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The known unknowns

Could more knowledge be a dangerous thing? We’ll look up Wikipedia and tell you.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2011 21:39 IST

While navigating online for information, Wiki-pedia is for many the first resort. Whether it is a student seeking to firm up her essays with basic information, an individual trawling the links at the end of a Wiki entry for wider resource, a trivia buff sho-ring up her base or even one seeking material to plagiarise, the paths of all noble and ignoble seekers of information unite here. It explains the popularity of this online encyclopaedia: around 325 million regular visitors, the fifth most-popular site, with displays in around 250 languages — as it completes its tenth year today, marrying the primitive human desire to know with the mores of technology that allows collaborative, real-time editing.

Wikipedia’s democratic approach — that “anyone can edit”— remains its biggest enigma. “Anyone” might imply pitting an amateur against a professional, and with entries being filed under assumed monikers, an anonymous IP add-ress, the veracity or reliability of the information remains questionable. ‘It only works in practice…in theory it can never work’, Wikipedia’s founders are known to have commented. But then such is the wonder of its “grand humanitarian mission”, it attracts do-gooders who are willing to check for facts, edit and weed out inaccuracies, contribute their own two-bits to develop ‘stubs’ into full-grown articles — all this for the sake of a common good without a thought for those crass human failings like money or ambition. That is not to say that Wikipedia does not have its own inbuilt system of checks and balances. It stores records of all changes that are made to an article.

Wiki faithfuls in India, too, now have a reason to rejoice, with the organisation planning to open its first overseas office in India this year as part of its emphasis on countries of the South. It remains non-profit, relying on donations, with the latest drive by co-founder Jimmy Wales having notched up $16 million. Mr Wales has also expressed his desire to expand the base of contributors, including more women and others inhibited by the technical know-how. Wikipedia is often credited as an important political and cultural player. If the fact that it has only 3.5 million articles in English out of its total 17 million articles is seen as an index of declining Anglophone dominance in the world of ideas, the day will not be far when you will be checking into a Swahili or Polish Wiki-page to know what the world is thinking.