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Wikipedia, Knowledge Trove And Monument To The Times, Turns 10

  • Richard Solash

In "old media" version, too! A German-language book on Wikipedia's most-searched terms at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany on October 2008.

In "old media" version, too! A German-language book on Wikipedia's most-searched terms at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany on October 2008.

* Correction appended

From the Caucasus to the Caribbean, from Moscow to Madagascar, all you need is an Internet connection and an interest.

Whatever the subject, Wikipedia -- the user-generated, free online encyclopedia -- likely has a page about it. And in your language, too.

No wonder, then, that as Wikipedia turns 10 years old, fans are holding gatherings on all but one continent to honor it as a global resource. The only continent with no events is Antarctica, whose penguins are included among Wikipedia's millions of topics but who have not become users themselves.

The January 15 anniversary -- which marks a decade of the original English-language version -- celebrates what began as a novel experiment to create an encyclopedia to which anybody and everybody can contribute. The idea was that most people want to responsibly share information and, even where opinions sharply differ, contributions from a multitude of users can help ensure accuracy and guard against misinformation.

Filling A Void

That revolutionary approach has modified with time as Wikipedia has introduced varying levels of user access to try to guard against misuse. But the fact that Wikipedia remains an open platform for people to collaborate in disseminating information prompts many to regard the project as a monument to our interconnected age.

It's hard to imagine that it has been 10 years since I first edited Wikipedia," Jimmy Wales, Internet entrepreneur and founder of the project, says in a video message posted on the site and elsewhere. "I remember that first day. I clicked on 'edit,' and I wrote, 'hello world,' and that was the beginning of Wikipedia and all the things that have come since then. Today we've got millions of articles in hundreds of languages. These days about 400 million people a month visit the website, and that's just an astounding thing to have happened. If you really think about the impact on our culture, it's staggering."

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales at the First International Wikimedia Conference in Frankfurt in August 2005
Over the past decade, Wikipedia has steadily gained legitimacy and, for many, even achieved indispensability as the handiest resource on just about everything. Recent data rank Wikipedia as the fifth most popular website on the planet.

But why has the online encyclopedia become the icon that it is today?

Andrew Lih, author of "The Wikipedia Revolution," traces the site's ascension first and foremost to a void it filled in the availability of information.

"[Wikipedia] really has filled a unique hole -- what I like to call 'the knowledge gap,'" Lih says. "And that's basically information that is too new to put in the history books but too old to really be rehashed in news every single time you read the newspaper. So until Wikipedia came along, that was just kind of a missing part of our body of knowledge."

Lih is also an administrator of the encyclopedia's English-language version, a position, as defined by its Wikipedia entry, that makes him a "privileged user." He has special permission to "delete pages, lock articles from being changed in case of vandalism or editorial disputes, and block users from editing."

The implementation of such safeguards, he says, ensures that Wikipedia doesn't become a free-for-all while preserving its open-source nature. He, like other administrators and regular contributors alike, work on the site on a solely volunteer basis.

Increased attention to administration of the site, including stricter reliance on citing sources of information, has also helped improved Wikipedia’s accuracy -- and reputation -- over the years.

Lih says the organization did a lot of "soul searching" in the last five years following the posting of a hoax entry on American journalist John Siegenthaler, in which he was identified as a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. When he learned of the Wikipedia entry, Siegenthaler publicly denounced the Wikipedia initiative.

"That case was really a turning point for Wikipedia and graduated it from 'cool' and 'interesting' to 'important' and 'responsible,'" says Lih.

Reliable Source?

Today, many acts of Wikipedia vandalism that do make it to the live site are removed within seconds or minutes.

A 2005 report by the journal "Nature" also found that Wikipedia "comes close" to the vaunted Encylopaedia Britannica in the accuracy of its science entries -- although Britannica vigorously denounced the claim.

Nevertheless, some remain skeptical of any information obtained through Wikipedia, and a number of schools in the United States have reportedly banned the site. Still, analysts say that even in the education community, an increasing number of people are relying on Wikipedia -- in particular for general overviews of topics and for cited links to primary sources of information.

Now, with 10 years of feverish article-writing and organizational maturation, Wikipedia is looking to the future, where according to Lih it may face some challenges.

"Now the challenge will be how to maintain the millions of articles that are out there on Wikipedia," Lih says. "How do you get the next set of editors to be enthusiastic about a project that is largely done? It may be blasphemy to talk about human knowledge kind of finishing. It's not finishing per se, but the rate of article creation on Wikipedia has slowed down since 2007, and that's mainly because, at least in the English-language version, with 3.5 million articles, most of general, common human knowledge has been documented in Wikipedia."

Wikipedia has announced efforts to counter the trend, and better represent the world's people in the process, through campaigns to recruit more women and older individuals, and more people from developing countries, to contribute and edit.

Specialized, technical, and scientific topics may remain an area for growth. But as the subjects become more rarefied, they are less likely to draw input from a broad public of Internet-users.

Growth Potential

For versions of Wikipedia in languages other than English, however, the coming years appear to have enormous potential.

Yuri Perohanych, who by day heads an association of Internet technology companies in Ukraine but spends "every free minute" as the country's volunteer executive director of Wikimedia, the umbrella organization that contains Wikipedia and other "Wiki-" projects. While the English-language version of the encyclopedia is 10 years old, the Ukrainian version is seven.

"Seven years ago we had zero articles and now we have a quarter of a million," Perohanych says. "Every day we create between two and 300 new articles. So I'm sure in the next five years the growth will be exponential."

Ukrainian Wikipedia currently ranks as the world's 16th largest, and Perohanych is eying a breakthrough into the top 10.

Already, he says, Ukrainian Wikipedia has five times more entries than the largest printed encyclopedia in the country.

But for even smaller languages, spoken by fewer people, having a version of Wikipedia can make even more of an impact.

Lih says that one of the most overlooked features of Wikipedia is the number of languages in which it makes information available, albeit with greatly varying quantity and quality of articles.

In some cases, he says, Wikipedia may be the only modern encyclopedia in existence for an ethnolinguistic group.

It includes more than 1,000 entries in Yakut, or Sakha, a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in northeastern Russia, and a similar number of entries in Zaza, a Persian language spoken in eastern Turkey.

A group of especially scholarly Wikipedia contributors even put up a few pages in Old Church Slavonic, an ancient language occasionally used in Orthodox liturgies but actively spoken by no one.

But if you feel like learning the language and have a computer handy, the Wikipedia team will tell you you’re more than welcome to contribute.

* The final paragraph of this story has been removed. It contained incorrect information.

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