This Day In History: January 15

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Less than a year after the unsuccessful launch of Nupedia—an online free encyclopedia—its successor, Wikipedia, goes live on January 15, 2001. As of January 2024, Wikipedia has more some 6.8 million articles in more than 300 languages.

Nupedia, which launched in 2000, marked a failed attempt by entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher and internet project developer Lawrence Sanger to create a free online encyclopedia, with peer-reviewed and edited content written by experts. However, Nupedia’s process proved very slow: In the first six months, only two articles were published. Then, along came Wales’ and Sanger’s Wikipedia, which allowed anyone to write an article without review, generating massive growth: The website had more than 20,000 articles in 18 languages by the end of its first year, and a million by 2006.

Wikipedia’s enormous, user-sourced information hub prompted immediate questions about reliability. Comedian Stephen Colbert put it like this: “Wikipedia is the first place I go when I’m looking for knowledge…or when I want to create some.”

In a 2008 appreciation published in The Guardian, author Nicholson Baker wrote: “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It is fact-encirclingly huge, and it is idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking and full of simmering controversies—and it is free, and it is fast.”

Wikipedia started with a volunteer army of editors who worked to keep content aligned with the encyclopedia’s rules—like its golden rule of writing from a neutral point of view. However, online vandalization and dilution of articles remains a persistent problem, leading to hundreds of controversies. Many politicians, governmental entities, religious organizations and public figures have been called out for self-serving edits that seek to whitewash their entries, while bad actors have been flagged for negative attacks. Wikipedia says it attempts to monitor its content by employing software that logs every modification made to a page. In some extreme cases, it has banned IP addresses of sources that were regularly introducing biased edits to articles.

With accuracy a consistent concern, Sanger himself left Wikipedia in 2002 and established a competing online encyclopedia called Citizendium, which says it employs much stricter criteria for article editing.

Wikipedia’s accuracy may not be as bad as some critics say. A 2005 investigation by the journal Nature found that Wikipedia comes close to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., a traditional encyclopedia publisher, in accuracy of science entries. Britannica disputed the Nature study and called it “fatally flawed.”

“Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading,” the Britannica response stated.

Wikipedia’s name came from Sanger, who created the word as a hybrid of the Hawaiian word “wiki,” which means “quick,” and encyclopedia.