Future Tense

How 9/11 Shaped Wikipedia

Encyclopedias are supposed to be stable references of historical knowledge, but we live through history every day.

The Wikipedia logo repeated over the Wikipedia page for Sept. 11.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos from Wikipedia.

Adapted excerpt from Wikipedia @ 20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution, edited by Joseph Reagle and Jackie Koerner © 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The web was a very different place for news in the United States between 2001 and 2006. The hanging chads from the 2000 presidential election, the spectacular calamity of 9/11, the unrepentant lies around Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the campy reality television featuring Donald Trump were all from this time. The burst of the dot-com bubble and corporate malfeasance of companies like Enron dampened entrepreneurial spirits, news publishers were optimistically sharing their stories online without paywalls, and blogging was heralded as the future of technology-mediated accountability and participatory democracy. “You” was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006 because “Web 2.0” platforms like YouTube, MySpace, and Second Life had become tools for “bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.”

Wikipedia was a part of this primordial soup, predating news-feed-mediated engagement, recommender-driven polarization, politicized content moderation, and geopolitical disinformation campaigns. From very early in its history, Wikipedia leveraged the supply and demand for information about breaking news and current events into strategies that continue to sustain this radical experiment in online peer production.

I first encountered Wikipedia as an undergraduate student around 2004. My introduction to Wikipedia was likely a product of the socio-technical coupling between Google and Wikipedia during this era. Google helped Wikipedia because Google’s ranking algorithms privileged Wikipedia’s highly interlinked articles, which brought an influx of users, some (tiny) fraction of whom became contributing editors like me. Wikipedia also helped Google because Wikipedia could reliably generate both general-interest and up-to-date content that satisfied its users’ information-seeking needs, which brought users back to Google rather than to its competitors. The aftermath of a natural disaster, the death of a celebrity, or a new pop culture sensation are all occasions for people to seek out background information to help them make sense of these events. Traditional journalistic offerings provide incremental updates about the immediate subject but often lack context or background: Why are there earthquakes in Indonesia? Who is Saddam Hussein? What is Eurovision? The availability and timeliness of Wikipedia content around topics of general interest would prove to be critical for its own sustainability in addition to complementing other platforms’ need to serve relevant and up-to-date content.

Wikipedia also entered the popular awareness of undergraduates like me through the pitiless warnings from instructors and librarians about its lack of reliability as a citation. While these anxieties were largely reversed through empirical research and changes in professional culture, they also missed the forest for the trees: The value and authority of Wikipedia was not in any single article’s quality but in its network of hyperlinked articles. More than synthesizing knowledge as a tertiary source like traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia’s hyperlink network invited users to follow their interests, dive deeper into topics, introduce missing connections, and create new articles where none existed. Where the decentralized web created a fragmented user experience requiring directories (Yahoo) and search engines (Google) for navigation, Wikipedia’s hyperlinked articles foreshadowed an era of centralized web platforms that sustain user engagement with a consistent experience and “bottomless” content to consume and engage.

There are many ways to promote Wikipedia articles to its front page. Immediately to the right of “From today’s featured article” is the “In the news” (or ITN) box, featuring “articles that have been substantially updated to reflect recent or current events of wide interest.” The presence of newslike content in an encyclopedia is uncanny. On the one hand, encyclopedias are supposed to be stable references of historical knowledge, rather than dynamic accounts of current events. On the other hand, there is a long history of encyclopedia editors grappling with how to incorporate new knowledge, and encyclopedia publishers competing to be the most up to date. Wikipedia’s choice to privilege content related to current events via the ITN is also shrewd: It simultaneously is a shortcut to content users may already be searching for, it showcases the dynamism and quality of Wikipedia articles, and it invites users to consume and contribute to content outside of their primary interests.

To understand how Wikipedia’s ITN template and its broader culture of breaking news collaborations came about, we have to return to the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Wikipedia was 10 months old at the time of the attacks, and while it already surpassed its elder sibling Nupedia in its number of articles, it was far from certain that the project would ever reach a sustainable level of activity. Although a comprehensive accounting of the editing activity in the immediate aftermath of the events has been lost to a server migration, snapshots from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, along with listserv discussions, document the extent to which the Wikipedia community at the time went into overdrive in response to the attacks. Far from being an idiosyncratic case of online collaboration, the decisions made by editors at the time to use Wikipedia’s unique collaborative capacities to deeply cover the Sept. 11 attacks would fundamentally change the direction, scope, and culture of Wikipedia as a project to the present day.

A Wayback Machine snapshot of the “September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack” article from Oct. 31, 2011, captures the remarkable breadth and depth of topics that were authored and organized together about the attacks. There were timelines, documentation of closings and cancellations, lists of casualties, links to donating blood and money, articles on political and economic effects, and newly created articles about the buildings, cities, flights, and perpetrators as well as topics like “terrorism,” “box-cutter knife,” and “collective trauma.” Approximately 100 Sept. 11–related articles were created in total (at a time when Wikipedia as a whole had only 13,000 articles), but Wikipedia’s content attracted links from other prominent web gateways like Yahoo that brought in an influx of desperately needed new users to the project.

The list of casualties enumerating each of the nearly 3,000 victims (sorted by name and location and categorized by civilian or first responder) became a source of tension in the weeks following the attacks. Some editors argued this level of detailed coverage was unbecoming of the traditional encyclopedia Wikipedia was trying to emulate stylistically. Supporters referenced the rule that “Wikipedia is not paper” to justify a goal of writing biographies for thousands of victims, survivors, and leaders. As the trauma-induced altruism continued to fade, Wikipedia editors continued to raise concerns about the quality, notability, and importance of these memorialization efforts given the other demands of writing an encyclopedia. By September 2002, the community reached a consensus decision to move the Sept. 11–related recollections and non-notable pages to a “memorial wiki.” The launch of the memorial wiki led to heated discussions about which Sept. 11–related articles would get to stay on Wikipedia and which would be relegated to the memorial wiki. The memorial wiki ultimately failed to thrive: Its stagnant content and lack of editing activity led to accumulating vandalism, and it was effectively shuttered by September 2006. The creation, rejection, and disappearance of the Sept. 11 memorial wiki’s content remains an underappreciated cautionary tale about the presumed durability of peer-produced knowledge: This content only persists when it remains integrated with the larger common project rather than being relegated to a smaller and more specialized project. Wikipedia’s peer production model is not immune from “rich get richer” mechanisms.

The Wikipedia community’s overreaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and the discussions about the memorial content led to reflexive rule-making about news that persists today. The “What Wikipedia is not” (WP:NOT) policy predates the attacks and enumerates that Wikipedia is not a dictionary, manual, directory, or a variety of other reference genres. In the midst of the debates in 2002 about what to do with the Sept. 11 memorial content, the WP:NOT policy was expanded to assert that Wikipedia is not “a news report.” The revised policy attempted to thread the needle between the channeling of collaborative energy following current events against diluting the mission of writing an encyclopedia. The policy emphasized that “Wikipedia should not offer news reports on breaking stories” but conceded “creating encyclopedia articles on topics currently in the news is an excellent idea” as long as current events articles are written in an encyclopedic style. This “NOT NEWS” policy has persisted to the present, and the policy now emphasizes that “Wikipedia should not offer first-hand news reports on breaking stories” and “newsworthy events do not [automatically] qualify for inclusion … breaking news should not be emphasized or treated differently from other information.” Another change in identity that emerged as a result of the Sept. 11 memorial content was the addition of “Memorials” to the WP:NOT policy. The policy, revised in 2004, now emphasizes that “Wikipedia is not the place to memorialize deceased friends, relatives, acquaintances, or others who do not meet such requirements.” These normative guardrails remain in place today to channel the outpouring of pro-social collaborative energy and sense-making in the aftermath of traumatic events.

Encyclopedists have always struggled with the limitations of synthesizing knowledge into paper documents because when the knowledge changes, so must the paper. Wikipedia was not the first encyclopedia to use the online medium to rapidly and inexpensively revise content in response to changes, but its unique “anyone can edit” model had the effect of entangling current events with the viability of the project.

Wikipedia editors continue to invest enormous amounts of effort in covering breaking news and current events within the confines of these guardrails. Articles about the recently deceased, natural disasters, conflicts, and popular culture are sites of large and extremely dynamic collaborations involving dozens of editors making hundreds of revisions within hours. While Wikipedia’s MediaWiki software was not designed with this use case in mind, these high-tempo collaborations continue to serve crucial roles in sustaining the health of the broader project, close to 20 years after the early precedent of the Sept. 11 attacks: They bring in new users to the project, provide opportunities to disparate subcommunities to temporarily congregate, disseminate innovations and best practices into the rest of the community, and produce high-quality content hyperlinked to other relevant background.

Wikipedia remains a product of a particular historical moment from the early 2000s, in terms of not only its adorably dated interface but also the absence of the advertising and engagement, news feeds and recommendation systems, and virality and polarization as central features that define so much of the user experience on other social platforms. Wikipedia’s resilience to the disinformation that plagued Facebook, YouTube, and Google in 2016 would suggest this archaic user experience provided an important defense against actors who weaponized these attention amplification mechanisms on other platforms to malicious ends. But this story overlooks other explanations for Wikipedia’s apparent resilience: Wikipedia users’ and editors’ attention is shared around common articles, instead of being distributed across personalized news feeds.

Does Wikipedia’s success in covering breaking news and current events chart a path for other platforms to follow? Information seeking and sense-making about current events drive enormous flows of online collective attention, which explains why “news feeds” and “trending” topics are ubiquitous on social platforms. Whether and how Wikipedia can channel this demand for information likewise has been central to its ongoing identity, relevance, and sustainability. Wikipedia remains a valuable counterfactual for the potential of designing around information commons, human-in-the-loop decision-making, and strong editorial stances in the face of the Silicon Valley consensus emphasizing content personalization, automated moderation, and editorial indifference. The differences in how Wikipedia handles current event information may have insulated it from manipulation, but as platforms increasingly turn to Wikipedia for providing and moderating content, Wikipedia’s very real vulnerabilities risk becoming a target.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.