Wikipedia: Getting to Truth by 'Community'


Sept. 12, 2006 — -- From Aglet to Zeus. And more than a million items in between.

In just five years, the Web-based, user-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia has grown exponentially. Currently standing at 1.3 million articles, Wikipedia bills itself as the largest knowledge resource in the world.

Founder and creator Jimmy Wales modestly says the runaway growth is a result of "the right idea for the right time."

Wikipedia was launched on Jan. 15, 2001. It is paid for with donations from the public and has only a few paid employees, not including Wales.

Wales said the typical Wikipedia article "should be very similar to exactly what you would read in any traditional encyclopedia."

Wiki is a Hawaiian word meaning "quick," which is the both the hallmark and the Achilles' heel of the site.

Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" provided an elephantine example of Wikipedia's flaws. Host Steven Colbert exhorted viewers to "find the page on elephants on Wikipedia, create an entry that says the number of elephants has tripled in the last six months."

"It's the least we can do to save this noble beast," said Colbert.

On "Nightline," Wales responded: "Stop it Colbert. You know in terms of vandalism people were in a panic for a few minutes. It was a pretty minor spate of vandalism."

But who are the Wikipedians and where will Wikipedia go in the future?

"Everywhere I go it's about more or less the same: about 80 percent male, geeky. The geeky smart people," said Wales, calling these Wikipedia users "The Community."

Wales said it is "the Community" who decides whether something is right or not.

For the future, astrophysicist and wiki-phile Joseph Wang has big hopes and desires.

"What I'd like to see is something like Harvard, with the same qualities, with the same quality instructions but educating hundreds of millions of people," Wang said.

Right now some high schools and ABC News declare Wikipedia off limits. One cannot use it as a source.

"They told the kids not to listen to rock and roll music, too," Wales said. "Sometimes it's really great quality, most of the time it's pretty good quality and sometimes it's terrible. You have to use your judgment as to whether you think you can count on it or not.".Wales said quality of entries is very important to where Wikipedia wants to go.

"Nature ran an article last December where they compared Britannica and Wikipedia on certain scientific entries, and they found that the Britannica articles contained around three errors per article, and Wikipedia articles contained around four errors per article, so when we heard that, we were somewhat pleased, because at least it showed people that it's not completely insane," Wales said.

But, what is the first entry in Wikipedia? It is not Aglet. It's much simpler than that. "A" is the first entry and the last is "Zzzax." Zzzax is a fictional character in Marvel Comics.

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