Ten Years of Wikipedia

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, was launched on January 15, 2001.  Ten years later, it has become one of the top five Web sites on the planet.  If you use a search engine to look up virtually any topic, odds are that one of the top three results will be a Wikipedia entry on that subject.  Its model as a collaborative resource that can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet has been criticized for its potential to have false information.  Yet its mission as a free, non-profit, multi-lingual, global repository of knowledge about "everything" has been praised by many who see it as the best of what New Media can be.  After ten years, it continues to annoy those who feel like people rely on it too much without doing more intensive research and fact-checking, but it also continues to exemplify the potential to be a one-stop site for all the information about anything in the world. 

In an appearance on The Daily Show, one of the founders of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, boasted that his site would continue to grow (it currently has 15 million articles in 200 languages worldwide).  He even predicted that social media sites like Facebook would be long forgotten, while Wikipedia would be viewed as an important milestone in human history.  Despite such hyperbole, valid criticism remains that Wikipedia is an often unreliable main source since it can be edited by anyone at anytime, weakening its claim as the authoritative place to turn to for any questions on any topic.  Despite dedicated volunteers who strive to correct intentional misinformation posted on Wikipedia articles by vandals, pranksters, or people with ulterior motives, the fact remains that at any given time, any tidbit of information on the site should be viewed as suspect, even when the policy of Wikipedia is to have all information backed up with sources and follow its impartial, objective, allegedly unbiased editorial guidelines.

The positive side of Wikipedia is undeniable -- it is free and it is very comprehensive.  Old-fashioned print encyclopedias, while viewed as more authoritative, still were subject to errors and bias, and worst of all they were expensive.  Only the fortunate could afford to own a set of lavish encyclopedias in their home.  Everyone else had to rely on a nearby public library for access.  Online sites like Wikipedia place the world's wisdom at one's fingertips.  In print, errors or new information would need to be addressed in future print editions -- for example, one of my sisters was showing my nephews an entry about dinosaurs in our ancient encyclopedia set, and the data was antiquated, lacking recent discoveries and details.  Online resources like Wikipedia can be updated almost instantaneously as new facts become available.

Venerable print encyclopedias, like Britannica, should strive to find a business model that enables it to be accessed by anyone, anytime around the world -- but the goal of such companies is not merely to spread knowledge, but to also make a profit.  For that reason alone, the non-commercial nature of Wikipedia, and its volunteers' vows to remain a non-profit enterprise, should be commended.  It has accomplished much in its first ten years. We shall see where it stands ten years from now, and beyond.

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