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Free the Encyclopedias!

Got a yen to write? A free Web-based encyclopedia takes contributions from anyone.
September 4, 2001

What does Nicole Kidman have in common with Kurt Godel? Both are the subject of entries in Wikipedia, a free-wheeling Internet-based encyclopedia whose founders hope will revolutionize the stodgy world of encyclopedias.

What makes Wikipedia different from, say, Encarta (in addition to a name that hints of fruity drinks capped by paper parasols) is that anyone can contribute to it.

Say you are an expert on Fibonacci numbers. Maybe you don’t have an academic degree that relates to Fibonacci numbers. Maybe you have never before written about Fibonacci numbers. Still, you love them, you collect them, you dream about them. You’ve always wanted to write about them.

Wikipedia is your chance. All you need do is tap into the Wiki Web site and start writing. You don’t even have to give your real name.

Or maybe your computer crashes a lot, and you’d like to write about that. The Wikipedia entry called “The Blue Screen of Death” (for the cryptic screen that Windows flashes before it stomps your life) is your chance at fame.

But be warned, other “Wikipedians,” as contributors like to call themselves, will comment on and even rewrite your pontifications on crashing your PC. They’ll have names like “Belltower” and “Creaktop” and will annotate your entry with comments like “very patronizing tone” and “sounds like it was written by a Linux user.”

Grassroots Growth

“Wikipedia’s really taken off,” marvels cofounder Jimmy Wales. Started in January, the free online encyclopedia has packed in over 8,000 entries.

Contributors tap in about a thousand new entries every month, on topics ranging from comets to poker. Contributors tend to be students and teachers, as well as enthusiasts of particular subjects. They enjoy explaining heavy concepts such as the physics behind nuclear magnetic resonance technologies, but also weigh in on important sociopolitical issues such as the Tribbles in Star Trek.

“We have contributors who know fantastic amounts about specialized topics. For instance, we have a math Ph.D. student who’s written an enormous amount on biology classification systems,” says Wales.

Wikipedia, the brainchild of Wales and its full-time editor Larry Sanger, is modeled after Project GNU, in which Richard Stallman successfully rallied volunteers to program a free UNIX. Sanger and Wales were assembling another free Web-based encyclopedia called Nupedia, in which articles are refereed, but progress was slow. After a year, Nupedia had published only 25 articles.

Not Quite a Free-for-All

Wikipedia is available as free content under the GNU Free Documentation License. Anyone can display the encyclopedia, and even sell it. Wales, who is founder and CEO of San Diego-based Web portal Bomis, has spent about $150,000 of his own money developing Wikipedia. Technically, Wikipedia is owned by Bomis, but Wales and Sanger plan to set up a nonprofit to run the Web-based encyclopedia.

“There’s a culture that’s sprung up around Wikipedia,” claims Wales. When an entry is displayed, you can read its revision history as well as other contributors’ comments.

“We don’t control what people write or what comes in,” says Wales. “But one of the social norms of the community is that articles shouldn’t be controversial. If someone throws out an article that others think is biased, they’ll start talking about it and rewrite it.”

Rue Britannica?

Wikipedia, which one might consider intellectual anarchy extruded into encyclopedia form with a chat feature thrown in, is stemming a tide against charging for content on the Web. But it will probably never dethrone Britannica, whose 232-year reputation is based upon hiring world-renowned experts and exhaustively reviewing their articles with a staff of more than a hundred editors.

“There are a lot of reference works on the Internet, but we don’t concern ourselves about them too much,” says Tom Panelas, director of communications at Britannica. “People are coming to realize that while there’s a lot of information on the Internet, a lot of it is plain nonsense, and much of it is of questionable provenance. Being Britannica, we’ve always had a natural constituency of people who know Britannica is a name they can trust for reliable, well-written information.”

To read Britannica on the Web you must pony up $50 a year, although you can read the first two paragraphs of articles for free. The company won’t release subscription figures but claims that more than seven million users search each month during the school year.

Stand Back, Ma’am, We’re Professional Editors

Walter Bender, executive director of MIT’s Media Laboratory, believes that what makes Britannica a valuable resource is the scope and depth of its editing, and free Web-based encyclopedias such as Wikipedia will probably never be able to compete with that.

“The downside is that [Britannica] cannot practically keep pace with the growth of knowledge and information,” says Bender. “For example, Britannica still uses the entry on the city of Boston written almost twenty years ago by Jack Driscoll, former editor of the Boston Globe. The article was written in a timeless prose, but it no longer captures the essence of the city.”

True, but Wikipedia’s entry on Boston reads as follows: “The capital city of Massachusetts, USA. The greater Boston area has many suburbs, including Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

Boston enthusiasts, want to try your hand?

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