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Vidya Srinivasa Rao | February 21, 2003 16:00 IST

Wikipedia is the world's fastest growing and largest free online encyclopedia according to its founders

You've heard of the World Wide Web. But you'll probably draw a blank when you hear the term WikiWikiWeb, a collaborative attempt where users freely create and edit Web documents online. Combine the Wiki concept with an encyclopedia and you get Wikipedia.

Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is created entirely by online volunteers. Anyone can contribute new entries or edit existing entries following simple instructions. Topics covered include like classics, movies, political science, psychology, space shuttles and tourism.

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia says, "I got the idea for Wikipedia and named it over dinner with a friend when he was explaining the Wiki concept to me.  I immediately saw that the idea could be easily adapted to the building of an open content encyclopedia."

All articles of Wikipedia are covered by the Free Software Foundation's GNU free documentation license. This open-content license ensures that Wikipedia's content will always remain free. It also means that anyone can reuse the entries for any purpose, including commercial usage as long as they preserve the same rights to the others and provide proper credits to Wikipedia.

The 'Neutral point of view' policy encourages users to write without any bias and represent all views fairly. "But it is understandable if a sizable number of articles have noticeable biases, since neutrality is hard to maintain," says Sanger.

Due to its flexible nature, accuracy and authenticity of entries cannot however be guaranteed. Sanger however adds that the attempt is to remain as reliable as possible. "Other than some occasional exceptions, Wikipedia articles are constantly improving," says Sanger.

Regular contributors check on each other's work and review recent changes. They quickly correct any errors and ensure the entries are not vandalised.  For them, the project provides a platform to add to the knowledge database.

Some members are initially apprehensive about the feasibility of the project but soon discover that "communal knowledge reigns over anarchy."

So far in two years the editors have added 80,000 articles to the English version and 33,000 more to the language editions. This has made it the world's largest and fastest growing free encyclopedia according to its founders.

Success is attributed to the educated volunteers who write and edit the articles. The site has more than 8,000 user accounts, but only 600 odd contributors are active. It still has a long way to go before it reaches the standards of Encyclopedia Britannica and a lot of work remains to be done in specialised fields like metaphysics.

Co-founder, Jimmy Wales is confident of the task ahead. "We're only now beginning to mature. A good encyclopedia article is going to be essentially the same today and 15 years from now. We'll catch up. We're not chasing a moving target."

More Resources

The Wikipedian community
Wiktionary: A free multilingual dictionary and thesaurus

Nupedia: Free peer-reviewed encyclopedia


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