Wikipedia It is today the greatest reference – and one of the few that remain – of that utopian internet of the early 2000s in which it was widely believed that the web could offer completely free and open access to information.
With its crises and controversies, Wikipedia recently turned 20 already established as a reference, leaving behind the doubts that sometimes flew over its contents to become, for example, a reference to which the WHO gave credit as the original source in the COVID-19 pandemic.
And all this being financed solely with donations and expanding its vast list of articles (more than 1.6 million only in its Spanish edition) thanks to the work of altruistic editors.
Nevertheless, There was a time this could have changed forever. A moment that perhaps would have led us to continue consulting Wikipedia today but with its articles sponsored by any commercial brand.
That attempt was stopped by a group of Spanish Wikipedians who created a ‘fork’ or bifurcation of the project that redirected the idea to what we know today.
On the occasion of the news that Wikipedia is considering launching a paid version of its API so that large technology companies that drink from its content (such as Google) pay for more immediate access to their updates, we remember the history of the Universal Free Encyclopedia, the alternative to Wikipedia that saved the original conception of Wikipedia itself.
An ad-supported Wikipedia was possible
To understand the story, it is necessary to go back to the origin of the project itself. As is known, Wikipedia was a project co-founded by Jimmy-State- Wales and Larry Sanger, after a first attempt to create free information that did not go quite right.
That failed attempt was Nupedia, an encyclopedia that, although it also offered its articles in the open, these were prepared by experts and academics in the field that, in addition, required peer review before publication.
This process meant that the appearance of new content was a trickle on Nupedia, while Wikipedia, with a much more open approach to whoever wanted to collaborate, began to publish dozens of articles since January 2001. Editions in other languages were added to that altruistic crusade, one of the first and most active, the Spanish Wikipedia just a few months later.
The role of Bomis
But in this internet that was beginning to be massive but also prehistoric in many cases, setting up and storing a similar project on web servers was not an easy task.
Wikipedia was linked from its early years to Bomis, a company created by Jimmy Wales himself and that had experimented with content websites such as a directory on the city of Chicago, but also many other portals, some with erotic content.
Bomis, under the umbrella of Wales, lent its servers to host the Wikipedia project in its early years and, in addition, it was the owner of the domain Wikipedia.com. Because yes, Wikipedia did not start with the .org domain from the beginning (now something with much less importance but vital in the internet canons of two decades ago when referring to non-profit projects).
And in that confluence in which Wikipedia was hosted under a private company, but with content with an open license and that was also contributed by altruistic contributors, schism arose.
Santiago Navarro, current director of Wikimedia Spain, told Hipertextual this particular event a few months ago when we interviewed him about the encyclopedia’s anniversary. “Basically, Wikipedia’s founders raised the possibility of displaying ads somehow, something that did not go down well with the community, especially the Spanish one ”, he recalled.
February 2002, the year the ELU was born
That situation can still be seen today in what is called the Wikipedia Museum, a compilation of pages, articles and debates between editors housed within their own website with the aim of showing its evolution.
There, we found a thread of messages between Larry Sanger -who had acted as director of the project at the editorial level in those early years- and Edgar Enyedy, a Wikipedian of the Spanish edition, which ends with the latter’s decision to leave the project after have Sanger name the possibility of introducing ads.
“Bomis may well start selling ads on Wikipedia sometime in the next few months.”Sanger wrote. Faced with this, Enyedy replied that he did not write in the project so that advertising could be inserted with the content that he altruistically elaborated. Sanger alluded to the fact that while Wikipedia had a collaborative purpose, there was a need to remunerate the people who worked most actively at the structural level.
That discussion was replicated almost a decade later in an article by Wired in which Enyedy reappeared telling his vision of the events and Sanger and Wales responded to it with words that showed that the discussion did not end well.
Of course, that was one of the germs that gave rise to the Spanish fork.
On February 26, 2002, a group of Spanish Wikipedians transferred the articles from Spanish Wikipedia to a new server, sponsored by the University of Seville, enforcing the free license of their contents. The Universal Free Encyclopedia was born.
That transfer was possible thanks to the work of some Wikipedians such as Juan Antonio Ruiz, associated with the University of Seville, or Javier de la Cueva. De la Cueva himself told a few years ago Turing Journal that that fork began as something modest, that in addition to advertising it also sought to prevent the Spanish edition from becoming in many cases simple translations of the North American edition.
The Free Encyclopedia did its job and changed Wikipedia
«When they say there is no copyright here, it is not like that, copyleft is one of the forms of copyright. This showed that the free encyclopedia could not be in the hands of some people who imposed a vertical hierarchy, “he recalled.
That fork – still available today – had 50,000 articles, surpassing in those first months to the own edition of Wikipedia in Spanish.
The fear that these forks would occur in more languages made Wales and Sanger withdraw the idea from the ads, change the domain to .org and, a year later, create the Wikimedia Foundation, de facto unlinking Wikipedia from Bomis.
In the rejoinder published by WiredWhile Wales denies any idea of introducing advertising at any point, Sanger does acknowledge that the ELU had the advertising option scrapped entirely.
But to give credit to its due, Enyedy is correct that the fork of the Spanish Wikipedia may well have been the last straw for a 100% ad-free Wikipedia.
Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia
Wikipedia has recently turned 20 years with its edition in Spanish as one of the most lavish and applauded, and although the fundraising campaigns do not stop, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia foundation appear to be in good health.
Larry Sanger disassociated himself from Wikipedia over the years, alluding to a supposed lack of equidistance and neutrality and came to create his own fork in 2018, Citizendium. Wales, for his part, while still linked to the Wikimedia Foundation to a greater extent, runs Wikia / Fandom, a network of character portals also wiki about series, movies and video games in which, this time, there is advertising.