An impassioned debate has been raging, particularly since about the summer of 2004, concerning the merits of Wikipedia and the future of free online encyclopedias. This discussion has not benefited by much detailed, accurate consideration of the origins of Wikipedia and of its parent project, Nupedia. Yet those origins are crucial to forming a proper judgment of the current state and best future direction of free encyclopedias.
Wikipedia as it stands is a fantastic project; it has produced enormous amounts of content and thousands of excellent articles, and now, after just four years, it is getting high-profile, international recognition as a new way of obtaining at least a rough and ready idea about many topics. Its surprising success may be attributed, briefly, to its free, open, and collaborative nature.
This has been my attitude toward Wikipedia practically since its founding. But in late 2004, I wrote an article critical of certain aspects of the Wikipedia project, “Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism,” which occasioned much debate. I have also been quoted, as co-founder of Wikipedia, in many recent news articles about the project, making various other critical remarks. I am afraid I am getting an undeserved reputation as someone who is opposed to everything Wikipedia stands for. This is completely incorrect. In fact, I am one of Wikipedia’s strongest supporters. I am partly responsible ...