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Happy birthday, Wikipedia

January 14, 2011 | 11:39 am


Founder Jimmy Wales reminisces about Wikipedia's entrance into the world in the above video. (Click the image to watch.)

Wikipedia critics never would have expected to see the user-generated online encyclopedia make it to 10 years, much less become the fifth-most-visited website on the Internet. Why, they wondered, would anyone want to search for information a on site with unreliable sources? What the critics underestimated is how much Web users would want to interact with the content -- that it would become as appealing to contribute to the knowledge base with both facts and corrections as it would be to search for information. (Users police the site and write in when they've noticed an error.) What makes Wikipedia so successful is the very factor that's given Facebook an edge: reader engagement.

On the occasion of Wikipedia's 10th birthday Saturday, Opinion contributor Timothy Garton Ash has written an Op-Ed for Friday's pages to celebrate the site:

What is extraordinary about this free encyclopedia, which contains more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages, is that it is written, edited and self-regulated almost entirely by unpaid volunteers. […] More than any other major global site, Wikipedia still breathes the utopian idealism of the Internet's heroic early days. Wikipedians, as they style themselves, are men and women with a mission. That mission, upon which they boldly go, is summed up in this almost Lennonist (that's John, not Vladimir) sentence from the man they all refer to as Jimmy: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Tripod.com and founder of Geekcorps, also wishes Wikipedia a happy birthday. From the Atlantic:

Wikipedia is a victory of process over substance. The larval encyclopedia Reagle has recreated wouldn't have been worth translating, or even preserving. But the process and ruleset that allowed contributors to explore and document their passions, to improve each other's efforts, to debate editorial decisions within the platform and to roll back errors and vandalism have allowed for constructive, collaborative effort that has, over time, created profoundly content. Wikipedia's victory was getting the rules -- and importantly, the rules for making rules -- right, and trusting that the process would lead to substance. The project is far from perfect -- it's incomplete, inaccurate in places, subject to the systemic biases that come from participation of some authors and not others. But it's also one of the wonders of the world, and something anyone who studies sociology, politics, or organizational theory should look upon with utter fascination.

And here's Monica Hesse from The Washington Post:

It simply is, an omnipresent fact of modern living, like Facebook or Betty White. The accuracy debate is the most important but in some ways less interesting discussion about Wikipedia's impact. What's most revealing might be not the vastness of the articles and the things they get wrong, but rather how they reveal what things we care about, and how humanity is both better and dumber than you ever would have expected.

So, what's next for Wikipedia? Wales would like even more reader engagement, and world domination.


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