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The San Diego Union-Tribune

Everyone's Encyclopedia

Wiki technology allows anyone to write, edit reference articles


December 6, 2004

Back at the end of the Internet's wacky-idea era, entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and academician Larry Sanger were trying to create a free, online encyclopedia called Nupedia.

Over dinner in Pacific Beach in early January 2001, Sanger came up with a doozy: Why not let the teeming masses write and edit their own encyclopedia?

Surprisingly, you won't find Sanger's idea buried among the nutty dot-coms that failed after the venture capital and advertising money dried up.

It worked. Now known as Wikipedia (, the communal encyclopedia published its 400,000th article in November, roughly four times the number of articles covered by Encyclopaedia Britannica.

"There have been other collaborative Internet projects, but not radically collaborative like Wikipedia," Sanger said. "It isn't just people working together. It's not like a committee. It's a community as well as an encyclopedia."

Wales, founder of, then a successful pop-culture site, hired Sanger to be editor of Nupedia. The two were trying to come up with new ways to create an encyclopedia. Sanger met with San Diego computer programmer Ben Kovitz, who introduced Sanger to the concept of "wiki," Web pages that could be edited by anyone.

The technology takes its name from the Hawaiian term for "quick" or "super-fast" – "wiki wiki," according to Wikipedia.

Sanger thought wiki technology would be a great way to get the online encyclopedia project moving. Wales agreed. Within about a week, Nupedia posted its first wiki page.

In addition to allowing any Web surfer to edit any page, wiki software tracks every change and provides a forum for discussion of the changes. The discussion page is often far longer than the content of the Wikipedia article.

On the Wikipedia article on "wiki," for example, the discussion page contains debate over whether to capitalize wiki, and whether "wikee" or "weekee" is the preferred pronunciation.

Some say the Wikipedia information is suspect because self-appointed editors can easily add unverified or false information. The trade-off is that more reputable reference materials aren't free.

World Book, for example, charges $49.95 a year for an online subscription. Microsoft Encarta is available online for $29.95 a year, or on CD for $74.95. The online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica costs $59.95 a year.

The wiki concept and Nupedia were an odd match, Sanger said. The Nupedia team, made up of volunteer editors and researchers, objected to the idea of opening the project up to the general public.

They feared that questionable information would mingle with professionally researched and edited material and threaten Nupedia's credibility, Sanger said.

He and Wales decided to separate the wiki project from Nupedia. Sanger named the new project Wikipedia.

Wikipedia quickly took off as netizens embraced the encyclopedia, researching and writing about thousands of topics. Like Wales, many of the Wikipedians sympathized with the open-source software movement, best known for the free operating system Linux.

Two years after its launch, the English version of Wikipedia contained 100,000 articles. The pace accelerated from there. In February, Wikipedians surpassed the 200,000-article mark. In July, the project reached 300,000 published topics.

Michael McCulley, electronic resources librarian for the San Diego Public Library, said that while Wikipedia has some value, he would not recommend it as a credible resource.

"To a library user, I'd recommend using verifiable print and online sources over the current Wikipedia any time," McCulley said.

"To the curious surfer or information-news junkie, it's a fun environment for some new and intriguing off-beat topics that are not often covered in the mainstream media. But caveat emptor with information."

'Pretty complete'

Software programmer Lee Daniel Crocker is one of the open-source advocates drawn to the grass-roots encyclopedia project.

Crocker stumbled across Wikipedia early on. There were gaping holes in the encyclopedia's content, so he pitched in. As a semiprofessional poker player, he wrote the site's original poker article. As a fan of the martini, he wrote about that topic.

"In the early days, it was pretty easy to find topics that needed to be covered," Crocker said. "It's not that easy today. It's pretty complete."

Crocker wrote entries about Ken Kesey, Walter Annenberg, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and dozens of other topics.

"Nowadays I'm not as active, but I still write," he said. "I spent a couple of hours on Wikipedia every day for a long time."

In addition to writing articles, Crocker wrote new wiki software when the original program proved too slow to handle the site's growing popularity.

Crocker embraced Wikipedia because he believes information should be free. His strong opinions didn't prevent him from writing articles on intellectual property, copyright, patent and trademark.

But Wikipedia policy, which mandates a "neutral point of view," kept him from putting his opinions in those articles.

Vandals, bias

Because anyone can edit any Wikipedia page, people sometimes write skewed articles. Others vandalize the pages with profanities and hate-filled diatribes – and Wikipedians change them back.

On a controversial topic such as abortion, for example, opinions, pro or con, will be edited out by the other side. Only information that both sides accept as neutral has any chance of surviving in the long run.

In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, articles on George W. Bush and John Kerry were vandalized so often that administrators temporarily "locked" the pages so they couldn't be edited. The Wikipedia home page is permanently locked because it was being vandalized so often.

Although it was Sanger who brought the wiki concept to the online encyclopedia, it was Wales who had the original vision of a free, online dictionary and the money to back it up.

"I often say that the whole thing is completely ridiculous, but it works," Wales said.

Wales, the son and grandson of teachers, grew up with a love of books, including the family's World Book Encyclopedia.

With a background in finance, he had a successful career as an options and futures trader in Chicago before launching Boomis in the 1990s. He describes it as a "moderately successful" Internet company whose products include Boomis

.com, no longer a pop-culture site but one that is geared to adult entertainment.

Wales said he doesn't manage the company anymore, but remains a stockholder.

Wales moved in the 1990s to San Diego, where he started Nupedia as one of his Internet companies.

About a year after the launch of Wikipedia, Internet advertising dried up and Wales' company no longer had the money to pay Sanger's salary. He and Wales parted ways, and Nupedia was shut down.

Wales shifted Wikipedia to the Wikimedia Foundation, a Florida nonprofit organization Wales founded to develop other wiki reference material, such as Wiktionary, Wikiquote and Wikibooks, textbooks and manuals.

Sanger now teaches philosophy at Ohio State University, and though he is no longer involved in the project, he talks about Wikipedia like a proud parent.

"Wikipedia was pretty bizarre from the beginning," Sanger said. "Looking back at something I helped get off the ground, it's achieved so much more than I ever thought. There are a total of over a million articles in 16 languages. That's incredible to see.

"There's huge amount of information in it. A lot of it is pretty good information."

Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.

Jonathan Sidener: (619) 293-1239;

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