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Wikipedia is turning 10, and founder Jimmy Wales has big plans

The 'un-leader' of Wikipedia talks with On Leadership's Raju Narisetti about motivating volunteers, the feedback that was 'hard to hear' and why Wikipedia is 'fair and balanced.'

In the early 1990s, a computer programmer named Ward Cunningham was on vacation in Hawaii when the airport counter agent told him that the fastest way to get from one terminal to another was to take the "wiki-wiki bus," so named after the Hawaiian word for "quick."

Cunningham had been experimenting with a system that would allow data engineers to work collaboratively on projects; after the Hawaii trip, he decided to call the system a "wiki," and several years after that Wales and Sanger decided to adopt the technology for their new encyclopedia.

The collaborative nature of Wikipedia is what concerns people in the knowledge business, particularly the traditional encyclopedia editors who dedicate their lives to the spreading a methodically researched truth.

Wikipedia editors "aren't writing about what they know, but about their prejudices and preferences," said Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "The fact that information is available hasn't made us more inquisitive, it has made us more lazy. It's the same way that you might take the first highway exit and go to the first junk-food shop."

Even the stalwart Britannica has been forced to adapt to the new rules of information seeking defined by the era of Wikipedia: The encyclopedia now issues edits every 20 minutes rather than the yearly overhaul it once did.

"We may not cover cartoon characters very well," Cauz joked about his encyclopedia's comparatively fewer entries, but he said its contents have been carefully weighed for importance and deserve to be there.

"People were always taught that you had to assign tasks to people so you could assign blame if something went wrong," said Cunningham, who was reached via phone while preparing his keynote speech to celebrate Wikipedia's birthday - he's not involved in the company but remains an ardent fan. But it turns out that people "are really very revolutionary in their willingness to collaborate."

Early critics had worried the site would become a hackers' paradise, populated by doinks who took perverse pleasure in mangling celebrity birth dates or misquoting quotes. Instead, mistakes are caught almost immediately; the number of Wikihackers who would damage an article are far outweighed by the humble Wikimaids who do nothing but tidy up their small corners of the Internet as soon as someone tries to make a mess. There is something both lovely and crotchety about this.

Wandering into a deliciously specific but completely useless Wikipedia entry is the equivalent of discovering that a fan club catering to your own personal nerdery has been meeting all along in the unused classroom next to the gym.

And centuries from now, when all that's left of Wikipedia is a cached Wikipedia page about Wikipedia, maybe that is how we will remember it. The thing that makes Wikipedia's more obscure entries remarkable is not that one somebody bothered to write them, but that other somebodies bothered to read them. From a cultural standpoint, Wikipedia's biggest contribution might be the way in which it affirms that no interest is too obscure, that no private passion is too geeky and that no one is really alone on the Internet.

"We've always viewed it as a grand humanitarian mission," Wales said. "To do something useful for the world."

It's a nice goal. Happy birthday.

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