When Esquire magazine writer A.J. Jacobs decided to do an article about the freely distributable and freely editable online encyclopedia Wikipedia, he took an innovative approach: He posted a crummy, error-laden draft of the story to the site.
Wikipedia lets anyone create a new article for the encyclopedia or edit an existing entry. As a result, since it was started in 2001, Wikipedia has grown to include nearly 749,000 articles in English alone--countless numbers of which have been edited by multiple members of the community. (There are versions of Wikipedia in 109 other languages as well.)
The idea is that, despite the fact that anyone can work on any article, Wikipedia's content is self-cleaning because its community keeps a close eye on the accuracy of articles and, in most cases, acts quickly to fix errors that find their way into individual entries.
It's the same argument programmers make about open-source software: Since everyone can see the source code, the community can collectively rid the software of errors better than a few developers at one company ever could.
With that dynamic in mind, Jacobs decided to craft an article about Wikipedia, complete with a series of intentional mistakes and typos, and post it on the site. The hope was that the community itself would be able to fix the errors and create a clean version that would be ready for publication in Esquire's December issue. The original version was preserved for posterity.
"The idea I had--which Jimmy (Wales, Wikipedia's founder) loved--is that I'd write a rough draft of the article and then Jimmy would put it on a site for the Wikipedia community to rewrite and edit," Jacobs wrote on the page introducing the experiment. Esquire "would print the 'before' and 'after' versions of the articles. So here's your chance to make this article a real one. All improvements welcome."
Neither Jacobs nor Esquire would comment for this story.
"For those haven't looked at Diderot's Encyclopedie recently, you should know that it is hopelessly incomplete," Jacobs' original draft began, typos and all. "For instance, it lacks entry on Exploding Whales. There's nothing on Troll Metal (rock music about goblins that eat Christians), autofellatio (a form of masturbation that be traced to the Egyptian creation myth) or Dr. Bombay (the physician warlock on Bewitched).
"No, you can only find those entries in one encyclopedia: The Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia that was launched in 2001 and has become biggest, most wide-ranging, most untamed reference work in history."
According to the Wikipedia page for Jacobs' story, the article was edited 224 times in the first 24 hours after Jacobs posted it, and another 149 times in the next 24 hours.
The final draft, which was locked on Sept. 23 to protect it from further edits, reflects the efforts of the many users who worked on it.