The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih

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I was looking forward to reading this book and hoped that it would be as fascinating as the book about that other Internet phenomenon, Facebook. I reviewed this book – The Accidental Billionaire – several months ago and described the dramatic story of a number of larger than life characters battling with each other as Facebook grew to take the world by storm. The nerdish Mark Zuckerberg outflanked his former friends – the glamorous Winklevoss twins of Olympic rowing fame – even if he had to pay them a fortune in compensation.

The Wikipedia revolution has no such glamorous characters and the style of writing does not match the innovative nature of the product and the way in which it has, like Facebook, changed the way that many of us live. The story of the site’s development is full of detail about the technology of the various innovations that led to the creation of Wikipedia and I was soon lost in the complexity of it all. One interesting gem from this section was the fact that a key technical development that made it all possible came from Steve Job’s one ‘failed’ computer venture NeXT, inbetween his spells at Apple.

In contrast to the Facebook story, there seems to be little personal conflict. Even when one of the early innovators Larry Sanger leaves the project, there is little angst or drama. I was left wondering whether this is because the book is hiding something or whether the principals really were that easygoing. I suspect it is the latter because the whole project requires people who are prepared to empower others and is driven by evangelists who are committed to the idea of sharing knowledge. The story of how the idea quickly changed from strict editorial control to more or less open access for volunteers is remarkable for its smooth transition.

There are some interesting stories of how this open access can go pear shaped, for instance the controversy over a picture of a naked child under the entry for a heavy metal band which led to access being blocked for a period; and the ‘professor’ who got a job at Wiki by falsifying his own Wikipedia entry!

I would like to have seen more of these anecdotes rather than the many pages about boring technical stuff, including long lists of the languages in which entries appear (I particularly hoped to hear more about the prank following the death of composer Ronnie Hazelhurst; someone changed his entry just after his death and fooled three broadsheet newspapers into including in their obituaries the false and hilarious claim that he had, in his latter years, written songs for pop group S Club 7).

Overall this was an informative rather than an entertaining read; a book for the committed nerd rather than the interested outsider.

Find out more about the book at http://wikipediarevolution.com/The_Book.html

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