Happy Birthday, Wikipedia

January 15, 2011

Today is the tenth anniversary of the launch of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that is “crowd sourced” — its content is provided by a large number of volunteer contributors, organized via the Internet.  Today, the volume of information, at least, is impressive.   There are, for example, more than 3.5 million articles in English, and about 1.1 million each in French and German; and there is content in more than 100 languages.   It is one of the most visited sites on the Internet, according to a report at TechSpot.

After a decade of growth, Wikipedia is an important source of information for millions of topics and remains among the Internet’s top 10 most visited sites. It has over 400 million readers each month and has a very small budget for a website its size: just $20 million. Almost all its revenue comes from donations.

WIkipedia has become, for many of us, a quick first stop when starting to look into a particular subject.  As with any encyclopedia, even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, its articles are unlikely to have the last word on a subject, but they are often an excellent place to get started.  Not surprisingly, given that its audience, and especially its contributors, tend to be more geeky than the average person, Wikipedia is a particularly good source for information on technology and science topics.

There have always been dark mutterings about the quality of articles in Wikipedia; for example, as I have written about before, some schools prohibit its use as a reference.  This policy is not really supported by the evidence from direct comparisons, as I outlined in that previous post.  Wikipedia has a comprehensive process set up for collecting contributions and editing them, which is summarized at the About:Wikipedia page.  As The Economist noted in an article on the anniversary:

On the whole, Wikipedia’s system of peer reviewing does a reasonable job of policing facts. But it is vulnerable to vandalism. Several politicians and TV personalities have had their deaths announced on Wikipedia while they were still in fine fettle.

My own view is that Wikipedia is fairly reliable as a source of facts, particularly on technical subjects (with the general reservation that no single source should be regarded as authoritative), but is probably more suspect on topics where there is current controversy.

The Wikipedia project is run by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which also sponsors a number of other projects, including:

  • Wikibooks: a collection of free educational textbooks and learning materials.
  • Wikiquote: a collection of quotations
  • Wikimedia Commons: a collection of freely usable media files

None of these projects is perfect or without blemish.  But it seems to me that some of the criticism misses an important point.  It may well be true that someone in, say, the US or Western Europe, particularly someone with access to a first-class conventional library, can produce more thorough coverage of a topic than Wikipedia does; though even these privileged people can benefit from Wikipedia’s convenience.  For someone not so fortunate, however, Wikipedia may provide a window into knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible.  I think that is an outcome we should all applaud.

Update Sunday, 16 January, 12:08 EST

Ars Technica has an amusing article on the anniversary, highlighting some of the more offbeat articles at Wikipedia, including the history of hamburgers, Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, and Mr. Potato Head.


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