Vol. 5 Num 786 Sat. August 12, 2006  


New frontier of info online

Since its creation in 2001, the free interactive encyclopedia called Wikipedia ( has rapidly grown into the largest reference website on the Internet. On January 23, 2003 it reached 100,000 articles, and since then, the article bank has crossed 3,800,000 mark, with over 1,308,310 English articles alone. And it is growing at a dizzying pace. This rate of growth has been progressively increasing: as of August 2005, the average growth rate now exceeds 1500 articles per day in the English version alone, and over 5000 articles per day across the entire project. And the word is still only slowly getting out.

Recently, the story of Wikipedia was featured on the New York Times. "On March 1st, Wikipedia, hit the million-articles mark, with an entry on Jordanhill, a railway station in suburban Glasgow. Its author, Ewan MacDonald, posted a single sentence about the station at 11 P.M., local time; over the next twenty-four hours, the entry was edited more than four hundred times, by dozens of people. (Jordanhill happens to be the "1029th busiest station in the United Kingdom"; it "no longer has a staffed ticket counter.")

The Encyclopedia Britannica, which for more than two centuries has been considered the gold standard for reference works, has only a hundred and twenty thousand entries in its most comprehensive edition. Apparently, no traditional encyclopedia has ever suspected that someone might wonder about Sudoku or about prostitution in China. Or, for that matter, about Capgras delusion (the unnerving sensation that an impostor is sitting in for a close relative), the Boston molasses disaster, the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, Bill Gates's house, the forty-five-minute Anglo-Zanzibar War, or Islam in Iceland.

Wikipedia includes fine entries on Kafka and the War of the Spanish Succession, and also a complete guide to the ships of the US Navy, a definition of Philadelphia cheese steak, a masterly page on Scrabble, a list of historical cats (celebrity cats, a cat millionaire, the first feline to circumnavigate Australia), a survey of invented expletives in fiction ("bippie," "cakesniffer", "furgle"), instructions for curing hiccups, and an article that describes, with schematic diagrams, how to build a stove from a discarded soda can."

Because Wikipedia is an ongoing work to which in principle anybody can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in some very important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles may still contain significant misinformation, non-encyclopaedic content, or attempts to sabotage. Users need to be aware of this in order to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation which has been recently added and not yet removed. However, unlike a paper reference source, Wikipedia is completely up-to-date, with articles on topical events being created or updated within a few minutes round the clock, rather than months or years for printed encyclopedias.

Wikipedia's neutral point of view policy makes it an excellent place to gain a quick understanding of controversial topics. Want a good overview of the Arab-Israeli conflict but only have 10 minutes to spare? Wondering what all the fuss is about in Kashmir or what the pro/con arguments are about stem cell research? Wikipedia is a great place to start. Wikipedia is not paper, and that is a good thing because articles are not strictly limited in size as they are with paper encyclopedias. Articles seem to be getting steadily more polished and seem to have a tendency of getting gradually better and better, particularly if there is a person working on an article with reasonable regularity (in that case, others have a tendency to help). There are some articles we can all point to that started out their lives mediocre at best and are now at least somewhat better than mediocre. Now suppose this project lasts for many years and attracts many more people, as seems perfectly reasonable to assume. Then how could the articles not be burnished to a scintillating lustre?

Currently, the English Wikipedia alone had over 1,308,442 articles of any length, and the combined Wikipedia for all other languages greatly exceeded the English Wikipedia in size, giving a combined total of more than 1438 million words in 4.6 million articles in over 200 languages. The English Wikipedia alone has over 511 million words, more than ten times as many as the next largest English-language encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and more than the enormous 119-volume Spanish-language Encyclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana, 70 percent of the volumes of which haven't been updated since 1933.

The largest encyclopedia ever produced is possibly Yung-Lo Ta-Tien, completed in 1407 in 11,095 books. These books were small by modern standards; the work was twelve times the size of the 20 million word French Encyclopédie, giving a total of 240 million words, or 21,600 words per book, although it is unclear if that is how it differs from the Encyclopédie in size. It is also unclear if it is twelve times larger than the original 28-volume version of the Encyclopédie completed in 1772 or the 35-volume version completed in 1780. Yung-Lo Ta-Tien was a collection of excerpts and entire existing works, rather than an original work. Only two copies were made and all that survives is a small fraction of one copy.

In 2005 the English-language Wikipedia more than doubled in size, and the rate of multiplying for many smaller wikipedias is higher.

Wikipedia has certain advantages over other reference works. Being web-based and having a very large number of active writers and editors, it provides fast coverage of many topics and provides hyper linking, unavailable in slower media. Also, it often provides access to subject matter that is otherwise inaccessible in non-native languages. Since English Wikipedia editors come from all around the world, the relative lack of non-Western topics found in many Western publications is significantly less noticeable on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is still in need of much expansion and improvement. Many of the articles are of poor quality and some mainstream encyclopedia topics are not covered adequately. Over time the balance of the editorial effort is expected to slowly tilt towards a greater emphasis on increasing the quality, scope, classification and inter-linkage of existing articles. However new articles will probably always be created in large numbers, as Wikipedia's conventions on acceptable article topics incorporate a huge number of potential new articles every year (newly prominent people, current events, media products etc). In mid 2006, the rate of new article creation is still rising, but only slowly. In terms of percentage the rate of article growth is falling.

At a rate of four hundred words a minute, twenty four hours a day, a person could read nearly twenty million words in a month. In July of 2006, Wikipedia grew by over thirty million words. In other words, a fast reader could never catch up with Wikipedia's new content. Reading the current incarnation at that rate would take over two years, and by the time they were done, so much would have changed with the parts they had already read would have to be reread all over again.

Is Wikipedia accurate? The free online resource Wikipedia is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopedia Britannica, a study showed last year. The British journal Nature examined a range of scientific entries on both works of reference and found few differences in accuracy. Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales said he would consider Britannica a competitor, "Except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within five years."

Source:New Yorker, Wikipedia