Backstage with the Wikipedians: Inner Workings of Global Encyclopedia 'Better than a Soap Opera'

By Mathieu von Rohr

Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopedia, is a massive project, where human knowledge is collected and edited by ordinary users. But behind the scenes of the German-language version of this intellectual utopia is a group of small and dedicated volunteers. Their passion for truth at times leads to bitter disputes.

It was only one word that Wladyslaw Sojka changed on Wikipedia. But by doing so, he set off a running battle that lasted two and a half months and took on a tone so hateful that it even surprised Sojka -- even if he himself was partly to blame for it.

It started one night when Sojka modified the first sentence of the German-language Wikipedia article on the Danube Tower in Vienna. He changed "The Danube Tower is an observation tower" into "The Danube Tower is a television and observation tower."

Sojka, 34, an insurance agent from Lörrach, southwestern Germany, had given plenty of consideration to this step. There are few people, he says, who know as much about television towers as he does. Towers have fascinated him since he was a boy. He has literature on towers, coffee table books about towers and pictures of towers. On their honeymoon, he and his wife took a helicopter flight around his favorite -- the CN Tower in Toronto. A poster-sized photograph Sojka took of that tower hangs in their bedroom.

Who then, if not he, had the right to judge whether a 252-meter (827-foot) reinforced concrete pillar in Vienna should be described as a television tower?

The very next morning, Sojka saw he had been pulled up short. An Austrian with the username "Elisabeth59" had undone his modification and added a comment: "The Danube Tower is definitively not a television tower. It was conceived and built as an observation tower."

The move rather annoyed Sojka. He changed the article back again and wrote: "If you don't know anything, you should just keep your fingers still -- the danube tower is obviously a ttelevision tower (sic)."

Thus began one of the most absurd debates ever carried out on the German Wikipedia website. It amounted to pages and pages full of insults and corrections, reaching a length of 600,000 characters -- as much as a book. The underlying issues soon became much greater than just the Danube Tower -- it was about the truth and who has the right to enforce it.

'A Social Innovation'

Wikipedia is the world's largest encyclopedia and it soon may be the only remaining one, so those issues are crucial. The print version of the German-language Brockhaus Encyclopedia as well as Microsoft's CD-ROM encyclopedia, Encarta, have been discontinued, and the Encyclopædia Britannica is experiencing financial difficulties. The days of thick encyclopedia volumes lining bookshelves are past, as are the days of encyclopedia editors who selected, assessed and sorted material. These tasks have been passed on to the collective of Internet users.

Wikipedia seems like a utopia come true -- global knowledge compiled by everyone, administered, amended and corrected by everyone, serving the philosophy that knowledge shouldn't be a good to be sold, it should be something freely available to all. The German version contains more than 1 million articles, thousands of users access the site every second and about 20 modifications are made to articles every minute. It's possible to observe here in real time the production of knowledge, the struggle for truth and how painful that process can sometimes be.

The miracle of Wikipedia, though, is how all that bickering can actually give rise to knowledge. "Wikipedia is a social innovation, not a technical innovation," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales once wrote.

The vast majority of Wikipedia's millions of users never even noticed the dispute over the Danube Tower. These users access the online encyclopedia to quickly look something up, and they know, for the most part, that not every single thing they find there is necessarily true. In fact, they know little of the life that goes on behind the scenes, or of the blood, sweat and tears poured out just a few clicks away, in the project's metaphorical back rooms.

It turns out Wikipedia is not actually the project of many, but the project of just a few. It is a widespread misconception that all users contribute mutually and democratically to the site and that Wikipedia is the product of "collective intelligence." The German Wikipedia has several hundred thousand registered users. But according to research carried out by sociologist Christian Stegbauer in Frankfurt, more than half of all users who register on the site never make changes to an article. Only 0.5 percent of all active users are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all editing. That's a group of not even 2,000 people.

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1. another "german trait" ?
more q than a 04/23/2010
Read the article with some interest, since I have often wondered how frequently wikipedia is given as THE source of info in german fora and blogs. Use it myself : a quick FIRST step of research, but would hesitate - even be kind of embarrassed - to have it as my sole back-up .... Now I can't wait for someone to comment on how "very german" the whole controversy is ;)
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