Wikipedia has become the world’s largest reference work. It is setting a blistering pace with more than 1000 new
English-language articles being added each day. Its success has attracted harsh criticism from predictable quarters. In
an article published recently on Tech Central Station website, Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of
Encyclopaedia Britannica, disdainfully said that using Wikipedia was like visiting a public restroom. McHenry’s vain
attempt to turn up the heat is ironic because it is the old-fangled encyclopedia publishers who are on the hot seat.
Wikipedia will put many of them in deep trouble within the next few years.
Internet users have been voting with their clicks. Traffic to Wikipedia’s 72 servers on any given day exceeds 80
million hits. Wikipedia articles are cited increasingly by mainstream newspapers and magazines. Encyclopedia
publishers lambaste Wikipedia’s reliability, but their outrage has blinded them to a sea change in their core market.
The way people research and learn in the Internet age is vastly different than it was only a decade ago, and if they fail
to adapt, they will suffer.
How did Wikipedia get started? Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and leader, began with a simple yet
counterintuitive idea: create an open encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. (The name Wikipedia comes from the
“wiki” sort of collaborative software that powers the website.) The project adopted a few canny rules of order:
whenever someone edits an article, a new version of the article is created and saved. This is important because
Wikipedia is an open-content project. Such projects are fuelled by the prestige and social standing derived by the
contributors from the work that they do. Your contribution to an article, no matter how small, is kept for posterity and
clearly identified as such.
The continual creation of new versions also discourages antisocial behavior—vandalized articles can be easily
reverted. Each article has a separate page where authors can discuss their changes and air their differences. To reduce
bias, Wikipedia’s policy is to present a neutral point of view that fairly represents all sides.