Wikipedia Code Explained: Open-Source Software & Features

Wikipedia Code Explained: Open-Source Software & Features

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The 3 Features That Make Wikipedia an (Underrated) Internet Icon

In honor of Skillacademy’s 11th anniversary, we’re looking back at the 2000s websites and software that influenced our founders to build Skillacademy — and inspired a generation to learn to code. Explore other fun deep dives into early aughts internet topics here.

There are countless ways to look up facts on the internet practically instantaneously — whether it’s a song you heard in a coffee shop or a celebrity’s height. But when you want to take a deep dive into a topic, most people rely on one specific website: Wikipedia.

With Wikipedia’s indiscriminate library of content and oft-questioned accuracy, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia has a mixed reputation.

“I feel like Wikipedia is just a breath of fresh air,” says Annie Rauwerda, creator of the popular Instagram account @depthsofwikipedia, which features obscure and entertaining Wikipedia entries. “It’s not perfect, but the good thing is, if you see something on Wikipedia that you don’t like, you have just as strong a voice as anyone else in the world.”

Wikipedia’s participatory format was viewed as a radical concept when it launched in the early ‘00s. Back in the ’90s, the internet was largely feudal, with people setting up their own sites on AngelFire to post content or flocking to sites like theGlobe.com where they could personalize profiles. Google emerged in 1998 as a search engine that organized links and individual pages on the web. If you wanted to access a digital encyclopedia, you could buy Microsoft Encarta, which was a bunch of CD-ROMs that cost hundreds of dollars.

“There are two things that Wikipedia did that were kind of revolutionary: One was being able to set free the creation and consumption of knowledge, and the second thing was just the way that it’s made,” explains Olga Vasileva, Lead Product Manager for the Reading Web Team of the Wikimedia Foundation.

For all the talk about the “World Wide Web” as an unprecedented platform for sharing ideas and information, before Wikipedia, there was no large-scale archive where people could gather and publish content that was bundled together merely for the public good — without factoring in any personal agendas or individual self-expression.

So when the people building Wikipedia chose to do so using “wiki” software, they filled a gap in the nascent online world. Wiki software enabled collaboration and made publishing content on the internet more accessible than it had ever been before. For the developer community, it extended the ideals of open-source collaboration from the back-end to the end-user experience. For end users, the only motivation to contribute was, theoretically, the greater good. It was the altruistic dream of the internet community come to life.

Even today, Wikipedia embodies many of the principles of open-source software: Wikipedia is a decentralized platform that anyone is free to use and access, it’s constantly being modified and updated by volunteer editors, and it advocates for transparency and a “neutral point of view.”

“We’ve proved that we can have a decentralized system of volunteers that are working to put this project together at a quality that is incredibly high,” Olga says. “And I think, to this day, that’s what is keeping us alive.”

The “magic” of how Wikipedia was built

Though it’s easy to write off Wikipedia as an unreliable source or Frankenstein internet phenomenon, it remained a humble and mighty force on the internet because of how it was strategically built and designed.

“Very often people take Wikipedia for granted, not for any particular reason other than that it’s just always been there, to many people, particularly young people,” Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder said in a 2019 interview with Wikimedia. “It’s ubiquitous. It’s like a magic thing in our lives.”

Of course, it’s not “magic” — it’s the result of savvy developers, UX designers, and technologists who designed a platform that architected a new paradigm for how users interacted on the internet and fostered an ardent community of contributors. To better understand the lessons today’s tech world can learn from Wikipedia, let’s take a look back on the history of how — and why — Wikipedia was built the way it was, and the innovative features that give it staying power today.

The wiki-powered technology

Wikipedia was founded by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales in 2001, but it started as an offshoot of Nupedia, a for-profit online encyclopedia that only published thoroughly vetted articles written by experts. Nupedia wasn’t getting the traction that they expected, so they had to think of new ways to recruit contributors if they wanted the business to scale.

A funny piece of technology called a “wiki” would change everything. Programmer Ward Cunningham invented wiki in 1994, and it was basically a website with pages and links that could be easily edited via the web browser. (Ward named it “wiki” after the Hawaiian word for “quick,” a nod to how fast he built it.) Wiki was mostly popular among software developers and engineers, who used the tool to collaborate on software with one another.

The new wiki-supported online encyclopedia allowed anyone to publish content on the site — no coding experience required. “You not only didn’t have to learn how to build your own page in HTML, you could do this and you could do it with other people dynamically,” Katherine Maher, former CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, told Medium’s OneZero in 2021. “It took control over the web and put it into the keyboards of people.”

Combining the power of wiki technology with the collective knowledge of the users established the Wikipedia we know and use today. “People discovered that they can create something with other people that they don’t even know, but they come to trust, and make something that surprises them,” Ward said in a 2014 interview with Wikimedia.

The passionate users

All of the content on Wikipedia — more than 45 million articles in nearly 300 languages — is maintained and edited by more than 200,000 volunteer editors who contribute to Wikipedia every month for no pay. Wikipedians, as they’re called, use Wikipedia’s special markup language called MediaWiki to make changes to pages on the fly.

It takes a very persistent, determined person to acquire a working knowledge of all of Wikipedia’s guidelines and become a contributor — and they tend to take their roles very seriously. For example, some Wikipedia editors will “adopt a typo,” which means they make it their mission to search a specific typo and edit any instances. The community of Wikipedia contributors is close-knit, and people often team up and work on topics together through WikiProjects.

“Once they’re in, people get hooked,” Annie of @depthsofwikipedia says. “Even the most dedicated Wikipedia editors don’t know why they do it.” One reason? The sense that, “Well, someone has to do it.”

Technically, no one owns the contributions that they make to articles, because of the way that Wikipedia content is licensed. Similar to some open-source software licenses, Wikipedia contributors “freely license their work to the public,” and allow it to be “mercilessly edited and redistributed,” according to Wikipedia’s five pillars or principles.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales got the inspiration to use a Creative Commons license from Richard Stallman, the creator of the General Public License open-source licensing and an early advocate for free software.

This collaborative approach doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is the “Wild, Wild West” when it comes to what actually gets published. Many Wikipedia editors feel passionate about upholding the site’s authority and neutral point of view. Though anyone can become an editor, you can’t just post anything you want on Wikipedia: Articles have to be based on “reliable, independent, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy,” according to Wikipedia’s sourcing guidelines.

Getting props from tech giants has also helped Wikipedia legitimize: Google recently bought Wikimedia’s enterprise API product, so the search engine can comb and reuse Wikipedia content more efficiently. YouTube annotates videos with Wikipedia pages to provide “authoritative” context and prevent spreading misinformation.

The spartan and ad-free design

At first glance, Wikipedia’s design might seem less splashy compared to other websites that are popular on the internet. But its bare bones design and muted color palette are intentionally boring.

Wikipedia’s design philosophy: Content comes first.

One of the most noticeable differences is that there are no ads on Wikipedia. Wikipedia famously doesn’t carry advertisements, and instead the site is funded by donations to the Wikimedia Foundation. As an encyclopedia, the organization takes a strong stance against running ads that could distract from the content on the page.

Wikipedia’s design has barely changed over its more than 20 years of existence. “We very much follow the philosophy that form follows function,” Olga says. “The content is really our treasure: It is what our communities are all about, and it’s why they exist. So the main thing in any design for Wikipedia is that the content needs to come first.”

Here’s a peek at the Wikipedia redesign, currently available on the French and Portuguese versions.

In 2019, Wikimedia’s web team began the herculean task of revamping the layout for the first time in a decade, with the goal of making the site more welcoming to internet users today, regardless of their language and their location. “Despite how simple the website seems, there is a lot of complexity — both in terms of the code, as well as many nuanced workflows and locally customized elements — to learn about,” Alex Hollender, Lead UX Designer in Product Design at Wikimedia wrote in 2021. The new design is currently available on the French and Portuguese versions of Wikipedia, and will be rolled out across all of Wikipedia by the end of the year.

What developers and code enthusiasts can learn from Wikipedia

The fact that Wikipedia has gone largely unchanged in 21 years is a testament to the early decisions of the founders, developers, and UX designers that built it. Whatever your thoughts on the platform, it’s undeniable that it’s an integral part of many people’s experience gathering information on the internet — and perhaps, more importantly, it’s a repository for the passions of countless contributors who take pride in the thankless task of maintaining the world’s first crowd-sourced encyclopedia. On an increasingly noisy, individualized internet, it’s a reminder that, yes, we can have nice things.

Want to gain the skills that helped Wikipedia’s developers create an innovative and lasting product? Here are the courses and languages to learn:

  • Learn JavaScript: Wikipedia’s front-end is written in JavaScript. This course covers the fundamentals that you need for front-end or back-end development.
  • Learn PHP: Wikipedia’s back-end server-side software is PHP. In this course, you’ll learn how PHP is used in building dynamic web applications.
  • Introduction to UI and UX Design: Learn design principles that make websites like Wikipedia effective. In this course, you’ll get experience wireframing and prototyping your own product in Figma.
  • Learn Git & GitHub: Get started contributing to open-source software by learning how to use GitHub’s command line language, Git.

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