Wikipedia: An Online Collaborative Encyclopedia

Have you dreamed that your words were being read by people around the world? Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com) may just be the project for you. It's a great place to practice your writing skills, while helping to create a valuable, free resource that is available to anyone in the world.

Wikipedia's goal is nothing less than to create a better encyclopedia than the Encyclopedia Britannica. This may seem like a lofty goal, and it may never be attained. However, there are already many articles of comparable depth and quality, and since space is not a limitation online, there are many articles on topics that Britannica doesn't have room for.

The Wikipedia web site is a "wiki," a site whose pages anyone can edit. This is done by browsing to a particular page, and clicking a link called "Edit This Page". This brings up a web form with the contents of the page in it. You can make any additions, corrections or even deletions you like, and then click on a "Save" button, which makes your changes visible to anyone else. This way, everyone is on equal footing, and can make any changes to an article that they see fit.

Although no special syntax is required in order to be productive, there are a few special text sequences that add to the richness of the page. For instance, enclosing a word in two sets of square brackets, like this -- [[Canada]] -- creates a link from the current page to the article entitled "Canada". Articles are generally linked to related articles, which makes it easy for encyclopedia users to broaden their knowledge on a topic. Other characters can be typed to create lists and tables, to add images or Greek letters, and many other features. Those writers familiar with HTML syntax can also use that to mark up a page.

For writers wishing to practice their craft, Wikipedia is an ideal place to spend some time. Every part of the writing process can be practiced: writing outlines for larger topics, writing new articles from scratch, editing articles for style, copyediting articles for spelling or grammar errors, and even discussing content with other writers. Every page is associated with a "Talk" page, in which "Wikipedians" (contributors to Wikipedia) often coordinate the writing or ask for clarifications about a given article. A community has sprung up around Wikipedia, with many animated discussions on the process of building an encyclopedia.

Often one can receive feedback from other users within minutes of posting an article. The key is to take criticism constructively and to forget the concept of ownership of the text. One of the key philosophies of the site is to "be bold in updating pages." Everyone is encouraged to take responsibility for any text, in any article that could use improving. This constant refinement leads to high-quality text in a surprisingly short period of time.

Several special pages on Wikipedia contain lists of pages, including "Most Wanted" (articles that are linked to by other pages, but do not yet exist), "Orphans" (pages that exist, but are not yet linked to), "Most popular" (pages that have been viewed the most times) and "Stub Articles" (very short pages that could use expanding). These lists are helpful for contributors who need help finding a place to start. A stub article could be expanded, or a wanted page could be created. Links to other pages show up in different colors depending on whether or not the page exists.

New articles can be written on any topic that would be suitable in an encyclopedia. As this is written, five articles on the "Recent Changes" list are: Swedish Monarchs, Malcolm X, Mammalia, Red Shift and World War I. If you need an idea for something to write, try writing an article on your hobby, home town or even a plot synopsis of a movie or book. With Wikipedia, you never have to face a blank page, since you can always contribute to something started by someone else.

Articles must be written from the "Neutral Point of View," which means that the writing must be impersonal and non-biased. For those writers wishing to state personal opinions on issues, a "Wikipedia Commentary" section is available. Many controversial issues are written about, however all major theories are presented, and writers do not draw conclusions about matters of opinion. As might be expected, there have been heated debates on such topics as abortion, religion and gun control. There are several "meta" articles (articles about Wikipedia itself) which collectively define Wikipedia's policies on all sorts of issues. These are recommended reading for those wishing to participate fully.

Some people are skeptical that the wiki process actually works at all. Two of the biggest objections include the possibility of vandalism, and the possibility of incorrect information. It certainly is possible that pages can be vandalized, since any Internet user can edit them. However, the system keeps old versions of the pages, so if vandalism is detected, another user can simply revert to an older version of the page. There is a list of "Recent Changes", or most-recently edited pages, which many users habitually scan. The second objection is a little more substantive, but is still not a critical problem. As more and more people read a page, there is a greater chance of an error being detected. Since correcting errors can be done very quickly, the general accuracy of pages increases over time.

The web site itself is owned by Bomis, a "dot-com" web portal and search engine, although they do not own the information, due to the open licensing of the content. Bomis employs Larry Sanger, a recent Philosophy Ph.D. to oversee the Wikipedia project. Sanger guides the overall direction of the project, encouraging people to stay on track. The project was started on January 15, 2001, and after one year, over 22,000 articles have been created. Some are short and very incomplete, but some rival traditional print encyclopedias for length and accuracy. The best part about Wikipedia is that it is growing all the time, both in quality and quantity. A positive feedback cycle helps to ensure that Wikipedia continues to improve: as more articles get written, more people come to the site. A certain percentage of those people will contribute to articles, or create new ones.

It should be noted that all material added to Wikipedia is released under the GNU Free Documentation License (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/fdl.html), which gives other people the right to copy, distribute and modify the information. All writing is done on a volunteer, uncredited basis. Wikipedia is endorsed by the Free Software Foundation, a group which promotes free (non-proprietary) computer software and information.

If you happen to be looking for a fun and potentially addictive way of doing some stress-free writing, head over to http://www.wikipedia.com and write an article or two. See you there!

Copyright © 2002 Mark Jeays. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.