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'Open-Content' Web Encyclopedia Encourages User Interactivity - 2004-07-15

Encyclopedias have been around in one form or another for thousands of years. But in recent years competitors have emerged to challenge the traditional printed encyclopedia. First there were versions on compact disks and now they're online. While there may be lots of encyclopedias on the Internet, perhaps one of the most unusual is Wikipedia.

Wikis, in general, are websites that allow anyone to edit the content. The concept, developed by programmer Ward Cunningham, derives its name from the Hawaiian word for "quick," and it allows users - anyone, really - to change the content of a website. So Wikipedia is an encyclopedia where anyone can write or change the articles.

It sounds like an invitation to anarchy, and you might reasonably wonder about the reliability of the information in Wikipedia. A regular encyclopedia is written by experts and reviewed by professional editors. In contrast, says Wikimedia Foundation head Jimmy Wales, quality control for the Wikipedia comes from a very large community of users.

"Every edit and every change that goes into the encyclopedia goes into a 'recent changes' page and is reviewed by literally hundreds of people," said Jimmy Wales. "And then also, experts in various fields - or really anyone at all - can add selected articles to their personal watch list, so they can supervise and keep an eye on the edits that go on their areas."

A regular encyclopedia rewards users who just pick up a volume to browse with interesting, or perhaps arcane information. The Wikipedia equivalent is the "random page" link. When I clicked on it, I was directed to articles on a drum called the "tarabuka," the American city of "Rushmore, Minnesota," and the late English playwright and actor "Noel Coward."

The Wikipedia website contains more than three quarters of a million articles. English is the most common language, with more than 300,000 entries, but most articles are in dozens of other languages.

"It's truly global, and we have versions and projects underway in, I think, around 50 languages," he said. "The German Wikipedia is very big, the Japanese is very big, French is big. So we're truly a global project."

So Wikipedia is not only a website where you can get information, it's actually one where you can contribute your knowledge.