Mondo Wikipedia

Community and controversy as the online reference giant turns five

Last fall, students at the University of South Florida contributed to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, by writing entries for numpty, mohoger, japsoc, and gavilan. The definitions they gave were foggy (numpty, "tea from the land of nump"; gavilan, "a species of left-wing American focused solely on doom and gloom"). Their English professor, Alex Duensing, encouraged them to dream up more entries. When members of Wikipedia protested, he argued that his class had a "fundamental right to shape reality."

Currently the 19th-most-visited web-site in the world, Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) invites anyone, regardless of academic credentials, to write and edit articles. Much has been made of this cavalier attitude toward scholarship—some choose to replace complete entries with phrases like "toilet bowl" or "hi, mom!"—but it's hard to complain: This is free information. Self-described Wikipediholics spend several hours a day researching, summarizing, and reinventing the meaning of various concepts. "Everyone wants to learn," says Daniel Mayer, one of the site's top contributors, with more than 40,000 edits. "It's not like the Victorian model of education: one person dictating at the head of the classroom. There's no hierarchy. There's no teacher."

Users form groups (the Harmonious Editing Club, Typo Team, Association of Deletionist Wikipedians) to more efficiently argue over definitions. A recent flame over whether or not the "apple pie" entry should include the phrase "as American as mom and apple pie" went on for months. A British user, "Tagish-simon," accused U.S. contributors of simultaneously colonizing the idea of pie, motherhood, and family. "First Iraq, then Apple Pies. What next?" he wrote. The page had to be blocked, and one person temporarily quit the site. After the dispute died down, someone replaced the old photo with that of a cheesecake.

Clay Shirky, a technology and new-media professor at NYU, describes the site as a mix of political philosophies—"a creamy communist exterior with a crispy libertarian center." Wikipedia forces an uncomfortable issue for academics, he says. "Where does authority come from? Brands? Institutions? It's not so clear. And it never has been. That's why the site is so threatening."

Traditional scholars feel jeopardized by a population of nerds they hardly knew existed. In 2004, Robert McHenry, the former editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote an essay for Tech Central Station comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom: You never know who's been using the facilities. "If this were a private enterprise, like a multiplayer game, that'd be fine," he tells the Voice. "It's like, 'Let's play the encyclopedia game, kids!' But to take the product of this game and call it an encyclopedia—that's where the deception comes in. The project is anti-educational, anti-science, and anti–everything that I think is a value."

Last year, the contributor with the most articles featured on the site's homepage was 17-year-old user "Lord Emsworth," still in high school. He wrote long, detailed entries on British nobility. Users addressed him as "your lordship." "You don't really need credentials to look at a book and take out the information," says Matt Wolf Binder, a 15-year-old from Seattle who's earned many Wikipedia peer awards, called Barnstars, including the Random Acts of Kindness Barnstar, the General Awesomeness Barnstar, the Working Man's Barnstar, and the Lots of Barnstars Barnstar. "If someone researches a topic, it doesn't matter if Harvard certifies them."

In many cases, winning disputes is just a matter of having good friends. People gang up on each other to argue their points. When a top contributor (user name "Essjay") recently despaired over a deletion, he decided to quit the encyclopedia for good. (He's now back.) "He couldn't take crying over what was happening to the people he cared so much about," Essjay explained (in the third person) on his user page. More than 50 people posted notes online, begging him to stay. "You are who you are regardless of what happens on Wikipedia," one reader reminded him. Another was more frantic: "Is there something else going on in your life making you depressed? Please, please, see a doctor."

The site, which has more daily visitors than The New York Timesand USA Today sites combined, is as much an encyclopedia as a social outlet. Wikipedia has many rules, but they're all highly breakable. (One essay states: "Ignore all rules.") This philosophy, which some describe as the site's "essence," doesn't always inspire goodwill. In September, John Seigenthaler Sr., former editor and publisher of the Tennessean newspaper, discovered that his Wikipedia bio claimed he'd had a hand in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The fiction had remained online for more than four months, uncorrected. Jimmy Wales, the founder of the site, acknowledged that the entry was "disgusting" and announced a new rule: Users can no longer contribute without first formally registering. (This has apparently done little to stop vandalism: A few weeks ago, someone rewrote the "Jimmy Wales" entry and said he'd been assassinated—by Seigenthaler's wife.)

Wikipedia works on the premise that articles will steadily improve over time, in a sort of Darwinian process of natural selection. But users, who now have the power to change history—at least until someone catches them—aren't always aiming for the larger good. Last year, former MTV host Adam Curry edited the "podcasting" entry to give himself more credit for the technology's creation. He deleted other important figures in the field and inserted helpful phrases like "Thanks to Adam Curry . . . "

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