Wikipedia: It’s Wicked

Here’s a great example of the Internet as it should be: A font of constantly updated knowledge — available for free.

By Jeremy Wagstaff (WSJ, FEER)

Feb. 16, 2004 6:56 pm ET (original is here (paywall))

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place on the Internet where educated folk pooled their knowledge for nothing, conscientiously building up a huge, orderly and free database on subjects as varied as wind gradients and the yellow-wattled lapwing?

Actually, it’s already happened. It’s an online encyclopedia called Wikipedia, and it probably qualifies as the largest ever collaborative effort on the Internet. Late last month it reached a milestone: 200,000 entries (compare that with 60,000 at MSN Encarta Premium, Columbia’s 51,000 entries, and Encyclopedia.com’s 57,000 articles). By the end of this year, Wikipedia is expected to have about 330,000 articles.

But of course, quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. So I ran a few checks on some recent topics. What about bird flu? Britannica’s online (www.britannica.com) service found 75 responses to “avian influenza,” none of which seemed to have anything specific. Encyclopedia.com had nothing. I couldn’t log onto the MSN Encarta Web site at www.encarta.com ($5 a month, $30 a year) because, I was told: “Your market is not currently supported.” The three-CD deluxe version of Encarta had nothing on bird flu, even after I updated it online.

But Wikipedia? Entering “bird flu” or “avian influenza” in the search box took me straight to the right page, with information about infection, bird flu in humans, prevention and treatment, and a link to the World Health Organization’s avian-influenza fact sheet. The page had been modified the previous day to update statistics on fatalities to add the suspected case of human-to-human transmission in Vietnam.

This, I have to say, is impressive knowledge management. And it wasn’t a fluke: I tried “ricin,” the toxin that was recently found in the U.S. Senate mail room. On Britannica it took me a couple of jumps before I found out that ricin is a poison derived from the castor-oil plant; Columbia Encyclopedia only mentioned this in passing, as did Encyclopedia.com. Encarta Deluxe did a much better job, with an article that had been updated two weeks before. (However, if I hadn’t updated the contents, and had used only the CD’s data, I wouldn’t have found anything.) Wikipedia still won, though, with a page dedicated to the subject, and updated to include the discovery of ricin traces in the homes of a suspected terrorist ring in London last year.

So how does all this happen? How can such a huge database be maintained, and stay free? Wikipedia was set up three years ago by Jimmy Wales, a 37-year-old Internet entrepreneur who lives in Florida with his three-year-old daughter, a Hyundai and a mortgage. He wanted, he says, “to distribute, for free, a complete and comprehensive encyclopedia in every language of the world, easily and affordably accessible to even the poorest and most oppressed people.” (He admits it sounds corny and made up, but all good things do.)

Anybody visiting the site can update, add or edit any entry as they see fit, via an online form. They don’t even have to register first. The reason it works is, in part, because the software is really easy to use, and saves all copies of whatever has been changed or deleted. (This is where the “wiki” bit comes in: It’s Hawaiian for “quick,” and Wikiwiki is the open-source collaborative software that Wikipedia is run on, but that’s another story.)

The most obvious concern, with all this freedom, is abuse. What is there to stop people with bad intentions, or just bias, altering, defacing or deleting content? How can we be sure that what we’re reading is accurate, if anyone can contribute? The answer: peer pressure. It’s not that this kind of thing doesn’t happen; it’s just that it’s fixed so quickly most people won’t notice. That’s because the software is set up so that, while anybody can change anything they want, other folk can see what has been changed and, if necessary, alter it or change it back. With about 200 regulars watching the site, and another 1,000 or so frequently monitoring, there are a lot of folk watching out for wreckers, zealots and the misinformed.

Recent research by a team from IBM found that most vandalism suffered by Wikipedia had been repaired within five minutes. That’s fast: “We were surprised at how often we found vandalism, and then surprised again at how fast it was fixed,” says Martin Wattenberg, a researcher in the IBM TJ Watson Research Centre, in Cambridge, Mass.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everything is going to be accurate or unbiased. But once again, the sheer volume of people actively involved tends to lead towards some sort of consensus based on facts. And the rules, such as they are, tend to help rather than hinder. The goal, for example, of all posts is NPOV, which stands for Neutral Point of View. There is no hierarchy, beyond Mr. Wales as a kind of benevolent dictator. But even he doesn’t interfere much. Instead, users talk out controversies online, and only rarely pull the plug on someone. As Mr. Wales himself puts it: “There’s an institutional danger if we start kicking people out that ideological considerations might play a role that we don’t want them to play. An encyclopedia is a neutral reference standard.”

While such discussions can be heated, they reveal the high caliber of contributors: I trawled around and found some recent spats about Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Arab-Israeli conflict and atheism. If that’s the level of debate, the material can’t be bad.

So where is all this going? Mr. Wales has just raised $50,000 in donations from users and fans to upgrade computers (he asked for $20,000) and hopes to raise some more by selling a version of the database to Yahoo. In the long run, however, he wants to find a way to get a hard copy of the encyclopedia to folk who don’t have easy access to information. He’s kind of hoping someone like talk-show host Oprah Winfrey might be interested in helping out.

Over to you, Oprah. And if you know something about something, do your bit by adding, editing or correcting entries. I tried it, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get is great.