On January 15, 2001, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia, a collaborative Internet-based encyclopedia which is edited and written by the Internet community. Wikipedia is an immensely popular general reference site and the largest such site. Though the English version is the most popular, Wikipedia is available in many languages.
Most of the earlier encyclopedias of the world were print-based and in 1993, Microsoft published its CD-ROM based encyclopedia – Encarta. In 2000, an English web-based encyclopedia Nupedia was launched by Bomis, a web-advertising firm owned by Jimmy Wales, Tim Shell, and Michael E. Davis. Nupedia needed volunteer contributors to write content, which would be checked by the editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger. Contributions were scarce and Wales and Sanger were worried about its growth. Ben Kovitz, a programmer added the idea of using a Wiki (a web collaboration). Wikipedia was built in as a feeder for Nupedia but the other editors and reviewers were unhappy about associating the wiki-based site with Nupedia. Sanger suggested giving the project its own name and domain and on January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was officially launched. A number of Bomis employees contributed to growing its content and Wikipedia used the Bomis servers and bandwidth to start with. Wikipedia grew rapidly in the first year of its launch. The site developed in many other foreign languages as well. In May 2001, Wikipedia was launched in Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, Esperanto, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. By the end of the year, Wikipedia also launched Afrikaans, Arabic, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian versions.
The Wikimedia Foundation or WMF is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that now owns the Wikipedia web-domain. In 2006, the WMF had five employees and a revenue of about $2.7 million. By 2012, this grew to about 140 employees and a revenue of $38 million (sourced mostly from donations the world over). The WMF does not, however, manage or edit content. This function is left with the community attracting much criticism. “The site has won praise for its range and depth, as well as its ability to find and fix errors. But it has also faced criticism over self-policing policies that leave quality control largely in the hands of the community at large, rather than selected experts.” – Wired magazine
Plagiarism, vandalism, and inaccuracies have been the biggest challenges faced by Wikipedia since inception. In the early years, the site was plagued by users editing articles to add crude/vulgar language and inaccurate and contentious information – usually to the biographical pages. In 2005, a user had added a number of inaccurate details to the biography of senior American journalist John Seigenthaler and this remained undetected for about 4 months. When this was detected, Wikipedia implemented a number of policies and editorial checks targeted at verifying edits and ascertaining the factual information on its pages. In 2005, the Nature Magazine conducted a study comparing over 42 articles from Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica. The articles covered a wide spectrum of topics and were reviewed by experts. The reviewers concluded that an average Wikipedia entry contained four errors or omissions while Encyclopedia Britannica contained three such errors or omissions. These findings were later disputed by Britannica.
Wikipedia is currently one of the largest reference sources used around the globe. As of December 2013, Wikipedia features more than 30.4 million articles in about 287 languages. These have been contributed by about 43 million registered users and a number of other anonymous users. With about 85 million unique visitors from the US alone each month (470 million unique monthly visitors worldwide as of February 2012), the website showcases some 4.4 million pages in English. Alexa Internet reports say that Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website worldwide. The online encyclopedia currently has over 71,000 active editors and a total of 20,343,497 accounts including 1,423 administrators (December 2013). Apart from its importance as a research reference site, Wikipedia is quick growing into a dominant force on the Internet. The website shut services on January 18, 2012, as a mark of its protest against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and the PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) affecting at least 100 million English-speaking users of the website.
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