This is my column in today’s Monitor:
As you probably know, 4.78 percent of Concord’s total surface area is made up of water.
Wait – you didn’t know that? Then you haven’t read Wikipedia in the past 15 years, because this intriguing if not terribly useful tidbit of information has been part of the article about Concord since halfway through George W. Bush’s first term in office.
In fact, I know who put it there. I hunted him down as part of a private celebration over my own personal wiki-anniversary.
It was 15 ago this week that I first heard about the ridiculous-sounding experiment of an online encyclopedia that any schlub could edit. I thought the whole idea was quirky and interesting but I knew it wouldn’t last, so I rushed to be part of it. (As a futurist, I stink.)
On Jan. 28, 2003, I dipped my first toe in the Wikipedia ocean, creating a two-sentence article about Gerald Durrell, one of my favorite authors. Within a week, according to the history page on my Wikipedia account, I had created other small articles about topics like the White Mountains; mathematician Underwood Dudley; a weird bit of New Hampshire history called the Gravity Research Foundation; and a hero of my childhood, Captain Kangaroo.
But it did have an article about Concord. That piece was an early arrival on the scene, being created when Wikipedia had perhaps 20,000 articles – compared with more than 5.5 million in the English Wikipedia today, plus 35 million more articles in Wikipedias that exist in a whopping 292 other languages.
To mark my wiki-anniversary, I wanted to contact the person who created the Concord article, but it turned out to be a software bot called Conversion Script that stopped running a decade ago.
The second edit was by somebody named Zoe, who was unreachable. Zoe’s user page says Zoe left Wikipedia in 2007 after a squabble with the founder, Jimbo Wales. Editors often leave Wikipedia in a huff; like many online communities, it is full of internecine battles that grow more vicious as the stakes get smaller.
However, I was able to find the person who did the third-ever edit to the Concord article, in November 2002, just before I came on board. His name is Derek Ramsey and he’s a software engineering manager for an environmental monitoring company outside Philadelphia.
If you’re a Wikipedia long-timer, you known him as RamBot or possibly Ram-man, two of his wiki personas.
As Ramsey explained it to me, he had been familiar with NuPedia, a predecessor to Wikipedia, and was fascinated by the idea of a group-controlled encyclopedia because of his love of Linux and similar group-controlled software projects.
“It’s similar to the whole mindset behind open-source software that I always liked. I wanted to help it,” Ramsey said. “I thought, what am I going to edit? What do I know about? Not much – but I know where I live, some silly details about the town I live in, the town I grew up in.”
Being a good software geek, he took that idea and expanded on it.
“I thought, I’ll find some public domain information, geographic information, and connect it to articles. That’s something I know how to do. … So I basically downloaded entire census data for year 2000 and a bunch of databases, and I correlated them together. I created an SQL database, linked with ZIP code, mailing code, that stuff, and uploaded them,” he said.
His November 2002 edit to Concord was part of this early effort, but by sheer chance. Ramsey knew nothing about Concord and had never been here.
The edit quintupled the size of the Concord article, adding geographical tidbits such as total surface area plus demographic data (“As of the census of 2000, there are 40,687 people, 16,281 households, and 9,622 families residing in the city”). More importantly, this meant that for the first time there were signs the article might actually become useful to a casual reader, even though it had a long way to go.
Via his Wikipedia personae, Ramsey created so many articles so quickly that he increased Wikipedia’s size by 40 percent in one week, crashing servers and leading to a frenzied argument about its nature and future. Some people even wanted to banish software bots, fearing that algorithms would undermine the whole project; a 2009 history called The Wikipedia Revolutioncalled it the biggest controversy in the site’s history.
It eventually blew over, and in retrospect the ruckus seems like a remnant of the internet’s early promise, more cute than alarming. These days, loads of software bots constantly add, subtract and edit material, and Wikipedia is roiled by controversies big and small, similar to those that have whipsawed social media and the online world in general.
But in 2002 the ramifications were a big deal in Wikipedia. Ramsey eventually met Jimbo Wales a couple of times and became one of the most prolific editors on the site, although unlike many early pioneers he never became involved in Wikipedia’s administration.
As years went by, Ramsey said, he got tired of the “politics” within the community. The thing that finally drove him away was a long-running debate between the-more-the-merrier “inclusionists,” who think that pretty much anything can be the topic of a Wikipedia article, and “deletionists,” who think that the site needs to maintain standards, which means many new articles get quickly deleted because somebody doesn’t think they’re notable enough.
Ramsey is a self-descried inclusionist, and thinks the deletionists are in control these days, so he has scaled back his participation. A serious photography hobbyist, Ramsey sidesteps the notability debate by confining himself mostly to adding pictures to articles.
“People are less political about photos,” he said. “It’s not very controversial to replace a lousy, low-quality photo with a good one.”
As for the Concord article, it has grown and flowered over the years, subject of many hundreds of individual edits by scores of people. It is now a full-fledged encyclopedia piece full of history, current information, photos and maps (the locator map is another Ramsey project: He made the template for such maps that exist all over Wikipedia). The page is also loaded with hyperlinks to hundreds of other Wikipedia articles, ranging from “NHTI” and “Penacook Lake” to “salmon” and “Rutherford B. Hayes.”
As for me, I’m still editing a bit. I keep an eye on favorite articles – “mathematical jokes,” “Stix Nix Hicks Pix” and “underwater rugby,” to name a few, not to mention Captain Kangaroo – but mostly I return because I’m astonished at what Wikipedia has become.
Despite its many flaws, this weird geeky project has flowered into something truly unique and useful. I would never in a million years have guessed that it would succeed like this.
Yes, it’s sometimes wrong; yes, it is warped by human biases and shortcomings; yes, it could be improved in myriad ways.
But there’s nothing like it anywhere else. I’m glad it’s still here, and I hope that in 15 years it will still be around in some form.
I mean, where else can I go when I forget whether Concord is 4.78 percent water or 8.74 percent water?