The sky's the limit

At a hotel in Frankfurt, the guardians of the largest information resource on earth have been planning how to use their vast reservoir of knowledge to educate the world. Peter Munro reports
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They gathered at an inauspicious hostel in Frankfurt this month for the first international Wikimania conference. Among the bespectacled "missionaries" is Theo Clarke, a 47-year-old management consultant from Ipswich, sitting with a laptop resting on his stomach. As his computer provides updates of the second Test between England and Australia, he preaches that Wikipedia has solved the search for knowledge. "Already it makes no sense to run a quiz competition because you can go to Wikipedia and get all the answers," he says. "It's everything we're ever going to need to know."

In less than five years Wikipedia has become one of the web's greatest success stories. The online encyclopedia and its sister projects, including Wikiquote, record 60 million hits a day and have amassed more than 2.2 million entries in 120 languages - making Wikipedia the most detailed collection of information in history.

Wiki, from the Hawaiian "wiki wiki" for "quick and informal", has thrust open the library doors to let the geeks in. Anyone with a computer can change, or delete, the 660,000 entries on the English Wikipedia site or add one of the 1,250 new entries each day.

Along the way, perhaps because of its unrivalled success, Wikipedia has become a repository for the ideals of the internet - those dreams of free, accessible information and global conversation that seemed to go bust along with the boom. But it has also become a target for vandals and detractors, some of whom have been banned from contributing.

In April, as white smoke was still curling from the roof of the Vatican, an anonymous user of the English Wikipedia briefly replaced the image of Pope Benedict XVI with one of the evil emperor from Star Wars. His black hoody, pointy teeth and prune face would have shocked even the most dedicated Catholic. But Jimmy Wales, who co-founded Wikipedia in 2001, insists such mischief does not shake his faith.

"Such pranks are a little disappointing, but given how insane the whole idea is in the first place - that you could let anybody edit any page - it's a miracle that so little vandalism goes on."

The incident, however, has forced him to consider "freezing" certain entries once they have been checked and approved. Entries for controversial figures, such as the Pope and President George W Bush, may also be subject to a 10-minute time delay to stop pranks before they can go live.

Wales sits at the top of the Wikipedia world as its benevolent dictator or "God King", although he prefers to be thought of as a ceremonial monarch. His mission is: "to create and give away a freely licensed encyclopedia for every person on the planet in their own language" by 2015. And his gaze has turned to the developing world.

On his 39th birthday in Frankfurt, about 400 of his acolytes made plans to build sites in Arabic, Hindi and Bengali. They sparked schemes to use the open, editable Wiki software and weblogs to prop up reformist groups in Iran and to spur political dialogue in China. There are plans to improve the eight active sites in African languages and to fund new computers for universities. For people in rural areas in the south of the continent, where there are few computers, 10,000 Wikipedia entries are being prepared for distribution in printed, bound form.

The German Wikipedia team, who have already transferred entries to DVDs and CDs, arranged for an "on demand" publisher to produce a compilation of articles about Frankfurt a few days before Wikimania. Other projects include an online atlas drafted by members of the public and a Wikipedian school curriculum.

Such grand plans for the developing world are admirable and, given the success of Wikipedia, perhaps attainable. But at least one speaker at Wikimania, who wants to install computers at food markets women in Uganda to use, is bemused by the look of the leaders of this new internet order.

Before him sit members of Wikipedia's core community of contributors and administrators - some of whom volunteer more than 30 hours a week correcting entries. They also police the sites with the power to delete entries or block users from editing - for crimes from anti-Semitismto unruly behaviour. If the world were edited in their image we would all be short-sighted, sport sporadic facial hair and argue about software over lunch.

Clarke wrote his first article last year on a black American baseball player. Andreas Praefcke, 31, a bookseller from southern Germany, has used Wikipedia for up to six hours a day for 14 months and is most proud of his entry on a German monk who was infamous for cracking jokes about Adam and Eve. "I have stopped watching TV so the important news I get from the 'What's New' button on the Wikipedia site," he says. He then pauses to reflect. "That's a stupid thing to do, I think."

One of the few females in Frankfurt is Phoebe Ayers, a 24-year-old assistant librarian from Seattle, who wrote her first entry about the history of jewellery after several years of selling necklaces and rings at street markets. She is researching why internet users increasingly go to Wikipedia.

In small surveys, English Wikipedians say they refer to the site for "incidental and casual information" - the why is the sky blue type of trivia. For more important facts, say for an assignment for school or work, they still turn to a book.

Wales is busy simplifying the Wiki software to encourage a broader range of contributors. "One concern I have is the problem of systemic bias. We're trying to be neutral but sometimes you have a blind spot because we're all just a bunch of computer geeks."

Leon Weber, 14, was annointed as the youngest of Wikipedia's administrators this year after spending several months correcting entries on the German site. Wearing an oversized cap on top of his undersized body, he travelled alone to Frankfurt from his home town of Ottendorf-Okrilla, which was the subject of his first Wikipedia entry last year.

"Anyone can use Wikipedia, it is so easy. I use it to do school assignments," he says.

The Wikipedia world order depends on the concept that continual correction and eventual consensus will produce perfection. Secondary sources must be cited for each statement, but mistakes are often overlooked.

Wales recommends against relying on his own Wikipedia entry for fear of inaccuracy, but insists that his recent profile in Time magazine contains more errors. Wikipedia's God-King is increasingly turning over the onus on improving the order of his online world to administrators such as Weber - who has a simple approach to fact-checking.

"If I see someone is publishing shit, maybe by swearing or not making sense, I warn him," he says. "The second time he turns on, I block him."