Being the founder of the Internet's largest encyclopedia means Jimmy Wales gets a lot of bizarre e-mail. There are the correspondents who assume he wrote Wikipedia himself and is therefore an expert on everything—like the guy who found vials of mercury in his late grandfather's attic and wanted Wales, a former options trader, to tell him what to do with them. There are kooks who claim to have found, say, a 9,000-year-old, 15-ft.-tall human skeleton and wonder whether Wales would be interested. But the e-mails that make him laugh out loud come from concerned newcomers who have just discovered they have total freedom to edit just about any Wikipedia entry at the click of a button. Oh my God, they write, you've got a major security flaw!



Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales


Jimmy Wales



As the old techie saying goes, it's not a bug, it's a feature. Wikipedia is a free open-source encyclopedia, which basically means that anyone can log on and add to or edit it. And they do. It has a stunning 1.5 million entries in 76 languages—and counting. Academics are upset by what they see as info anarchy. (An Encyclopaedia Britannica editor once compared Wikipedia to a public toilet seat because you don't know who used it last.) Loyal Wikipedians argue that collaboration improves articles over time, just as free open-source software like Linux and Firefox is more robust than for-profit competitors because thousands of amateur programmers get to look at the code and suggest changes. It's the same principle that New Yorker writer James Surowiecki asserted in his best seller The Wisdom of Crowds: large groups of people are inherently smarter than an élite few.


Wikipedia is in the vanguard of a whole wave of wikis built on that idea. A wiki is a deceptively simple piece of software (little more than five lines of computer code) that you can download for free and use to make a website that can be edited by anyone you like. Need to solve a thorny business problem overnight and all members of your team are in different time zones? Start a wiki. In Silicon Valley, at least, wiki culture has already taken root. "A lot of corporations are using wikis without top management even knowing it," says John Seely Brown, the legendary former chief scientist at Xerox PARC. "It's a bottom-up phenomenon. The CIO may not get it, but the people actually doing the work see the need for them."


Inspired by Wikipedia, a Silicon Valley start-up called Socialtext has helped set up wikis at a hundred companies, including Nokia and Kodak. Business wikis are being used for project management, mission statements and cross-company collaborations. Instead of e-mailing a vital Word document to your co-workers—and creating confusion about which version is the most up-to-date—you can now literally all be on the same page: as a wiki Web page, the document automatically reflects all changes by team members. Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield claims that accelerates project cycles 25%. "A lot of people are afraid because they have to give up control over information," he says. "But in the end, wikis foster trust."


The father of the wiki is Ward Cunningham, a programmer who created the WikiWikiWeb in 1995. The name came from his honeymoon in Hawaii, where you catch the "wiki wiki" (a Hawaiian term for "quick") bus from the airport. The WikiWikiWeb was an online help manual for all kinds of software, written a little bit at a time by hundreds of people around the world. Users of any given product, Cunningham knew, were like the proverbial blind men feeling an elephant. Their knowledge was far greater than the sum of its parts—greater than even the product's creator—if only you could piece it together in the right way. "Wikis favor the author who isn't skilled enough to see the whole," he says.


Meanwhile, as the WikiWikiWeb was chugging along happily in semi-obscurity, Wales was looking for a way to combine his life's two major hobbies. As a home-schooled child growing up in Huntsville, Ala., he loved to spend his free hours getting lost in Britannica or the World Book. Then there was the Internet, which Wales stumbled across in college as early as 1989. "I met all these great people online," he says, "and we were all discussing things on mailing lists no one ever looks at. I thought, Why not use the smarts of my friends and build something more long lasting, more fun?"


Ah, fun. Spend enough time talking to Wales—a confessed "pathological optimist"—and you'll believe his life has been one long laugh riot. Options and futures trading, which Wales did in Chicago for much of the 1990s, was "fun and cool." Quitting his job and moving to San Diego to start an Internet company? Delightful. Paying the mortgage purely from investments, even to this day? Fantastic. Spending two years trying to start an online encyclopedia called Nupedia yet getting no further than the first 12 articles? Not a lot of fun, actually.


Nupedia's problem was that it was a centralized, top-down system. The software had seven laborious stages of fact checking and peer review. Then Wales discovered wikis, and the pathological optimist had his eureka moment. His new goal was to create a free encyclopedia for all, in their own language, written by anyone. It took Wikipedia just two weeks to grow larger than its predecessor.


Four years later, Wikipedia is the cumulative work of 16,000 pairs of hands, the bulk of it done by a hard-core group of about 1,000 volunteers. Its 500,000 entries in English alone make it far larger than the 65,000-article 2005 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wales' nonprofit Wikimedia foundation pays just one employee, who keeps the servers ticking. The foundation survives on donations and Wales' modest fortune. "This is a softball league for geeks," he says. "And there are more geeks out there than anyone suspected."


Naturally, there are also a lot of idiots, vandals and fanatics, who take advantage of Wikipedia's open system to deface, delete or push one-sided views. Sometimes extreme action has to be taken. For example, Wales locked the entries on John Kerry and George W. Bush for most of 2004. But for the most part, the geeks have a huge advantage: they care more. Wikipedia lets you put your favorite articles on a watch list and notifies you if anyone else adds to or changes them. According to an M.I.T. study, an obscenity randomly inserted on Wikipedia is removed in 1.7 min., on average. Vandals might as well be spray-painting walls with disappearing ink.


As for edit wars, in which two geeks with opposing views delete each other's assertions over and over, well, they're not much of a problem these days. All kinds of viewpoints coexist in the same article. Take the Wikipedia entry on, er, Wikipedia: "Wikipedia has been criticized for a perceived lack of reliability, comprehensiveness and authority. It is considered to have no or limited utility as a reference work among many librarians [and] academics."


Therein lies the rub. Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's former editor in chief (and now a lecturer at Ohio State) still loves the site but thinks his fellow professionals have a point. "The wide-open nature of the Internet encourages people to disregard the importance of expertise," he says. Sanger does not let his students use Wikipedia for their papers, partly because he knows they could confirm anything they like by adding it themselves.











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