How Wikipedia found its place on the internet bookshelf

A DECADE ago if you wanted to check something you probably either turned to your trusted copy of Encyclopedia Britannica, or popped in to your local library.

Now, you're more likely to go online and Google it rather than use a book or a journal. It's funny how quickly the world changes and how quickly we change with it. Just as mobile phones have become as much a part of our everyday lives as say fridges and kettles, so we've become reliant on internet sites like Wikipedia for quick and easy information.

Wikipedia has become an online phenomenon since it was launched a decade ago by internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and American philosopher Larry Sanger, who wanted to create a free online encyclopedia that anyone could edit. In its first year over 20,000 encyclopedia entries were created and since then the site has grown to become one of the top 10 most popular in the world, attracting about 400 million visits a month. It now contains more than 17 million articles in over 270 languages with 3.5 million articles in the English Wikipedia alone.

The fact that Wikipedia, run by a not-for-profit foundation, uses a global web of unpaid volunteers who edit pretty much anything and everything, is quite remarkable. As is the fact that it's still going strong a decade after it started. Olly Mann, internet expert and broadcaster, says it has become part of the online fabric.

"It's the world's biggest online English language database of information and it's been a massive success story, so much so that the company that owns it has had to start fundraising to help run it," he says. "It has become the default place for people to go to find answers to a pub argument and not surprisingly it's become one of the most popular apps – it's like having an Oxford English Dictionary in your pocket."

Wikipedia's egalitarian principles and collaborative approach are commendable, but it means mistakes are made and false information can be posted by those wanting to cause trouble. To counter any malicious postings, teams of volunteers, along with Wikipedia's tiny staff, constantly monitor its articles. Even so, there have been some embarrassing mistakes, including entries reporting the premature death of several notable figures.

Wikipedia can be a good source of information on all manner of subjects, but critics say the level of accuracy varies and often depends on the knowledge of those making an entry. To be fair, Wikipedia itself warns visitors to be wary of citing a single source and encourages them to find other references to support what articles say.

Mann agrees that information should be double-checked. "School teachers are on the alert for information pulled off Wikipedia that they know to be false so it's not a shortcut for pupils. A lot of the pages also appear to have been written by the subjects themselves and that didn't happen 10 years ago. If you went to a reference source you knew it was written impartially, whereas some of the Wikipedia pages read like adverts for people."

Having said that, he believes it is an excellent resource tool. "I think it's made Google really work because it appears on most searches people make and offers something that is theoretically impartial, a bit like the way TripAdvisor works for hotels and restaurants."

Social media expert Alan Stevens believes it's as much about what it represents as what it does. "It's a reflection of the spirit of the internet, it shows what can be achieved through collaboration and that is perhaps what is most important about Wikipedia, rather than whether it is the most accurate source in the world."

Wikipedia mistakes

David Beckham was described, for a short time, as an 18th century Chinese goalkeeper.

In 2006, saboteurs changed Tony Blair's entry claiming he had posters of Adolf Hitler on his bedroom wall as a teenager.

Borat, the fictional character created by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was named as president of Kazakhstan.

During President Obama's post-inaugural lunch, Senator Ted Kennedy suffered a seizure and was taken to hospital. A statement was later released saying the senator was awake and talking to friends, but in the period between his collapse and confirmation that he had recovered, his Wikipedia page was edited to say he had died.