Many young people today cannot imagine a world without Wikipedia, the online reference for just about anything. On (or near) its birthday I thought I’d retrace its history—both interesting and controversial.
Its origins date back to 2000. It was an offshoot of Nupedia, a project for the creation of a free online encyclopedia whose entries were written by volunteer experts through a formal process of review. Behind Nupedia were founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. An American businessman born in 1966, Wales was among the pioneers of the internet thanks to Bomis, a music search portal started in the mid-1990s. Today he is the front man of the site. An American philosopher born in 1968, Sanger was hired by Wales at Bomis as managing editor of Nupedia. In January 2001 he proposed the creation of a “wiki” system to support the dynamic development of online articles.
The name “Wikipedia” comes from a portmanteau word that combines the Hawaiian “wiki,” which means “fast” with “pedia,” the suffix of “encyclopedia.” You can pronounce it any way you want. According to Wikipedia itself, the correct pronunciation in Italian would be “vikipedia.” However, there are so many pronunciations: “uikipèdia,” “uikipìdia,” “uikipedìa,” “vikipedìa,” “vikipèdia,” “vikipìdia,” “vaikipìdia” ed “uaikipìdia.”
The system underlying Wikipedia is simple and revolutionary at the same time. It is totally open, there is no central editorial office, and anyone can contribute to any article. There is no control from above: users themselves check each other, correcting any errors found.
This freedom has created some curious phenomena. There is no lack of crazy or fun people (depending on your perspective) who file false data to mislead readers. One of the best known is Shane Fitzgerald, a sociology student from Dublin University. On the day tha French composer, Maurice Jarre, died, Shane included in his Wikipedia entry an invented song. He said he was testing how our increasingly internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news. Shane’s quote was immediately picked up by major web sites and newspapers in the United States, Britain, Australia, and India, including the Times and the Guardian in London. A month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets in an e-mail, and the corrections began.
Not everything is open on Wikipedia. Some items are protected when there are “edit wars,” or when two or more users edit a page continuously, inputting data in opposition to each other.
Wikipedia today has a total of 37 million articles in 300 languages. The most curious is Tsèhèsenèstsestòtse, the Cheyenne language which now has 578 articles despite only 2000 speakers. There are also artificial languages: Esperanto, Volapuk, and Ido.
The Italian version started very soon after the English version, in May of 2001. According to Wikipedia, it is the ninth country in number of entries with 1,247,072 pages. The first entries were devoted to communication and to the fathers of Italian literature: Dante, Petrarch, and Manzioni.