What is the Wikipedia?

Posted By BrokenClaw on June 30, 2008

The Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia built on user-generated content. As an encyclopedia, its scope goes well beyond the traditional 30-volume set of books. Because it is updated in real time, the Wikipedia contains a wealth of information on current events, popular culture, and ever-changing technology. For example, when Barry Bonds broke the career home run record, it was immediately updated on his entry and on Hank Aaron’s entry before the game was over. When David Cook was named the 2008 winner of American Idol, it was immediately posted in the Wikipedia article.

The most unique feature of the Wikipedia is its method of growth: any user on the Internet, including you, can add material to the Wikipedia, using a web technology known as a wiki.

The origin of that term, wiki, is from the Hawaiian word which means fast or quick. Its intention is to convey that this type of online data can be edited quickly. There are many websites which now use the wiki format in place of a forum.

It may sound like Wikipedia would get trashed by a lot of false information. The theory is that so many people view and edit the articles, that people with expertise immediately correct any misinformation. However, there certainly has been an ongoing problem with articles written about people, where political and personal views can skew the tone of the article or prompt people to vandalize the article with misinformation. As a result, articles about living persons are probably the least accurate topics on the Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia has a backbone of standard encyclopedic data, with scientific articles about plants and animals and the usual things you’d find in an encyclopedia. It also has almanac-type information, so it is a good place to look up things like geographic names and places. For example, practically every community and municipality in the US has an entry. Typically, a resident of the community will expand the article beyond the normal census data.

It is no surprise that the Wikipedia attracts a lot of contributors from the technology, scientific, and mathematics fields, which makes it a good place to read about those topics.

It is important to know that the Wikipedia, by its nature, is not considered to be a citable source for academic research. In other words, it’s a good place to read about something, to learn about something, to find an answer to a trivia question, but it is not acceptable in legitimate research to cite it as a reference. However, most articles in Wikipedia cite their own references, and it is up to the reader or researcher to judge the validity of those references.

Unlike other encyclopedias, content on the Wikipedia is covered under a Free Documentation License. That is to say, anyone can use the content with few restrictions. It is interesting to note that content from the Wikipedia shows up in published articles all the time. For example, when a news story is written about a person or place unfamiliar to most readers, the writer of the article will often include a sentence or two of explanation, sometimes taken verbatim from the Wikipedia.


In March, 2009, Microsoft announced that it would be discontinuing their Encarta software products. Launched in 1993, Encarta was the most successful of the digital encyclopedias. Microsoft licensed content from several publishers, including Funk & Wagnalls and Colliers, to create their digital encyclopedia. Microsoft’s ability to adapt to changing technology — CDs, DVDs, multimedia presentations, online subscriptions, free software packages, etc. — helped it stay ahead of the competition from other publishers like Encyclpedia Britannica and World Book. Nevertheless, the evolution of the Internet, and the availability of a wide range of free data sources — not the least of which is the Wikipedia — eventually spelled the end for Encarta.


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