The Net is full of communally built information destinations. These are sites like the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com/), TV.com (www.tv.com/), Epinions (www.epinions.com/), and the Compact Disc Database (www.gracenote.com/music/) where anyone can add to the phenomenal collections of resources (movie ratings and writeups, consumer product reviews, and CD track lists, respectively) being built. I've discussed these before and use them all quite often—in the case of the IMDb and TV.com an average of several times a day, Gracenote every time I import a CD for the iPod using iTunes, and Epinions whenever I investigate a possible purchase. (Sadly, it's not as well-populated with data as I'd like, but it's still always worth a glance before whipping out my wallet.)
But there's one huge resource I haven't bothered talking about, even though I've known about it for quite some time. I don't visit it very often simply because it's so sticky. (I tend to hang around there for a long time, unlike the above sites where I look up something specific and go away.) It's called Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org/), a virtual encyclopedia with about 1.2 million articles in English and entries edging toward mid–six figures for nine other languages. Wiki (according to Wikipedia) is derived from the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, denoting something quick or fast. As used on-line, a Wiki site is one where users can easily add, remove, or edit content without having to go through the trouble of building Web pages—they just type things directly into it. Accordingly, it's grown quickly. Amazon's Alexa Internet places it among the top 20 visited Web sites, while Nielsen NetRatings ranks it as the third most popular news and information site.
Obviously it's much more than just an encyclopedia, given the widespread public interest. Wikipedia combines features of a news portal, a community hangout, and a powerful search engine, in addition to browsing-oriented subject areas. There are even 14 alternative-categorization schemes, including Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress class, historical year, and so forth. Basically, the information within is sliced, diced, and accessed almost any way you could imagine. And naturally, within each article are hyperlinks to other articles—even dates and years are linked to lists of events. Once you get started, you can spend a lot of time at this site. Wikipedia is one of the most impressive realizations of the hypertext dreams of Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson. (See, now you have two things to look up there.)
The joy of research is one reason you might visit, but so is the thrill of contributing. You could drop by right now and contribute a biography of your dog—Dr. Woofs—if you wanted. Nobody would stop you. And probably nobody else would come along and change what you'd written, not unless Dr. Woofs bit another Wikipedian who was then motivated to record that. However, if President Bush happened bite you, or Christina Aguilera, you'd be out of luck—they're two of some 250 topics on Wikipedia that, according to recent reports, have been protected from full open-access alteration, due to continual infighting by warring contributors.
It's easy to understand why the president might attract some controversy, but Aguilera? I guess that means that her old nemesis Britney Spears must have a lot of spare time since her own career ended. Anyway, there has been a bit of controversy over Wikipedia's decision to imposing these limits—the death of free speech, and all that—although these restrictions don't seem that bad to me. Most of the articles in question are only “semi-protected”, which means that only people who have been members for at least four days can alter them, and the protection status is lifted after the controversies fade a bit.
We're talking about a pretty microscopic percentage of the total information located on Wikipedia, and it's not like the Internet doesn't offer plenty of room for alternative viewpoints to be expressed elsewhere. At some point the right of people to offer opposing opinions at the extremes of an issue (and the proclivity for some folks to be argumentative merely for the fun of stirring up some drama) needs to be reined in so that Wikipedia can become a better and more reliable reference site, not just a home to the same old squabbles you can find on Usenet and blogs.
And besides, when the Wikipedia model works (as it clearly doesn't with some controversial subjects), it can be very, very good. The core group of approximately 1,000 volunteer administrators and the tens of thousands of other contributors have built a very useful collection of data. I often encounter entries through Google searches and usually find clear and concise summary reports—exactly the sort of thing you hope to find in an encyclopedia. And you can't beat the speed at which topics are added or updated—it's almost like stuff gets invented just to be explained there.
True, it is somewhat skewed toward pop culture, but on the other hand, where else are you going to find a thorough examination of the society of enthusiasts who keep the 1998 automobile-racing simulation Grand Prix Legends viable, complete with documentation, links to the major modification packs, and references to the more than 500 tracks they're re-created for it (including Coquitlam's vanished Westwood)? Maybe you could cobble that vital information together from 30 or 40 different sites, but a bunch of somebodies have already done it for you. And if you noticed they've missed something, well, it's your turn to help out.