The "Wikipedia" logo is seen on a tablet screen on Dec. 4, 2012 in Paris
Lionel Bonaventure—AFP/Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
January 15, 2015

These days the real challenge would be finding someone who doesn’t use Wikipedia all the time. But, back in 2003, when TIME first mentioned the word in its pages, the challenge in writing about Wikipedia was explaining what it was.

Wikipedia had launched on Jan. 15, 2001 — that’s 14 years ago Thursday — and contained a mere 150,000 entries when TIME explained that “To contribute to, an online encyclopedia, all you need is Web access.” The 113-word blurb continued:

Wikipedia (“wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word for fast) invites visitors to create new entries or edit existing ones. This may sound like a recipe for chaos–a disclaimer on the site reads, “It is of course possible for biased, out-of-date or incorrect information to be posted.” But since thousands of people review updates and changes every day, false information usually gets corrected.

Still, even two years later, in 2005, it was obvious that not everybody got the point. That was when TIME profiled Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and discovered that many potential users, misunderstanding his product and his role, made a major mistake: they thought that he had written every page. As TIME reported:

…the e-mails that make him laugh out loud come from concerned newcomers who have just discovered they have total freedom to edit just about any Wikipedia entry at the click of a button. Oh my God, they write, you’ve got a major security flaw!

As the old techie saying goes, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Wikipedia is a free open-source encyclopedia, which basically means that anyone can log on and add to or edit it. And they do. It has a stunning 1.5 million entries in 76 languages–and counting. Academics are upset by what they see as info anarchy. (An Encyclopaedia Britannica editor once compared Wikipedia to a public toilet seat because you don’t know who used it last.) Loyal Wikipedians argue that collaboration improves articles over time, just as free open-source software like Linux and Firefox is more robust than for-profit competitors because thousands of amateur programmers get to look at the code and suggest changes. It’s the same principle that New Yorker writer James Surowiecki asserted in his best seller The Wisdom of Crowds: large groups of people are inherently smarter than an élite few.

At that point, Wikipedia’s 1.5 million entries included 500,000 in English.

Today’s article count? On its birthday, the encyclopedia boasts about 4.7 million entries in English alone — and that’s perhaps the only statistic in the world for which citing Wikipedia isn’t, as TIME once put it, a recipe for chaos.

Read more: A Brief History of Wikipedia


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