24 July 2006

Wikipedia Rocks!

A million articles and 200 languages, on a shoestring:

The site has achieved this prominence largely without paid staff or revenue. It has five employees in addition to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s thirty-nine-year-old founder, and it carries no advertising. In 2003, Wikipedia became a nonprofit organization; it meets most of its budget, of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, with donations, the bulk of them contributions of twenty dollars or less. . . .

Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old. . . .

Insofar as Wikipedia has a physical existence, it is in St. Petersburg, Florida, in an executive suite that serves as the headquarters of the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia and its lesser-known sister projects, among them Wikisource (a library of free texts), Wikinews (a current-events site) and Wikiquote (bye-bye Bartlett’s). Wales, who is married and has a five-year-old daughter, says that St. Petersburg’s attractive housing prices lured him from California. When I visited the offices in March, the walls were bare, the furniture battered. With the addition of a dead plant, the suite could pass for a graduate-student lounge. . . .

At any given time, a couple of hundred entries are semi-protected, which means that a user must register his I.P. address and wait several days before making changes. . . . Wales recently established an “oversight” function, by which some admins . . . can purge text from the system, so that even the history page bears no record of its ever having been there. Wales says that this measure is rarely used, and only in order to remove slanderous or private information, such as a telephone number. . . .

Last year, Nature published a survey comparing forty-two entries on scientific topics on Wikipedia with their counterparts in Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. According to the survey, Wikipedia had four errors for every three of Britannica’s, a result that, oddly, was hailed as a triumph for the upstart.


Wikipedia isn't perfect. But, it illustrates that almost universal unilateral control can be given to millions of people and produce good results, not unlike capitalism itself. There are rules, but, it turns out, the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, play nice and keep the faith, particularly when there is some semblence of a few slight rules. It's decentralized, free wheeling nature is also an example of why secret intelligence agencies, with almost the opposite philosophy, are always hard pressed to keep up with the public domain in the era of the Internet.

1 comment:

Kyle said...

It really is an amazing endevor. Reading through the featured articles, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that people aren't getting paid to write it. It actually greatly improves my view of humanity because it suggests that - even if there is bickering, and even if it isn't perfect - people will band together to build something good.