Saturday, January 15, 2011


In addition to today marking what would’ve been the 82nd birthday of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (he was assassinated in 1968), “It’s the 10-year anniversary of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which was launched on this day in 2001,” according to The Writer’s Almanac. The Almanac goes on to explain:
[Wikipedia] was co-founded by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. Sanger was a philosopher who specialized in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge itself--how it works, how we learn, how knowledge is spread and why we believe what we do. Wales was an entrepreneur who started out on a more traditional career path, working at a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, before deciding that the Internet was the way of the future. First Wales created a Web domain called Bomis, cater[ing] toward men. There were Web rings like “babe,” “sports,” and “adult."” Bomis didn’t really take off, but it did make enough on advertising to fit the bills for Wales’ next project, Nupedia.

For Nupedia, Wales recruited Sanger, who was a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. They were both interested in open-source software, and were excited by the idea of creating an online encyclopedia that anyone could contribute to. They decided that articles would go through a rigorous peer-reviewed process to make sure they were as accurate as those in any other encyclopedia. So they launched Nupedia in March of 2000. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well. Writers would get critiqued so intensely by scholarly reviewers that they were too afraid to write more articles. After six months, only two articles had made it through the peer-review process. Larry Sanger was talking to a programmer, Ben Kovitz, who explained the concept of a wiki and suggested using wiki software for an encyclopedia, so that anyone could write and anyone could edit, making the encyclopedia truly collaborative. Sanger brought the idea to Wales, and they decided to give it a chance. They kept it separate from Nupedia, in case it was a failure. Instead, they called their new venture Wikipedia.

And in almost no time Wikipedia became far more popular than Nupedia. In 2009, the English-language version of Wikipedia hit the 3 million-article mark when someone wrote an article on the Norwegian actress Beate Eriksen. Since then, the number has continued to rise, and there are about 3.5 million articles in English. Overall, there are more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages.
It’s astounding, really, how quickly Wikipedia has become an essential resource. Unfortunately, it has also become an easy fallback for students too lazy to do research on their own. But while Wikipedia is a font of information, much of it esoteric and unlikely to have ever been included in a conventional, print encyclopedia, its openness has resulted in many accidental errors and intentional pranks. Schoolchildren and anyone else who uses Wikipedia would do well to double-check its facts before repeating them. That isn’t a knock on Wikipedia, just a recognition of any collaborative site’s faults.

I’ve made a few contributions of my own to that site over the last couple of years, writing about the 1976-1977 TV series City of Angels, the recently deceased crime novelist Joe Gores, TV writer and producer William Link, and other subjects. There are a few more pages I would like to beef up, when I find some extra time. I figure that making such additions helps pay back Wikipedia for my repeated blog references to its millions of pages. Were Wikipedia to go out of business (as was rumored a year or so ago), my various blogs would be plagued by dead connections.

Here’s wishing Wikipedia another decade of information overload!

READ MORE:Jesus of Wikipedia: Using Christ’s Page as a Guide to the Online Encyclopedia’s 10-Year History,” Chris Wilson (Slate).

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