Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wikipedia's birthday--10 years

Much maligned but making improvements.

"Wikipedia Marks 10 Years of Edit-It-Yourself"


Verne G. Kopytoff

January 13th, 2011

The New York Times

An untested idea — allowing regular people to create an online encyclopedia — went live on Jan. 15, 2001, with no fanfare. No one knew whether anyone would contribute to such a project, and if so, whether the information they did submit would be reliable.

Fast forward to today, and that upstart Web site, Wikipedia, is an important source of information online for millions of topics. Although it has suffered its share of inaccuracies and hoaxes, it remains among the Internet’s most visited sites — bigger than eBay.

On Saturday, Wikipedia will celebrate its 10th anniversary with conferences and parties across the globe, including in New York, Boston and San Francisco. As with much of Wikipedia, the events are being organized by its community of users.

Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees Wikipedia, said: “Wikipedia is modest. It isn’t a beautiful site. It looks a little awkward — sometimes the writing is a little bit awkward.” But she added that people still have “a deep and abiding affection for it.”

Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia (or co-founded, depending on whom one asks) as an offshoot of Nupedia, a peer-edited encyclopedia. Enlisting amateurs, he thought, might speed up Nupedia’s article-writing process.

Wikipedia quickly gained a large following. Volunteers, it turned out, were more than happy to contribute, while readers did not seem to mind that the editors were unpaid.

Although it covers a huge swath of information — Wikipedia has more than 3.5 million articles in English, for instance — there remains much work to be done. Both Ms. Gardner and Mr. Wales say that the site will try to recruit a wider array of contributors, including more women, more older people and more editors who write in a greater diversity of languages.

Wikipedia’s editors tend to be from the technology crowd and therefore emphasize subjects that they know, like math and science, at the expense of the humanities, Mr. Wales said. Furthermore, 80 percent of editors are male and relatively young; many are in their late 20s.

The goal, Ms. Gardner said, is to offer “the sum total of all human knowledge” in the native language of all of Wikipedia’s users.

“We’re missing some people from the table,” Ms. Gardner said.

To increase the number of foreign-language articles, Wikipedia, which recently completed a $16 million fundraising drive, is planning to open its first overseas office in India in the coming months. Lessons learned there will likely be adopted at other future international outposts, possibly in Egypt and Brazil.

A push to improve the quality of articles is also under way, including through a partnership with 16 universities to have professors assign students to write about public policy. Wikipedia is also trying to get experts to contribute, and recruiting museums, which could offer better images for the site.

Wikipedia’s growth has come with some well-known complications. Contributors sometimes add inaccurate details or bias to articles, either by accident or as pranks.

Over the years, Wikipedia has given editors more tools to combat the problem like blocking contributions on breaking news events, except by people who have had accounts for a while.

Mr. Wales pointed to the recent mass shooting in Tucson as an example of the process working as it was supposed to. The article that went up about the event initially said that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been killed — as some news outlets reported — but editors soon realized that there were conflicting accounts of what happened and put up a warning about the confusion.

Wikipedia’s plan is to make it easier to add new articles and photos to the site. Tweaks to the underlying software are intended to streamline the service, although Mr. Wales said the site would never become flashy.

“We are not going to become Facebook, we are not going to become MySpace or YouTube,” he said.

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