write texts, and they were completed in a lengthy editing process. Too tedious, as it turned out: In the three years of its existence, Nupedia produced just 24 finished articles.

Larry Sanger is a co-founder of Wikipedia. (& copy ddp / AP, Kiichiro Sato)
Frustrated by the slow progress, Wales and Sanger found out about the wiki concept a year later and a little later installed a wiki on the Nupedia server where interested encyclopedia authors could let off steam. On January 15, 2001 "Wikipedia" went online. The success came almost immediately: when they were given a free hand, the authors suddenly developed an unimagined desire to write. In just two months, they wrote more than 2,000 articles. Motivated by the success, Wales opened the German version of Wikipedia on March 15, 2001 at deutsche.wikipedia.com. Other language versions followed. A formal structure or organization did not yet exist.

Kurt Jansson, who was a sociology student at the Free University of Berlin at the time, also quickly came across the project: "I was thrilled: you just had to click on 'Edit' and the result was online immediately," says Jansson. The idea, not the web Just to consume, but to take part in the creation of a new kind of encyclopedia, fascinated him and many others. Jansson noted for the general public what Wikipedia looked like in the first few months: On his website he published a snapshot of the German Wikipedia in its first The project still had to do almost entirely without graphics - the Nupedia logo alone was emblazoned on the Wikipedia homepage. The quality of the texts was also rather simple: half a year after it was founded, the entry on Germany comprised five lines and contained in the Essentially just an enumeration of the federal states, important cities and neighboring states.For comparison: today's article is 75 printed long and covers the history of Germany as well as culture and politics.

Rapid rise of an idea

In the first years Larry Sanger acted as project manager and a kind of editor-in-chief of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales was the financier and visionary. Otherwise there was egalitarian chaos: every user had the same rights and there were only a few rules. "Whenever you find something that you can see that it could be corrected or otherwise improved, just do it," it said in the first guide.

Even if Wikipedia has undergone many changes since then, little has changed in the basic idea: to this day, almost every article can be changed with a simple click. Users do not have to log in first, they can start typing their posts directly into the browser. For Larry Sanger, however, Wikipedia soon became too chaotic: he left the project in 2002 and has been one of its most ardent critics ever since. But even without the co-founder, the project flourished.

On the Wikipedia homepage in 2001, the Wikipedians published an ambitious goal: the unpaid authors wanted to create 100,000 articles; it should be ready in just five years. But reality quickly overtook the vision. In January 2003, the English Wikipedia exceeded the mark of 100,000 articles, the German Wikipedia followed in June 2004. Although only a fraction of it was fully formulated and complete, the way was clear. Wikipedia was to become a serious challenger for the classic encyclopedia publishers in no time.

One of the most important helpers of the rapid success was the also emerging internet search engine of the search engine Google, founded in 1996. The two offers complemented each other perfectly: Google tries to capture as much of the Internet as possible and to sort the best results at the top. In return, Wikipedia collected articles on as many topics as possible.

The structure of Wikipedia, in which the articles are interwoven via many links, favored the development. Google rates many links to an article as a quality feature. Result: Sometimes very poor or even nonexistent Wikipedia articles landed on the first page of the Google search. A self-reinforcing effect set in: the higher Google rated Wikipedia, the more authors participated in Wikipedia, the more articles were available on Wikipedia, the more often Google referred to Wikipedia. The increasing media coverage of the project also ensured a constant influx of readers and authors. According to official statistics, there were only 250 active authors in January 2003, a year later there were already 1,456. Today, Wikipedia registers over 120,000 authors in the German Wikipedia - of which only about 1000 are part of the hard core, who contribute more than a hundred changes per month .

The rapid growth in the early years not only had positive consequences. "With every growth spurt, new problems arose: how do we deal with troublemakers, which topics are relevant, how do we structure the articles?" Recalls Jansson. "And everyone had a different idea of ​​what an encyclopedia should be." The result was a never-ending discussion process about the basic rules of the project, which is carried out between the various authors on discussion pages, mailing lists and also at user meetings. While Wales and Sanger provided the principles and structures at the beginning, the collective of authors always made several independent decisions about the organization of the encyclopedia.

The Wikipedians became more and more specialized: early on they created the function of the administrator, who was supposed to ensure compliance with the rules, for example by blocking authors for rule violations or deleting incorrect articles. The initially anarchic project became a well-organized encyclopedia machine with hundreds of rules, arbitration procedures and arbitration tribunals. The "relevance criteria" alone, which determine the topics on which Wikipedia articles are allowed, now comprise 29 printed pages in the German edition The different language versions are mutually beneficial. For example, German Wikipedians invented the concept of viewed versions in 2008 - changes by new authors are no longer immediately displayed to the general public. A year later, the concept was also adopted for the English Wikipedia. Completely However, the different communities cannot follow independent paths: The structures of Wikipedia are also determined by the underlying software MediaWiki - an in-house development of the Wikimedia Foundation. The communities can determine whether they want to use certain functions such as feedback options for Les he want to activate.

From encyclopedia to organization

While Wikipedia was initially a hobby project on the servers of the Internet company Bomis.com, founded by Jimmy Wales, the online encyclopedia kept demanding more and more resources. Just one year after it was founded, the question arose of how Wikipedia could be financed in the long term. An obvious idea was online advertising - after all, Jimmy Wales and his company made the money that kept Wikipedia going, primarily through online advertising.

It was here that the power of the Wikipedia author community became apparent for the first time. The rumors about the introduction of advertising alone led to an uprising among the authors. They saw the project as the opposite of the rampant commerce on the Internet. In February 2002 the Spanish Wikipedia edition decoupled from the main project and continued under the name "Enciclopedia Libre Universal en Español". Even Jimmy Wales 'hasty assurance not to advertise against the authors' wishes could not prevent the split. It was only years later that the Spanish Wikipedia was able to recover from this setback.