Open Source: Reclaiming the Commons


The Wikipedia Revolution

By Andrew Lih

(Aurun Press Ltd 2009)

Lih’s Wilkipedia Revolution stands as a testament to the unsung heroes of the Open Source (OS) movement. From the outset, there has been a split between entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who have viewed the Internet as an opportunity to become enormously rich, and true visionaries like Jimmy Wales, who see it as a medium of social change with the potential to improve the lives of billions of people.

In Lih’s view, Wikipedia would never have been possible without the freely shared knowledge and software of the Open Source movement. He makes this clear by skillfully interweaving the personal biography of Jimmy Wales with the history of the Internet, the World Wide Web and the OS movement itself.

Hacker Ethics and the Open Source Movement

Wales, who has a master’s degree in finance, had a first career selling derivatives for Chicago Options Associates. In 1996, he used his programming and hacking skills to start a dot com in with Tim Shell, who he met through an on-line philosophy mailing list. At the time, Wales was a big fan of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, i.e. the belief in obtaining objective knowledge form measurement. This would ultimately inspire his faith in using measurement by the masses to create an on-line reference work.

Wales and Shell called their dot com Bitter Old Men in Suits (BOMIS). Their first project was a Yahoo-style directory for the city of Chicago. This was around the time (1996) that two Sun Microsystems engineers started DMOZ (, the first Internet-wide search engine. They did so with the explicit intent of employing volunteer labor and freely distributing it to the public, under the principle of “Copyleft” or General Public License that underpinned the free software movement. Later renamed the Open Source movement, this was started in 1985 by MIT hacker Richard Stallman, helped by an extensive on-line network of hackers.

The hacker community has a very strong ethic that it’s okay to hack into computers and steal software code provided you use it to improve and share the software. Refusing to share what you have stolen and improved on for personal profit (like Bill Gates) is considered totally unethical. Making your software code public, instead of keeping it secret, allows thousands of programmers to improve on it. This why free downloadable Open Source programs always have fewer operating and security glitches than Microsoft and other proprietary software.

Netscape, Linux and Wikiwiki Web

DMOZ subsequently morphed into Netscape, which dropped out of public view after Microsoft pirated and monopolized the concept, by loading their own Microsoft Explorer on every new computer. Netscape would ultimately be reborn as Mozilla Firefox, a free Open Source browser many users prefer for its greater safety and reliability. Because the code that runs it is freely and publicly available, it undergoes continuous quality improvement by the thousands of programmers who use it.

Other significant innovations that made Wikipedia possible were the creation of the World Wide Web in 1992 by Tim Berners-Lee and the creation of Wikiwiki Web by Ward Cunningham in 1994. Prior to 1992, there were a half dozen different protocols (including Gopher and WAIS) that had to be laboriously typed in to access documents posted on the Internet. Berners-Lee created a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), using a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http) for finding on-line documents. Cunningham’s Wiki software enabled any user anywhere to edit any website without having specialized software or knowledge of programming or html (the language used to construct a web page).

The Birth of Wikipedia

In 2000, Y2K enthusiast Larry Sanger joined BOMIS, bringing a large number of followers from his on-line Y2K digest. The Y2K movement was an informal network of programmers and community activists formed to rectify the widespread use, in early computers, of two digit dates. There was legitimate concern that computers built before 1990 would be unable to distinguish whether “00″ represented the year 1900 or the year 2000 – and crash. Disaster was averted, thanks to the frantic rewriting (in 1998 and 1999) of millions of lines of code in government and corporate computers.

After Sanger joined BOMIS, one of their first projects was an on-line encyclopedia-style “blog” called Nupedia. Wales, Shell and Sanger drew in friends and on-line acquaintances to help with drafting and editing articles.

Wiki Protocol

The initial process of editing successive on-line drafts was extremely slow and cumbersome. BOMIS’s discovery of Cunningham’s Wiki protocol changed all this, enabling first hundreds, then thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of computer users anywhere to post and edit articles Wales, Shell and Sanger registered Wikipedia Foundation as a non-profit organization in January 2001 The only rules were that Wikipedia had to be freely accessible to the public, have a Neutral Point of View (NPOV), and only describe existing research (original research is forbidden).

In the beginning detractors predicted that allowing thousands of strangers to post and edit articles would lead to total anarchy. According to Lih, order is maintained by hundreds of volunteer administrators and System Operators who are passionate about the concept of maintaining Wikipedia as a free and open encyclopedia.

Other critics periodically express concern about the CIA and various public officials rewriting Wikipedia entries to coincide with their political interests.