Wikipedia turns 10 today. The popular site that is threatening the very existence of a library in your area has completed 10 years of online service.
The free collaborative encyclopedia’s growth over the last decade into the fifth most visited Internet site in the world, of course, indicates how much more it’s become than that.
Wikipedia, run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation of San Francisco, has matured into the closest thing to a global corpus of all human knowledge (other than, perhaps, the somewhat less tidily organized Internet itself).
“It compiles almost everything and the thing that’s really interesting about Wikipedia now is, it can influence the world it seeks to document,” said Joseph Reagle, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.” “It’s not just this passive thing that sits on the shelves.”
In November, nearly 411 million people around the globe visited Wikipedia sites, up 18 percent from a year earlier, according to comScore Inc. It features some 17 million articles in 270 languages.
And all before reaching its teens.
From the early days, the hope of Wikipedia’s founders had been that tapping into the collective wisdom of humanity, by allowing anyone to contribute and edit articles, would over time add up to the most complete, impartial and accurate information source around.
Zealots and pranksters have done their level best to undermine the theory over the years, inserting everything from subtly misleading shadings to egregious falsehoods. But several studies have concluded that Wikipedia’s overall accuracy nearly matches that of print encyclopedias, including a 2005 report in the journal Nature that found it just shy of the standard bearer, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which disputed the results).
Still, some whoppers have slipped through.
In 2005, an anonymous contributor wrote that John Seigenthaler Sr., an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was suspected in his assassination and that of his brother, President John Kennedy. The then 78-year-old assailed Wikipedia in a USA Today op-ed piece, saying that only one line was true in his online biography that sat uncontested for 132 days.
“I was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s,” Seigenthaler wrote. “I also was his pallbearer.”
Wikipedia has continually altered its rules and guidelines over the years to prevent these sorts of problems, including: emphasizing neutral points of view, pushing for links to original sources like studies or news articles, providing tools to flag articles that lack proper documentation and granting the most reliable editors additional rights to review material before it’s published.
Collectively, the tweaks have helped boost usage by assuaging early concerns that information anyone could submit or change – regardless of expertise or agenda – would inevitably be flawed, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
“It’s not like they wholesale trust everything they encounter, but it’s served their needs often enough and reliably enough so that they don’t recoil from it by default,” he said.
Indeed, as of May, 42 percent of all U.S. adults (or 53 percent of adult Internet users) used Wikipedia to look up information, an increase from 25 percent in February 2007, according to a Pew survey. That makes it more popular than instant messaging. For Internet users with at least a college degree, the number jumps to 69 percent.
Yet another hint of Wikipedia’s influence are the more than 400 events (and counting, as of press time) scheduled to celebrate its 10th anniversary today around the globe. They’ll be located as far away as Kathmandu and as close as The Chronicle’s own building.
So what’s the plan for the next 10 years?
In a conference call with journalists earlier this week, co-founder Jimmy Wales and Executive Director Sue Gardner said the goal is to expand the breadth of topics and diversity of voices on the site.
As it is, more than 80 percent of contributors are male, the average age falls in the late 20s, and the most thoroughly covered subjects involve science and technology. In 2011 and beyond, they want to reach out to more women, older people, experts in the arts and humanities, and less-represented geographic areas like South America, South Asia and the Arab world.
Wikimedia plans to open a small office in India in the coming months and may eventually do the same in Brazil and the Middle East. In addition, it has been launching partnerships on U.S. college campuses to fill in other gaps, including asking humanities professors to assign students to write fully sourced articles for the site.
“They’re doing it anyway; they like doing it and they really find it appealing to have a huge audience for their work,” Gardner said.
Meanwhile, more than half the volunteers to be so-called campus ambassadors for Wikipedia have been women.
The efforts to increase diversity will be backed by the $16 million Wikimedia pulled in through a 50-day fundraising drive at the end of last year, nearly double the amount it raised in 2009.
“We love our core editing community; they’re amazing, brilliant, educated people and Wikipedia wouldn’t exist without them,” Gardner said. “Having said that, we aspire for Wikipedia to contain the sum total of world knowledge.”
“The more people who edit it, the better it becomes.”