As Wikipedia plans to open its first office outside the US in India, a look at how it has democratised information and knowledge…

Today's de facto standard for fast and fairly reliable information on the Internet is Wikipedia. To students and news junkies alike it has become somewhat of an addictive habit to use Wikipedia. Research often begins at Wikipedia, even if it is later corroborated by a more reliable source. Wikipedia's meteoric rise is much like the story of the rest of the Internet. Founded in January 2001, this online encyclopaedia has quickly grown to become one of the top 10 visited websites since 2007. Currently it stands at No.5, only beaten by Google, Yahoo, Youtube and Facebook. Web traffic measuring firms have found Wikipedia to be one of the most heavily visited sites on the Internet. Moreover, among sites that are focused on educational and reference material, Wikipedia is by far the most popular site, drawing nearly six times more traffic than the next-closest site.

One of the single biggest reasons for its popularity is the confidence it has instilled in people, that no matter how obscure a topic, it will most likely be found in Wikipedia's pages.

Meteoric rise

Wikipedia's flagship ownership model is what makes it so successful today. The content on Wikipedia ultimately belongs to the people who created it. As a collective human exercise in democratisation of scholarship, Wikipedia achieves the goal of collaborative effort on a global scale.

Wiki is the Hawaiian word for “fast”. In keeping with its name, its growth has been staggering. The English-language Wikipedia has expanded from 135,000 articles at the time of incorporation to more than three million articles today. All Wikipedia languages combined contain more than 15 million articles.

Wikipedia is available in a host of Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi and others. It has recently announced plans to launch an Indian edition of its website, as part of its global strategy to penetrate the fast growing South East Asian market.

Sharply polarised

Wikipedia has its share of diehard fans and sworn critics. Many promoters and users of Wikipedia see it as a replacement for the traditional encyclopedia. Yet, many others are hesitant to embrace it as a full-fledged substitute, much less a replacement.

At Wikipedia decisions are made through consensus-building. The barriers to entry are low – you don't have to have a Ph.D. or be a proven expert to write on a topic. But it is precisely its amateur-friendly approach to contributions that also results in some of its harshest criticisms. The argument is with so many “rookie” authors and editors, how do you monitor malicious content, inaccurate details and biased reports of polarising figures. Many academics had initially doubted its value as a trustworthy source and considered it to be spurious and unreliable. However, over time, the vast body of information that Wikipedia has accumulated (according to Wikipedia's write-up on itself, it has surpassed all other collections of general knowledge ever compiled), and the sets of rules that it has put in place have resulted in better quality of content. Many teachers now acknowledge its utility and surprising accuracy though many refrain from citing it as a source.

With a staff of only about 39 employees, the backbone of Wikipedia is its thousands of volunteers who contribute content to the Wikimedia communities. Also, it is funded primarily through donations, grants and gifts. They do not use advertising as a source of revenue. This is one empire with no kings and a vast population of voluntary foot soldiers.

Wikipedia has had its share of controversy and learnt its lessons. In 2005, an anonymously written biography entry appeared, that linked former USA Today Editor John Seigenthaler Sr. with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The writer, Brian Chase, later issued an apology for a prank he says went terribly awry. Seigenthaler, in an USA Today editorial, criticised Wikipedia and called the fake biography “Internet character assassination”. This was a wake up call for Wikipedia to get more aggressive about patrolling for vandals and blocking suspicious edits. Wikipedia altered its editing policies so that now high-profile subjects like Barack Obama are protected from anonymous revisions.

Wikipedia continues to be a work in progress. The debate rages on, in true democratic fashion, about what stays and what goes, what worked and what needs to get eliminated in keeping with the company's mission of “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”. This endeavour reminds you of Isaac Asimov's best remembered science fiction creation – the supercomputer called Multivac. Multivac was fed so much information that in the course of time it could answer just about any question asked of it. After years of servicing people's requests and answering their questions, Multivac developed the quintessential human quality of sapience and subsequent burnout. Multivac was famously asked the question: “Multivac, what do you yourself want more than anything else?” To which Multivac gave the unequivocal and succinct reply: “I want to die”. Certainly not the fate we want Wikipedia to face.

For Wikipedia in local Indian Languages: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/List_of_Wikipedias.