Wikipedia Is the One Impossible Thing

Wikipedia turned 15 today, a day where I happen to have my back against the wall on some deadlines. Turns out faculty want to nail down their edtech plan by week three of the class. Who knew?

But in any case, I didn’t want to let the anniversary go by without saying something.

The thing I’ve come to realize about Wikipedia is this: it’s the one impossible thing the Web has given us.

Name the other things you encounter on the Web on a daily basis: email, online reading, shopping, media viewing, self-paced education, online hobby communities, self-publishing. Cooperative music making.

For any of these things I can find you a prediction somewhere between 1968 and 1978 that describes these functions as an inevitable part of the future. In many cases (e.g. online education and shopping) I can show you early 1970s technologies *in use* that are not that different from what we do today.

If, at the dawn of the web, I was to take a list of things the web would bring about and show them to a researcher, they might disagree on the level of interest people would have in things (what’s with the cat pictures, spaceman?) but there’d be little there to surprise them except for one item: the most used reference work in the world will be collaboratively maintained by a group of anonymous and pseudonymous volunteers as part of a self-organizing network.

Nobody predicted that in 1971 or 1991. In fact, in 2001, the only people predicting it were a small group of people who had been using wiki.

I’m sure people will reply that I’ve missed thing X or Y, and there’s an argument to be made that “the one impossible thing” is hyperbole. But if it is, it’s not by much, and most of the things you’d mention were partially inspired by Wikipedia in any case.

It would be nice if on this day, as we marvel about the rise of Wikipedia, we could turn some of our attention to the Wikipedias of the future. Where are opportunities for this mode of collaboration that we’ve missed? Why are we not confronted by more impossible things? How can we move from the electronic dreams of the 1970s to visions informed by the lessons of wiki and Wikipedia?

Some people might think we’ve already done that. But I’m pretty sure we’re barely getting started.

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