Before I reached the age of ten, my father bought for my family a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a purchase I imagine he hoped would push forth our quest for knowledge. Twenty years later, I am one of many online collaborators who contribute to the English Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia. True, many of my contributions are extraordinarily minor, but it is still a bit of improvement that can be appreciated by any user.

Wiki? Wikipedia?
The term ‘Wiki’ comes to us from Hawaii, where it is part of what is known as “pidgin English,” meaning “quick” or “informal.” The English Wikipedia is presently one of the more popular wikis and by far the most popular language for the Wikipedia, with over 600,000 articles available for viewing / editing. The term wiki can also refer to the software that runs the wiki, such as mediawiki, the open source software that runs the English Wikipedia.

Wikis and Open Source Software
I think that years from now when a formal history of wikis are written, it will be obligatory to mention open source software. I don’t think that wikis would exist today were it not for open source software. For one, I am pretty sure that just about every piece of wiki software that presently exists is open source. More importantly, the very notion of collaborative editing was most likely inspired, to some extent, by open source software.

The concept of open source software is that anyone can modify the source code of a program and therefore improve it, remove bugs, or add features that other developers might not have thought of. Similarly, a person can write a very well thought out article about Will Ferrell, but inadvertently put the wrong year for a film. Another person can then come along and, spotting the error, change the year to be correct. It is of course possible for someone to come along and write that Will Ferrell is in fact the inventor of Parcheesi I will address this point later in the article.

Using the Wikipedia
The first thing you encounter when loading the English Wikipedia is the front page, on which you will find a broad overview of the Wikipedia. I specifically refer to the English Wikipedia because it is the one that I use the most often. Wikipedias are available in 195 languages with 92 being active. The format of other Wikipedias is similar but not the same as the English Wikipedia. You will notice that wherever you go, you are reminded that Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia. The top of the front page features a welcome message, informing you of how many articles are presently available, and a brief category index along with a few other index formats.

There is a section labeled “Today’s featured article,” which is one of my favorite parts of the Wikipedia. Every day, a different article is featured and briefly described, enticing you to click on the full article for more information. This section alone is the reason I visit the Wikipedia every day. One thing is that it is always nice to see something featured that I am actively interested in – such as when they featured the character of Link from “The Legend of Zelda” series of games that have been available for almost every game system made by Nintendo. Sometimes it is even more enjoyable when the featured article is something I know absolutely nothing about, such as Myxobolus cerebralis, a parasite.

A similarly enticing section is right below it, offering select anniversaries for the current date. For example, June 28 was the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles as well as the Stonewall Riots in New York. Whether there is a connection between the two events is certainly up to you, the reader, to decide. The fact that June 28th is also one of two dates that exist that are composed only of perfect numbers might also be related. You can also find out birthdays and death days for selected people. This is an easy way to discover that Mel Brooks, Gilda Radner, Kathy Bates, John Cusack, and Henry VIII were all born on the same day. Again, any connection is up for you to form.

If all of this was not enough to make you want to regularly visit, there is the “Did you know” section, which asks every day questions that challenge your knowledge of trivia and history. For example, did you know that Kentucky State University is the smallest public university in Kentucky? This probably will never impact your life but there are new questions every day, ready to get you thinking about the history of water skiing, or the longest and widest avenue in the city of Washington, D.C.

If this is still not enough, consider the current events section. I find the current events section to cover a much wider area of news than your average news site, and as with all things wiki, it can be fixed or updated by anyone. You can therefore find out about current events, sometimes even while the events are taking place. There is also a link to Wikinews, a news source which combines other news sources to produce single articles from a neutral point of view.

Potential Problems with Collaboritive Editing
By this point you may have already thought of one of the biggest potential problems with allowing anyone to edit or rewrite articles on the English Wikipedia. How can you avoid mean-spirited or agenda driven people who seek to destroy content? People who are not fond of the television program Charmed might want to go to the article and write unkind words about it. However, one of the ideas of the Wikipedia is to be free from non-neutral point-of-view content. With as many people as there are that work on keeping the Wikipedia running, all strictly volunteer, most all vandalism is immediately spotted and removed. When there is a recurring problem, steps are taken to prevent further vandalism, such as the banning of ip addresses.

The expression “You learn something new every day” is relevant in so many different ways to the Wikipedia and all of the other wikis that it links to. More than just allowing free access to important knowledge, the Wikipedia pushes forth the possibilities of what can be accomplished through good spirited collaboration. If you have not yet visited the English Wikipedia (or if you prefer, the Wikipedia of your preferred language) you should certainly do so now.