Fifteen years ago this week our regular guest David Brooks discovered Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Back then it had a mere fraction of the articles that it has now. But one of the early entries was for the city of Concord, New Hampshire. David recently tried to track down the person who created that page for Concord and his search led him to someone who prompted what's considered the biggest controversy in Wikipedia's early history.
So the person you found wasn't the person who created it and it wasn't the second person who created it, it was the third. Who is that person?
His name is Derek Ramsey. And if you're a Wikipedia insider you will know him as ram-man or ram-bot, which are two of the personalities he had in the early days. And you're right, I did not - I really wanted to find the person who created the article. I thought it would be fun, but it was actually created by a software bot that doesn't exist anymore, and the second person who edited it, or I guess the first person who edited it, is no longer on Wikipedia. So I had to settle for the second person who edited it.
Okay. And this second person, Derek Ramsey, he made some major additions to the Concord page. How did he do that?
OK, so let's go back. Let's take the wayback machine when Wikipedia was like under 50,000 articles. It had been around for about a year when I found it, when I stumbled across it and I thought it would last for about another year and then die. Which just shows how much I know. So I started playing with it and back then there were very few articles. It was easy to find articles didn't exist to create them which is what I did and lots of people did, and all sorts of fun. And Derek Ramsey found it. He's a software guy - he still is, and he's big into open source like Linux, that is, software projects that you know kind of anybody can edit. So he likes the idea of Wikipedia and he had actually just graduated from college and he has some time on his hands. So he said, 'what can I do to help it?' And he figured he could find open source databases like, say, the Census, stuff like that, publicly accessible
databases. He wrote a little SQL code and basically uploaded them to the article. So one of the things he did was, as I say, was census and geographic data. So his first edits to Concord, which happened just before I started on the site, added things like you know, how many square miles it takes up, and what the population was in 2000.
And he didn't do it just for Concord. He did this for a lot of different places based on public records. What was the impact on Wikipedia at the time?
Yeah, he said set up SQL code and he just uploaded it pretty quickly and at that time he increased the size of Wikipedia by about 40 percent over the course of like one week in October of 2002, and freaked out a lot of people. So at the time, Wikipedia was small enough that it sort of seemed like you know everybody join hands and sing Kumbaya while they were uploading this information, and here comes this algorithm which is charging through it and so a lot of people got sort of flustered and flummoxed. I think it crashed servers too.
Well, aside from crashing the servers, I mean why would that make people upset? Presumably he's adding a lot of accurate information and a small amount of time. Isn't that what people who use Wikipedia kind of want?
Well, yeah, but the idea that the software would do it as compared to human beings making these wise decisions in a communal setting, that kind of flustered some people and so there was there was quite a lot of back and forth about it.
And we sit back and forth. I mean that was the controversy right, the idea that Wikipedia could be created by people or by robots or a mixture of the two?
Make sure, sort of what it was going to be it. It was so new at the time, was so weird. I mean come on an encyclopedia that any schlub can edit is kind of a ridiculous idea, so people just weren't quite sure where it was going and this was something that startled them.
And in the course of your researching and talking to Derek Ramsey you found that he is still involved in Wikipedia but less so, in part because of the two schools of thought on how the website should work now - the inclusionists and the deletionists. Am I saying that right?
You are - it sounds like weird indie bands.
Right, definitely, but what are the difference between those two and why is it so important to Derek Ramsey?
So it's sort of an argument about what level of notoriety should something be in Wikipedia. So for example there is no article about you, Peter Biello. And if somebody created it I'm sure other people come along say, 'Yeah he's on the radio but he's not really notable enough to be on Wikipedia.'
This is true.
They'd probably spell your name wrong anyway. So the inclusionists would say, 'What the heck, he's on the radio. Why not. Let's put everybody in who's anything,' almost. And the deletionists would say, no, we need to have standards.
And right now the deletionists are sort of mostly in control. So they tend to delete articles like they would, Peter Biello. So I think Derek Ramsey felt that the deletionists were getting too strict, it was too much of a pain, you're constantly fighting about it. So he doesn't really do much articles - he does photos. He's a photographer as well. So he uploads photos because people don't get irritated about them, mostly.
All right, well, David, thank you very much. Great story.
All right, my pleasure.
That's David Brooks. He's a reporter for The Concord Monitor and the writer so geeky he even made the first Wikipedia page for Captain Kangaroo.
And usually I'm making a joke in this part of the interview. But this is actually true.
David is responsible for that. You can find a link to David's column at GraniteGeek.org.