Who's behind Wikipedia?

Computerworld takes you on an in-depth look at the world’s largest and most celebrated open encyclopedia – Wikipedia

In January 2001 the English language version of Wikipedia opened for business, and was quickly followed by versions in French, German, Catalan and Swedish. Over the past seven years it has grown to include over 250 language editions with more than eight million articles, almost a quarter of which are in English. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia is the world's largest ever encyclopedia. Thanks to the GNU Free Documentation License that covers all Wikipedia content, it is also the most open and free. But just who is behind Wikipedia, and how does it work? Computerworld recently spoke to Brianna Laugher, a Wikipedia editor and 2008 linux.conf.au presenter of the 'Who's behind Wikipedia?' talk. Laugher was also a speaker atthe 2007 international Wikimedia conference, Wikimania.

What is Wikipedia?

It's a wiki - a term which defines a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content. Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is one of the world's top ten most visited Web sites, created by a community of editors that anybody can join. It is hosted and managed by the Wikimedia Foundation -- an American-based non profit organization.

"It's an encyclopedia, so that is the rule that is used to define what is appropriate content for it and what is not," Laugher said.

What Wikipedia is not is an almanac of absolutely anything that anybody can put in about whatever they like. Which is why the Wikimedia Foundation created numerous sister projects, such as Wiktionary and Wikibooks, to incorporate the huge volume of non encyclopedic content.

It is free to read, free of advertising, and free to join the Wikipedia community to edit and contribute articles.

"But it's really free in a much deeper sense; free as in freedom not as in beer. In that you can use it and reuse it however you like," Laugher said.

"You could make up your own little book full of Wikipedia articles and sell it, and that is totally accepted. You could start up your own version of Wikipedia and that would be fine too, as long as you are following the terms of the copyleft process."

Copyright means the author reserves all rights and control over a work. Copyleft works in reverse - it means the author uses the law to share and give those rights to anyone provided any resulting copies or adaptations are similarly bound by the copyleft practice.

"This means you have to offer all the people that you release the work to the same rights that you have, so that means once a work becomes free it can never become unfree after that. That is a really powerful mechanism," Laugher said.

"The idea of freedom to use and reuse as you like, freedom to modify and change, are things that are very important to Wikipedia and its success."

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