The Internet encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, celebrates its 20th anniversary on Friday. This website, created and maintained collaboratively by volunteers, aims to expand free access to its information over the next 20 years.
Wikipedia is the seventh most popular website in the world, with more than 55 million articles that are consulted 15 billion times a month. It was founded by Jimmy Wales, an American-British entrepreneur, on 15 January 2001.
Anyone can contribute to an article or edit under the terms of Wikipedia and access to the site is free for all. In practice, about 280,000 volunteer editors work on the site each month.
The organisation has no shareholders or advertisers, so there are no editing limits and the site deals with facts rather than opinions, unlike social networks. Nor is it driven by algorithms and machines, but by human beings from all over the world who choose to contribute to the knowledge community without remuneration.
Wales said it was inspired by collaborative efforts. "I had seen the growth of open source software, free software, and it was obvious to me that you could use the same kind of techniques to build a free encyclopaedia, so I panicked because I thought it was such an obvious idea that other people would do it," said the Wikipedia ideologue, who added that "we were actually probably two years into the project before anyone noticed or cared, so maybe it wasn't so urgent.
At first the website was created in English, but two months later it was launched in German and Swedish. It is currently available in 309 languages.
"That's really what's important, that the billions of people who go online want to participate in Wikipedia, develop their own pool of knowledge, and they're going to trust us to support that work, and that's a big part of what I think the future holds," Wales told AFP in an interview.
Wales set a target in 2006 of having 100,000 Wikipedia entries for each language with more than a million speakers, but acknowledges that the website is at least 20 years away from reaching that goal.
The online encyclopaedia could have made billions over the past two decades, but its founders decided that their mission was not to make a profit, but to enable everyone to share and access knowledge. This makes it an atypical case among those who dominate the Internet today, such as Google and Facebook.
Contributions from non-experts are welcome, which makes Wikipedia different from traditional encyclopaedias. This has led to much debate about content and also to restrictions on updating certain entries.
It has also been criticised for the lack of information on women and developing countries and because most of its volunteers are Western men.