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The do-it-yourself encyclopedia

Wikipedia’s storehouse of knowledge is a group effort.

Today I love the Web, for the same reason I hated it yesterday: Out of the blue, some new information came to me, uncontrolled by me. This method of getting information can be a nightmare when you’re trying to look for something specific. But of course, it’s also often a blessing in disguise, which is exactly the case with Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. The more I looked at this site, the more I realized that it also embodies the exasperating and exhilarating nature of the World Wide Web–that information is free and ultimately uncontrollable.

Wikipedia also tickles me silly because it’s a new invention–a new way of collecting and conveying information invented by folks who are committed to this sort of thing, and it’s something I’ve never heard of before. And how often does one really encounter that? Not in an “I should learn more about that someday” way. Nope, this is that immediate, under-your-nose, “I’ve got to know about this now!” sort of discovery.

Wiki. What is it? Wiki wiki means quick in the Hawaiian language, according to Wikipedia, and “can be used to identify either a type of hypertext document or the software used to write it.” Wiki sites, then, use a simple markup application (not strictly HTML, although it does use some HTML characters) to foster collaborative editing of documents. Ward Cunningham of Portland, Ore., established the first such site in 1994.

Wikipedia, launched in January 2001, is different from other community-built sites such as Slashdot or Memepool, which are built around discussion. Because it’s an encyclopedia, the aim is to construct objective entries arrived at by community consensus (no foul language, no rants, no flaming). Wikipedia also is the only encyclopedia that allows anyone to write or edit its entries. Nupedia, for example, is another free encyclopedia whose content is peer-reviewed. In fact, Wikipeida was spawned by Nupedia founders who had been looking to supplement that project with a more open encyclopedia. Although Wikipedia isn’t peer-reviewed in the conventional sense, somebody is minding the store–senior administrators are the only ones who can completely delete a page, for instance, and they also attempt to mediate and make final decisions about disputed entries.

Like any community-driven site, visitors should plan to hang out a while and get comfortable with the rules and navigation before diving in with a 1,000-word treatise on “Beowulf.” (I also strongly advise not clicking on the “All Pages” link in the right-hand column from Wikipedia’s main page, unless you need to leave the computer for about 10 minutes.) There are naming conventions to respect, so that people can find and add to your entry. There are also language rules to learn. For example, to create a link, you place double brackets around a word, [[like this]]. Contributors must also make sure that they only submit information to which they either hold the copyright or took from the public domain. Because Wikipedia operates under the same open-source agreement as Linux, contributors agree that anything they submit is distributed freely and can be augmented.

With that, kids, we’re out of time for today. So go on–wiki wiki already.

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