I was born in the 1940s, long before the Internet came into being to supply information. For someone like me, who loved to read and wanted information about everything, there was a means. Door-to-door salesmen walked the neighborhoods, selling encyclopedias: Britannica, Compton’s, World Book, Funk & Wagnalls. I was lucky enough that my parents wanted me to have access to information and bought a set of Compton’s, which I assume was the cheapest since my parents were cotton-mill workers. Oh, the wonderful hours I spent poring over every volume in that set. I still like to learn about new things. Today I use the World Wide Web over the Internet. Specifically, I use the web site Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia. You can find it at http://wikipedia.org. There are two amazing things about Wikipedia. First, it is free. Second, it is written by us, the public. Anyone can contribute an article on any subject or edit information that is already published on the web site.
You would think that this would lead to volumes of inaccurate or intentionally misleading information, but it doesn’t, at least not for mainstream topics such as medicine, history, arts, computers, technology, and others. Here’s why: Wikipedia, like other wiki sites on the web (there are many) is based on software named wiki by its author. That software allows one to edit a wiki site web page directly through a web browser (any browser, such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer). For every active wiki site on the Internet, there develops a community of users that contribute and edit the information. They take pride in accuracy and completeness. Many strive for a “neutral point of view,” Wikipedia’s guiding principle. The community won’t let inaccurate and misleading information added by a user remain posted for long. In research to write this article, I came across a challenge to anyone who doubts this. The author suggested that you add intentionally inaccurate information to any mainstream Wikipedia topic and monitor your posting. He predicted that within 10 minutes a Wikipedia community member would correct it.
You may wonder what this wiki software is. Wiki was invented by Ward Cunningham in 1995. The word “wiki” is Hawaiian for quick and Cunningham was looking for a word to call his software that conveyed how quickly web pages could be created and edited with it. He published the first wiki web site, for computer programmers to collaborate, at http://wiki.c2.com. It’s still there, although active editing stopped in 2015. Editing directly on the web is exactly the collaboration that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned when he invented the World Wide Web in 1991. Berners-Lee’s first simple browser included editing capability. He did not have the time, however, to produce a full-featured browser. When Marc Andreessen wrote the first one, Mosaic (later Netscape), he focused on publishing, not collaboration.
Wikipedia is the largest wiki ever. The English language version has over five million articles, on virtually any topic you could want information about. Over 1,200 volunteer administrators keep watch over Wikipedia. On December 2, 2016, the Wikipedia site showed about 125,000 “active users,” defined as users who had made an edit to a article in the past 30 days.
Several studies of the accuracy of Wikipedia’s entries have been made. For mainstream topics such as medicine and technology, those studies have found Wikipedia to be as accurate as other encyclopedias. Even schools and universities are beginning to accept Wikipedia as accurate enough to cite. In any event, every Wikipedia page has citations at the bottom so you can double-check the information if you need to. All in all, Wikipedia is a good starting point to learn about any topic.