Wikipedia founder gazes into site's future

With close to 1.3 million English-language articles, is there any limit to the number of entries online free encyclopedia Wikipedia will offer? Jimmy Wales, the project's founder, believes there may be, as he encourages contributors to focus more on entry quality than quantity.

"We've always had a love/hate relationship with numbers," Wales said in an interview Friday at Wikimania, an annual conference for users of wiki projects, including Wikipedia, a Web site that anyone can add to or edit. Wikimania was held at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While offering a caveat that in 10 years his prediction might be laughably out of whack, Wales said the English version of Wikipedia might be starting to reach its limit, perhaps eventually topping out at 2 million or 3 million articles.

"How many entries can there be in the world, one for every person?" Wales asked. "That's about 6 billion." It would be impossible to verify that number of entries, he said, and that's not really the encyclopedia's mission. "The central thing [about Wikipedia] is that it's the sum of all human knowledge, not all knowledge," Wales added.

At the same time, it's up to the Wikipedia community how fine a level of detail they want in the listings, he said. For instance, might certain groups want to put up biographies for the members of local county councils? It's all a matter of what's relevant to readers.

While the French, German and Japanese versions of Wikipedia already have hundreds of thousands of articles, other language versions of the encyclopedia still need to focus on bulking up their numbers of entries so they really can function as encyclopedias, Wales said.

The criticism Wikipedia has attracted in relation to the accuracy of its content has sometimes been misguided, in his opinion. "It turns out a lot of people don't get it," Wales said. "Wikipedia is like rock-'n'-roll; it's a cultural shift."

The "older generation," not necessarily in age, but in their sense of how online communities function, might be disturbed by some of the Internet vandalism that occurs on the Wikipedia site, Wales said. For example, the brief substitution of a picture of the devil for a photo of U.S. President George Bush might outrage them, but be something that "younger" or more Internet-savvy folk take in stride and dismiss.

"Typically, these things happen every single day on Wikipedia," Wales said, and the community tries to act as quickly as it can to rectify site vandalism or erroneous information.

Not many famous or semi-famous people can resist checking themselves out on Wikipedia and perhaps editing their own biographies.

Wales gave the example of rock star Lou Reed who corrected the middle name given on his biography. When Reed returned to the entry, his own correction had been "reverted" -- Wikipedian parlance for an edit that reverses a change made by someone else. Reed had anonymously changed his entry, so another contributor fixed what they saw as an error.

Having his own article on Wikipedia, Wales said he's particularly "sensitive" to the issue of living persons' biographies. He was incensed about a really harmless change to his biography where a contributor, for reasons best known to themselves, had added a sentence saying "Jimmy enjoys playing chess with his friends."

While the entry was plausible, Wales doesn't play chess. He said the addition was one more indication of the need for verifiable sources for stated facts.

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