It was a utopian vision: an encyclopedia for the people, by the people. But eight years on, Wikipedia is plagued by endless hoaxes, driven by boardroom rebellion - and lurches from one cash crisis to another. Will it become a footnote in the history of the web?
It felt like half a nation was pumping the air and singing along to
Born To Run
as the old rabble-rouser Bruce Springsteen blew through his half-time set at Superbowl XLIII on Sunday night. For a tech-savvy younger generation, curious as to why someone who looked like their dad had just jumped on to a piano, an obvious response would have been to reach for the computer and head to Wikipedia.
Except that they'd have drawn a blank.
"Bruce Springsteen. This guy kinda sucks." That was it. A superstar's entire history and discography had been wiped, an encyclopedia page replaced with a blogger's venting. Perhaps it was a Janet Jackson fan who hadn't got over the sanitising of the Superbowl show since that famous wardrobe malfunction.
Later visitors to the page were given a little more to go on. "Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen (born September 23, 1949), nicknamed 'The Boss', is a FAG," according to one unhelpful edit.
Hit refresh, and suddenly the entire entry appeared to be in Japanese.
Things righted themselves, of course, and quickly. Before the final bars of
, one of Wikipedia's grown-ups had locked anonymous users out of the editing process and The Boss had returned to form.
This has been Wikipedia's organising principle. Like the old barb that BBC staff used to use about Sky News, it is "never wrong for long". Wikipedia was a half-crazed vision when it was launched in January 2001. At a time when internet sages were discussing how much Britannica could get away with charging for a digital version of its dusty tome, here was an attempt to create an even bigger repository for human knowledge, all of it written and edited - from scratch - by absolutely anyone with a bit of time to spare.
Now it is one of the 10 most-visited sites on the web (there are different measures of this list, but Wikipedia itself has agreed that it is the eighth most-visited). Should you need to settle a bar-room row about the scorer of the equaliser in the 1993 FA Cup final, it is to Wikipedia that you instinctively turn. Increasingly, when you want to find out the latest facts on a developing news story, Wikipedians are updating the site in real time for you, too.
As long as you have a critical eye, it cannot be beaten for the bare-bones facts on any subject you can think of - and several million more you can't. As a result, it is a godsend for stressed researchers and idle students. One New York University professor shakes his head and says that he has given up trying to prevent his charges from citing Wikipedia as a source in their essays. Instead, he now spends some time each week checking the accuracy of its entries on the subjects he teaches.
The site has more than justified its founders' faith in the wisdom of crowds. But it has also shown that every crowd has its share of fools and knaves. Vandalism and error are endemic, and it has often driven users to the conclusion that the only way to increase accuracy is to reduce access. The tensions are not new, but they are growing. Events in recent weeks have seemed to bring Wikipedia to another crossroads. Importantly, the direction it chooses will help shape a long-term financial future for the organisation, which is only now starting to be debated.
That battle over Bruce Springsteen, played out over five minutes on one of Wikipedia's 12 million articles, was hardly unique. At any given moment, there are hundreds of these skirmishes going on. A dip into the methodically kept records of recent edits shows that a kind-hearted Celebrity Big Brother fan had amended Ulrika Jonsson's entry to congratulate her ("You rock my odd socks!" was briefly scrawled on her entry).
Hardly a week goes by without one of the more creative or subversive additions taking flight, adding greatly to the gaiety of the nation. Most recently, Alan Titchmarsh - not-very-proud recipient of the Bad Sex Award for embarrassing passages in fiction - was said by his Wikipedia page to be penning a new Kama Sutra. Robbie Williams was once declared to have made his pre-Take That living "by eating domestic pets in pubs in and around Stoke". For a month and a half, a Wikipedia page was reporting that Margaret Thatcher was fictitious.
For celebrities, you know you've arrived when you have a Wikipedia page created about you. But you also know that you only hit the very top when you die in Wikiworld. Miley Cyrus, Oprah Winfrey, the Apple founder Steve Jobs and the British presenter Vernon Kay have all been declared dead by hoaxers in the past year. All are still alive, most of them kicking.
Barack Obama's inauguration day was the final straw for Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder and visionary-in-chief, who declared that it was time to break with the tradition of "anything goes".
That was the day two senior senators, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, sparked a flurry of concern about their health when they left the inauguration lunch on Capitol Hill - in Kennedy's case, in an ambulance after a seizure. Anyone who reached for Wikipedia for the latest facts found that someone had prematurely filled in 20 January 2009 as the date of their deaths. Whether the editors were motivated by malice or whether they were taking what journalists might call "a flyer" in the hope of being first with the news, the incidents prompted another round of unforgiving headlines about Wikipedia's tendency to err.
Wales is following the lead of the embattled TV bosses who agreed, after the revelation of Janet Jackson's nipple during the 2004 Superbowl, to put a time delay on the broadcast. From now on, he proposes, editing the biography of a living person will be a two-stage process; anyone can still make a revision, but it will have to be flagged as "approved" by someone higher up the Wikipedian food-chain before it goes live on the site. "This sort of nonsense would have been 100 per cent prevented by flagged revisions," Wales thundered after the Kennedy-Byrd embarrassment, and he ordered a trial of the new restrictions.
But the very suggestion has stoked a monster of a controversy among the faithful, even by the standards of a group of obsessive-compulsives for whom controversy is a permanent state. Wikipedia is, after all, the encyclopedia written by the people, for the people. Wikipedians are engaged in a constant fight to rid it not just of vandalism, but of all opinion and contentious material, of anything that cannot be described as fact and supported by a link to a recognised source.
To click "edit" to muck in on an entry, or "history" just to examine the palimpsest on which it has been created, is like lopping off the top of an anthill, revealing the extraordinary industry inside. It looks anarchic, but it is governed by a vast array of rules and conventions and manipulated by a hierarchy of editors and administrators, elected to their posts on the basis of their work.
They wield significant power to delete revisions and whole articles, and to block users. Every single change to every single article is recorded and can be debated. "Edit wars" between contributors who are pushing competing revisions are common. Many are tedious - the debate about whether JK Rowling is pronounced "rolling" or with an "ow" sound ran for months - but participants console themselves with the knowledge that they are working towards a more perfect union of Wikipedia and the world it describes.
The new plan for flagged revisions only extends a current policy that denies editing rights to anonymous users on the pages of major political figures - a policy introduced during the constant war against vandalism to the pages of Tony Blair and George Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Its detractors argue that a similar clampdown on the German-language version of Wikipedia has meant it can now take three weeks to see an edit appear there. In Germany, since last summer, all edits to all pages have had to go through flagging.
"This will drive away newcomers, create a backlog of massive approval queues, cause an exodus of editors opposed to oversight by the WikiBureaucracy of their edits, cause umpteen edit conflicts, create a system of prior restraint, and place a chilling effect on the development of Wikipedia and the greater Project," user Katana0182 wrote in response to Wales.
"This is like assuming bad faith on a massive scale."
How big is the problem really? Reid Priedhorsky, who studies Wikipedia and similar social projects at the University of Minnesota, estimated in a recent paper that the chances of any one visitor seeing a damaged Wikipedia page are about one in 140, as the average time it takes to repair damage is less than three minutes, and even less for heavily tracked pages. However, there are still more than 100,000 damaged pages at any given time, vandalism appears to be on the increase and it is impossible fully to measure the scale of the problem.
"It's the monster in the closet. You know that it has not grown bigger than the closet and busted down the door, but you don't know exactly how big it is in there," Priedhorsky said. However, the most startling fact about Wikipedia remains how accurate it is, not how inaccurate.
"As a researcher, I'm baffled that it works, but Wikipedia is one of the wonderful things that has happened in the 21st century. Many hands make light work. There are millions of people who edit Wikipedia, and many of them track changes to the pages they are interested in. I have 43 pages on my watchlist, for example, covering subjects I know things about. Any controversial edit is likely to be quickly seen by many people."
What opponents fear most from the new "flagged revisions" rule is that it could put off a new generation of writers and editors, slamming this extraordinary global phenomenon into reverse. It's not something that seems to worry Wales, a bookish, bearded guy who presents a Steve Jobs-style face to the world on behalf of the community he founded. He describes himself as "pathologically optimistic".
Wales recalls his wonderment as a child at the World Book that was his first encyclopedia, bought for him from the travelling salesman who showed up at the family home in Huntsville, Alabama, one of the scientific hubs of the US space programme. Born in 1966 to a private-school teacher and a grocery store manager, young "Jimbo" Wales excelled at maths and made a beeline for a lucrative career in finance where, as an options trader in Chicago, he made enough of a fortune to support himself for the rest of his life.
Sensing another pile to be made in California as the dotcom bubble inflated, he headed to Silicon Valley to start Bomis, a company that ran what he euphemistically describes as a "male interest site". This first venture in smut and soft porn was short-lived, though, as he alighted on the idea of creating an online encyclopedia.
Typically, the facts are contentious, as a glance at the interminable history of the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia will attest. Wales shares the credit with Larry Sanger, a website editor who also has an interest in philosophy - but he shares it reluctantly. The two have been involved in a long-running dispute over exactly who came up with the idea for creating a Wikipedia community. Wales sniffily highlights how Sanger was in fact only a hired help, employed by Bomis to work on a professional online encyclopedia called Nupedia, built on the traditional model of editing by experts. Wikipedia was conceived as a way of quickly building Nupedia content - "wiki" is Hawaiian for quick.
Sanger was firmly planted on the accuracy side of Wikipedia's accuracy vs access debate, and he has made it a mission to prove to the world that there is a better way. These days, he is the man behind
, a new Nupedia that's edited by a cadre of academics expert in their subjects, which he launched with fanfare and not a few digs at Wales. But it has failed to take off, and has fewer than 10,000 articles almost two years after launch.
A more credible challenger is Google, whose own effort,
l ("knol" means "a unit of knowledge", the company has decided), is still most useful at the moment as fodder for Silicon Valley jokes. The search engine giant professes itself satisfied with Knol's first six months, however, and it has grown to 100,000 articles in less time than Wikipedia managed.
In an effort to pull itself into contention, Citizendium is trying to muster its users into a "global write-a-thon" tomorrow, while Google Knol is offering a $1,000 cash prize for the best new article written before March.
Even with these efforts, it seems difficult to conceive of any of these other projects eclipsing Wikipedia in the popular imagination, unless the market leader goes into some sort of self-induced meltdown, which is why Jimmy Wales remains a pivotal figure. As a kind of philosopher-in-chief, he continues to dominate the organisation, to steer its debates, to calm its collective neuroses.
Wales is never anything less than a controversial figure. He has batted away allegations from former colleagues that he used Wikipedia as a personal piggy-bank, expensing $300 bottles of wine and trips to Russian massage parlours. He has faced controversy even over his age, with suggestions that he doctored his own Wikipedia entry to knock it down a couple of years (which is why his date of birth requires no fewer than four footnotes).
The battling over his own Wikipedia page reached fever pitch last year as it was revealed that he had been conducting a relationship with a Canadian TV pundit, Rachel Marsden, who first contacted him to get her own Wikipedia entry changed. No sooner had he denied accusations of misusing his editing privileges than the relationship soured in spectacular fashion, with Wales announcing its end on the internet and Marsden putting some of his possessions up for sale on eBay.
Wales is a force of nature kind of guy, travelling the world extolling the virtues of the open-source nature of the Wikipedia project. But one fact, above all, assures his leadership status: he could have got very rich from turning Wikipedia into a traditional media company.
And yet the once-ramshackle Wikimedia Foundation, the charity charged with guarding this great public resource, is edging towards a more professional structure under its ferocious executive director, a former Canadian journalist called Sue Gardner, who has been in situ since 2007. More than a few Silicon Valley gossips have begun to speculate about boardroom in-fighting and about Wales's relationship with the organisation, particularly since bloggers reported delays in having his board seat confirmed at the end of last year.
At the very least, Gardner is trying to impose order on an extraordinary bureaucracy and to put the foundation on a firmer footing so that it doesn't require seat-of-the-pants fundraising efforts from Wales, who fronted an appeal to "keep Wikipedia free" in December that brought in US$6m.
The aim is to keep Wikipedia free of adverts, even though the costs of its hunger for bandwidth are rising exponentially as the site continues to grow and the records of changes lengthen. The foundation's finances are the biggest single threat to Wikipedia, according to Reid Priedhorsky. "A successful community artefact like Wikipedia requires strong buy-in from the community, which I'd wager is much harder to achieve under a for-profit model," he said.
Instead of the nine-person staff crammed into an office in St Petersburg, Florida, which Gardner inherited in 2007, she now employs 23 people in the heart of Silicon Valley. They include lawyers, professional fundraisers and advisers keen to exploit Wikipedia's brand with lucrative new ventures such as real-life book publishing.
The latest development has been to appoint Roger McNamee, a veteran from the tech industry who currently runs the venture capital outfit Elevation Partners along with U2 front-man Bono, to bring more business savvy to the foundation's advisory board.
And, while the Wikimedia Foundation has no formal role in deciding policies within the Wikipedia community, it is watching closely and with trepidation. At today's crossroads, the signposts marked "accuracy" and "access" lead down very different paths. The near-death experiences of Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd do more than confuse the public and distress their loved ones. They tarnish the Wikipedia brand. In monetary terms, "never wrong" is more valuable than "never wrong for long".
Wikipedia: Just what is...?
Big Bird is a full-body Muppet, featured on the children's television show Sesame Street, which airs on PBS. He is sometimes referred to as "Bird" by his friends.
A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship pioneered by the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century, based on designs he had outlined in 1874, designs he had detailed in 1893, and that were reviewed by committee in 1894, which he later patented in 1895.
Coronation Street (colloquially known as Corrie) is an award-winning soap opera created by Tony Warren. It is one of the longest-running television programmes in the United Kingdom, first broadcast on 9 December 1960, made by Granada Television (Granada Productions) and broadcast in all regions of ITV almost throughout its existence. The 7000th episode was broadcast on 28 January 2009.
Battersea Power Station is a defunct coal-fired power station in Battersea, London, that was the first in a series of large coal-fired electrical generating facilities set up in England as part of the introduction of the National Grid power distribution system. The first part of the structure was built in 1939, and the station ceased electricity generation in 1983.
Galoshes (from French: galoches), also known as gumshoes, dickersons, or overshoes, are a type of rubber boot that is slipped over shoes to keep them from getting muddy or wet.
Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 - 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist artist.
Arbroath Victoria (commonly known as Arbroath Vics) are a Scottish junior football club based in Arbroath. They are one of the oldest junior clubs in Scotland, having been formed in 1882.
In the broadest sense, cold fusion is any type of nuclear fusion accomplished without the high temperatures (millions of degrees Celsius) required for thermonuclear fusion. In common usage, "cold fusion" refers more narrowly to a postulated fusion process of unknown mechanism offered to explain a group of experimental results first reported by electrochemists Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton.
Stuff White People Like is a blog satirizing the interests of North American "left-leaning, city-dwelling white folk". The WordPress blog was created in January 2008 by white Canadian Christian Lander, and coauthored with his Filipino Canadian friend Myles Valentin, after Valentin teased Lander about his watching the television series, The Wire.
The Klingon Hamlet (full title: The Tragedy of Khamlet, Son of the Emperor of Qo'nos) was a project to translate William Shakespeare's play Hamlet into the invented language Klingon of the television series Star Trek.
Fex Urbis Lex Orbis is a quotation in Latin. It means 'Scum of the city, law of the world.' It was first said by St. Jerome though is often attributed to Victor Hugo as he quotes it with approval in Les Misérables. The desires and needs of the lowest class of citizens actually determine how the world works by the sheer force of their numbers. The similar words Urbis and Orbis also appear in the phrase Urbi et Orbi.
The Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) is a species of penguin which is found in the South Sandwich Islands, Antarctica, the South Orkneys, South Shetland, South Georgia, Bouvet Island, Balleny and Peter Island. Their name derives from the narrow black band under their heads which makes it appear as if they are wearing black helmets, making them one of the most easily identified types of penguin.
Pierluigi Collina (born 13 February 1960) is an Italian former football referee. He is still involved in football as non-paid consultant to the Italian Football Referees Association (AIA), and is a member of the UEFA Referees Committee. He is regarded as one of the best referees in the world. 
) is a free, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its name is a portmanteau of the word "wiki" (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian "wiki", meaning "fast") and "encyclopedia". Its 12 million articles (2.7 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers worldwide, and almost all can be edited by anyone who can access the website. Launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, it is currently the most popular general reference work on the net.
Yangshupu Road is the name of a station on Shanghai Metro Line 4. It is located at Yangshupu Road and Dalian Road, in the Yangpu District of Shanghai.
The economy of the Republic of the Congo is a mixture of village agriculture and handicrafts, an industrial sector based largely on petroleum extraction, support services, and a government characterized by budget problems and overstaffing. The Congo's growing petroleum sector is by far the country's major revenue earner. In the early 1980s, rapidly rising oil revenues enabled the government to finance large-scale development projects with GDP growth averaging 5 per cent annually, one of the highest rates in Africa.
Christopher Anton Rea (Ree-ah) (born 4 March 1951) is a singer-songwriter from Middlesbrough, England, instantly recognisable for his distinctive, raspy voice. Rea has sold over 30 million albums worldwide.
Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! was a 52-episode animated television series, produced by Collingwood O'Hare and HIT Entertainment, aired from 2003 to 2005, and was part of Cartoon Network's Tickle-U preschool TV programming block in the United States. It is about a bird of paradise named Yoko, an armadillo named Jakamoko, and a monkey named Toto who communicate only by use of each other's names.
Barium oxalate, a barium salt of oxalic acid, is a white odourless powder sometimes used as a green pyrotechnic colorant generally in specialized pyrotechnic compositions containing magnesium.
- THE INDEPENDENT