If Two Heads Are Better than One, Try 7,000 with Wikipedia

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As much as you may claim to be, or hope to be, all knowing, chances are good that you're not. But if you combine your knowledge, with my knowledge, with the knowledge of 7,000 or so others around the world, chances are good that we are collectively a whole lot smarter than we are individually. This philosophy is the guiding principle behind the two-year-old online encyclopedia Wikipedia, founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. It is now maintained and developed by approximately 7,000 users including 600 established contributors.

The Wikipedia is a WikiWiki (meaning "quick" in Hawaiian). Often called "Wiki" for short, a WikiWiki is a collaborative software application that enables Web documents to be authored by a collective. Wikis are known for having strong software support and an active user community. Although similar to Blogs, Wikis are unique because they allow users to edit almost all articles.

Ward Cunningham invented and named the Wiki concept, produced the first implementation of a WikiWiki server, and established the original WikiWikiWeb.

Cunningham's Wiki remains one of the most popular Wiki sites, but Wikipedia is the world's largest WikiWiki.

As defined on its homepage, "Wikipedia is a multilingual project to create a complete and accurate open content encyclopedia." The idea is that everyone has some knowledge on a variety of subjects, so if the world puts their heads together the result will be a comprehensive encyclopedia. The site goes on to declare, "Our goal with Wikipedia is to create a free encyclopedia—indeed, the largest encyclopedia in history, both in terms of breadth and in terms of depth. We also want Wikipedia to become a reliable resource."

Although few people still own traditional bound encyclopedias, digital rivals abound. Wales sees these less as competition than as supplemental resources that can complement the Wikipedia. "In one sense, our competition is proprietary encyclopedias. [But] they are having a very difficult time transitioning to the Internet, and I expect them to cease to exist in a few years time—or to transform themselves radically to cope" Wales says. "Every article [in Wikipedia] is subjected to rigorous and ongoing peer review, which will, over time, result in stronger articles than Britannica."

All Wikipedia material, unless otherwise specified, is covered by the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), a "copyleft" license for free content. The license is designed for reference and instructional materials such as software documentation, and it specifies that copied materials may be redistributed or sold, but must be available for further modification.

No editor-in-chief governs Wikipedia, but the founders and users have established a set of general policies and accepted practices to guide submissions and modifications. Writers are expected to author from a neutral point of view and page edits or discussions are to be fact-oriented, not argumentative. Wikipedia makes a point of explaining that it is an encyclopedia, not a bulletin board or chat room. Submissions should also adhere to copyright laws and follow the general site conventions for naming and editing articles. Users are encouraged not to worry about introducing errors; the idea is that while you may not always be right, someone else will notice mistakes and correct them.

A Current Events page lists articles of ongoing interest, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as daily news articles and archived articles listed by month. Topics are selected based on their potential for historical relevance; this is not a location for celebrity news or gossip.

The site also includes a "Random Page" function that, not surprisingly, pulls up a random page from anywhere in the encyclopedia. My first foray into this section taught me all about North Hampton, Ohio (in a nutshell, it is a village of approximately 370 in Clark County that is 97.03% white with a median household income of $37,083, and a median family income of $55,341).

The degree of cross-referencing in the encyclopedia is astounding. Each page comes complete with links to: Edit this page, Discuss this page; Older versions; What links here; and Related changes. There are also myriad links embedded within the text. Take the following sentence, the beginning of the "Star Network" entry, for example: "A computer network with a star network topology, in its simplest form, consists of one central, or hub computer which acts as a router to transmit messages between connected computers by a store-and-forward or switching system." There are six possible links in that sentence alone (computer network, topology, hub, router, store-and-forward, and switching). This is the Choose Your Own Adventure style of online learning.

Curiously, although Wikipedia is built on the importance of collaboration, it is nearly impossible to locate contact information for anyone on the site. There is no way to email the founders, or even the top contributors; the only viable form of communication seems to be via bulletin boards and discussion pages.

The Wikipedia currently exists in 26 languages including the predictable (English, French, Italian, German) and the less predictable (Bosnian, Afrikaans, Catalan, Estonian, Serbocroatian) with new editions sprouting up fairly regularly based on the interest and knowledge of contributors.

According to Wales, Wikipedia "should carry on indefinitely. We are in the process now of setting up a nonprofit foundation to fund the acquisition of more servers, etc., but the free license we are using guarantees that as long as there are people interested in improving the free encyclopedia, it will continue to exist and grow."