Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
Back in January 2001, Wikipedia’s co-founder typed the words “Hello, World!” into the new internet encyclopedia. This week, Wales is selling a nonfungible token, or NFT, on the Ethereum blockchain based on what he has described as the first-ever Wikipedia edit. Auction house Christie’s is offering the token from Dec. 3 to 15 alongside the Strawberry iMac that Wales used at the time of Wikipedia’s launch. According to Christie’s, the buyer of the NFT will receive a re-creation of Wikipedia from its first moments of existence, based on code from the earliest available backup of the site.
The “Birth of Wikipedia” NFT auction listing evokes a certain nostalgia for the internet’s early days, with its plain text interface and basic homepage. The new auction resembles an earlier sale by Tim Berners-Lee, known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, who sold an NFT representing the source code to the original web browser for $5.4 million this year. Sources told me that Christie’s likewise expects the unofficial Wikipedia NFT to sell for millions of dollars.
But many of the volunteers who edit Wikipedia have serious reservations about Wales selling this NFT, with some suggesting that it completely contradicts the ethos of Wikipedia as a free knowledge project. “Why the heck would you do this?” said one Twitter user to Wales. “NFTs are all about attempting to create artificial scarcity, and in this moment in time, profit. Wikipedia is the opposite of both of those.”
There is at least one similarity between the Wales NFT and the larger NFT discourse: It’s really hard to describe what the buyer actually owns. According to the Christie’s auction listing, the buyer will receive a “Non-fungible token. Digital sculpture comprised of ‘Hello, World’ wiki database files, perl cgi-script, digital rendering, url to live website” hosted at editthisnft.com.
Basically, the buyer owns a token on the Ethereum blockchain pointing to this website, which re-creates, as closely as technically possible, the home page of Wikipedia on Jan. 15, 2001, when the site was in its embryonic stage. “The artistic concept is to invite people to think about that moment—a brand new wiki is so fragile, and this is a new experiment in how one might build an encyclopedia,” Jimmy Wales said in an email to Slate. “Will it be taken over by trolls in three days? Will it be totally ignored by the world?” The new owner can edit or allow public editing on the site, making it dynamic and potentially vulnerable to vandalism; however, the site is also programmed with a default reset interval. Every five minutes, the page reverts to its original “Hello, World!” state.
Wales has said that he typed “Hello, World!” because it was standard practice at the time when setting up new software. There is controversy, however, over whether it is accurate to describe these words as the first-ever edit to Wikipedia. For background, Wikipedia’s first edits were lost for years until developer Tim Starling rediscovered them in 2010. Joseph Reagle, a professor at Northeastern University and Wikipedia historian, used this data to reconstruct the first 10,000 contributions to Wikipedia. Reagle’s reconstruction shows that the first-ever edit to Wikipedia was not “Hello, World!” but the words “This is the new WikiPedia!” which came from a computer or IP address associated with “office.bomis.com.” (Bomis was the dot-com company Wales co-founded to pursue a wide range of internet projects, of which Wikipedia is the most well-known.)
In a Saturday post on his blog, Reagle noted the apparent discrepancy of claiming to auction the “first” edit to Wikipedia when that did not match what was available in the digital record. Wales has since clarified the order of events based on his recollection: On the morning of Wikipedia’s birth, Wales typed in the words “Hello, World!” and then wiped the files on the server to start over again. Wales said that the words were live on the homepage for a short period of time, and that he was probably the only one to see them during the setup process. (By the way, there is now a new Wikipedia article about the “First Wikipedia edit” that delves into the distinction between the earliest edits recalled by Wales and the earliest found edits available in the digital record.)
For some Wikipedians, the issue isn’t whether the Wales NFT is authentic—they are fine accepting that the NFT is a fair artistic representation—but rather that they view NFTs themselves as immoral. Ethereum, like other blockchains, is built on a “proof of work” system that requires inordinate amounts of electricity, meaning that NFTs contribute to planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. For his part, Wales has pledged to purchase a carbon offset for the NFT’s share of Ethereum mining. Ethereum’s supporters note that the blockchain’s switch to a “proof of stake” rather than “proof of work” system is expected to substantially cut Ethereum’s energy use. Still, the auction is coming at a time when the Wikipedia community is particularly sensitive to the role it plays in global climate issues. As Marco Silva recently reported for the BBC, several non-English versions of the encyclopedia have been found to promote conspiracy theories about climate change, leading to calls to correct this misinformation.
There is also an argument that the concept of NFTs clashes with Wikipedia’s public service mission. When somebody makes an edit to Wikipedia, they agree to release their contribution to the public interest via a Creative Commons license. The open license grant means that an individual cannot go back and claim that they exclusively “own” any Wikipedia article or any individual edit. In other words, Wales does not exclusively own the “Hello, World!” edit because he yielded it 20 years ago. To be fair, Wales acknowledged this point on his Wikipedia talk page, where he characterized the NFT as an “artistic recreation” rather than a sale of the original contribution itself.
Some see a disconnect between the NFT gold rush and Wikipedia’s mission to promote free culture. David Gerard, a journalist and blockchain commentator who is active in the Wikipedia community, told me that he advised Wales not to auction this item as an NFT. “Wikipedia is about people who know things compiling the stuff they know for other people to read, and reuse it for free. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are 100 percent about the money,” Gerard said in an email. “I can’t see a way to cross the two.”
But Wales himself is pushing back on the argument that Wikipedia and NFTs are misaligned. “One of the really interesting things about NFTs is that their value comes not from scarcity but from abundance,” Wales wrote in his email to Slate. When an NFT of the famous “Disaster Girl” meme sold for nearly $500,000 in 2020, that did not mean that the meme became any less available online. Similarly, anybody can copy Wales’ “Birth of Wikipedia” NFT because everything about the NFT, including the smart contract, is freely licensed. “The free culture movement is really rooted in this idea that sharing is valuable, and that locking things away isn’t the only way to organize culture,” Wales said.
Wales has pledged to donate the proceeds from the auction to free culture organizations and to WT.Social, the donor-supported and ad-free social network that Wales founded as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter. But that doesn’t mean that the auction proceeds will be donated to Wikipedia itself. The Wikimedia Foundation confirmed in an email to Slate that its board of directors requested that Wales not earmark the funds for the foundation to make clear that this was Wales’ personal venture and not a Wikipedia-endorsed fundraising initiative.
One common sentiment that I heard from Wikipedians is that they were generally supportive of Wales auctioning the Strawberry iMac that he used while setting up Wikipedia. The iMac is a fun piece of internet history that could presumably be a fabulous addition to the Smithsonian or another museum. On the other hand, when I asked those same editors about Wales auctioning the unofficial Wikipedia NFT, the majority found it off-putting.
Why are the two sales generating such different reactions? My hunch is that the pushback stems from deep-seated concerns about “monetizing” Wikipedia, even if that’s not what Wales is aiming to do. For 20 years, Wikipedia editors have been staving off undisclosed paid editors who seek to turn the global knowledge resource into an advertising platform for their clients. More recently, volunteers have been resisting calls to transform Wikipedia into a crypto-based decentralized autonomous organization where users would be required to pay to play by staking tokens for their edits.
In crude terms, the NFT movement is about redefining ownership and selling digital goods, whereas Wikipedia stands for the proposition that not everything of value should be monetized. What makes Wikipedia special among tech platforms is that it stands for the nonprofit, idealistic purpose of providing humanity with access to the sum of all knowledge. And so the NFT resistance here can be read in a symbolic sense. The basic message: Back off.