Word War III

As soon as he became president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touched off a boisterous debate on Wikipedia--a conflict as unruly and entertaining as the online encyclopedia itself

(Original photograph by Stephen Chernin/AP; Photo illustration by Randy Mays)
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By Tom Dunkel
Sunday, August 10, 2008; Page W16

HE LIT THE FUSE BY ACCIDENT, with good intentions serving as his matchstick. On June 8, 2005, at 10:50 a.m., a 26-year-old computer software engineer in Tehran created a seemingly innocuous entry on Wikipedia about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then a fringe candidate running for president of Iran. The minibiography was just 73 words long. Its author, Roozbeh Pournader, had no clue he was touching off an explosive war of words that would rage online for more than two years.

"At that time," says Pournader, who now lives in California, "Ahmadinejad's running was considered a joke."

Pournader is part of an army of several hundred thousand volunteers who collectively produce Wikipedia, the enormously popular online encyclopedia. Wikipedia is rooted in the utopian notion that ordinary people can unite in cyberspace as citizen-scholars, conducting a grand town meeting of the minds on thousands of topics. But, as the Ahmadinejad dust-up vividly demonstrates, communal encyclopedia writing can be as messy as sausage making.

Pournader happens to be that rarest of creatures: a full-disclosure Wikipedian. While the vast majority of Wikipedia's enthusiasts and editors take refuge behind online alter egos, he uses his given name, even posting his birth date, place of employment and photo in his Wikipedia profile. Pournader is a bespectacled man with a full-moon face. In his Wikipedia picture, he's wearing a goofy conical hat that has ear flaps. Think Grand Dragon of the Keebler Elves.

By virtue of his computer background, Pournader was an early convert to the idea of shared, open-source data. He founded the Persian edition of Wikipedia and has contributed dozens of

English-language entries about Iranian people and politics, including an overview of that 2005 Iranian presidential campaign. A few days before the initial round of voting, Pournader noticed there were Wikipedia profiles for seven of the eight candidates, the exception being Ahmadinejad.

"So I created an article about him," he explains. His entry described Ahmadinejad as "the most fundamentalist" of the candidates, recipient of a doctorate in civil engineering and the current mayor of Tehran. It bore what's called a "stub" tag, indicating that the biography needed fleshing out. Not to worry. Other Wikipedia contributors would soon be stepping forward.

"I started an article about an obscure Iranian politician," says Pournader, "and, in a few short months, he was the most talked-about Iranian in the world."

JIMMY WALES, THE 41-YEAR-OLD CO-FOUNDER OF WIKIPEDIA, once compared the Wiki universe to "a softball league for geeks." These days, Wales speaks more loftily about putting his freebie encyclopedia within reach of every person on the planet. He's well on his way to doing so.

Launched without fanfare in 2001, Wikipedia now ranks among the top 10 most frequented sites on the Web, according to ratings compiled by Alexa Internet, an Amazon.com subsidiary. Another company that tracks Web viewership, ComScore, estimates that Wikipedia attracted 250 million unique visitors in June alone. Inventory has swelled to 2.4 million articles, encompassing topics as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt's Supreme Court appointments, navel lint, the Declaration of Independence, exploding whales, the death of John Lennon and, yes, even the kitchen sink. And that's just English Wikipedia. There are spinoffs in more than 250 other languages accounting for some 8 million additional articles.

Last December -- less than seven years after its debut -- English Wikipedia became the largest compendium of knowledge in history, surpassing the Yongle Encyclopedia, which was compiled 600 years ago during China's Ming Dynasty. Of course, it's unlikely anybody knew about that Yongle Encyclopedia milestone unless they'd taken time to read the article about Wikipedia in . . . Wikipedia.

Mike Godwin is general counsel of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which reaches beyond the encyclopedia to include, among other things, free-content Wikinews and Wikibooks, plus a home-study Wikiversity. He's one of only 18 salaried employees; the rest are all unpaid volunteers, who, on English Wikipedia, come from the ranks of 7 million registered users, and who knows how many dabblers. Godwin contends that Wikipedia signifies "something new under the sun": unbridled information-building made possible by the elastic properties of the Internet. Any number of voices can join the discussion and speak up. And up. And up.

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