Wikipedia's first 10 years

January marks the 10th anniversary of Wikipedia, an institution that has revolutionised the passing on of knowledge. Of course, encyclopedias have been around for many years. One of the first was Naturalis Historia, written in Roman times by Pliny the Elder. Since then, we have had the Etymologiae, the De proprietatibus rerum and the Speculum Majus in the Middle Ages, not to mention other encyclopedias from around the world right until now. Wikipedia became the world's largest encyclopedia in 2004, its articles written by millions of volunteers.

How do I know all this? I looked it up on Wikipedia of course. If you can believe it. That’s quite  a change from the old days when I had to go to those dusty volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica sitting in my big sister’s room. Yes, you could look things up but it was a lot more work . And besides, it was not the place to go for up to date information.

Paul Ford sums it up in The Atlantic. Wikipedia’s appeal, he says, lies in it being faster, cheaper and having edits that are instantaneous. Or as Matt Hartley writes in the Financial Post: “Wikipedia is now so ingrained in our collective culture that when we go to “look something up online,” more often than not, the first stop on our quest for knowledge is the Wikipedia entry for that subject. Just ask any university student working on a deadline, Wikipedia has transformed the way we learn.”

Wikipedia started when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger came up with the idea in 2001. Sanger put out a post Let’s Make a Wiki which was actually supposed to be an introduction to their Nupedia project. Sanger explains the origins of the word wiki: "Wiki," pronounced \wee'-kee\, derives from a Polynesian word, 'wikiwiki,' but what it means is a VERY open, VERY publicly-editable series of web pages.  For example, I can start a page called EpistemicCircularity and write anything I want in it.  Anyone else (yes, absolutely anyone else) can come along and make absolutely any changes to it that he wants to … On the page I create, I can link to any other pages, and of course anyone can link to mine.  The project is billed and pursued as a public resource … It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very
little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk.  They're also a potentially great source for content.  So there's little downside, as far as I can see.”

Such has been the exponential growth of Wikipedia that a new survey shows that half the adult population looks things up on it.

Of course, Wikipedia is not without its critics. The articles cite references, so it’s always best to check those first. And it’s been known for making some pretty wild claims. Although the loopier material has been cleaned up pretty quickly by Wikipedia’s administrators, it still has a reputation.  Some personalities have had their deaths announced on Wikipedia prematurely. Probably the best summing of that came in the hilarious story that appeared in The Onion nearly four years ago. “Wikipedia celebrates 750 years of American independence.” 

Still, the monitoring and editing process is said to be pretty rigorous. And regardless of whether it’s accurate or not, political strategists say the public regards it as more accurate than not, and that’s important because it tells us that Wikipedia is shaping public awareness.

Because of concerns about its accuracy, I use Wikipedia as a starting point only.  For me, that’s the best way. It’s just an introduction to the subject. After that, you have to start digging around.  Good luck with anyone trying to find the facts on the internet. Even the facts themselves can be spun and twisted to suit certain agendas. So Wikipedia for me is just the entry point.

How will Wikipedia survive the next 10 years? That could be a challenge. The Economist says there's pressure on Wikipedia to pay expert editors to produce and oversee content. Another headache is the declining number of contributors. The number of English language contributors has dropped from around 54,000 at its peak in March 2007 to some 35,000 in September 2010 and there is a similar trend in some foreign-language versions of the encyclopedia. Wikipedia has covered just about everything so fewer are contributing. Wikipedia might be a victim of its own success.

Still, it’s hard now to see a future without Wikipedia. How would we look anything up?

How often do you use Wikipedia? How useful do you find it? Is that your only source, or do you look elsewhere? What do you think of Wikipedia as an information source?