Legacy Media

The Wikipedia Breakthrough Sometime in the 1960s, Jimmy Wales’ folks purchased a set of the World Book Encyclopedia from a door-to-door salesman. Jimmy got hooked on information. In college, he became committed to the notion that people can best acquire wisdom by pooling what they know. He called himself “an Enlightenment kind of guy.”

Wales put his idea on the Web in 2000, with an ambitious project for an online reference book. Nupedia, he called it. Like dozens of ink-on-paper encyclopedias before, Nupedia solicited experts to write articles. Wales also ran the articles by a traditional review panel. Things went slowly. A year later, Nupedia had only 21 entries.

Then, from an assistant, Jimmy Wales heard about a simple software tool called wiki. The software enabled several people to collaborate on writing and editing. Why not thousands? Millions? By 2001, Wales had modified Nupedia to accept online contributions directly from, well, anyone—with anyone able to edit entries online and

do so instantly. It was a process called open editing. An e-notice went out to 2,000 people on Nupedia’s mailing list: “Wikipedia is up! Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of 5 or 10 minutes.”

Only five years later, Wikipedia, as the project was renamed, carried 1 million articles compared to 120,000 in Encyclopaedia Britannica, the printed encyclopedia against which all others are judged. Today the total is pressing 3.8 million in the English version alone, more than over 6.2 million in other languages. Given that it is on the Web, Wikipedia has no physical limit on its size. The site has become the seventh- most visited on the Internet. There are 30,000 hits per second. It is ranked fourth in Web globalization with versions in more than 35 languages.

In many ways, Wikipedia represents much of the free-for-all that is the Internet. Among Wikipedia’s few rules are these: First, articles must be from a neutral point of view. Second, content must be verifiable and previously published. Contributors must be anonymous.

Despite these rules, it is possible for a contributor to subtly integrate his or her “agenda” and perspective into the entry. In addition, some individuals may maliciously attempt to distort the content to create “disinformation” that is potentially damaging to the person, organization, or other subject of the entry. Wales has robots that roam entries for disruptive submissions. When accuracy is an issue, administrators make judgment calls. When contributors differ on facts, Wales runs the facts by a mediation committee and an arbitration committee.

How accurate is Wikipedia? Stories abound about members of Congress cleaning up entries posted about themselves. Voting records have been tampered self-serving ways. On several occasions, every member of Congress has been barred from posting changes while Wikipedia administrators have sorted out fact from fiction.

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