[ 4] Berners-Lee, T.
Weaving the Web: The
Original Design and
Ultimate Destiny of the
World Wide Web by Its
Inventor. San Francisco:
[ 5] Nelson, T.H. Literary
Machines: The Report
On, and Of, Project
Revolution, and Certain
Other Topics Including
and Freedom. 91.1.
Sausalito, Ca.: Mindful
Press, 1992, third chapter zero, 13.
[ 6] Wilson, D. and
A. M. Reynard.
Asked Questions and
Group. 15 Feb. 1994.
interpedia. 27 Oct.
See questions 1, 1.2,
1.1, and 4. 5.
the Web as we know it, but not as it was first conceived. In his memoir of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee
describes his motivation for the Web as “a universal medium for sharing information.” While today’s
Web was seen as a hobbled upstart by hypertext
pioneer Ted Nelson, it falls short of even Berners-Lee’s original vision, to which he now refers in its
richer potential as the Semantic Web.
In any case, despite the Web’s early limitations,
or perhaps because of them, in January 1993 there
were nearly 50 different Web browsers. These
were inspired by Berners-Lee’s original Web client
and more or less implemented the early specifications for HTTP (network transport), HTML (content
markup), and URL (resource locators/identifiers).
However, one client was to stand out: Mosaic,
and subsequently Netscape. Unfortunately, some
Mosaic developers seemed intent on overshadowing the World Wide Web and failed to implement
the critical feature of editing the Web: “Marc and
Eric [Mosaic developers] explained that they had
looked at that option and concluded that it was
just impossible. It can’t be done. This was news
to me, since I had already done it with the World
Wide Web [client] on the NeXT though admittedly
for a simpler version of HTML.” [ 4] Consequently,
for many people the Web became a browsing-only
medium until the arrival of the Wiki Wiki Web.
Would Interpedia be part of the Internet, or, if it
referenced existing services, would it be something “that ends up being the net” [ 6]? When the
Web became undeniably predominant a few years
later, projects like the Distributed Encyclopedia
and GNUPedia expected to naturally take advantage of one of the Web’s greatest features: decentralization. Different articles would be maintained
by single authors on unrelated websites. This is
unlike Wikipedia, which is created through fine-grained and incremental collaborations by many
at a single site.
It was not until the new millennium, with the
Web almost ubiquitous and free and open source
software providing the collaborative inspiration,
that a serious commitment to a free online encyclopedia was made. After Larry Sanger earned
his Ph.D. in philosophy, he wrote to Jimmy Wales,
entrepreneur and fellow philosophy listserv subscriber, about a possible successor to his Y2K
newsletters—the year 2000 had passed without
much incident and Sanger was looking for new
work. Wales counter-proposed his encyclopedia
idea and asked Sanger if he would be interested in
leading the project. So in 2000 Wales hired Sanger
to launch and manage Nupedia.com, “building
the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind.” [ 7] But Nupedia struggled: Its underlying
collaborative software lacked functionality, and
it was difficult to procure commitments from
expert volunteers for the significant work entailed
in writing and reviewing articles. The universal vision, providing a low-cost encyclopedia to
“schoolhouses across the world,” seemed reasonable. The technology, too, seemed capable of inexpensively supplying information throughout the
world, and of facilitating the work of distant contributors. Yet something more was needed and it
would be found only by what seems to have been
[ 7] Shannon, P.
“Regarding Sanger and
Shannon’s Review of
Y2K News Reports.”
Forum. 11 Jan. 2000.
Time Bomb 2000. 27
Oct. 2005. <http://www.
and Sanger, L. “I Am
a Clueless Newbie.”
Mailing list. 9 Mar.
2000. Nupedia-L. 7
June 2006. <http://
An Internet Encyclopedia
While the technologies of the earlier half of the
century failed to satisfy, computer networks
inspired a new generation of information universalists. Consider how similar Ted Nelson sounds
to his predecessors on declaring, “We have to save
mankind from an almost certain and immediately
approaching doom through the application, expansion and dissemination of intelligence.” [ 5]
Although the idea of an Internet encyclopedia
nearly coincides with the Internet’s birth, an
“Interpedia” became a topic of public discussion
in the early 1990s. However, at that time there
were almost too many technical options: Would
it be based on Gopher, WAIS, or the new thing
called the Web? In addition to the confounding
array of options, Doug Wilson, maintainer of the
Interpedia FAQ, wrote, “the term Interpedia is
ambiguous—to some it means the text, to some
software, and to others what we will have when
we have both.” [ 6] A consequence, in part, of this
technical uncertainty was an ambiguity in vision.
Wiki and Wikipedia
“Wiki wiki” means “superfast” in the Hawaiian
language, and Ward Cunningham chose the
name for his collaborative Web software in 1995
to indicate the ease with which one could edit
pages. Cunningham, an advocate of software
design patterns, attended a conference on pattern
languages during which he agreed to collect and
post user-submitted patterns if contributors sent
him a structured text file, which he could then