William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘First Versions’ Category

The Earliest Known Record of Wikipedia Journalism

Tagged as , , , , , , ,
on October 12, 2010 at 6:56 am

I’d gotten to wondering, recently, what was the first time Wikipedia was mentioned by a media source? The project began in January 2001, but I’m sure I wasn’t aware of it until sometime in 2003 at the earliest. I have no memory of first learning about it — only a recollection that sometime in the middle of the last decade, I was spending hours and hours, and entire days on some weekends, reading Wikipedia. I wasn’t too curious about where it came from then, but over the last few years, I clearly have been.

So I did what anyone with access to an online news database would do: I looked it up. And the winner appears to be a July 1, 2001 article in the Australian edition of PC World, by one Aldis Ozols. Here it is, in its entirety:

Roll-your-own fount of knowledge: www.wikipedia.com.; editor’s choice.

“A wiki is a collection of interlinked Web pages which can be visited and edited by anyone” goes the definition by Wikipedia. Rising to the challenge, I edited the page on which this statement was made, and behold, my contribution (all two words of it) became part of the Wikipedia.

This is a collaborative project intended to produce a usable encyclopedia through the efforts of many volunteers who surf in from the Net. While this makes it superficially similar to Everything2 (see June issue), there are differences. For instance, Everything2 seeks to be a live, interactive community as well as a reference, whereas Wildpedia [sic] has a more modest goal: to create a freely distributable 100,000 page encyclopedia online. In addition, where Everything2 has a complex system of user ranking and moderation which attempts to grade contributions and their authors, Wikipedia is wide open. Anyone can rock up and modify existing entries, or create new ones as I did.

Astonishingly, the result is not a pile of chaotic nonsense, as one might expect. Perhaps that’s because the project is still small, with only 6000 pages of text and a few dozen contributors, but something more seems to be at work here. Evidently, articles that start off with a one-sided viewpoint are edited and re-edited until they settle into a kind of consensus with which most people are satisfied. In anycase, this is an interesting experiment containing some surprisingly accurate articles.

Surprisingly prescient, if you ask me. Or perhaps just lucky — many a website that garners positive reviews in its early going nonetheless still folds, or descends into chaos. In any case, I’m surprised to find this article is not online — if I’d been first to report on Wikipedia, I’d want to take credit for the fact.

Looking a little further, it seems that most of the Anglosphere reported on Wikipedia before anyone in the U.S. had anything to say about it: England (London Free Press), Canada (Edmonton Sun), Wales (Wales on Sunday) and Northern Ireland (Irish News) all got there first.

Stateside, the first press mention of Wikipedia was in the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times, by someone named Peter Meyers. This story is online, so I will simply quote the lede (sorry, non-journos) and call it good:

Fact-Driven? Collegial? This Site Wants You

FOR all the human traffic that the Web attracts, most sites remain fairly solitary destinations. People shop by themselves, retrieve information alone and post messages that they hope others will eventually notice. But some sites are looking for ways to enable visitors not only to interact but even to collaborate to change the sites themselves.

Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) is one such site, a place where 100 or so volunteers have been working since January to compile a free encyclopedia. Using a relatively unknown and simple software tool called Wiki, they are involved in a kind of virtual barn-raising.

Their work, which so far consists of some 10,000 entries ranging from Abba to zygote, in some ways resembles the ad hoc effort that went into building the Linux operating system. What they have accomplished suggests that the Web can be a fertile environment in which people work side by side and get along with one another. And getting along, in the end, may ultimately be more remarkable than developing a full-fledged encyclopedia.

For the curious, here is what the ABBA entry looked like on the day the story ran, and here it is today. And here is something close to what the zygote article looked like then, and what it looks like now. One wonders what it will look like in another ten years.

Update: In the comments, Graham87 locates the exact zygote entry, from the so-called Nostalgia Wikipedia (a topic worthy of its own post, at some point).

Bill Clinton’s Excellent Adventure

Tagged as , , , , ,
on August 5, 2009 at 11:27 am

Update: Hmm, so it looks like I may have gotten out ahead of the details on this one. See the comments, where fellow Wikipedian Graham87 points out that the current Wikipedia database does not in fact include edits from the early months of Wikipedia. As he points out, here is an earlier version of the Bill Clinton article. And what does that mean for this particular series? Well… at least I will have to select articles from approximately 2002 on.

The 42nd president is enjoying a pretty good week, having returned this morning from North Korea with American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee free upon his successful negotiations with Kim Jong-Il. This seems as good a moment as any for the second installment in a series on the first versions of major Wikipedia articles.

Bill Clinton left office just five days after Wikipedia was founded in January 2001. Although one might think this would make him a strong candidate for being one of the first articles created, it so happens that no such article was created until November 17 that year. And even then another editor would not contribute again for nearly another month — coincidentally the same day a Wikipedia article was created for his successor.

The first version of the Bill Clinton article was fairly substantial: 979 words excluding the Table of Contents. This is less than a tenth of the 9,900-some words of the Bill Clinton article today — to say nothing of all the articles about the many peripheral articles such as Electoral history of Bill Clinton — but it’s still pretty good.

Here is the first paragraph (of a much longer intro) today:

William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe III, August 19, 1946)[1] served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. He was the third-youngest president; only Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were younger when entering office. He became president at the end of the Cold War, and as he was born in the period after World War II, he is known as the first Baby Boomer president.[2] His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is currently the United States Secretary of State. She was previously a United States Senator from New York, and also candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Both are graduates of Yale Law School.

Here is the first paragraph (of a much longer intro) then:

William Jefferson Clinton (Democrat) was the 42nd President of the United States, from 1993-2001. He was born August 19, 1946 in Hope, Arkansas. He was named after his father, William Jefferson Blythe II, who had been killed in a car accident just three months before his son was born.

In the original version, the Lewinsky scandal is handled in two short paragraphs in the intro section; by now Lewinsky and the subsequent impeachment trial have two short sections which link away to very comprehensive sections of their own.

While Wikipedia today strives to be non-partisan and avoid self-references, these concepts were less-developed early on, and this can be seen in how the original version closed. The last proper article sentence concluded:

There’s a great deal more to be said about him — let’s try to keep it non-partisan and encyclopedic.

And a deprecated link to the Talk page, at the time included in the text of the article itself, said:

/Talk (go ahead and be partisan there)

Not to worry — eight years later, they still are.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Tagged as
on May 3, 2009 at 11:52 am

I’m starting a new occasional series of posts here today — showing what the very first version of different Wikipedia articles looked like, one or two or a few at a time. After all, even the best had to begin somewhere, and it’s highly unlikely that they were delivered to Wikipedia as a fully formed article. This is partly because standards have improved over the years, but also just because of the nature of the wiki — most add just a little at a time, but over time those little bits and pieces turn into a complete article.

The first example is about Radiohead, the favorite rock band of yours truly since The Bends in 1995. The article today is ranked among Wikipedia’s best, and earlier this year was a Featured article, meaning featured on Wikipedia’s main page. But it wasn’t always so. Without further ado, here is the very first version of the Radiohead Wikipedia article from February 7, 2002:

Radiohead, British rock band.

Shot to critical acclaim with their third album, OK Computer, one of the best albums of the late nineties.

Others include:

* Pablo Honey
* The Bends
* OK Computer
* Kid A
* Amnesiac
* I Might Be Wrong (Live recordings)

Other decent artists include PJ Harvey, U2, Nirvana, and more recently, Ryan Adams.

Seriously, Ryan Adams? (Note: The original title for this post was I Might Be Wrong.) The notion that Nirvana, U2 or Radiohead may only be “decent” artists is amusing, too.

You may have also noticed that this version of the article would absolutely violate Wikipedia’s NPOV guideline, which proscribes editors from injecting their own opinions into Wikipedia articles, as it stands today. But it would also have run afoul of the much simpler guideline as it existed then, under the principal authorship of Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and The Cunctator, an editor who is one of Wikipedia’s most veteran.

I undoubtedly agree that OK computer is one of the best albums of the late 1990s, and so this is present in the article as attributed to the music critics who said so, and in the section header which currently reads:

OK Computer, fame and critical acclaim (1996–1998)

That works for me.