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Wikipedia is a web-based and collaborative encyclopedia project.
As of January 2012, Wikipedia has 20 million articles — more than 3.8 million of them in English — which have been written by volunteers from around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site. Wikipedia’s tagline is “the free encyclopedia.”
Wikipedia was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and has become the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet. It began as a complement to Nupedia, an online encyclopedia project (its tagline was also “the free encyclopedia”) whose articles were written by experts — generally academics — and reviewed under a formal process. (While Wales is credited with the general idea of making a publicly editable encyclopedia, Sanger is usually credited the idea to use a wiki to reach that goal.)
Wikipedia was formally launched on January 15, 2001 through an announcement Sanger made to the Nupedia mailing list. There were initially relatively few rules about writing and editing articles, though Wikipedia’s “neutral point-of-view” policy — the ethos that guides its editorial process — developed quickly among its contributors.
Though most see Wikipedia as a success story and a testament to the power of user-generated contributions and, more generally, the wisdom of crowds (Clay Shirky has called the project an “unplanned miracle”), some also accuse it of systemic bias and inconsistencies. They also challenge the project’s reliability and accuracy. One of the most famous inaccuracies occurred in 2005, when the journalist John Seigenthaler realized that his Wikipedia entry claimed that he had been a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (In fact, he had been an aide and friend to Robert Kennedy.) The claim had been on his page for four months. Seigenthaler wrote a scathing op-ed in USA Today condemning Wikipedia for “character assassination,” leading to widespread questions about Wikipedia’s accuracy and authority.
After the incident, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales responded with his own USA Today op-ed, and updated Wikipedia policy to bar unregistered users from creating new articles.
When it comes to comparing Wikipedia’s content to traditional encyclopedias, though, there’s some evidence to suggest comparable accuracy. A 2005 investigation by the journal Nature found that the science articles in Wikipedia and those in the Encyclopedia Britannica had a similar rate of “serious errors.” (Brittanica has disputed those findings.) As the economist Tyler Cowen put it, “If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true, after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia.”
Though Wikipedia remains controversial as a one-stop source for accurate information, it is increasingly being used not just as for reference material, but also for breaking-news updates. Increasingly, collaboratively created Wikipedia entries are doubling as real-time information aggregators in breaking-news situations.
Wikipedia has also been an inspiration for a more contextualized approach to news narrative. News outlets’ topic pages take advantage of the public desire for evergreen reference content that Wikipedia has demonstrated. In 2008, news theorist Matt Thompson proposed the creation of context-rich journalism stories by “Wikipedia-ing the News.”
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