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Wikipedia celebrates 10th anniversary

As the world celebrates Wikipedia's 10th anniversary today, with more than 350 events scheduled in 111 countries, there are no festivities scheduled in one significant spot:

Its onetime hometown of St. Petersburg.

For about six years, co-founder Jimmy Wales ran what would become the world's largest online encyclopedia from a small collection of rooms in downtown St. Petersburg, developing the nonprofit status and neutral point of view that would become central to the site's explosive success. But as his brainchild turns 10, Wales, who says he still lives in the Tampa Bay area, will be in London.

The nonprofit agency that runs the site, the Wikimedia Foundation, was incorporated in St. Petersburg in 2005. And the major banks of servers still housing the site are in Tampa, leaving Wikipedia's content subject to Florida laws.

Still, even some of Wikipedia's biggest fans know little about the site's early years in Tampa Bay, when a handful of staffers helped Wales set the parameters for one of the most successful online collaborations in Internet history.

"It was very beneficial for us to be away from Silicon Valley … in the early days when we were really thinking about our mission and really becoming who we were," said Wales, 44, a former options and securities trader who moved here in 2002 from San Diego (the foundation moved to San Francisco in 2008). "What we were about was a very pure, simple idea."

That idea is repeated by the many volunteers who doggedly edit Wikipedia entries — dubbed Wikipedians — like a mantra: to create a free, globally accessible encyclopedia holding all human knowledge in every language.

Fresh off a fundraising drive that featured Wales on article pages and raised $16 million in 50 days, the organization is pushing for an expanded global reach (an office in India is in the works) and greater diversity in editors. With a staff of 50, 17 million articles in 270 languages and status as the world's fifth most popular website, Wikipedia's success seems assured.

But critics complain of an overreliance on Wales' notoriety and an insular volunteer culture that values longtime hobbyist editors over newbie experts.

Executive director Sue Gardner said fans forgive Wikipedia's flaws because they support its mission. "They know its goal is to serve them," she added. "It's not always doing a perfect job of that, but they trust its intent."

First big controversy

Tampa lawyer Brad Patrick always will have one achievement to top his resume: He was the Wikimedia Foundation's third employee.

Inspired by an essay Wales wrote for a blog, the young lawyer volunteered help with legal issues in 2005, joining the staff in 2006 as counsel and interim CEO. He helped weather the emerging encyclopedia's first big controversy: former newspaper editor John Seigenthaler Sr.'s complaint about awful untruths in his Wikipedia biography.

The inaccuracies seemed to confirm criticisms of an encyclopedia anyone can edit, leading to loads of awful press, new controls for entries on living people and triple the online traffic.

"I'll chalk it up to the idea that there's no such thing as bad publicity," said the lawyer, who left in early 2007. "I always dream that (the foundation) will be the MacArthur Foundation of the 21st century … growing into the role of forceful advocate for freedom of information."

Larry Sanger fears a different result. He said Wikipedia suffers from a bruising internal culture that isn't welcoming to new contributors or ideas.

Hired by Wales in 2000 to help develop an online encyclopedia dubbed Nupedia, he is widely credited as the co-founder of Wikipedia, birthing the idea of using a wiki to generate content from volunteer enthusiasts and helping launch the site on Jan. 15, 2001. But Sanger, who said he wrote early policies and coined the term Wikipedia before resigning in 2002, added that Wales has increasingly downplayed his contributions (ironically, Wikipedia doesn't agree, calling Sanger a co-founder in his biography entry).

Wales and Gardner would rather focus on Wikipedia's five-year plan, including boosting female contributors and doubling the number of contributors to 200,000. "I think of Wikipedia as something like a national park or a library," Wales said. "A free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. That's our goal."

Times researchers Shirl Kennedy, Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See The Feed blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/media.

Wikipedia celebrates 10th anniversary 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 11:59pm]

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