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Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia Go To College

As governments and universities around the world take a more active interest in Wikipedia's accuracy and reach, Wales talks about his site's new status. "I'm not sure if we are becoming a default 'official' source of information" he tells us, "but we are certainly the first port of call for hundreds of millions of people already."

Wikipedia keychain

Wikipedia has evolved from the hobby of amateur enthusiasts to a fully financed priority of academics and government agencies looking to improve what is quickly becoming the world’s first source of information. Just last month, the United States National Archives announced a "Wikipedian In Residence," a full-time liaison to the Wikipedia community. Weeks earlier, the Association for Psychological Sciences put out a PSA calling on all academics to assume editing Wikipedia was part of their regular intellectual duties.

Cofounder Jimmy Wales approaches the growing success with a bit of modesty. "I'm not sure if we are becoming a default 'official' source of information" he tells Fast Company, "but we are certainly the first port of call for hundreds of millions of people already."

With growing exposure, Wales and the Wikimedia organization felt the need to keep pace with the blinding speed of scientific innovation. "There are a great many areas of human knowledge which are currently underrepresented in Wikipedia, and we want to change that," he says. One such solution was a $1.2 million grant and 32-university-strong partnership to bring entries, especially ones on public policy, up to academic standards. Wales says the project is just wrapping up, complete with a comprehensive evaluation system based on neutrality, accuracy, and topic coverage.

The debate over Wikipedia's accuracy is as old as the website itself. Some of the most recent evidence argues that Wikipedia is a reliable source of information on precisely the kinds of public policy and political issues that the grant was most concerned with improving.

One of the most thorough sources for evidence on the website's reliability is, ironically, Wikipedia itself (there's even a mind-twisting meta-debate over whether the article on reliability is reliable). Appropriately enough, Wikipedia also maintains a running entry on "Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia."

The obsessive self-evaluation and academic outreach is beginning to win over Wikipedia's toughest critics: professors. "I was categorically against my students using it altogether. I would explain that there are simply better, more trustworthy places to find information," Professor Peter Shulman told US New & World Report. "Now, I'm more open to what Wikipedia offers. Saying it's off-limits won't stop students from using it, so I've switched to helping students understand when it's useful and when it's not."

Wales adamantly maintains that Wikipedia—or any encyclopedia—should never be more than a jumping-off point. Becoming a primary source of information is "just not the role of the encyclopedia in the research process. When I was in University I would have been marked down— properly—if I had referenced the Encyclopedia Britannica."

The singular importance of an accurate starting point inspired the U.S. National Archives to appoint an official "Wikipedian in Residence," to help disseminate facts about American cultural heritage throughout the sprawling online encyclopedia and to polish up existing content. Dominic McDevitt-Parks, the recent graduate student hired for the job, is a self-described "history buff, a word nerd, a news junkie," and raves that "Wikipedia is the ultimate public history project, probably the most ambitious and successful one ever created."

As a long-time contributor, McDevitt-Parks is hoping that the Wikipedia community’s seemingly limitless energy can help transcribe the Archive's massive original document warehouse.

For as scientifically precise as Wikipedia aims to be, it seems as though Wikipedia was born out of a leap of faith in human nature. In response to a question about how his personal philosophy impacted Wikipedia, Wales says, "I think most people are basically decent. I'm a trusting sort of person." He continues, "The influence on Wikipedia should be obvious, I suppose: What kind of lunatic opens a website and asks everyone to edit it, and imagines it will turn into something useful?"

Half-jokingly, he concludes, "A very trusting sort of lunatic, I suppose."

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[Image: Flickr user bastique]