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Wikipedia is a multilingual, open content, collaboratively developed encyclopedia that is managed and operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. As of June 2003, it covers a wide range of subjects and has over 138,500 articles in English (by its own count). It also has over 75,000 articles in other languages.

The project started in English on January 15, 2001, and later projects were started to build Wikipedia in other languages.

Table of contents

Essential characteristics

There are three essential characteristics of the Wikipedia project, which together define its niche on the World Wide Web:

  1. It is, or aims to become, an encyclopedia.
  2. It is a wiki, in that (with a few exceptions) it can be edited by anyone.
  3. It is open content, and uses the copyleft GNU Free Documentation License.

Wikipedia, like Nupedia (another free encyclopedia project), is supported by free software exponent Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation; Stallman articulated the usefulness of a "free universal encyclopedia" before Wikipedia and Nupedia were founded.

There are some drawbacks of the wide open nature of Wikipedia. For example, in articles on topics that are unfamiliar to most of the contributors, the accuracy and neutrality are questionable. Some participants of wikipedia argue that their experience has shown that over time these drawbacks will be reduced, as the quality and balance of individual articles improves.

Another drawback is that many edits are made by people who have no intention of making useful contributions, but instead add nonsense like "fdghhjk", or other unencyclopedic content. This is often described as "vandalism". Although the open nature of the project enables this activity, it also works against it. Every contributor has the ability to undo, or revert, such edits whenever they occur. If this becomes too much work, a page can sometimes be "protected", so that only administrators can edit the page. However, this is not usually necessary.


Wikipedia's participants commonly follow, and enforce, a few basic policies that seem essential to keeping the project running smoothly and productively. The following are just a few of those policies; for more information, please see Wikipedia:Policies and guidelines.

First, because there are a huge variety of participants of all ideologies, and from around the world, Wikipedia is committed to making its articles as unbiased as possible. The aim is not to write articles from a single objective point of view -- this is a common misunderstanding of the policy -- but rather, to fairly and sympathetically present all views on an issue. See neutral point of view page for further explanation, and for a very lengthy discussion. Also see Meta-Wikipedia, which includes discussions on neutrality, points of view, technical issues and Wikipedia philosophy.

Second, there are a number of article naming conventions.

Third, Wikipedians use "talk" pages to discuss changes to the text, rather than discussing the changes within the text itself. See the page about talk pages as well as the editing policy page. Concerns which seem to span many articles may require a more general treatment at Meta-Wikipedia.

Fourth, there are a number of kinds of entries which are generally discouraged, because they do not, strictly speaking, constitute encyclopedia articles. For example Wikipedia entries are not dictionary definitions, nor discussion groups. See what Wikipedia is not for more information.

Fifth, there are a variety of rules that have been proposed and which have varying amounts of support within the Wikipedia community. The most widely supported rule is: "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business." It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that the wiki is as well-disciplined and good-natured as it is. See the policies and guidelines page for more information.


Wikipedia has been built by thousands of volunteer scholars, hobbyists, students, and generally knowledgeable people from around the world who happened to show up at the website and who, seeing the activity and the ease of article-creation, chose to donate some of their knowledge. Participants in the project are called Wikipedians. Numbers of participants have dramatically increased since its inception, and the number of highly educated participants is growing as well.

There is no editor-in-chief per se. The two people who founded Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales (CEO of the small Internet company Bomis, Inc.) and Larry Sanger, like to think of themselves as participants who are charged with seeing to it that the project does not stray from the path on which it is already travelling.

For the first years (and a few months) of Wikipedia's existence, Larry was a paid employee. His job was to oversee Wikipedia (and Nupedia); with the advice of everyone, it was his responsibility to make final, fair decisions on issues where community consensus could not be reached. Funding ran out for his position, leading to his resignation.

Jimmy and Wikipedians as a whole have taken over some of Larry's former responsibilities. Other current and past Bomis employees who have done some work on the encyclopedia include Tim Shell, one of the co-founders of Bomis, as well as programmers Jason Richey and Toan Vo.


Wikipedia has been in continuous operation since January 10, 2001. See History of Wikipedia for more.

Software and hardware

The particular version of wiki software that originally ran Wikipedia was UseModWiki, written by Clifford Adams ("Phase I"). In January 2002, Wikipedia began running on PHP wiki software, which used an underlying MySQL database, added many features and was specifically written for the Wikipedia project by Magnus Manske ("Phase II"). After a while, the site started to slow down to an extent where editing became almost impossible; several rounds of modifications to the software provided only temporary relief. Then Lee Daniel Crocker rewrote the software from scratch; the new version, a major improvement, has been running since July 2002 ("Phase III"). Brion Vibber has since taken the lead in fixing bugs and tuning the database for performance.

The project runs on a dedicated server, located in San Diego. This server is responsible for all language Wikipedias and the mailing lists. It is a dual CPU Athlon 1700+ with 2 GB of RAM, running Red Hat Linux and the web server Apache.


The idea to collect all of the world's knowledge within arm's reach under a single roof goes back to the ancient Library of Alexandria and Pergamon.

The early Muslim compilations of knowledge in the middle ages, included many comprehensive works, and much development of what we now call scientific method, historical method[?] and citation. Notable works include Fakhr al-Din Razi[?]'s encyclopedia of science, the Mutazilite Al-Kindi[?]'s prolific output of 270 books, and Ibn Sina's medical encyclopedia, which was a standard reference work for centuries. Also notable are works of universal history (or sociology) from Asharites al-Tabri[?], al-Masudi[?], al-Athir[?], and Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqadimmah contains cautions regarding trust in written records that remain wholly applicable today. These people had an incalculable influence on methods of research and editing, due in part to the Islamic practice of isnah which emphasized fidelity to written record, checking sources, and skeptical inquiry.

However, these works were rarely available to more than specialists: they were expensive, and written for those extending knowledge rather than (with some exceptions in medicine) using it. The modern idea of the general purpose widely distributed printed encyclopedia goes back to just a little before Denis Diderot and the 18th century encyclopedists. Major university libraries can be seen as museums of monumental encyclopedic endeavors in various countries. Frequently found titles are the English Encyclopędia Britannica, the Spanish Enciclopedia Universal Illustrada[?], the German Meyer's Konversationslexikon and Brockhaus. See encyclopedia for more information.

The idea to use automated machinery beyond the printing press to build a more useful encyclopedia can be traced to H. G. Wells' short story of a World Brain (1937) and Vannevar Bush's future vision of the microfilm based Memex, As We May Think (1945). An important milestone along this path is also Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu (1960).

With the development of the Internet, many people attempted to develop online encyclopedia projects. See History of Internet encyclopedia projects.

Similar projects

Wikipedia has been occasionally compared to the following collaborative online projects:

  • Wiktionary, a free dictionary project.
  • Nupedia, a slow moving project to produce a free peer reviewed encyclopedia.
  • Everything2 has a wider range and does not exclusively focus on building an encyclopedia; its contents are not available under a copyleft license.
  • H2G2, a collection of sometimes humorous encyclopedia articles, based on an idea from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Articles are also not freely modifiable.
  • Disinfopedia, a project to expose propaganda and paid spin doctors
  • Consumerium, a project to provide consumers with product information and increase the power of the consumer in a market economy.

Downloading the database

If you wish to do something with our open content that cannot best be done right here, you may at any time download a nearly-current version of the entire article database to do as you wish with it, within terms of the GFDL. See Wikipedia:Database download.

See also: Encyclopedia, Britannica, Microsoft Encarta, Japanese Wikipedia

If you wish to become a Wikipedian, please take a look at our Welcome to newcomers.

External links

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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