Online Wikipedia is not Britannica - but it's close
Spam and spyware. Blogs and podcasts. Words that describe things related to the Internet keep entering the vocabulary of ordinary people. Will 2006 be the year that the "wiki" joins them?
A wiki is a website that allows anyone who visits to quickly add, delete, or edit its contents. (According to the Wikipedia.org website, it comes from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, meaning "quickly." It also could stand for "What I Know Is....")
Last year ended with a burst of publicity - first negative and then positive - for Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has become by far the most prominent example of a wiki in action.
The lofty goal of Wikipedia, whose contributors and editors are volunteers, is to provide a free encyclopedia to everyone on the planet, written in their native language. The website currently claims about 2.5 million entries (nearly 1 million in English), on almost every subject imaginable in more than 100 languages. Wikipedia ranked as the 26th busiest site on the Internet Jan. 1, and the 34th busiest over the last three months, according to alexa.com, a Web-search subsidiary of Amazon.com. And its page views and site traffic have continued to climb in the month since the controversy began.
In 2005, several individuals, most prominently John Seigenthaler Sr., a former official in the Kennedy administration and a retired journalist, charged that Wikipedia contained inaccurate information about them. In a November article in USA Today, Mr. Seigenthaler complained that from May to October, his biography on Wikipedia stated that "he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
The assertion, which was false, proved to be the work of a prankster and showed how inaccuracies could be written into Wikipedia and persist for long periods despite the best efforts of the volunteer editors. That led to some alarming press coverage, especially on TV ("How bad is Wikipedia? Film at 11."), says Jimmy Wales, who cofounded Wikipedia in 2001 and is president of the nonprofit Wikipedia Foundation.
But in mid-December, Wikipedia won an endorsement from a prominent source. An analysis conducted by the journal Nature showed that, on scientific topics, an average Wikipedia article had about four "inaccuracies" (factual errors, critical omissions, or misleading statements), compared with about three inaccuracies per article in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The similarity in quality seemed remarkable given that Wikipedia is thought to be written by thousands of "amateur" enthusiasts and Britannica by carefully chosen - and paid - experts.
"It was good," Mr. Wales says. "It showed people Wikipedia isn't as good as Britannica, but it's pretty good. And we hope it's getting better all the time. That's our goal."
While it might seem that Wikipedia would be anti-elitist, welcoming contributions from anyone, Wales begs to differ. "I think Wikipedia is extremely elitist. We're a bunch of snobs. But it's an elitism of productive work, it's an elitism of results," he says in a phone call from the foundation's home in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We don't vet people on their credentials [before they can contribute], so maybe we're anti-credentialist." Instead, contributors earn reputations within Wikipedia based on the quality of their work, he says. "There's a real passion for getting it right."
In response to the Seigenthaler flap, Wikipedia now requires new contributors to register before they can create a new article. "We put a little speed bump in there," Wales says. "It didn't represent any kind of major policy shift." It's also considering further steps such as designating some areas of the Wikipedia as "finished work" and closing them off to editing.
Wikipedia has become "a phenomenally valuable resource," says Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University who studies how the Internet changes culture. The site started with the idea of allowing the maximum amount of openness, and by not overreacting to the controversy, Wales has preserved Wikipedia's virtues, Professor Shirky says. The decision to make only modest changes, he adds, is "a really profoundly good thing."
Sometimes, two or more contributors may fight over how a controversial topic is presented. If needed, Wikipedia's 600 or so volunteer "administrators" step in and, beyond that, an arbitration committee. People can be blocked from editing or asked not to edit certain articles.
"There's only a few cases pending at any given time," Wales says. "It's pleasingly rare."
The project strives for articles that have a "neutral point of view," says Wales, who adds that doesn't mean it's on some elusive philosophical quest for ultimate truth. A Roman Catholic priest and pro-abortion activist obviously aren't going to agree, he says. "But they can agree on a way to state the problem in a way that both parties can accept."
Meanwhile, the Wikipedia Foundation is undergoing more fundraising to expand its work. Wales would like to see the number of Wikipedia entries in Hindi, Bengali, and Swahili - three languages with millions of readers - greatly expanded.
The Arabic Wikipedia just passed 10,000 articles and is being worked on by people across that region. "That's a part of the world where broad access to neutral information, as opposed to propaganda, is still quite sketchy and difficult," he says. "I think an enormous number of problems in the world are just caused by a lack of information, a lack of understanding, a lack of reflection."
Serbs and Croats are also working together on Wikipedia articles, he says. So are mainland Chinese and Taiwanese, who have created about 51,000 articles so far. The Chinese Wikipedia is currently blocked from view in mainland China, something the foundation is trying to address, Wales says.
Reaching the poorest parts of the world that lack Internet connections may mean burning versions of Wikipedia onto CDs or, coming full circle, even printing the encyclopedia out on paper. Such projects might require more funds than donations would provide, raising the possibility of allowing advertisements on the currently ad-free site. That decision will be "up to the [Wikipedia] community," Wales says. "Do we want to sit here with our broadband Internet connections in our warm Western homes and pride ourselves on not having any ads? Or do we want to have some advertising on the site if it goes to fund a good cause?"
Whether Wikipedia will spawn other successful public wiki projects remains to be seen, experts say. Most growth in the use of wikis is by businesses and in academia on sites either too obscure to be found by the general public or protected by passwords.
That makes Wikipedia a pioneer, Shirky says, and how it handles the balance between openness and protecting itself will influence others.
"I don't think there's going to be any jump in the number [of open wikis], says Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois in Chicago. For him, the lesson of Wikipedia is an old one: Don't believe everything you read online, no matter where you read it. "We seem to be learning [that lesson] over and over again," he says.
That's something with which Wales would probably agree. Wikipedia is only a starting point, he says. If you're planning to do brain surgery, he says, "I'd recommend medical school. But if you're just trying to find out some background information, then, by and large, [Wikipedia is] generally pretty good."