Wikipedia, the anonymously authored online encyclopedia that has saved many a student seeking a last-minute source for a research paper, is ten years old today. While many have bemoaned the site as a free-for-all repository of information put up by who knows who, Wikipedia has endured. Indeed, you can argue that Wikipedia represents the true spirit of the Internet.
Wikipedia came into being when founder Jimmy Wales typed ‘Hello, world’ into a wiki in January of 2001 and, well, history, was made. (You can read about it on, yes, Wikipedia.) At first, Wikipedia had a serious credibility problem and, as Sue Gardner writes in the Guardian, for good reason, as it rose ex nihilo ‘and building an encyclopedia takes time.’ With 400 million readers a day, Gardner deems Wikipedia to be an ‘indispensable part of our daily lives.’ Gardner is the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees Wikipedia, so she’s a bit biased, but I have to agree.
Gardner continues in the Guardian:
When Wikipedia started back in January 2001, it was an experiment. Nobody really thought a wide-open collaborative model could succeed. But it did succeed, and in the years since, its premise been validated again and again: everyone has at least a few crumbs of information, and lots are willing to bring theirs to the common table. Totally ordinary people are willing to help and share with each other, just for fun, out of basic kindness, and to experience the joy of collaboration.
That’s why so many people – readers, donors and cultural critics – say that Wikipedia represents the fulfilment of the original promise of the internet: that it’s a kind of poster child for online collaboration in the public interest. Because back when the internet started, we figured it would be full of stuff like Wikipedia. Turns out we were mostly wrong: if you take a look at the world’s most popular websites, it’s hard not to notice that Wikipedia’s the only site in the top 25 whose primary purpose is to provide a non-commercial public service.
The New York Times details more of the changes in store for Wikipedia in its second decade. Having completed a $16 million fundraising drive, the plan is to increase the number of foreign-language articles (Wikipedia currently has more than 3.5 million articles in English). There are plans to open an overseas office in India and, perhaps, in Egypt and Brazil, too. And Wikipedia continues to address the issue of inaccuracies, bias, and pranks:
Over the years, Wikipedia has given editors more tools to combat the problem, like limiting contributions on breaking news events to people who have had accounts for a while.
Mr. Wales pointed to the recent mass shooting in Tucson as an example of the process working as it was supposed to. The article that went up about the event initially said that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been killed — as some news outlets reported — but editors soon realized that there were conflicting accounts of what happened and put up a warning about the confusion.
Once upon a time, like many professors and teachers, I took a fuddy-duddy stance towards Wikipedia and online sources as ‘less than legitimate and reliable’ than what you can find in the library. In years past, I’ve made it very clear to my students that ‘Wikipedia is not an acceptable academic source’ for their papers, not only due to inaccuracies and mistakes, but because it is just too easy to use Wikipedia. But now more than a few articles are (reasonably) sound. Also, if a student could find something wrong in Wikipedia, more power to her or him: Finding such is a good lesson in learning to read any source with an analytical eye.
Indeed, I’ll just confess it: I quite appreciate Wikipedia. Not only because it’s so readily accessible. There’s a lot more in it than the World Book ever had, including fairly comprehensive sections on one of the subjects I teach, basic Latin grammar. I’m actually planning to go ‘textbook-free’ in my Latin classes in 2011-2012 academic year, and will be drawing on Wikipedia’s entries on Latin grammar (verbs, declining nouns) and some other online sites, as well as my own materials and a blog, for my students. And yes, I have changed my policy about students citing Wikipedia as a source. In some areas, it’s better than what a student can find surfing around on the web.
My husband Jim Fisher—he’s a professor of American studies and religion in New York—often says, ‘But who writes the stuff?’ and ‘how do they decide who gets an entry?’ Good questions (something he also often says to me). My answer has usually been ‘some 20-something guys sitting around in sweats and drinking diet Coke somewhere?’
I seem to be right: Wales notes to the New York Times that “Wikipedia’s editors tend to be from the technology crowd and therefore emphasize subjects that they know, like math and science, at the expense of the humanities,’ with 80 percent of editors’ male and relatively young” and, indeed, many are in their late 20′s.
Wikipedia is trying to get more women to contribute as well as some experts. It’s made a partnership with 16 universities to have professors assign students to write about public policy.
I just hope Wales will stick to what he says in the New York Times, that ‘”We are not going to become Facebook, we are not going to become MySpace or YouTube”‘—that Wikipedia will never be ‘flashy,’ but the rather cumbersome, imperfect, free-for-all behemoth it is. This is the Age of Information, after all. Wikipedia has made quite a bit of that available—and now it’s up to us users to understand how best to use all of the Wiki-copia.
Happy 10th Birthday Wikipedia. Thanks to you, we’ve come, we’ve typed, and we’ve Wiki’d (this is an attempt at a reference to a famous Latin quote—here’s Wikipedia’s take on it), and we wish you many more years, and a whole lot more (preferably accurate and spell-checked) entries.
Photo by jimbo wales.