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August 2006

Despite what they tell you, there is not much on the Internet that breaks genuinely new ground; most developments are just new ways of doing old things. However, there are some real innovations, and Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia, (, is one that deserves our attention.

The first thing to understand is that this is not an encyclopaedia like any other; the content is created, verified and edited entirely by the readers, and no one else. That could include you, if you want to take part. Anyone can contribute an article or edit one that is already there. In computer jargon, it is “open-source”; in other words, there are no licences or copyright issues to consider – it is all free and open to us all.

And therein lies the potential flaw; any encyclopaedia receives its reputation from the standing of the publisher and editor, but in Wikipedia’s case, the publisher is just a conduit, and the editors and contributors are self-appointing.

It was launched in 2001, is a non-profit organisation, employs only four people full time and is supported entirely by donations (no advertising), but don’t let that fool you – it is a major Internet event. It already has more than three million entries, on an astonishingly wide range of topics, and if your subject isn’t there, you can write something. Readers view well over 2 billion pages each month, in ten languages. This is a big affair, make no mistake.

Which is all very well, and the momentum it has generated is impressive, but there are some unique problems which, for example, the Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t have.

First there is the possibility of an entry being just being plain wrong, until another user notices and corrects it (if they ever do).

Then there is the risk of vandalism; there has been a spate of deliberate attempts to place insulting material in the entry for George W Bush, for example.

More sinisterly, there is the danger of determined pressure groups deliberately re-writing facts to suit a particular point of view.

Wikipedians (as enthusiasts are called) claim that the sheer weight of numbers using it have proved to be a fairly efficient guard against such nonsense, and the guilty entries don’t last long, but given the massive speed it is growing I doubt that they can keep up with them all.

There is also the risk that the mistake, or lie, is copied elsewhere - it may well be corrected in due course within Wikipedia, but perhaps not before it has been reproduced on another site; there is no copyright on Wikipedia entries, and they are replicated endlessly across the Internet.

Another problem is more prosaic; because of the source of the articles, some of them are appallingly written. In theory, the self editing culture should eventually correct this stylistic problem, but in practise a much edited piece can often become rather confused and disorganised, and can easily deteriorate into little more than a series of disjointed bullet points.

I don’t want to be too negative, as Wikipedia does have much to recommend it, and I refer to it all the time. It is easy and quick to use – no logging on, no advertising to wade through, a clear and simple design, and if you want to you can review the edits that have been made to a page. However, it is important to realise that Wikipedia is just a starting point, and must not be relied upon as an authoritative source of any information. Indeed, one of the co-founders, Jimmy Wales, has specifically warned students not to cite Wikipedia in their research.

He is quite right, but in my view the problem lies with calling it an encyclopaedia in the first place, as the word comes with overtones of fact checking and established scholarship.

Caveat lector, in fact, and remember that if you want authority, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is probably available free through your local library website.

To try it out, you might like to have a go at improving The Oldie’s entry ( I don’t know who put it there, but it’s pretty miserable at the moment, and could do with some gingering up, I think. Click on “edit this page” at the top, and I’ll report back on your efforts in coming months.