The Economist (22 April, 2006)

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The Economist commodity index. Cuba: None too sweet. Populists together : Donald Trump plays the role of warm-up act to Narendra Democracy in America 19 mins ago. Islam and politics : Why American Muslims lean leftwards for Erasmus September 22nd, Bartleby : Hot desk, cold comfort. Business and finance September 22nd, Prospero September 21st, The Americas September 20th, Daily chart : There may be hope for the northern white rhino.

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Riots and the price of food: The cost of dearer food Jan 11th , from Cassandra. The sugar boom: Life is sweet Apr 22nd , from Print edition. Brazil's sugar mergers: Calorific value Dec 3rd , from Print edition.

The price of sugar: Sugar rush Aug 13th , from Web-only article. The Everglades: Sugar and grass Dec 11th , from Print edition. Sweeteners: Top that Jul 10th , from Print edition.

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Wikipedia's English-language version doubled in size last year and now has over 1m articles. By this measure, it is almost 12 times larger than the print version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Taking in the other odd languages in which it is published, Wikipedia has more than 3m articles. It has become a vital research tool for huge numbers of people. And Wikipedia is only five years old. This success has made Wikipedia the most famous example of a wider wiki phenomenon.

Wikis are web pages that allow anybody who is allowed to log into them to change them.

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In Wikipedia's case, that happens to be anybody at all. Among the new media, wikis are the perfect complement to blogs. This is the main reason for the failure of a Los Angeles Times experiment with wikitorials, described in the previous article. Wikis are good at summarising debates, but they are ill-suited for biased opinion. Wikipedia's numbers actually make it an anomaly among wikis. Joe Kraus, the co-founder of JotSpot, a provider of wiki software, reckons that most of the millions of wikis already in existence are designed for small, well-defined groups of people.

Team members in a company, for instance, might use wikis to collaborate on presentations or project calendars. Trust comes most easily when the people involved know one another or are accountable for their contributions. Given that the optimal group size for humans may be less than members see the article on blogging earlier in this survey , most wikis might be expected to be small.

Current and previous issues

At first sight, Wikipedia seems too large for its contributors to be able to trust each other easily. How, then, does it work? He obviously does not. To put this process to the test, the journal Nature recently commissioned a study to compare the accuracy of a sample of articles drawn from Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica respectively.

Nature's experts found errors in Wikipedia's articles and errors in Britannica's. Privately, however, Britannica's editors were shocked to have to concede that their creation contained any errors at all. Total accuracy, after all, is the main selling point for the old media. But if it did get it wrong, it is not clear why it would have erred more for Britannica than for Wikipedia. For a lot of new-media watchers, the most interesting thing about the episode was something entirely different: that Britannica, somewhat representative of old media in general, instinctively regards Wikipedia as a threat, whereas Wikipedians are not the least bit tempted to reciprocate.

But why not have a free alternative as well?

And why not test the limits of what social collaboration can do? Contrast that with the joyful reaction of Wikipedia's detractors to Brian Chase, the dodgy biographer whose article was literally one in a million. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him. Join them.

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