Wikipedia still No 1 after 15 years

The leader of the encyclopedia world since its founding in 2001, the non-profit, knowledge-sharing project has been among the 10 most popular websites in recent years. An ethos of free and unrestricted access has led to its success.

Wikipedia has overtaken the Encyclopaedia Britannica thanks to its democratisation of knowledge and the ability to quickly update or edit entries. George Widman / AP Photo
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Fifteen years ago, US biologist Gaytha Langlois chose the poodle as the subject for her brief but historic contribution to an experiment that would revolutionise the way the world shared knowledge.

On January 17, 2001, two days after the launch of Wikipedia, Prof Langlois submitted one of its first entries. The “standard poodle”, she wrote, was “a dog by which all others are measured”.

Those eight words were a humble start and few could have predicted how what appeared to be a passing idealistic experiment in free knowledge-sharing would take off. But as the site celebrates its 15th anniversary, Wikipedia is the big dog in the encyclopedia world by which all others are measured.

In the past 15 years, Wikipedia, like that entry on the poodle, has matured and grown out of all recognition. Today, the poodle article, amended and edited by dozens of voluntary contributors over the intervening years, is more than 5,000 words long. It is backed by 59 references and, like the rest of Wikipedia, rather less subjective and substantially more informative and reliable than it used to be.

Which is not to say its open-editing policy does not expose it to the occasional spot of mischief, or even downright vandalism, which keeps the site’s administrators on their toes.

Last week, the Daily Dot website noted that Wikipedia users were “stealthily changing the entries of Olympic athletes … providing some pretty hilarious and on-point analysis of the Olympic games”. After Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps beat South African rival Chad Le Clos in the 200-metre butterfly, Le Clos’s Wiki page was serially amended, noting on one occasion that he had been “blown out of the water by the greatest American since Abraham Lincoln”.

Any vandalism, says Wikipedia, is forbidden, and while editors are “encouraged to warn and educate” vandals, administrators can block persistent offenders without warning.

But such a weakness is also Wikipedia’s strength. Overshadowing the claims of the ancient libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum as storehouses of all human knowledge, Wikipedia has become, as it says, “the largest collection of free, collaborative knowledge in human history”. Rejecting the traditional model in which knowledge is filtered through experts, Wikipedia has been written and edited by hundreds of thousands of unpaid volunteers.

Driven by the belief that “everyone should have access to knowledge – for free, without restriction, without limitation” and run by a non-profit organisation, Wikipedia relies almost entirely on donations from users. In 2014 and 2015, when more than 4 million individuals donated a record US$75 million (Dh275m), the most common gift was between $10 and $30. “To protect our independence, we’ll never run ads,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales insisted in his annual personal appeal to users.

If it did, it would be worth a fortune, making close to $3 billion a year, by some estimates. Today, Wikipedia is one of the most successful websites in the world, viewed more than 15 billion times every month. Since 2007, it has been the only non-profit site among the top 10 dominated by the likes of Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon and Yahoo.

Google almost any subject, from aardvarks to zeppelins, and the first result that comes up will be the Wikipedia entry on the topic. Nothing is too highbrow (metaphysics) or low (Kim Kardashian) to escape the attention of Wikipedians, a voluntary army of about 70,000 regular contributors who create 7,000 new articles a day. In the words of Wikipedia, they “are united by the joy of knowledge … and their awareness that we know much more together than any of us does alone”.

It was this idealistic, non-profit democratisation of knowledge, along with the ability to instantaneously update or edit entries, that almost overnight overthrew the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which for more than 244 years had presented itself as “the sum of human knowledge”.

By 2012, however, it had become clear that there was no way the printed encyclopedia could compete with Wikipedia. For a start, weighing in at 62 kilograms and taking up a metre and a half of shelving, “an encyclopaedia could cost thousands of dollars, trees, water and ink, and let’s face it, was really, really hard to carry around”, says Wikipedia. The rise of tablets and smart phones gave users access to Wikipedia anywhere.

And then there was the vast sweep of knowledge available. Wikipedia says it has more than 38 million articles in 292 languages today, compared to the reportedly 500,000 entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all of which were only in English. Provided you never slept and went at it all the time, it would take 16 years and nine months to read all of the English Wikipedia alone, which has more than 5 million articles. Encyclopaedia Britannica added up to about 40 million words, compared with the 3,068 million of Wikipedia’s English-language content. In April, Wikipedia calculated that printing those 3,068 million words would require the equivalent of more than 2,300 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Britannica has survived as a subscription-based online encyclopaedia, priced at £49.95 (Dh238) a year and pitched primarily at students. “We don’t see Wikipedia as a threat,” insists Adrian Murray, Britannica’s product development manager, who admits he uses Wikipedia, “alongside Britannica”.

Britannica has only about 185 editors and 4,000 expert contributors, so Wikipedia can “handle far more information than we can”. But Britannica, he says, “is an authoritative source of information, with content targeted at specific learning needs.”

But while in the early years there were widespread doubts about the accuracy of an encyclopedia “cobbled together” by enthusiastic amateurs, Wikipedia’s transparent system of community editing and critiquing of articles has proved highly effective. An investigation by the journal Nature in 2005 found that Wikipedia “comes close to [online] Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries”. Researchers found 2.9 errors per article for Encyclopaedia Britannica, versus 3.9 for Wikipedia.

“Our goal is Britannica-or-better quality, but we’re not completely there yet,” said Mr Wales at the time. Just five years into the project, it was “a testament to the strength of our community that we should come so close to them at this point”.

The Wikipedia process, utterly transparent, is often painstaking. At the top of each article is a “Talk” tab, under which can be found community discussions about the subject. Some idea of the amount of thought that goes into each article, often by several contributors, can be seen under the “Talk” tab for the entry on Abu Dhabi. As the page history reveals, the article on Abu Dhabi began life as a simple one-liner on March 26, 2001, and has since been expanded or painstakingly amended by hundreds of contributors.

An example of the scholarly lengths to which Wikipedians often go can be found in the multiple edits and “Talk” debates surrounding the entry for Wahhabism, which offers a balanced, scholarly and well-referenced examination of the branch of Sunni Islam that developed in Saudi Arabia out of the thinking of 18th century preacher Muhammad ibn Abd Al Wahhab.

By January this year the 5.2 million articles in English alone had been edited 808 million times. In 2001, the most hotly edited article on the embryonic Wikipedia was “Creationism”, which attracted just 124 amendments.

But a glance at the 10 most edited English articles last year reveals not only the scale of Wikipedia today, but also the eclectic range of topics tackled by its enthusiastic volunteers.

With 18,271 edits, “Deaths in 2015” was the mostly closely scrutinised entry last year. In second place was “Geospatial summary of the High Peaks/Summits of the Juneau Icefield”, with 7,920 edits, followed by topics ranging from “List of the works of Bastien and Henry Prigent” – 16th century French sculptors – to “Asia’s Next Top Model (cycle 3)”.

The most edited Wikipedia entry of all time is “George W. Bush” (45,862 edits), followed by “List of WWE [pro wrestling] personnel” (42,836).

Wikipedia itself began life as Nupedia, a traditional-style online encyclopedia intended to be written and edited by experts and made available for free, but the focus on expert input soon shifted. “Wiki”, named after the Hawaiian word for “quick”, was a software platform invented by US programmer Howard Cunningham and designed to allow many people to work on a document online at the same time.

Nupedia, which Wiki was designed to serve, existed from 1999 to 2003, but Mr Wales “thought that the turnaround for Nupedia entries was just too slow”, says poodle Wikipedian Gaytha Langlois, Nupedia’s biology and zoology editor from 2000 to 2001. She is presently professor of environmental policy at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Prof Langlois says it was “challenging to get experts to agree on detailed wording, and the progress moved slowly”.

“Meanwhile, the idea of using a ‘wiki’ to hasten the accumulation of information began to grow, and essentially replaced the original idea of an encyclopedia composed by experts,” she says. “[Initially] we were all a bit disappointed that the Nupedia project went by the way, because we had poured a ton of energy and effort into creating a good editing system

“[But] it was a very exciting time and we knew well that we had happened onto a very powerful informational tool for sharing knowledge broadly.”

Just how broadly, she discovered about a year ago, when “my 97-year-old mother said to me, ‘look it up on the internet’, when we were discussing some new type of flower … she had watched the whole family just go to Wikipedia for such details and it seemed quite natural to her”.