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There's no end to it

The singularly named Wikipedia bests its Internet rivals by encouraging users to update the information this encyclopedia holds. Have at it, they say. The result? Mostly thorough - with the occasional prank.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published November 8, 2004


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[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
St. Petersburg resident Jimmy Wales, founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, says he takes his laptop with him wherever he goes. He was surprised to find that he could connect to the Internet while sitting in a banyan tree across the street from the St. Petersburg Public Library’s Mirror Lake branch in downtown.

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ST. PETERSBURG - Jimmy Wales works in a tiny, windowless, two-room office suite in downtown St. Petersburg that barely has room for the computer equipment stacked to the ceiling.

But in this small space catty-corner to the BayWalk shopping center, he labors on a big project.

Wales has enlisted several thousand volunteers to create what they say is the largest encyclopedia in the history of the English language.

The "Wikipedia" is free, written entirely by volunteers and exists only on the Internet.

But that's not really what makes this encyclopedia different.

The strangest thing about Wikipedia is that anyone who wants to can edit it. If you decide today you want to get on the encyclopedia's Web site and make changes to the official entry on "Aristotle" or "United States Constitution," you can. So can your neighbor - whether that person is a renowned scholar or a 12-year-old kid.

In just a few years, Wales' odd idea of a homegrown encyclopedia has grown into a global project that illustrates the brainpower of the Internet, as well as some of the pitfalls surrounding it. Assembling an encyclopedia this vast - more than 350,000 articles in English, compared with 73,570 for digital versions of Encyclopaedia Britannica - would normally take a pharaoh's army of researchers.

But like a lot of other things on the Internet, Wikipedia is a work in progress whose true value is not so easy to predict. Among the questions: How can anyone know the information on this encyclopedia is correct?

Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, says the articles are sound because every time someone edits one, a dedicated group of volunteers pores over the changes. If you go to www.wikipedia.org today and edit in some nonsense - say, that Aristotle was a rock star, for example - volunteer reviewers would catch it quickly and "it'll be changed back in five minutes," Wales said.

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

Some say Wikipedia still has a long way to go before gaining the credibility of more established encyclopedias.

But it's proving popular. In addition to having written one-third of a million articles in English, Wikipedia volunteers have produced hundreds of thousands in dozens of other languages. According to the Internet tracking service www.alexa.com Wikipedia now ranks as the most popular online encyclopedia and the 497th most popular Web site overall.

* * *

Wales, 38, has lived in St. Petersburg about two years. He spends countless hours working without a salary for Wikipedia, from his downtown office, from his laptop at Panera Bread or elsewhere, or at the Shore Acres house he shares with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

Wales grew up in Huntsville, Ala., and through eighth grade attended the House of Learning, a small school run by his mother and grandmother.

"We had tons of books and encyclopedias all around," Wales said, and he was the kind of kid who loved to pore over them. He can still visualize a picture from the World Book that showed people floating in Utah's Salt Lake. Growing up in Huntsville, a center of the U.S. space program, he also enjoyed reading the encyclopedia's articles about space and comparing new articles to old.

Wales progressed beyond the House of Learning, picking up degrees in finance from Auburn University and the University of Alabama. He said he left doctoral studies at Indiana University to work as an options and futures trader in Chicago, and made enough money to essentially retire.

In the 1990s he founded Bomis.com, a "moderately successful" Internet company whose main product was a search engine. Its products also include adult Internet sites such as the "Bomis Babe Report." Wales said he doesn't manage the company anymore but remains a stockholder.

Wales moved to San Diego in the 1990s. Somewhere along the way, he developed the idea of creating a new, free encyclopedia on the Internet. Wales said he was inspired by the model of the "free software movement," in which volunteer computer programmers create software open to all users.

To Wales, the encyclopedia idea was part intellectual challenge, part social cause. If someone could codify the basics of world knowledge and give it away, that could only help educate people, especially in places where "poverty and ignorance" are widespread.

At Bomis, Wales hired a doctoral philosophy student named Larry Sanger to create the Internet encyclopedia. Progress was excruciatingly slow, partly because experts vetted each article extensively.

So in 2000, Wales and Sanger tried a radically different approach, letting volunteers post articles on a Web site without cumbersome fact-checking first. They renamed it Wikipedia, because of the collaborative "wiki software" they used.

Sanger, who is no longer associated with Wikipedia, said he had faith that a slew of people would post their articles online. "I didn't have so much faith that it would create high-quality content," he said.

But as Wales and Sanger watched their computers, they could see articles progressively improving, as hundreds of volunteers signed on to delete errors, add facts, even correct spelling and polish the grammar.

"It took off immediately," Wales said.

Soon Wales was spending virtually all his time on Wikipedia. Meanwhile, he and his wife decided to move to St. Petersburg in June 2002. The data of Wikipedia are stored on computer servers in Tampa.

* * *

Click onto the Wikipedia Web site and enter the word "Elektra." You will find entries on the Elektra from Greek mythology (also spelled Electra) as well as a character from the Daredevil comic book. You also will find brief articles on Elektra the movie and Elektra the opera, and longer ones on Elektra Records and an asteroid called 130 Elektra. There's also a brief reference (but no article yet) on a Mexican home appliance chain named Elektra.

With articles ranging from the Aa rivers in Europe to Zzyzx Road in California, the breadth of information on Wikipedia is stunning. But it's also eclectic. People write about what they're interested in, which leaves some gaps. This encyclopedia carries a separate article on the new Britney Spears album, which hits stores Tuesday but none on Edward P. Jones or Richard Russo, who won Pulitzer Prizes for fiction in 2004 and 2002 respectively.

"The basic demographic of a Wikipedian is a computer geek from the U.S. and the U.K. That means that a lot of the articles are skewed toward math and computers and geek culture and things like that," said Wikipedia user Jim Redmond, 24, a systems administrator from St. Louis.

The encyclopedia does have its die-hard humanities people, too. Together, they share more than an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a bona fide Internet community, complete with heroes, such as Wales, and villains, such as those who intentionally add false information to articles. Some Wikipedians become famous for their thoughtful editing, others for incompetence.

Thousands regularly go to Wikipedia.org simply to improve articles. Often they dissect each others' work on various discussion pages. In September more than 1,800 people made 100 or more changes to various articles within the past 30 days; more than 8,000 people had made five or more changes, Wales said.

"You've got people from virtually every nation contacting people who have all different perspectives," said James Rosenzweig, 25, a high school teacher in Sammamish, Wash., who has written articles on baseball player Honus Wagner, poet Maya Angelou and actor Dick Van Dyke. "It's not just building an encyclopedia, even though it is, it is also an opportunity to get a new perspective . . . building an encyclopedia is kind of a bridge that allows us to learn from each other."

Rosenzweig said he may assign students to write articles for Wikipedia, to teach them more about research and also to give them "the experience of this collaboration, to help open their eyes to the fact that the Internet really is the amazing thing we said it was in the 1990s."

* * *

But does all this collaboration add up to a reference work you can rely on?

Many Wikipedians answer with a strong yes, and so do some observers. "I would probably trust it more than Encyclopaedia Britannica," although it's always wise to consult more than one source, said Jan George Frajkor, a retired journalism professor from Carleton University in Ottawa, who taught a course in online journalism.

But most Wikipedians acknowledge that the encyclopedia is incomplete and needs to be refined and expanded. Even Wales says, "The average quality of articles is pretty high. At the same time it's also true that some of the articles are not very good."

"You don't know whether this stuff has been itself fact-checked at every point," said Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Hoiberg said the average Britannica article goes through an extensive review process that takes an average of three months.

The St. Petersburg Times recently asked two University of South Florida professors to read a few Wikipedia articles on topics in their expertise. Chemistry professor Bill Baker said he was surprised at the amount of technical knowledge posted on the site, but said he found several small errors. "The cancer drug Taxol, for example, is not produced by microbial fermentation."

"That bothers me," Baker said of the errors. "I think that even if 99 percent of your facts check out, it is a disservice to promulgate 1 percent inaccuracies."

Professor Philip Levy, an expert on Colonial America, said that "in many respects it's very good," but he, too, had misgivings. He said some articles contained a mishmash of information - the established scholarly knowledge of 15 years ago was mixed in with newer, more controversial theories with little distinction.

The Wikipedia community is filled with people earnestly working to make these articles better, but it also includes a few "vandals" who make mischief. Last month, someone got into the article on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and wrote that, "his life came to an untimely conclusion after suffering a terrible mishap during Botox injections." This was quickly deleted.

For parents, there is another concern about Wikipedia; some articles might not be appropriate for children. The article titled "Sexual Slang" is extensive; the article on "Sexual Positions" is illustrated with several diagrams; and at least one article contains links to Web sites that feature nudity.

Wales said Wikipedians oppose censorship, but they work to make entries tasteful. He encouraged parents to be aware of how their children are using the Internet.

But as to the overall accuracy of Wikipedia, Wales said he is at work on a plan to create what he calls a "stable version" of the encyclopedia. Some version or versions would continue to exist that allow the free-form editing and rewriting. Another version, the stable one, would go through an extra level of review before it could be changed.

Eventually, Wales said, he would like to branch out and expand a small program of free "Wiki books" and create academic courses. He and some other Wikipedians also are at work on a for-profit venture, creating a new Internet search engine. He said he would use some of the money to finance the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which is based in St. Petersburg and oversees the encyclopedia effort.

He has no plans to go back to a regular job.

"I have enough money to live," he said. "And this is more fun than anything else I could think to do."

- Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or 727 893-8232.

WIKIPEDIA

How the volunteer-run, online encyclopedia works:

1 Anyone can read the encyclopedia's articles by going to the Web site www.wikipedia.org

2) A volunteer can write an article for Wikipedia.

3) Any other Wikipedia volunteer can make changes to this article.

4) All recent changes to articles are posted on the Web site for review.

5) Wikipedia users around the world look over every change. They can change the articles back to how they were or can add information. Wikipedia users think this process refines the articles and makes them more complete and accurate.

Some recent editing:

Although Wikipedia users value neutrality, certain articles are frequently edited in ways that reflect different points of view. The article on Israel recently read: "Hoping to annihilate the new Jewish state, the armies of five Arab nations intervened in the ongoing war between Jews and Arabs . . ." It was changed to read: "Hoping to liberate the Palestinians from the Jewish state, the armies of five Arab nations intervened in the ongoing war between Jews and Arabs . . ."

The entry on Ming Yuzhen, a 14th century Chinese leader, said: "He joined the rebel group the Red Turbans led by Xu Shouhui in 1353. He was blind in the right eye during a battle." To improve the grammar and style, a Wikipedia user last week changed it to read: "In 1353 he joined the Red Turbans, a rebel group led by Xu Shouhui. He was blinded in the right eye during a battle."

[Last modified November 5, 2004, 11:58:24]


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