Mondo Wikipedia

Community and controversy as the online reference giant turns five

Wikipedia draws its fair share of unstoppable armchair philosophers, but it also attracts people who—out of a sense of humanitarian duty, or boredom—just want to get the job done. The goal is simple: free information for the world. Wales, affectionately referred to as "Jimbo," compares working for the site to volunteering for the Red Cross. Contributors treat him like a rock star, honoring him on their user pages with various songs and prayers ("Credimus in unum Jimbonem/patrem omnipotentem"). The arguments over his encyclopedia entry are particularly heated. Some worry that his featured picture doesn't make him look dignified enough: Is his expression ironic? Or just silly? Wales, who never imagined he could attract such a following, says he feels like Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence: He thought he'd have to finish the job alone, but suddenly strangers were doing his work.

Some of the most faithful Wikipedians compare the enterprise to building the ancient pyramids: A vast collection of anonymous people make tiny, negligible contributions (a single clause, a comma deletion), and the result is a cultural monument. People have created their own Wikipedias in Slovene, Finnish, Arabic, Afrikaans, Tatar, and 200 other languages. Two and a half years ago, Wales started a new project, Wikibooks, with the hope of providing a cheaper alternative to textbooks (U.S. college students currently spend $5 billion a year on them). Writers have begun to collaborate on texts in many subjects, including microeconomics, linguistics, Shakespeare, Japanese history, wooing men, and raising chickens. There's no copyright charge for taking material off the site, but as of now, most of the books are slipshod and incomplete—not ready for classrooms.

illustration: Insu Lee

Wikipedia will never be finished, so long as its participants are active. Seventeen thousand people contribute regularly. As Shirky puts it, most encyclopedias ask the questions "Who knows? Who has the facts?" Wikipedia asks something different: "Who cares?" With entries that are both impossibly minute ("Musashi Junior & Senior High School") and transcendent ("Life"), one has to wonder whether Wikipedia will eventually just bloat out of bounds. It's hard to predict whether it represents a paradigm shift or just an anomaly. The site is constantly changing, propelled by its obsessed community. "We forgive those who vandalize against us," writes one club, the Really Reformed Church of Wikipedia, on its user page. "Blessed art thou among Wikipedians/and blessed is the fruit of thy keyboard."

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