‘Hello, World!’ was the first edit Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales made to the site’s homepage after launching it on 15 January 2001. Since then the online encyclopaedia has become the internet’s largest repository of free information. It is published in more than 300 languages, edited by thousands of volunteers and read by millions of knowledge-seekers.
When he sent out his global greeting 20 years ago did Wales ever imagine it would end up reaching that many people? ‘I always say I'm a pathological optimist,’ he admits. ‘I thought if we did a really good job we might be a top-100 or top-50 website, but I didn't really know that we would have this really fundamental impact.’ He needn’t have worried: it has been consistently in the world’s top 10 most-visited websites for years.
Anyone searching the internet today to learn about any given topic will likely be directed to one of the 6,408,480 Wikipedia articles currently online. The site recorded an average of 228 million daily visitors last month, and each person read for an average of nearly four minutes (as anyone who has fallen down a Wiki rabbit hole can attest, time can fly by).
Institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern art include excerpts of Wikipedia entries about artists on their websites, and an annual Art+Feminism edit-a-thon is held each March to correct perceived biases and create content about artists who are under-represented on grounds of race, gender or sexuality.
It even inspired the artist Michael Mandiberg to undertake the Sisyphean task of turning its content into a physical reference work for the 2015 art project Print Wikipedia. Mandiberg only made 106 volumes, each of 700 pages, as it would have taken an estimated 7,500 to document the whole site, and would take many more now.
So how did it all start? Wikipedia was in fact the second online encyclopaedia Wales tried to get off the ground. The first was Nupedia, a peer-reviewed site written by scholars and experts. But the entry-approval process took too long. ‘It was very, very academic and it failed because it wasn't really any fun for volunteers — it was too rigid,’ says Wales.
Nupedia’s editor-in-chief and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger then suggested using existing ‘wiki’ software created by programmer Ward Cunningham to make collaborating on web pages easier. ‘We were so close to giving up because progress was so slow that I decided to give it a go,’ Wales recalls. ‘Within two weeks we had as much work done as in almost two years.’
However, what made Wikipedia function was also what made it vulnerable, since anyone with an internet connection could edit the site. ‘Most of the early wikis that were out there didn’t keep the past history, so they didn't grow and self-heal over time,’ says Wales. ‘If somebody came in and damaged something the old version would be lost. And that was that. It was really just an interesting kind of community, almost like a performance art project.’
After waking up in the middle of the night in a panic a few times, worried that someone had vandalised the site, Wales wrote some code to create usernames and passwords for editors. He also began to keep a full history of the site, so any changes could be reversed.
That code is now part of a dynamic non-fungible token (NFT) Wales has made that recreates his first edit to the homepage. It will be offered at Christie’s The Birth of Wikipedia sale (3-15 December) along with the strawberry-coloured iMac computer he used while working on the site at home. The ultimate buyer of the NFT will be able to edit the work — and revert it back to its original appearance — whenever they want.
Making the work modifiable, says Wales, seemed like the right way ‘to express artistically what I think was meaningful about that moment of potential and excitement — that you might make something amazing, or you might make something that doesn't work at all. And I hope people respond to that, to really think back: this isn't the mature Wikipedia, this was Jimmy's crazy idea on a funny January morning, which I think is kind of spectacular to think about.’
Proceeds from the sale of the NFT will help support Wales’s alternative social media network pilot project WT.Social, an attempt to find a healthier and nontoxic alternative with existing social media platforms with a donation-only advertising-free model, as well as to help support a variety of charities working in the free culture world.
‘Wikipedia stands as the largest aggregation of human knowledge ever assembled,’ says Peter Klarnet, Christie’s Senior Specialist for Americana, Books and Manuscripts. ‘It is a testament to the power of what crowd-sourcing can achieve: allowing billions of people access to a vast trove of information — and all of it free of charge. As frequent users of Wikipedia in the course of our own work we are honoured to have been entrusted with two objects associated with the birth of this transformative achievement.’
Looking back on how much Wikipedia has grown in 20 years Wales says he sees the site as the realisation of many of the ideals of early internet pioneers. ‘When most people first saw the internet they didn't think: “Great, I can get dog food delivered to my house!” They thought: “Wow, this is amazing, human minds can connect all around the world. We can get information, we can share our knowledge”. And Wikipedia is really all about that. It is still realising that dream, if not perfectly — we're not finished yet and we've got a lot of work to do. But for many people I think that was the original passion and hope for the internet.’