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Wikipedia is the spectacularly successful on-line open-content encyclopedia, at It is intended to be a multilingual, complete and accurate open content encyclopedia (in which it has been moderately successful). Wikipedia started in January 2001, and in September, 2007 had over 2 million articles in the English version. There are millions of articles in the international language versions. The English version uses both British and American conventions.

Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales, commonly known as Jimbo, a former commodities trader and entrepreneur. It began as Nupedia, more tightly controlled than Wikipedia and under the direction of employee Larry Sanger, but was not a success in that iteration. Participants were required to demonstrate their qualifications to edit articles, which sharply reduced participation. Wikipedia was begun as a far more open project, but remained under the direction of Sanger. With the collapse of the bubble, Sanger was laid off as an employee, but continued to be intensely involved for about two years. He has gone on to create Citizendium which emphasizes profession and academic expertise.

Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit corporation created to manage Wikipedia and its affiliated projects, but not their free content, which remains under community control. Wikipedia is a wiki, in that (with a few exceptions) it can be edited by anyone. It is open content, and uses the copyleft GNU Free Documentation License. Free software exponent Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have articulated the usefulness of a "free universal encyclopedia".

The wide open nature of Wikipedia has resulted in extensive participation by contributors. This has many advantages and some drawbacks. The accuracy and objectiveness of some articles sometimes suffers, but participants argue that their experience has shown that over time these drawbacks will be reduced, as the quality and balance of individual articles improves. There is significant vandalism, as edits are sometimes made by those who have no intention of making useful contributions, but instead add nonsense like "fdghhjk", or other unencyclopedic content. The very nature of the project enables this activity but also works against it, as every contributor has the ability to undo, or "revert", such edits whenever they occur. If this becomes too much work, a page can sometimes be "protected", so that only the administrators can edit the particular page. However, this is not usually necessary.

Wikipedia's Policies

Wikipedia's participants commonly follow, and enforce, a few basic policies deemed essential to keeping the project running smoothly and productively. The following are just a few of those policies (more information is available on the Wikipedia site, see Wikipedia:Policies and guidelines).

  • "Users", or "editors", strive to write articles from a Neutral point of view (NPOV), and are expected to make articles as unbiased as possible. Their aim is to fairly represent all significant views on a subject. A stated justification for this policy is that "there are a huge variety of participants of all ideologies from around the world.". See, on Wikipedia Wikipedia:neutral point of view an explanation.
  • A number of naming conventions are used to reduce confusion.
  • Editors use "talk" pages to discuss changes to the text, rather than discussing the changes within the text itself. Concerns which seem to span many articles may require a more general treatment at various subject matter projects and policy talk pages.
  • Wikipedia discourages a number of kinds of entries, because in Wikipedia's view they do not constitute encyclopedia articles. For example Wikipedia entries can not be merely dictionary definitions, links to other web sites or "creative" material which is outside the generally accepted canon of knowledge. See, on Wikipedia what Wikipedia is not for an extensive explanation. (To solve this problem Wiktionary, a wiki dictionary, WikiBooks, a "creative material" wiki and other projects have been created.)
  • There are a variety of rules proposed which have varying amounts of support within the Wikipedia community. One widely supported rule is: "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business." It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that the wiki is as well-disciplined and good-natured as it is. See, on Wikipedia, Wikipedia policies and guidelines for extensive information.

Participation in Wikipedia

Wikipedia has been built by thousands of volunteer scholars, hobbyists, students, and generally knowledgeable people from around the world who show up on the website. Seeing the activity and ease of article creation, they chose to donate some of their knowledge. The number of such participants has dramatically increased since Wikipedia's inception, and the number of highly educated participants is growing as well.

It is possible to do productive research just on the interactions involved in creation of Wikipedia documents. Work by IBM researchers at show history flow of the evolution of Wikipedia articles.

In contrast to Wikinfo, Wikipedia is more respectful towards individual languages as each language has its own Wikipedia, while Wikinfo is dominated by a single language (English).

22.66% of all the Wikipedia articles are written in English and 7.15% in German, while 98.14% of all Wikinfo articles are in English and 1.38% in German (in both projects the two largest languages). [as of July 2008]


See, on Wikipedia, History of Wikipedia for more.

Software and hardware

The particular version of wiki software that originally ran Wikipedia was UseModWiki, written by Clifford Adams ("Phase I Wikipedia software"). Wikipedia was switched to new software, written especially for Wikipedia, using the PHP programming language, on January 25, 2002, the "Phase II Wikipedia software" also know as Newcodebase. After a while, the site started to slow down to an extent where editing became almost impossible; several rounds of modifications to the software provided only temporary relief. Then Lee Daniel Crocker rewrote the software from scratch; the new version, a major improvement, has been running since July 2002 ("Phase III Wikipedia software"). Brion Vibber has since taken the lead in fixing bugs and tuning the database for performance.

In 2003 the project ran on a single dedicated server, located in San Diego. The server was responsible for all of the language Wikipedias and the mailing lists. It was a dual CPU Athlon 1700+ with 2 GB of RAM, running Red Hat Linux and the web server Apache. Many more servers, located in several locations, are now online.


The idea to collect all of the world's knowledge within arm's reach under a single roof goes back to the ancient Library of Alexandria and Pergamon. The early Muslim compilations of knowledge in the middle ages, included many comprehensive works, and much development of what we now call scientific method, historical method and citation. Notable works include Fakhr al-Din Razi's encyclopedia of science, the Mutazilite Al-Kindi's prolific output of 270 books, and Ibn Sina's medical encyclopedia, which was a standard reference work for centuries. Also notable are works of universal history (or sociology) from Asharites al-Tabri, al-Masudi, al-Athir, and Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqadimmah contains cautions regarding trust in written records that remain wholly applicable today. These people had an incalculable influence on methods of research and editing, due in part to the Islamic practice of isnah which emphasized fidelity to written record, checking sources, and skeptical inquiry.

However, these works were rarely available to more than specialists: They were expensive, and written for those extending knowledge rather than (with some exceptions in medicine) using it. The modern idea of the general purpose widely distributed printed encyclopedia goes back to just a little before Denis Diderot and the 18th century encyclopedists. Major university libraries can be seen as museums of monumental encyclopedic endeavors in various countries. Frequently found titles are the English Encyclopædia Britannica, the Spanish Enciclopedia Universal Illustrada, the German Meyer's Konversationslexikon and Brockhaus. See encyclopedia for more information.

The idea to use automated machinery beyond the printing press to build a more useful encyclopedia can be traced to H. G. Wells' short story of a World Brain (1937) and Vannevar Bush's future vision of the microfilm based Memex, As We May Think (1945). An important milestone along this path is also Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu (1960). With the development of the Internet, many people attempted to develop on-line encyclopedia projects. See History of Internet encyclopedia projects.

Similar projects

Wikipedia is occasionally compared to other collaborative projects:

  • Everything2 - has a wider range and does not exclusively focus on building an encyclopedia; its contents are not available under a copyleft license.
  • H2G2 - a collection of sometimes humorous encyclopedia articles, based on an idea from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Articles are also not freely modifiable.
  • Wikinfo
  • Larry Sanger's Citizendium which emphasizes expertise.

Downloading the database

The Wikipedia article database can be downloaded and utilized, within terms of the GFDL. See Wikipedia:Database download.

See Newspeak for a list of commonly used WP terms.
See also: Encyclopedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Microsoft Encarta

See also

Forum:Wikipedia Topics

External links and further reading


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