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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 10:18 PM

For a very long while, knowledge was privileged and so were books, and only privileged people had access to either. Then came printing presses and libraries, and in this printed age, knowledge was both more accessible and more alphabetical; one could flip through a leather-bound encyclopedia and learn all of the exports of Sweden.

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Then there came a time when one didn't flip but scrolled through not only the exports of Sweden but also detailed descriptions of every single "7th Heaven" episode ever made, plus discussions of the circumstances behind Jessica Biel's departure from the show (naughty photos). This editorial triumph represents the age of Wikipedia.

As it nears its 10th birthday Saturday, it has about 17 million articles - 3.5 million of them in English - making it the largest encyclopedia in the history of encyclopedias, if that's indeed what it is.

Grumpy knowledge purists like to say it's not - that true encyclopedias are not user-generated and do not allow dramas that aired on WB to have entries that are longer than those for some Ernest Hemingway novels.

Jimmy Wales, the site's public face and most well-known founder, says that it is, and that Wikipedia's just getting started. He wants Wikipedia in every language of the world. The company is preparing to open its first international office, in an Indian city yet to be selected.

Five years ago, it might have been clever to write a story on Wikipedia in the style of an entry on Wikipedia, with elaborate footnotes and heated discussion pages and a stupid error or two.

But by now it's been analyzed and mocked to death. It simply is, an omnipresent fact of modern living, like Facebook or Betty White. The accuracy debate is the most important, but in some ways less interesting discussion about Wikipedia's impact. What's most revealing might be not the vastness of the articles and the things they get wrong, but rather how they reveal what things we care about, and how humanity is both better and dumber than you ever would have expected.

Please read: A personal appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

For the last part of 2010, Wales stared at you from every page of Wikipedia, his fundraising request appearing in a banner ad across the top of the spare blue-and-gray site. He has crinkly eyes, a limpid smile; he looks like John Travolta during a stubbly phase.

The boys from the 4chan Web community got hold of that photo and made it into a meme, a series of jokes playing up the fervent intensity of the plea: For more information on Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, he is standing right behind you.

"I was afraid people might start to recognize me," Wales said. During the first weekend of the fundraising campaign - which went on to achieve its goal of $16 million - he took his young daughter on a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, worried that he would be mobbed while there. He wasn't.


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