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You've probably seen encyclopedias. Whether you're settling an argument or researching a school project, these books can hold the answers. These days though, the world moves so fast, it's hard for books that were written months or years ago to keep up. Thankfully we have a new kind of encyclopedia that's online, free, built by thousands of people and changes every day.
The idea that thousands of volunteers could create an online encyclopedia doesn't sound possible, but thanks to new technology and specific policies, Wikipedia has become one the top 5 sites on the Web. The site is run by a not-for-profit foundation with a goal to provide everyone on the planet access to the sum of all human knowledge.
To see how it works, let's get started with the "wiki" in Wikipedia. A wiki is a kind of website that allows users to make changes to any page. They simply click edit, make the change and then save the page to share it with the world. This basic concept allows volunteers to contribute information on any subject in Wikipedia. And because Wikipedia is a website - there is no limit to the number of topics it can cover.
Being a wiki means that Wikipedia is always changing. When someone notable passes away, Wikipedia is updated. When news breaks, Wikipedia grows. It all works because tens of thousands of volunteers contribute, and also enforce rules to ensure Wikipedia remains a reliable source for factual information. These users, like any member, can see changes as they happen on each article. For example, if someone posts an advertisement on Wikipedia, which is forbidden - volunteers can easily reverse the change to maintain the article's integrity.
This means every change to Wikipedia is reviewed and must abide by two big rules:
The first is verifiability, which is necessary to ensure high quality. For this reason, Wikipedia articles must rely on information from published sources like books or newspapers - resources known for fact-checking.
Requiring contributors to cite these resources in articles and quotations ensures Wikipedia articles are factual and high quality. If it's not verified, it can't be in Wikipedia. For example, you can write that the US unemployment rate in 1935 was 20.1%, but you must also cite its source for it to remain in Wikipedia. In this case, numerous history books could be verifiable resources.
The second rule requires a neutral point of view. All Wikipedia material must be presented fairly and without bias, just like any other encyclopedia. This means Wikipedia is not a place for contributors to share their own opinions.
Let's say you're an advocate for vaccinations and you write “every parent should get their children vaccinated.” Unfortunately, this is biased and certain to cause disagreement. However, published opinions of experts can be included. For example, writing that: “vaccinating all U.S. children saves an estimated 33,000 lives,” and citing a reputable source is a statement of fact that can be verified. And if there is an opposing view, it should also be included to balance the article and keep it neutral. The article should present all the major opinions without endorsing one over the other.
It's these two rules and the volunteers who uphold them that make Wikipedia a reliable resource that grows each day. And you can be involved. It's all part of the process of building a free encyclopedia - the largest encyclopedia in human history.
What it teaches
Wikipedia is an amazing resource, but it’s not always clear what helps to ensure that the articles are factual and high quality. This video discusses wiki technology and the policies that make Wikipedia work. We worked with the Wikimedia Foundation to ensure that it reflects Wikipedia's values and practices. It teaches:
- Why an online encyclopedia is needed
- The basics of editing a wiki website
- How volunteers work to ensure quality
- The two big rules that govern every article
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