When Wikipedia opened its virtual doors in 2001, the idea sounded like a joke – an empty encyclopaedia, reliant on the kindness of strangers to write, edit and update its articles. It’s amazing anyone had the optimism to launch it in the first place.
The thinking makes more sense if you know that Wikipedia wasn’t originally intended as a standalone project. Two years previously, founder Jimmy Wales had already launched Nupedia – an encyclopaedia site written and curated by experts in the traditional way. Wikipedia was to be a “feeder” project, allowing anyone to create and expand entries, which trusted editors could then review for inclusion into the “real” encyclopaedia.
Quickly, though, the dynamism and breadth of Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced content outshined Nupedia. By 2002, Wikipedia hosted more than 20,000 articles. In 2003, Nupedia was shut down and its articles merged into Wikipedia.
Wikipedia isn’t without its controversies. One is the tension between “inclusionist” and “deletionist” editors. Inclusionists take the view that the site can and should contain as broad a range of information as possible. Deletionists tend to think that only significant, verifiable facts have a place on Wikipedia. Check the discussion behind a substantial article and you’ll find long, abusive arguments about which edits should stand.
Since Wikipedia isn’t centrally managed, its coverage is also often skewed towards users’ interests. As US commentator Stephen Colbert has noted, the Wikipedia entry for “lightsabre” is more extensive than for the printing press.
A final concern is the question of reliability. In 2005, a study in the journal Nature found that Wikipedia’s millions of contributors had refined its content to a degree of accuracy almost on par with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But while minor inaccuracies quickly get picked up, outright fabrications may hang around for months without being corrected. Last year, researcher Gregory Kohs carried out an experiment in which he inserted nonsensical claims into Wikipedia – such as the pain from inflammation is caused by the body’s release of volcanic rock – and saw them hang around uncorrected for many months.
Despite its imperfections, Wikipedia is a unique resource and the web’s de facto central repository of information. Here at Jammy Toast it is often – if not nearly always – the place we turn to when researching information for a post. In fact, where do you think I picked up these facts about the site in the first place?