This documentary is about Wikipedia, the extremely popular non-profit internet encyclopedia that can be edited by all users in many languages. The program begins with Wikipedia’s creator, Jimmy Wales, exploring the city of Varnasi, India, and inquiring about the residents’ computer access and awareness of the site. Various experts and contributors weigh in on the site’s impact, explaining that the goal of the site is “free access to the sum of all human knowledge” for everyone. It is explained that a “wiki” is a specific kind of website that allows updating by many users in real life; the software was created by Ward Cunningham and named for the Hawaiian word for “quick.” The articles on Wikipedia should be on “notable” topics and written in a formal, natural tone, rather than opinionated “I think” pieces. The website keeps an archive of all the edits made to a specific page, and there is a tab for discussion on every article so users can debate their changes and disagreements, which, of course, occur fairly frequently, as there are so many users. In fact, Wikipedia is the ninth most-popular website in the world, and it is the second-most widely read publication in human history.
However, as the film then discusses, the collaborative, anonymous nature of the articles makes it “unreliable” and “dangerous,” as there is no one officially in charge. As discussed, anonymity is usually associated with a lack of culpability for harmful acts, but Wales points out that most users operate under the umbrella of “pseudonimity,” involving a chosen username, and he argues that the work matters more than the editors’ identity. A particular scandal known as the “Essjay controversy” is then explored, in which a young man falsified his credentials and bullied others with his pretend knowledge of various topics, leading to debate about the reasons behind the users’ anonymity. Fifty percent of the edits on the site are done by an “elite” one percent of the site’s users, creating a “ruling clique.” Various “Wikipedians” around the world then talk about their involvement with the site, including a young man who is an “amateur linguist” and has written many articles in assorted languages. The site puts young people “in authority,” and many young users in different countries admit being “addicted” to editing the site and state that they have made good friends through their work and enjoy helping others by spreading knowledge.
However, it is also acknowledged that there is a sense of “territorialism” and a “hierarchy” of certain users who can “hijack” pages and ban others from editing them. Specific groups rise to “power” by frequent use and band together, exhibiting “paranoia” particularly about other websites that they perceive as a threat. And the information on the articles can be inaccurate or outright libelous: journalist John Seigenthaler recounts an incident in which his page was edited to state that he was somehow involved with the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy. He spoke out about the article in USA Today, angering some Wikipedians and causing a controversy about truth versus gossip. He states that accountability leads to credibility and that the users should not be allowed to be anonymous, but Wales simply says that the site has flaws and most mistakes are caught quickly.
The film then explores Wales’ personal history and his rise to fame, starting with his creation of Bomis.com, a search engine, in 1996. This included a blog called “The Babe Report,” featuring images and information about adult entertainment, leading the media to dub Wales a “porn king.” He then created Nupedia.com, an encyclopedia created and edited by experts, but the stringent certification process caused it to fail. When Wales found out about Ward Cunningham’s wiki software, he and Larry Sanger came up with Wikipedia, with Sanger inventing the name. The site initially crashed, but once they decided to make it non-profit and “handed it over to the community,” it “rocketed” into success. Sanger expresses frustration at being pushed aside when the site became famous, and Wales’ role is examined, with some calling him a “benevolent dictator” and questioning his “god-like” persona amongst Wikipedians. Entrepreneur Andrew Keen states that Wales “stumbled upon the Holy Grail,” but is making no money from the site, as it is freely accessible.
Wales and Keen debate the relative importance of various articles, saying that the length and level of detail on certain pages can intimate an undeserved amount of importance to one topic over another, with Keen comparing the articles of Pamela Anderson and historian Hannah Arendt. Author Susan Jacoby says that Wales was inspired by the philosophy of Objectivist author Ayn Rand and her “silly” novel “The Fountainhead.” Wales’ altruism is questioned; associates speculate that he dislikes all authority and distrusts so-called experts, preferring to let “the people” run the site, and the relative value of elitism is examined. The mediation process on the site is pointed out to be imperfect, with many errors finding their way into articles. Comparisons are made to the Oxford English Dictionary and its unusual creators, and historian Howard Zinn makes the point that everyone has a point of view and it is impossible to find a purely factual source with no bias whatsoever. He cites several examples of historical records that leave out some of the more unpleasant details, saying that these works offer “the truth but not the whole truth.” The site is also compared to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is acknowledged to be quite outdated, and editors discuss the challenges of editing a historical work when a huge event like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurs. Experts examine the power of information and the way in which regimes depend on the ignorance of its subjects, with Noam Chomsky discussing the warped historical knowledge of Chinese students, among others. As discussed, the site promotes sharing and understanding of facts, but crowds can also be dangerous in their strength.
The pros and cons of the site, and Wales’ relative power over the information provided, are summed up by critics, and Sanger expresses the desire to fix his “mistake” in helping create the site with his own site, Citizendium. Wales admits that his work has “personal costs” and says he has separated from his wife, but plans to continue the site. Commentators speculate whether the site can survive long term, and the interviewees close out the film by reading their own pages and evaluating their accuracy.
- RUNNING TIME: 1:25:13
- COLOR/B&W: Color
- CATALOG ID: 104050
- GENRE: Documentary
- SUBJECT HEADING: Documentary
- SERIES RUN:
Craig Shapiro........ Executive Producer
Michael Ferris Gibson........ Producer
Scott Glosserman........ Producer
Gabriel London........ Associate Producer
Kent Redwine........ Associate Producer
Zack Rice........ Associate Producer
Nic Hill........ Director
Jeff MacDonald........ Music by
Alan Schwartz........ Narrator
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Robert Francis Kennedy