Wikipedia is on the bold frontier of open-source information. Free and available online in its entirety, this virtual encyclopedia relies on readers to create and verify its content. Wikipedia is convenient, constantly updated, and easy to use, offering entries you won't find elsewhere. And if you don't find what you want, you can add an entry yourself.
Wikipedia's hands-on nature leaves it vulnerable to vandalism, however, despite the community's efforts at self-policing. The authority of the contributors is also unclear, although the ongoing editing usually creates balanced and detailed entries. Wikipedia is a work in progress, and some sections are still under construction. But if you're looking for a different take on information than what an off-the-shelf program offers, and you seek liberation from software-installation headaches, Wikipedia may fit the bill.
As a completely free online reference source, the nonprofit Wikipedia has an enormous advantage over installed software such as Microsoft Encarta 2006 and Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006. No need to devote chunks of computer memory to the program or fret about interference from antivirus software or firewalls -- you can access Wikipedia from any computer with Internet access.
Designed by and for the tech savvy, Wikipedia's information-jammed pages and plain-Jane design are easy to navigate but may seem less than dazzling for casual users accustomed to colourful, flashy Web pages. Once you reach Wikipedia.org, you can run searches or use Wikipedia's sister projects, such as the Wiktionary dictionary and thesaurus, the Wikibooks collection of editable online manuals and textbooks, the Wikispecies directory of animal and plant species, the Wikisource online source-document site, and the user-created Wikinews. A Wikiquote quotation collection and a Wikijunior children's encyclopedia are under construction.
You can edit and create Wikipedia entries within this interface, which resembles that of a basic text editor.
Wikipedia grew out of the open-source movement, which advocates free, community-constructed software. Thus, volunteers -- even you -- can write the articles after first testing your skills in the self-guided Sandbox section. Each hyperlink-laden article includes a discussion tab for comments and queries, a tab to edit the page, and a tab that displays the history of page edits. You can click to sister sites via icons at the bottom of the page. Thanks to its ease of use, detailed entries, and community spirit, Wikipedia is a favourite resource for bloggers.
Launched in January 2001, Wikipedia boasts a huge content warehouse: more than one million articles in English; more than 300,000 articles each in French, Polish, Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and German; and over 1000 articles in 62 other languages. Wikimedia Commons also offers a bank of more than 800,000 audio, music, image and video files to which readers can upload their relevant media.
User-driven Wikipedia covers topics that more traditional encyclopedias don't.
Wikipedia's readers view several billion pages each month and instantly update news and information worldwide. For example, unlike its disk-bound competitors, Wikipedia had an article on Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers the day of her nomination. Wikipedia also has plenty of historical entries, but its more obscure information sets it apart. After all, you won't find pictures of Carhenge (a Stonehenge-like structure made out of cars) or a biography of Captain Kirk (Starfleet serial number SC 937-0176 CEC), in Encyclopedia Britannica 2006 or Encarta. Wikipedia articles are generally thorough and accurate, and it's a useful and quick tool. Plus, you can chime in with your own details on any subject; contributing and editing aren't limited to credentialed writers. Wikipedia's collaborative nature serves literate DIYers well.
Readers can upload their own media through the Wikimedia Commons page.
Yet the do-it-yourself nature of Wikipedia creates unique problems, such as vandalism -- particularly with controversial topics. Recently, Wikipedia was flooded with phony edits after cable TV comedian Steven Colbert encouraged his viewers to do so. And readers have inserted churlish edits into an article on President George W. Bush. The community of some 500,000 registered "Wikipedians" is supposed to fix such aberrations as soon as possible, and occasionally locks articles from editing to preserve their integrity. Top-notch contributors can become gatekeeping Administrators, who aim to keep content balanced and block disruptive users; however, it's unclear whether they can keep up with the ever-expanding volume of articles. Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, encourages contributors to cite sources for their data -- a process that works surprisingly well. The most heavily edited articles are generally the most accurate.
Because Wikipedia is an ongoing project, it has occasional gaps in coverage. For instance, some words in the Wiktionary have their etymology listed, while others do not. We wonder how many scholars, who already have their hands full contributing to established publications for pay, actually take the time to add their authority to Wikipedia entries. And there are no student-friendly brainstorming tools, such as Encyclopedia Britannica's BrainStormer and Encarta's Visual Browser.
Wikipedia's thorough online help section, accessible through a link on each page, covers the details of navigating, using, and contributing to the encyclopedia. You can also file complaints and report vandalism and copyright infractions online. Wikipedia's support pages have developed organically, reflecting the demands of fellow readers and editors, and are perhaps more useful than the online help pages of software such as Encyclopedia Britannica. Help and Reference desks are available online, and you can research technical and procedural questions at the Village Pump link. One downside is the lack of a phone number to call with tech questions. And while Wikipedia's FAQs and tutorials are useful, prepare to wait any length of time for a posted or e-mailed reply from fellow Wikipedians if you've posted questions to the help desk.