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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 February 2021

How Wikipedia became the world's largest encyclopedia

As the giant reference site turns 20, we look back at how it grew into the largest human knowledge repository

Wikipedia was launched on 15 January 2001  and is now one of the most visited websites on the internet. EPA
Wikipedia was launched on 15 January 2001  and is now one of the most visited websites on the internet. EPA

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing," co-founder Jimmy Wales said in 2004, when asked by a user what Wikipedia's mission was.

It seemed a long shot at the time. Little did he know that Wikipedia would become precisely that: the world's largest repository of human knowledge, offering more than 55 million articles in 309 languages.

How Wikipedia was born

It all started in January 2001, when internet entrepreneurs Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger registered Wikipedia's domain as an offshoot of an earlier web-based encyclopedia project, Nupedia.

As the site became established, it soon grew beyond the scope of the earlier project.

According to co-founder Mr Wales, "the project passed 1,000 articles around February 12, 2001, and 10,000 articles around September 7. In the first year of its existence, over 20,000 encyclopedia entries were created – a rate of over 1,500 articles per month".

The same year, the free, open content encyclopedia began to expand internationally and attract contributors from around the world.

The first domain reserved for a non-English Wikipedia was deutsche.wikipedia.com, followed by a wave of new language sites, including the Arabic one that appeared in September 2001.

Jimmy Wales (pictured) and Larry Sanger registered Wikipedia's domain in 2001as an offshoot of an earlier web-based encyclopedia project, Nupedia. AFP
Jimmy Wales (pictured) and Larry Sanger registered Wikipedia's domain in 2001as an offshoot of an earlier web-based encyclopedia project, Nupedia. AFP

The wiki website continued to grow at an explosive rate. As of January 2020, Wikipedia ranks as the 13th most-visited and the most linked-to website on the planet, an extraordinary result for a project that was long deemed unreliable and lacking authority.

Its open nature makes it a prime target for fake news and misinformation. Because articles do not necessarily include bylines and authors are not publicly accountable for what they write, the site's entries are vulnerable to unscrupulous edits.

However, what was once considered the site’s most significant vulnerability has proved to be its greatest strength.

How Wikipedia fact-checks information

Unlike other tech giants, Wikipedia started tackling misinformation on its website as early as 2003.

Two years after the project was born, Mr Wales launched the Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee – or ArbCom – as an extension of the decision-making power he formerly held as owner of the site.

The committee, made up of 15 jurists, acts as Wikipedia’s high court, restricting, blocking or banning contributors and trying to prevent the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories.

Wikipedia's community of contributors, too, has proved an essential tool in tackling the spread of disinformation on the website.

About 200,000 editors contribute to Wikipedia projects every month, updating and correcting information at a rate of 350 times a minute.

Finally, Wikipedia has an army of 2,470 bots, automated software that carry out the "repetitive and mundane tasks to maintain the 52,341,763 pages of the English Wikipedia".

Bots can detect and clean up vandalism almost as soon as it occurs, making them indispensable to the success of Wikipedia's project.

Its ability to attract diverse contributors, maintain high standards of accuracy, and evolve as fast as the internet makes Wikipedia one of the most successful crowdsourcing experiments of all time.

While other tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube struggle to contain the spread of hate and disinformation across their platforms, Wikipedia shows that a different model is possible.

Updated: January 15, 2021 01:33 PM

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