Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that is the product of collaboration
of its users, has become a major force on the Internet, but faces a
crisis after a false biography raised questions about its credibility.
The website, created as a free, "open source" multilingual
encyclopedia for the world, has reached a crossroads after phenomenal
growth along with a scandal that has forced the site to tighten up
monitoring of its content.
Wikipedia was started in 2001 as an experiment in "wiki" software.
Wiki means quick in Hawaiian, but the software enables multiple users
in different locations to edit a document.
Wikipedia has more than two million articles, including over 850,000
in English. It has sites in 200 languages, with 10 of them having over
50,000 articles -- English, German, French, Japanese, Polish, Italian,
Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.
Nielsen/Netratings found that Wikipedia had over 12.7 million US users
in September, up nearly 300 percent from a year ago. It was ranked as
the 35th most popular global website by Alexa.com.
As an open-source encyclopedia, Wikipedia can be revised and edited in
real time by any of its users.
Although that might be seen by some as a recipe for disaster,
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the give-and-take helps create a
Wales told AFP that users often find a common ground that helps the
site maintain its stated policy of "neutral point of view," or NPOV.
"That process of debate and dialogue is what generates some of the
best work on Wikipedia," said Wales, a former options trader whose
past projects have included a pornographic website.
"Some of the best articles come out of a dialogue of people who don't
agree -- you end up with a really solid representation."
Wales said Wikipedia has only three employees, but "several hundred"
volunteers who monitor the site to help maintain accuracy and
He put up 500,000 dollars to start the site, but it now operates with
donations and grants through a non-profit entity he formed called the
Wikipedia strives for "Britannica or better quality," Wales said, but
admits it has not yet achieved that.
Wales acknowledged a breakdown in the process in a biography posted
earlier this year of John Siegenthaler, a retired journalist who was
an aide in the 1960s to attorney general Robert Kennedy.
A Wikipedia article that went largely unnoticed for several weeks
said, "For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved
in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother,
Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
"I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious
'biography' that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia,"
Siegenthaler wrote in a column in USA Today.
Wales said Wikipedia tightened up its monitoring after the incident
and will require users to register before making any changes or new
postings. But he said the site will remain anonymous and that the
overall policy will remain unchanged.
Wikipedia has spawned critics, including a website called Wikipedia
"The basic problem is that no one, neither the trustees of Wikimedia
Foundation, nor the volunteers who are connected with Wikipedia,
consider themselves responsible for the content," says Wikipedia
Watch's Daniel Brandt.
Additionally, he said "anyone can edit an article, and there is no
guarantee that any article you read has not been edited maliciously."
In an unusual bit of self-criticism, Wikipedia notes on its site that
some complain about "a perceived lack of reliability, comprehensiveness,
and authority" in the encyclopedia.
But as part of its open-source credo, it states that "Wikipedia's
editing process assumes that exposing an article to many users will
result in accuracy."
Despite the recent controversy, Wikipedia has been "a great success
story," says Michael Cornfield, research consultant at the Pew
Internet and American Life Project in Washington.
"It's become synonymous with (online encyclopedia) the way Google has
become with search engines and Xerox with copiers," said Cornfield.
Cornfield said a key milestone for Wikipedia was the 2005 tsunami,
after which numerous scientists contributed to the site. He said many
experts contribute to Wikipedia because "if you have knowledge and the
teaching instinct, here is a classroom of the world."
But Cornfield said Wikipedia must find a way to ensure its
credibility, even if it means a more heavily monitored or edited
"This is the first crisis, but having a crisis is a marker of growth,"
Cornfield said. "Enough people use it now and contribute to it, so we
may have a public solution to the crisis."
Copyright 2005 Agence France Presse.
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