Editor's Note

Follow one team as they race against thousands of other competitors to solve the complex puzzles of the first-ever Post Hunt in Washington, D.C. More About the 2008 Post Hunt Video by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com
By Tom Shroder
Sunday, August 10, 2008

WHEN I DECIDED to write about Wikipedia this week, I -- what else? -- looked up Wikipedia on Wikipedia:

" . . . it is currently the largest, fastest-growing, and most popular general reference work on the Internet. Wikipedia attempts to collect and summarize all human knowledge in every major language."

Are they nuts? Who could ever hope to accomplish a goal like that?

There is an answer implicit in Tom Dunkel's entertaining and enlightening piece (Page 16) on the inner workings of the communal online encyclopedia, and the answer is: 17-year-olds.

Okay, that's an exaggeration. But, as you'll see, in the egalitarian community of Wikipedia, where the entire universe is invited to contribute to and edit articles, some of the heavy-duty grunt work of cleaning up after the inevitable conflicts over nuance appears to fall to high school students. (Odd, I can't get mine to even clean up his room.)

I can see why idealistic young minds are attracted. Little bits of information possessed individually by billions, offered up altruistically, indexed into a single gargantuan, searchable database. All human knowledge!

It's so seductive that I decided to give it a whirl myself. First, I had to think of a topic on which I was the world's leading expert. Um . . . my dog's favorite places to pee? Perhaps that's a slight flaw in the Wikipedia mission statement: Part of human knowledge? Check. But I doubt even Wikipedia fundamentalists would want it in their encyclopedia. Besides, while neophytes can add to any existing article, only Wikipedia regulars can create new entries.

Miraculously, I found a brief existing entry for a subject on which I was an expert: the Tropic Hunt, a mass-participation puzzle that inspired the Post Hunt, and which I helped to create and preside over. The entry was one paragraph, out of date and factually flawed. I rewrote it to 472 words on the history and nature of the event, then pushed the "save" button, still not really believing I could simply input my changes into the actual article. But when I went to the Wikipedia main page and searched for Tropic Hunt, there it was. And, before long, the Wikipedia fairies had visited my entry, cleaning up little bits of style here and there.

I'm not sure I'd ever experienced such pride of authorship -- at least until I discovered that Wikipedia articles all have an internal quality rating. "A-Class" articles provide "a well-written, reasonably clear and complete description of the topic."

My article? "Stub-Class," which, as you might have guessed, is not exactly a compliment.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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