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Research Report by Kim Knight
(created 3/21/06; Updated 8/13/06; version 1.1)

Related Categories: Online Knowledge Bases

Original Object for Study description

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, the content of which is contributed by users. The site describes itself in eleven words stating, “Wikipedia is a neutral and unbiased compilation of notable, verifiable facts.” While articles are not subjected to peer review, per se, the fundamental philosophy behind Wikipedia is similar to many “open” projects in that the expectation is that collaboration results in improvement over time.

Created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in January 2001, Wikipedia is touted as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Wikipedia boasts content available in over 161 languages. The English version is by far the largest with over one million articles (subsequent references to Wikipedia are to the English version) and an enormous user base. As of November 2004 (the most recent statistic available), Wikipedia was averaging over 600,000 visitors per day and in early 2006 it surpassed one million registered users.

Wikipedia was originally conceived of as a sister project to Nupedia, a free online encyclopedia whose articles were written by experts. For its first five days after inception, Wikipedia was run as a feature on the Nupedia site. The original idea was to have the public write entries that would then be reviewed by Nupedia’s experts before being published. The Nupedia Advisory Board, however, was skeptical of the reliability of such a process (an issue that continues to plague Wikipedia) and it was quickly moved off-site and run separately from its sister encyclopedia. When Nupedia closed in 2003, its text was incorporated into Wikipedia. Other related projects that eventually gave way to Wikipedia include Richard Stallman’s GNUpedia. On the other hand, projects such as Encyclopedia Libre and Wikinfo split from Wikipedia for a variety of reasons.

In 2003 the Wikimedia Foundation was approved as a non-profit organization and Wikipedia and its sister projects are now run by the foundation. The Wikipedia name was trademarked in January 2006 and there are currently plans to apply the trademark name to books and DVDs.

Due to its open-source nature, the reliability of the information contained within Wikipedia is an ongoing source of controversy. The open nature of contribution and editing is simultaneously a source of praise and critique (See Resources for Further Study below).

Research Context:
The ubiquitous nature of Wikipedia as a source of information may be of interest to the History of Reading field. In addition to its role as a common source of information for students and the general public, the way in which Wikipedia invites readers to become writers and editors may have implications for collective reading and online communities.

Technical Analysis:
Software and Hardware:
Wikipedia is run using MediaWiki, an open source software developed specifically for Wikipedia and now distributed for free under a GNU GPL.
Mediawiki (not to be confused with Wikimedia, the name of the foundation that runs Wikipedia) utilizes PHP and a mySQL database. This is the third phase of software for Wikipedia.

Currently the site is run on over 100 servers in a multi-tier architecture in four locations around the world.

The original content of Wikipedia is distributed under a GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). Additional content, such as certain images and excerpts from publications, is included under fair use guidelines and remains under copyright protection.

Registration is not required to edit content on Wikipedia, although users must be registered in order to create new articles. Users are encouraged to participate in building the knowledge database in several ways: creating pages, editing articles, wikifying (formatting and adding metadata to existing pages), disambiguating information, cleaning up pages, translating pages, etc. In fact, Wikipedia keeps an ongoing to-do list that users may refer to if they wish to get involved. They need only follow the 16 simple guidelines for content, which include neutral point-of-view, verifiability, respect for copyright, and the injunction that users “BE BOLD!”

The main policy of writing for Wikipedia is the use of neutral point-of-view or NPOV. This is based on Nupedia’s non-bias policy. The Wikipedia Help files define NPOV as follows: “where there are or have been conflicting views, these are fairly presented, but not asserted. All significant points of view are presented, not just the most popular one. It is not asserted that the most popular view or some sort of intermediate view among the different views is the correct one. Readers are left to form their own opinions.”

There are several different types of pages, ranging from blank pages, to stubs awaiting expansion, to full-length articles and articles requiring revision.

Wiki Markup Syntax:
Mediawiki has its own markup language used to format pages. Some of the syntax may be familiar to those accustomed to html (for instance, the code for underlining and strikethroughs looks very similar). However, much of the syntax for formatting is quite different. For instance, section headings are coded with the use of equal signs (ex. ”==New Section Heading==”) and new pages are created by placing the name of the page within double brackets (ex. [[New Page]]).

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
Jimmy Wales describes the goal of Wikipedia as “an effort to create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” The emphasis is on the reader rather than the writer / editor. The most recent statistic of over six hundred thousand daily visitors, in contrast to the one million registered users, suggests that far more people read Wikipedia than actually write or edit articles. In fact, as of January 2005, only around 13,000 of all the registered users for all languages made five or more edits per month, suggesting the gap is larger than it even initially appears.

Given the controversies over the reliability of the articles, this discrepancy is of interest to Transliteracies in terms of the reasons that readers turn to one platform over another. Additionally, Wikipedia’s heavily-hyperlinked organization of information may be of interest in terms of online reading habits related to multiple-reading paths, etc. Finally, the conversion of readers to editors may prove interesting in whether or not a platform like this works to develop a “community” of readers.


  • On August 4, 2006, Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia will be included in the content repository of the laptops that are part of MIT MediaLab’s $100 Laptop project.
  • Resources for Further Study:

    • Cunningham, Ward. “WikiWikiWeb” http://c2.com/cgi/wiki 26 March 2006.
    • Godwin, Mike. MediaWiki Research Report.
    • Miller, Nora. “Wikipedia and the Disappearing Author.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics. 62.1 (Winter 2005): 37 — 40.
    • Waldman, Simon. “Who Knows” The Guardian. 26 October 2004. (there are lots of articles questioning the viability of Wikipedia as a reliable source. I chose to include the one most heavily cited in Wikipedia’s own “criticism” section)
    • Wikimedia. Wikimedia: Meta-Wiki. http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page 27 March 2006.
    • Wikipedia. “Wikipedia.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia 28 March 2006.

    Points for Expansion:
    Possible areas of expansion include a report(s) on the MediaWiki software (see Mike Godwin’s MediaWiki research report, posted 8/13/06) as well as the current Wikipedia sister project WikiBooks, which places textbooks online.

      tl, 03.28.06

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