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15 January; this is the date in 2001 when Wikipedia was launched – the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, and one of those amazing phenomena of the online era that have fundamentally changed the way we interact with information.

Searching Wikipedia - a daily activity for millions of Internet users.(© All Rights Reserved)

Searching Wikipedia – a daily activity for millions of Internet users.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The creators of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, came up with the name as a combination of a ‘wiki’ (a type of collaborative website) and ‘encyclopedia’ – thus succintly describing the way the site operates. Essentially a very simple concept, Wikipedia is described as “a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.” From its humble beginnings a little more than a decade ago, Wikipedia has grown to an online encyclopedia containing 24 million articles in 285 languages (including over 4.1 million in the English Wikipedia) – all created collaboratively by about 100 000 contributors from around the world.

And popular it is – with over 35 million readers, and more than 2.5 billion page views per month from the US alone.

While the open, collaborative model behind Wikipedia holds many advantages – range of content, speed of update, etc – the non-expert, non-academic profile of much of the contributor base has raised some criticism, including questions about the accuracy and quality of some of its the content. While these concerns are valid, and there is no doubt some questionable content on Wikipedia, the way the information is presented tends to be very open, and non-verified information are usually flagged as such. As long as you realise that you are, in fact, dealing with a non-verified source, the level of information available via the platform really is staggering. And the self-regulatory action of the Wikipedia community does tend to lead to content that is, in the majority of cases, surprisingly well verified by experts in the relevant fields.

In fact, a 2005 investigation in Nature magazine showed that most of the content in Wikipedia come very close to the level of accuracy of an accepted reference work such as Encyclopædia Britannica.

So, whether or not you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, there’s no denying that it is an incredibly broad and up-to-date source of information on just about any topic you can imagine.  And that’s impressive, no matter how you look at it.

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