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Last Updated: Monday, 6 September, 2004, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
From Aaan to ZZ Top
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

An online enclyopedia which can be edited by all and sundry aims to make finding information on the web easier and more fun. But how can you trust what anyone's written?

Finding one's way around the web nowadays is increasingly difficult.

It is so full of ideas that it is hard for the average user to find reliable sources of information, let alone a friendly online community they feel they can trust.

Jimbo Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia (Image: Wikipedia)
Jimbo wants the community to be as open as possible

Trying to fill the gap is Wikipedia, an internet encyclopedia about anything and everything under the sun.

It is the product of thousands of contributors, of any age or level of education, from anywhere in the world.

There are almost a million articles, or entries, across the whole project. It runs on 25 servers, and traffic is doubling every month.

'Lasting value'

Now available in several languages, the English version started in 2001 and has about a third of a million entries.

Wikipedia has entries on anything from Aaan (a minor angel in Enochian, a 16th Century occult language) to ZZ Top (a prominent 70s and 80s rock band from Texas).

Based on wikis, open-source software which lets anyone fiddle with a webpage, anyone reading a subject entry can disagree, edit, add, delete, or replace the entry with what they had for breakfast instead.

It is very reassuring about human nature to see how many people are doing great quality work and sharing it
Jimbo Wales

One of the main reasons for using such an open system is to encourage people to get involved.

"We created little things over time and wanted as soft as security as possible," says Jimbo Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia.

"Wiki software encourages collaboration. So it is a community that helps people to build something of lasting value."

Clique-forming

Ten years ago people thought the web could be a form of open, democratic public sphere, an informal gathering place for people to exchange ideas and freely express themselves without coercion.

But many online communities have been soured by flaming, clique-forming, and direct hostility, something with which Jimbo became increasingly fed-up.

Wikipedia is a "rallying point", he says, a place where people with common goals have the freedom to express ideas and share knowledge.

Yet they do not have to think the same way, or have the same agenda to be a part of the community.

Online vandals

For many people, the idea that anyone can offer up a definition for "chaos theory", or change what someone else wrote, is preposterous.

One would think it was an invitation for online vandals to sabotage definitions for "cat" for example. It does happen, says Jimbo, but rubbish does not stay for long.

"We have experts in particular areas who will keep an eye on areas," he explains. "Almost all vandalism is cleared up in 10 minutes."

They also have around 300 volunteer system administrators who oversee entries.

And the software keeps past versions of a page, so that if someone decides to trash an entire entry, it can be reinstated.

Even the entry for "porn" is extremely sensible. There is not a breast or penis in sight, the entry detailing the politics and history behind it instead.

Whatever the entry, neutrality is encouraged. If a post is horribly biased, it will not remain so for long because others will change it.

Collective brains

Perhaps Wikipedia is not about trusting the idea that the definitions it carries are accurate.

Indeed, a recent article in The Post-Standard in Syracuse slammed the idea. It suggested because anyone could contribute, Wikipedia was not a verifiable authority, or trustworthy.

Wiki-advocates would argue that is missing the point.

Wikipedia screengrab
Topics are listed alphabetically, or by subject
It is more about trusting that humans can respect someone else's opinion in a democratic public sphere, and that contributors will not ruin the fun for everyone else.

"We have a very diverse group of people," explains Jimbo. "There is a certain amount of nerdiness, but we all share the idea that we are doing something humanitarian and should all be respectful."

Ultimately, he finds it a fascinating insight into what brain power there is out there.

"It is very reassuring about human nature to see how many people are doing great quality work and sharing it."

'Huge expense'

Jimbo plans to extend Wikipedia's reach even further by offering the entire contents on DVD and CD to organisations in developing nations.

Many countries in Africa, for instance, have 40-year-old text books, if any at all.

"We can just cut out a huge expense there, so if an NGO wants to distribute books on health, it can be done at a very low cost."

Although efforts are being made to bring computers to developing countries, the chances of them having access to a reliable net connection are slender.

Ultimately, it is by no means an ideal online community of milk and honey, but it is a constructive one. It is, says Jimbo, a "fascinating ideal" encouraged by the software.

"I really think what we have done is not only create a great encyclopedia, but also great tools for a great community which could have wider applications to other community projects."


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