One of the Internet's more fascinating social experiments was born at a time when it seemed all the dot-coms were dying. Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia started in January 2001, has since surprised Web watchers by maturing into a popular reference site.
Wikipedia's success is particularly remarkable because unlike regular Web sites, it is created entirely by the people who visit it. With more than 340,000 English-language articles, this community-edited encyclopedia is already considerably larger than its leading rival, the Encyclopedia Britannica, which offers 75,000 articles online in a subscription service.
The free Wikipedia also features a publicly authored current-events page recapping the day's top news, and it is rapidly expanding into other languages -- more than 10,000 articles have been created in each of roughly a dozen languages besides English.
Yet some worry that because it charges users nothing, this new-age reference work may siphon readership away from old-school encyclopedias and take a devastating bite out of their revenue -- without delivering the same levels of accuracy and quality.
Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, pays 20 in-house editors to work with 2,500 outside advisers on writing assignments. Wikipedia contributors, by contrast, are unpaid volunteers who can write and change anything they want on the site -- and often rewrite each other dozens or hundreds of times. Many are anonymous, too, identified only by their computer's numerical Internet address.
But Wikipedia's founders say what others regard as a weakness is part of the site's real strength -- that it is a community. The same openness that allows vandals to wreak havoc, they contend, also enables other contributors to restore order and self-police the site.
"The interesting thing about a community is that it scales inherently," said Jimmy Wales, the site's founder and chief executive. "The more people who come to the Web site and cause problems, the more people we have who are dealing with them."
Wales, a former options and futures trader based in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the free online encyclopedia is being developed under the auspices of a nonprofit foundation named Wikimedia. It has raised about $100,000 from contributors so far, far less than producing the encyclopedia has cost, according to Wales, and the company will need more money if it is to achieve its ambitious aim of producing print and CD-ROM copies for distribution in Africa and elsewhere.
"It is our goal to put the sum of all human knowledge in the form of an encyclopedia in the hands of every single person on the planet for free," said Wales, who modeled his idea of a free encyclopedia created by volunteers on the efforts of software developers who created the Linux operating system.
Tugs of war
Yet Wikipedia also owes its existence to a special type of software invented by programmer Ward Cunningham in 1995. His software, which takes its name from "wiki," the Hawaiian word for "quick," allows groups to jointly create and edit Web pages, using a special formatting style that is different from the HTML format used for regular Web pages.
Anyone visiting a Wiki page can click on a link that says "edit text of this page" and change the words or links by entering text in a box that opens up and clicking "save." They can review prior changes by clicking on a "recent changes" link. Since past versions are archived, contributors can undo edits if they think someone has injected inaccurate or biased information.
This results in tugs of war, especially over hot-button issues.
Wikipedians -- as the site's 9,000 regular contributors are called -- are constantly removing what they call "vandalism" from pages, including a posting on the "abortion" entry in July that said: "ABORTION SHOULD BE ILLEGAL, IT IS VERY HARMFULL FOR THE WOMEN. WOMEN HAS SO MANY OTHER CHOICES OTHER THAN ABORTION. This is a warning!!"
Such diverse points of view have led some to question the reliability of Wikipedia's entries. Britannica's editors are among those who take a skeptical view, noting that Wikipedia publishes a disclaimer stating that it does not vouch for its own validity. "We very much take responsibility for all the content we include in any of our products," said Britannica editor in chief Dale Hoiberg.
He added that Britannica subjects its articles to an editorial review process with at least six stages and works to ensure the content is accurate, comprehensive, balanced, consistent and full of context.
Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., conceded that at its best, some Wikipedia entries reflect the collective wisdom of many contributors. But he added: "The problem with an effort like that is that at other times, it may reflect just the wisdom -- or lack of wisdom -- of the last contributor."
Wales conceded that Wikipedia's quality may not be up to the level of Britannica, but he added that the 236-year-old encyclopedia had better watch out. Wikipedia is proposing to implement editorial controls soon that Wales thinks will put it on par with Britannica.
"That kind of quality is important, and we do believe we can reach that kind of quality within a year," he said. Within a few weeks, Wales plans to propose a review process that would essentially allow certain articles to be flagged as "stable" so they could be included in print or CD-ROM versions. The way Wikipedia works now, anything can be edited almost endlessly. Editing could continue, but a new layer would be added that identified certain entry versions as attaining an editorial standard.
The downside to unlimited public editing
Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's co-founder, said the unlimited public editing process can have a downside. "I was recently looking at some of the philosophy articles that have been edited and re-edited. I actually think some of them have gone backwards lately," he said. Sanger teaches philosophy at Ohio State University.
Yet Sanger shares Wales's view of Wikipedia as a living community with an amazing growth rate and promising future.
While Sanger thinks commercial encyclopedias such as Britannica and Microsoft's Encarta will continue to exist side by side with Wikipedia, Wales contends the commercial efforts won't survive for long unless they change and adopt a more open philosophy.
"I think their cost basis is too high compared to what we can do," Wales said, "particularly since we are moving in the direction of peer review."
Britannica execs scoff at the idea Wikipedia could put it out of business, claiming its online revenue has grown 45 percent in the past year, more than offsetting substantial declines in its CD-ROM sales. Cauz, Britannica's president, said nearly 200,000 consumers are paying $60 a year or $10 a month for Britannica's Web service. The encyclopedia reaches an additional 20 million readers through sales to schools and other institutions, he said.
"We will always be appreciated by people who like scholarly work," he added.
That likely is true, but this topic bears watching for anyone interested in the larger questions of whether -- and how -- the Internet's free dissemination of knowledge will eventually decrease the economic value of information.