Wikipedia’s Rival, And What It Teaches Us About Expanding Human Knowledge

As many of you know, I am a big fan of, and regular contributor to, Wikipedia. I love it as much for its immense breadth information as for its ambitious mission to help make the entirely of human knowledge accessible to all. But I also absolutely love another website with a similarly audacious goal; the only encyclopedia that actually gives Wikipedia a run for its money when it comes to being an accessible and reliable source: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spanning almost 1,500 entries, the SEP manages a respectable one million views a month, which as Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad notes, is quite an achievement, “given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs.” According to the American Library Association, it is “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print. And did I mention that it is free?

Most crucially, the SEP has managed to accomplish the one thing that Wikipedia struggles with most of all: being a consistent and reliable source on all the topics it covers (although in fairness, Wikipedia spans a lot more pages and materials — close to five million in its English edition alone). Continue reading

When Brazil Briefly Became a Leading Naval Power

Wikipedia’s latest Featured Article highlights an unusual episode of the early 20th century: Brazil’s acquisition of two of the largest and most cutting-edge battleships in the world: the Minas Geraes and São Paulo (former pictured).

Brazil was only the third country, after the U.K. and the U.S., to have the revolutionary “dreadnought” class (called the Minas Geraes class in Brazil) — ahead of major powers like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Its high profile purchase not only reflected the country’s growing wealth and prestige, but its aspirations of becoming a respected world power.

The ships were an international media sensation, not only for their power and sophistication, but out of surprise that Brazil, of all places, should come to possess them. (In fact, it was initially widely speculated that Brazil was only purchasing the ships on behalf of another power, with each major power pointing fingers at one another as the true buyer.) Upon their completion and delivery in 1910, the U.S. and other powers began courting Brazil as a potential ally, no doubt giving the country the sort of national pride that had partly motivated this move.

This event sparked another lesser known event in the 20th century: the great South American dreadnought race, wherein rivals Argentina and Chile — among the richest and most powerful countries in Latin America — worked to acquire powerful battleships of their own (other participants included Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Like Brazil, each country acquired two powerful dreadnoughts of their own, but ultimately these behemoths would remain as white elephants: symbolically impressive, by strategically unnecessary. After seeing little action, all the ships built in the race would end up being sold or scrapped by the mid-20th century — but not without giving their respective countries a significant, though costly, boost in global prestige and status.

Wikipedia

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia 

Most of my friends know me to be a very strong “wiki aficionado”, to put it lightly. I’m quite obsessed with the site, and I lose countless hours traversing its seemingly endless sum of information, ranging from the mundane and obscure, to the profound and fundamental. I’ll freely admit that “wiki-ing” is basically a hobby of mine, and I credit this unique and wonderful site with teaching me a lot, or at least pointing me to the right place to do so. Despite popular belief, most articles have references and external links to relevant sources, and those that are sufficiently cited are identified as such to readers; also, pages with a bronze star at the upper-right corner are indicated as high-quality by the site’s actually employees.
 
In any case, my love for Wikipedia is almost certainly unsurprising. I’m a knowledge junkie after all, so any site that can give me full and easy access to almost any topic imaginable is a godsend (needless to say, I have a Wiki App on my iPod touch to facilitate constant learning).  
 
In fact, I was a true believer in the site from the very beginning, back when it was an upstart that was largely disregarded by most of the public, especially those in academia, who derided it as inaccurate and unreliable. At best, it was a fun little curiosity or something to pass the time with. Throughout my college studies, I recall having an increasing number of professors explicitly forbid the use of Wikipedia as a source, and from what I hear, that position has only become more prevalent, to the extent that such a warning is now codified in most class syllabi. Of course, most people still utilized it anyway, opting to simply fact check its claims from conventional sources, or clicking on its linked references.
 
Granted, Wikipedia was certainly not the most dependable source out there, especially in the early years when supervision was lax and vandalism – or mere human error – was subsequently common (if not exaggerated in its extent). But there wasn’t anything else like it that was online or as accessible – and there still isn’t. For all its flaws, Wikipedia was the only source of its kind – an aggregate of as much human knowledge as possible, covering realms of data ranging from pop culture to metaphysics.
 
I knew Wikipedia wasn’t perfect (and still isn’t, despite vast improvements). But I also knew that such an ambitious project would, like any other, take a lot of time and work to see fruition. If not yet taken seriously as a source, it at least deserved some respect and support as an idea. As its founder’s quote attests, a world where human beings, with their increasing access to the web, can have near-universal access to everything we know is a beautiful one that must be promoted. Long-term users like me will notice that Wikipedia has come a long way, and deserves all the help it can get to continue improving.
 
The site has managed to become the 5th most visited on the web, with close to 500 million visitors and billions of page views monthly – all that popular dismissal notwithstanding (I suspect even critics give it a glance once in a while). Few people have never seen a Wiki entry, and doing any sort of Google search almost always lists one among the top recommendations. The site has managed to grow enough to encompass 283 languages and close to 20 million articles – all this with only 679 serves and 95 staff (for comparison, Google has a million servers and Yahoo has around 13,000 employees).
 
This is all the more impressive given that the entire project is a non-profit, dependent upon donations to sustain it: there is no fee or subscription, nor is there any advertising. The absence of these things makes the site more conducive to learning, yet leaves it without a revenue stream – hence the periodic fund drives that request contributions for the bare minimum of keeping operations going.
 
I honestly used to ignore the banners at the top of each page pleading for donations. I can’t say I had a good reason to, given my enjoyment of the site and my presumed inclination for charitable causes. But I made amends and decided to finally give what I could to a project that is dear to me. I know all this sounds like a propaganda piece, but I sincerely ask that readers to do their part and give what they can. As this blog attests, I’m passionate about the dispersal of knowledge and the advancing of human progress through education. Wikipedia has its work cut out for it, but at least its making a step in the right direction.