Wikipedia's 10th birthday, and what Jesus' page can tell us about it.

Inside the Internet.
Jan. 14 2011 8:11 PM

Jesus of Wikipedia

Using Christ's page as a guide to the online encyclopedia's 10-year history.

Jimmy Wales and Jesus.

At 1:12 a.m. on March 3, 2001, Jimmy Wales created a page for Jesus on a three-month-old site called Wikipedia. "Jesus Christ is a central figure in Christianity," he wrote. The site's co-founder followed with a petition to his fellow first-generation editors: "I fear great controversy if this encyclopedia entry isn't written well, and so I think we should all plunge in and duke it out quickly." Four months later, a user called "Hiram" answered the call, changing "a central figure" to "the central figure" and writing a respectable four-paragraph summary of the biblical story of Jesus. "Added some details. Not enough, I know," he noted in the comments to his edit.

Wikipedia turned 10 years old this week, and perhaps no entry better captures its chaotic ascendency than that of Jesus Christ. What follows is a brief history of Wikipedia Jesus—his test, trials, and the chaotic world into which he was born.

Jesus had a quiet adolescence, reared by well-behaved editors. Users fiddled with sentences and paragraphs, expanding on references and adding a broader accounting of his role in the Judaic religions. He was briefly promoted to the "most central figure in Christianity," but was restored to mere centrality in the next edit. The "Jews for Jesus" made a brief appearance on his page in August of 2002 but were removed with a polite explanation as to why. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger occasionally ducked in to brush up little disputes.

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Wikipedia Jesus was vandalized for the first time on Nov. 6, 2002, when an anonymous user replaced the entire page with the repeated phrase "bla bla is all I hear." Jesus existed in such a state for five minutes before another user rescued him. In the new year, he got a photo. It was removed three days later. By his second birthday, he had a seven-chapter entry covering his teachings, roles in various denominations and other religions, and historical footprint. By this point, he was gathering disciples, with a small number of Wikipedians emerging as the primary scribes of Jesus' teachings and legacy. (Some made edits to the page six or seven times a day.) On Feb. 1, 2004, he met a robot, a new kind of Wikipedian who spruces up pages automatically, like a Roomba. He celebrated his 1,000th edit around his third birthday, unaware othat storm clouds were gathering on the horizon.

As Wikipedia's profile grew, Jesus attracted more unwanted attention. In 2004, someone named Lord Cornholio erased the page and linked it to a now defunct site called "tubgirl." Even when the page was safe from vandals, it read with considerably less admiration. "Jesus Christ … is controversial figure about whom there are many points of view," declared the entry's first sentence in April 2004. Many edits were now being struck down by Jesus's loyal defenders because they weren't "NPOV"-a Wikipedia term for "neutral point-of-view."* There was a long series of back-and-forths about his sexuality. In November 2004, he was briefly accused of offering political advice to newly re-elected George W. Bush but was quickly absolved.

The vandals only got worse. On Jan. 19, 2005, Wikipedia Jesus got a security detail; unregistered users were now forbidden to edit the page. As soon as the protection was lifted, the vandals came back. His followers began to develop a division of labor: Some were janitors, others grammarians, and a few monitored all legitimate contributions with a cautious eye. Either because of or in spite of their efforts, the page got branded with a disclaimer: "The neutrality of this article is disputed," with clip art of an unbalanced scale. There was a tense dispute over the use of "A.D." versus "C.E." for dates.

By this point, Wikipedia had grown to an extent that Jesus needed a last name to distinguish himself from other people named Jesus. In the summer of 2006, his security detail returned for good. This provided a degree of stability, and after a few months Wikipedia Jesus is suddenly a grown man. His page is 16,000 words long. Most edits improved on minor points; the bibliography is the fastest growing part of the page as more and more documentation is added, lest the angel of NPOV smite an addition. Robots are a common sight now, scrubbing links and renovating code.

Wales' kingdom has grown unimaginably since he created Wikipedia Jesus. More than 2.5 million entries have been written since March 3, 2001, and many of the edits to Jesus are simply links to all of these new pages. In 2006, nearly 7,000 edits were made to Jesus' profile. In 2009 there are barely 1,000. Users will continue to polish his edges, but their work feels mostly done. Meanwhile, the vandals circle, waiting for the moment when that protection comes down.

*Correction, Jan. 17, 2011: The article originally identified the Wikipedia term "NPOV" as "non-neutral point-of-view." It is just "neutral point of view." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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