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Need to know ~ Topics & Events

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Wikipedia turns 20

Wikipedia Monument in Slubice, Poland

Photo:חזרתי, CC BY-SA 4.0

Why current?


It’s likely that when you research a topic, you turn to Wikipedia.  This expansive collection of information has not been around that long – only 20 years.  So how did people do research before Wikipedia?  What, for that matter, did people do before the Internet?  When your parents and grandparents were in school, they read books to get information, possibly also newspapers and magazines.  And often among their most trusted print sources were encyclopedias.  Webster’s Dictionary defines an encyclopedia as, “a work that contains information on all branches of knowledge usually in articles arranged alphabetically.  Many families had multivolume sets of encyclopedias, to which they turned whenever they needed to know something.  The name Wikipedia comes from “wiki-,” meaning “quick” in Hawaiian, and “-pedia,” from “encyclopedia.”

In January, Wikipedia turned 20.  It had been born out of a hopeful vision that when people work together in the pursuit of truth, they are more likely to find it.  Wikipedia articles are written not only by experts but by anyone who has knowledge about a certain subject.  In this age of misinformation and disinformation, when it’s often hard to know what is real and what isn’t and when provable facts are up for debate as though they were opinions, we can celebrate a resource which isn’t connected to any political angle.  Wikipedia’s commitment is to presenting what is known.  It is a resource grown, maintained, and used by people from many different backgrounds who have varying points of view and areas of expertise.

More about Wikipedia

  • Wikipedia was started on January 15, 2001.
  • The founders, Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, have said that Wikipedia is about establishing something many of us have taken for granted, namely, a “shared understanding of the world.”  In the last few years, we have seen how facts can be twisted, lies can be spread, and people can live in separate realities based on which news networks they watch or newspapers they read.  Wikipedia’s aim is for people to share facts, regardless of ideological differences.  Wales has said, “We want to bring everyone together for a thoughtful discussion and debate, to understand the world, to learn before having an opinion.”
  • Wikipedia started as an English website, but within its first year, it was appearing in 18 languages, including Chinese, French, and Hebrew.  The articles on non-English Wikipedia sites are not translations.  They are generated from scratch by native speakers.  Currently, Wikipedia pages can be found in 309 languages; only about 10% of all Wikipedia articles are in English.
  • The website is non-profit.  This means that its purpose is to provide a service, not to make money.  In this way, it is completely different from other big Internet sites like Google or Facebook.  Wikipedia offers free access to anyone with an Internet connection, and its articles are written and edited by some 280,000 volunteers.  It is financed with the help of millions of donors.
  • Wikipedia ranks seventh on the list of most-visited websites.  Its more than 55 million articles are accessed 15 billion times per month.
  • Encyclopedias generally hire experts to write their articles.  But on Wikipedia, anyone can contribute an article or edit someone else’s article.  This collaborative approach to building a body of knowledge was what inspired Sanger and Wales from the beginning.
  • Critics of Wikipedia say that despite noble ideals of inclusiveness in the gathering and sharing of knowledge, the content of the website is dominated by white males.  Contributions from women and people of color, particularly from non-Western countries, are few and far between, they say.
  • You might be wondering how all the articles can be accurate, if “just anyone” can write and edit them.  First of all, Wikipedia does have administrators who constantly monitor articles.  If someone edits an article incorrectly or dishonestly, Wikipedia will react quickly, often within five minutes of the offense.  Also, even though anyone can write and edit articles, there are certain rules: don’t express opinions, stick only to facts that can be proven, list references, and don’t use Wikipedia as a place to advertise.  Maybe surprisingly, people generally follow the rules.  And if they don’t, others will usually jump in to edit anything that does not meet the website’s standards.  The idea is that Wikipedia is “self-policing.”  If there are enough eyes looking at articles and enough people watching out for accuracy and honesty – and actively editing out falsehoods – then the overall result will be facts and truth.
  • Still, the concern remains that at any moment, an article could be unreliable.  For this reason, it is important to know how to use Wikipedia.  Read the articles critically and carefully – understanding the potential for inaccuracies or outright deceit.  Most importantly, don’t jump to Wikipedia as your go-to resource without taking the time to check other sources, too.  Verify what you read by exploring a number of reliable outlets of information.

Sources: Aljazeera, “Wikipedia turns 20, aims to reach the next billion users,”https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/15/wikipedia-turns-20-aims-to-reach-the-next-billion-users, January 15, 2021; Fried, Ina, Axios, “Wikipedia turns 20 today,”https://www.axios.com/wikipedia-20-years-anniversary-da11eb50-b12b-475b-8465-58ed3974a848.html, January 15, 2021; Moneycontrol.com, “Wikipedia Turns 20: Everything you need to know about the free encyclopedia,”https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/technology/wikipedia-turns-20-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-free-encyclopaedia-6352191.html, January 15, 2021; Cellan-Jones, Rory, BBC, “Wikipedia at 20: The encyclopedia in five articles,”https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-55667711, January 15, 2021.