With more than 1.2 million articles in English alone, Wikipedia already has met its goal of becoming a comprehensive encyclopedia, founder Jimmy Wales told more than 300 people at the start of "Wikimania," a three-day gathering of people devoted to Wikipedia and other community Web projects.
But even while Wikipedia’s vast scope exceeds that of traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica, Wales said Wikipedia would become even more valuable if entries were written less choppily, for example, or better identified their sources.
"Although we’ve always had this goal of Britannica quality or better, we’re not there yet," he said. "We can no longer feel satisfied and happy when we see these (article) numbers going up. … We should continue to turn our attention away from growth and towards quality."
Wikis are software programs that foster collaboration and openness — anyone may add, edit and even delete entries, regardless of expertise in a given subject.
Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has become a gigantic presence on the Web and expanded into dozens of other languages.
Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the sites, now also back a wiki dictionary, wiki course materials for schools, a wiki collection of famous quotations and a wiki for biological taxonomy. Wales also has gotten venture funding for Wikia Inc., a for-profit wiki-creating company, and wants to see wikis for political campaigns, in hopes of improving the discourse.
Wales, who turns 40 on Monday, said a few improvements coming to Wikipedia will help improve its quality.
An editing tool called "Wikiwyg" — "wyg" stands for "what you get" — should make it easier to change articles. As of now, readers who click "edit this page" on a Wikipedia entry are confronted with a bit of programming code that Wales admits can scare off less technologically savvy users, denying Wikipedia their expertise.
Wales also is encouraging the community to allow fewer unsourced claims in biographies of living people. Perhaps this issue more than any other has made Wikipedia controversial, especially after it was revealed last year that for four months the entry on journalist John Seigenthaler erroneously named him as a suspect in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
"We have a really serious responsibility to get things right," Wales said.
The remainder of Wikimania, which was held at Harvard Law School, included discussions and workshops on everything from validating information on Wikipedia to how the project fits into broader efforts in open-source, "free culture."
It also figured to be in large part a social affair, as "Wikipedians" from all over finally got to meet face to face. Badges given to attendees had both their real names and the "screen names" they use in Wikipedia forums.
Among them was Josh Boswell, 17, a high school senior from Wellesley, Mass., who got hooked on Wikipedia last year after expanding an article on Saul Bellow’s "Henderson the Rain King," which he had been reading for class.
"I guess I wanted to see," Boswell said, "what this whole international community looked like."