Internet juggernaut Wikipedia turns 16 this week, and it’s a website that’s truly come of age. Launched Jan. 15, 2001, Wikipedia is the fifth-most visited site worldwide and the sixth most-popular website in the United States, according to Alexa. (Page one search results on Google can’t hurt.)
Founders Jimmy Wales and Lawrence Sanger initially conceived Wikipedia as a side project to an online encyclopedia called Nupedia. The concept for Nupedia was to create a free web encyclopedia featuring peer-reviewed articles written by experts. It was a great but time-consuming idea, with articles taking months to reach publication. As a quicker alternative, Sanger pitched the idea of an online encyclopedia anyone could edit using wiki software, and more than 5 million English language articles later, it’s safe to say Wikipedia has staying power. (In many languages, too. As of January 2017, versions of Wikipedia existed in nearly 300 languages.)
The idea of an encyclopedia anyone could edit struck fear in the hearts of librarians and teachers. In 2006, Stephen Colbert coined the phrase “Wikiality,” asking his viewers to populate the entry on elephants with false information—and, as of September 2016, the elephant article was still protected from open editing due to “persistent vandalism.”
But as Wikipedia and the rest of us have grown up, it’s become an increasingly reliable source of information. Some studies have found Wikipedia to be as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica; other research shows that the accuracy of a Wikipedia article depends on how often it’s edited.
We still don’t recommend basing your thesis or even your second-grade science report on Wikipedia, but if you want to settle important questions—say, who’s older: Betty White or sliced bread?—it’s a good place to start.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.