Book review: Andrew Lih – The Wikipedia revolution

On: September 20, 2010
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About Lennard Torbijn


How have a bunch of nobodies created the world’s largest encyclopedia? In his book, The Wikipedia revolution (2009), Andrew Lih set himself the goal to answer this question. And he has done so quite successfully. He exstensively maps the landscape from which Wikipedia emerged as well as addresses Wikipedia’s own inherent characteristics that have made Wikipedia to be widely embraced by a diverse and largely anonymous group of people, from professional scholars to amateurs who like to share their knowledge.

As said, Lih present the reader a lineage to place Wikipedia in line with. The first half of the book draws a clear picture of Wikipedia’s history: the time long before Wikipedia itself was conceived. This background is needed to understand which developments and events eventually led to the creation of the user-led enterprise that is Wikipedia. Lih’s book should therefore not have lacked this part that is key to understanding Wikipedia’s underlying concepts.

The second half of the book deals with Wikipedia itself, what its characteristics are, and how Wikipedia works, thus answering the basic question of the book. He takes plenty time to describe Wikipedia’s article editing features, how Wikipedia as a whole is a community of practice in itself. He also addresses the problems Wikipedia has endured or still is coping with. For instance, how the different language versions of Wikipedia differ from one another and what that means for the world’s largest encyclopedia itself.

All in all, the book is a comprehensive account of the Wikipedia revolution. It does a great job at answering the basic question, which happens to be the book’s subtitle also. The book is a good and easy read. Probably, dipping into this book here and there will never leave you dissatisfied.

However, if you are looking for a book that presents an insight into how Wikipedia’s workings are to be construed on a higher level of interpretation, you are in the wrong place. Although Lih is a well informed writer, who brings more to the table than any other who wrote on Wikipedia has done before, the book certainly lacks interpretation, for it merely presents a chronological overview of Wikipedia’s history.  Only halfway through the book Lih discusses what Wikipedia in itself is. He takes a very long run into the basic subject of the book. The book describes a lot, but does not interpret. The book is not particularly critical of Wikipedia and stays far from being a critique. Lih stays within the realm of Wikipedia. The book provides as much history as it provides a view on Wikipedia itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the book could have stayed within the 200 page boundary.

Let us not forget, however, that Lih is one of the first who wrote a whole book solely about Wikipedia and its workings. Dan O’Sullivan also did a good job at writing a book on Wikipedia, and on Wikipedia only (Wikipedia. A new community of practice? 2009), which I recommend. He provides the reader with a slightly different history than Lih does. But he also stays in the same playground with Wikipedia. Then again, we are still at the start of Wikipedia studies, as one might call it. And Lih has done a good job at being one of the first to write about Wikipedia.

Further information:

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia revolution. How a bunch of nobodies created the world’s greatest encyclopedia. London: Aurum, 2009

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