Wikipedia is described as 'a multilingual project to create a complete and accurate Open Content encyclopedia', written by volunteers. It has been in operation since January 2001 and as of October 2005 contained more than 750,000 articles in English and over a million in other languages.
Unlike in traditional publishing, Wikipedia has no central control. There are no official Editors and Sub-editors. Each volunteer writer has the ability to edit and rewrite anything they see on the site. All such rewrites are immediately on view. There is no need even to register with the site before editing, and no page is protected. For people used to normal Internet sites, this concept is mind-blowing!
The word Wiki Wiki, or just Wiki, is used for both the content and the software that control such a hypertext document. A number of sites on the Internet use Wiki as the basis of their operation. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia project using Wiki.
The operation of Wikipedia is based on the principle of 'anarchy'. The term is being used here in a political sense, and is not derogatory. Each person does exactly what they want. If you see something on the site you don't like, you don't complain to anybody, you just go in there and change it yourself.
Wikipedia content is 'open content', a term coined by analogy with 'open source software'. Anything you write can be modified by anybody else. All content is donated to the site, and is published under a GNU Free Documentation Licence, which means that readers can copy Wikipedia content, change it, and redistribute it, as long as they grant the same freedom to others using their version and that they acknowledge Wikipedia as the source. This is very different from the sort of copyright situation which exists with h2g2 and most other Intellectual Property.
All changes to the Wikipedia system are recorded, so it is always possible to view previous versions and go back to them if necessary. The list of recent changes is monitored closely by Wikipedians (as they like to be known). This prevents attacks on the encyclopedia from anonymous flamers or cranks with their own agenda. There's nothing to stop them putting rubbish in the articles, but other Wikipedians will quickly remove it.
There are very few house rules. There is a small group of administrators, with the power to block contributions from particular IP addresses, and with the power to permanently delete articles, but their services are rarely called upon. The content of the site is not determined by them: it is determined by consensus.
Conversation and Discussion
Wikipedia does not encourage chatting. It is not a vehicle for conversation, and lacks the elaborate conversation system of h2g2.
Discussion is possible, by appending a text page to an article and typing comments into it; but this is reserved for discussion of the content of the articles. Most writers don't bother discussing - they just go straight in and change things as they see fit.
How Could Such a System Ever Work?
Most people are incredulous when they hear the details of the Wikipedia system. How could it work? What's to stop vandals from destroying the encyclopedia by deleting or rewriting? How are determined cranks kept out? How can we trust anything we read?
All of these criticisms are answered by Wikipedians. Their motto is: 'Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow.' If one writer puts in outrageous material, another will change it. Writers are encouraged to adopt a neutral viewpoint. So if, for example, somebody puts in a statement that 'Evolution is a pack of lies' and that the world was created in 4,004 BC by Almighty God, other writers are encouraged to leave this view in the encyclopedia, but to report it as the view of a minority, and to put it alongside alternative views. When all views are in the encyclopedia, people with strong views are less likely to object to the content.
The system does seem to work. The encyclopedia is growing, and it is of fairly consistently good quality. There's even an article in Wikipedia on h2g2, which will give you a flavour of the style of Wikipedia entries. There are huge holes in its coverage, but they will fill up over time.
Some Nifty Features
Any term in an article can be marked by a writer as a link, by simply putting square brackets around it like this: [[term]]. If there is an article of that name already in the encyclopedia, this automatically produces a link to it, which is displayed in blue. If there is no article of that name, a link is still produced, this time in red. This link points to an input screen where any reader can then write an article on that subject and submit it. Holes in the encyclopedia can thus be quickly identified and filled.
Most of Wikipedia is written in plain text, with a minimum of formatting. Text features, such as bold and italic, can be produced using simple mark-up controls:
Two apostrophes on either side of a phrase puts it in italics.
Three apostrophes on either side of a phrase puts it in bold.
Asterisks at the start of a line are converted into bullet points.
It is possible, in addition, to use HTML tags, such as <SUP> and </SUP> for superscript text.
Pictures can be uploaded to Wikipedia using an on-site form, on condition that they are not copyright. They may be old pictures no longer covered by copyright, or they may be your own work, in which case you donate them to the site. An image can then be displayed within an article.
Can I Trust It?
One of the major criticisms levelled against Wikipedia is that it is not possible to trust anything in it, because it could have been put there by someone who doesn't know what they are talking about. Although there are volunteers who check new content, they may not have looked at the article yet, or they may not know enough about the topic to spot errors.
Probably the best reply to this particular criticism is that you should be wary of accepting as gospel anything you read on the Internet, even it if is presented by a reputable agency such as the BBC or Encyclopædia Britannica. All encyclopedias have errors and bias in them, so you should always check your facts by reference to other sources.
Wikipedia is certainly a good starting-point for finding out information, which you can then check against other sources. But it has to be said that the quality of information in Wikipedia at present is certainly not at the level of, say, Encyclopædia Britannica, where you can be reasonably sure that all the facts, spellings, and grammar have been checked to a high standard.
It should also be mentioned that there might be some Wikipedia site content that is not suitable for children.
Isn't It All Rather Dull and Boring?
Because Wikipedia encourages factual reporting rather than wild flights of fancy, the encyclopedia has a very 'dry' flavour, particularly when compared with h2g2. This doesn't necessarily make it boring, though. There's a lot of good information, and there can be great excitement when a reader sees a gap in the coverage of the encyclopedia, thinks 'I know that!' and decides to write something.
Only time will tell whether this worthy project will succeed.