New Story: How Wikipedia Grew Up With The War on Terror

One week before Sept. 11, a tech publication wrote that Wikipedia “will probably never dethrone Britannica.”

On Sept. 4, 2001, the MIT Technology Review published an article titled “Free the Encyclopedias!” introducing Wikipedia, the free web-based encyclopedia. The article described Wikipedia, which had started in January of that year, as “intellectual anarchy extruded into encyclopedia form” and proclaimed that Wikipedia “will probably never dethrone Britannica.”

One week after the MIT Technology Review story, the Wikipedia community responded to the spectacular tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by kicking into encyclopedia-editing overdrive. In short order, the Wikipedia community created approximately 100 Sept. 11–related articles, at a time when Wikipedia as a whole had only about 13,000 articles, covering topics such as the attacked buildings, flights, and perpetrators, as well as “terrorism,” “box-cutter knife,” and “collective trauma,” according to research by Brian Keegan of the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine includes a snapshot of the Wikipedia page for the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack as it existed on Oct. 9, 2001. What is striking is that the 20-year-old page doesn’t look all that different from the way Wikipedia looks today: heavily text-based, the same plain white background, and those same old-fashioned cobalt-blue links.

Even though the basic model of Wikipedia hasn’t shifted much since its early days, the public perception of Wikipedia has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Throughout the early 2000s, mainstream media remained largely skeptical toward Wikipedia, debating whether the internet encyclopedia was diminishing the importance of expertise and ceding truth itself to popular opinion. But in recent years, the press coverage has trended more positive, with journalists praising Wikipedia as the “good cop” of the internet and a “ray of light” in a depressing world.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, Facebook users are likely to see 9/11 tributes selected by an algorithmic assessment of that user’s content preferences, part of the personalized, polarized social media experience. On the other hand, every English Wikipedia user who visits the current page for the September 11 attacks this week will see the same article regardless of their demographic profile. Wikipedia’s approach—sameness within a language edition—is actually sort of boring in the sense that it is one-size-fits-all. And Wikipedia also remains quite labor-intensive. Instead of displaying content based on an algorithm, the Wikipedia process requires a lot of human vetting, discussion, and compromise. Case in point: Nearly 6,000 user accounts have contributed to the September 11 page, according to the site’s MediaWiki software.

With its quaint interface and nonprofit model, Wikipedia is in many ways a product of the early 2000s. What’s less obvious is how those shocking events of the early 2000s—including the coverage of 9/11 and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the media treatment of so-called wikiality—helped make Wikipedia into the so-called last bastion of shared reality that it is today.

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