Wikipedia has reached the respectable age of a decade and a half, but it has always been old enough to know better. It’s so old that the names of its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, no longer inspire instant recall. So old that its fundraisers, originally pushed to acts of desperation to stave off collapse, now collect millions of dollars. Having lived through strange perils like an obsession with the scolding “citation required” tag, and the question of whether the Bengali Wikipedia should use the Indian or Bangladeshi flavour of the language, the site is the world’s only non-profit that is an industry leader. But most importantly, this astonishing experiment in public trust and faith in humanity, free to take from, free to contribute to, has concentrated and ordered the sum of human knowledge in a generally reliable manner. Don’t trust the biographies too much, though.
The structure of Wikipedia owes much to the thought of free software pioneer Richard Stallman, who had improved upon earlier proposals for online encyclopedias by suggesting that editing should be distributed, with no individual or entity in charge. Like the internet itself, founding documents and agreed upon protocols should be the arbiters of processes. In a world accustomed to trusting only top-down structures that vest ownership and accountability at the apex, public acceptance of Wikipedia was a remarkable act of trust.
Wikipedia has particularly benefited the people of less fortunate nations, providing them with free access to quality peer-reviewed knowledge. In the backwaters of the knowledge economy, it has literally opened the doors of perception. No wonder, then, that its birthday is being celebrated in 13 Indian centres, including small towns like Puri and Sangrur. They are far from the mainstream, but services like Wikipedia have put them in the fast lane of the information superhighway.
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