One of the Internet's more fascinating social experiments was born at a time when it seemed all the dot-coms were dying. Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia started in January 2001, has since surprised Web watchers by maturing into a popular reference site.
Wikipedia's success is particularly remarkable because unlike regular Web sites, it is created entirely by the people who visit it. With more than 340,000 English-language articles, this community-edited encyclopedia is already considerably larger than its leading rival, the Encyclopedia Britannica, which offers 75,000 articles online in a subscription service.
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The free Wikipedia also features a publicly authored current-events page recapping the day's top news, and it is rapidly expanding into other languages -- more than 10,000 articles have been created in each of roughly a dozen languages besides English.
Yet some worry that because it charges users nothing, this new-age reference work may siphon readership away from old-school encyclopedias and take a devastating bite out of their revenue -- without delivering the same levels of accuracy and quality.
Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, pays 20 in-house editors to work with 2,500 outside advisers on writing assignments. Wikipedia contributors, by contrast, are unpaid volunteers who can write and change anything they want on the site -- and often rewrite each other dozens or hundreds of times. Many are anonymous, too, identified only by their computer's numerical Internet address.
But Wikipedia's founders say what others regard as a weakness is part of the site's real strength -- that it is a community. The same openness that allows vandals to wreak havoc, they contend, also enables other contributors to restore order and self-police the site.
"The interesting thing about a community is that it scales inherently," said Jimmy Wales, the site's founder and chief executive. "The more people who come to the Web site and cause problems, the more people we have who are dealing with them."
Wales, a former options and futures trader based in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the free online encyclopedia is being developed under the auspices of a nonprofit foundation named Wikimedia. It has raised about $100,000 from contributors so far, far less than producing the encyclopedia has cost, according to Wales, and the company will need more money if it is to achieve its ambitious aim of producing print and CD-ROM copies for distribution in Africa and elsewhere.
"It is our goal to put the sum of all human knowledge in the form of an encyclopedia in the hands of every single person on the planet for free," said Wales, who modeled his idea of a free encyclopedia created by volunteers on the efforts of software developers who created the Linux operating system.
Yet Wikipedia also owes its existence to a special type of software invented by programmer Ward Cunningham in 1995. His software, which takes its name from "wiki," the Hawaiian word for "quick," allows groups to jointly create and edit Web pages, using a special formatting style that is different from the HTML format used for regular Web pages.