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A Wikipedia Revolution

Looking over my entire 10-day blogging career so far, I find that I have referenced or linked to articles found on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia nine times. It's true. Without even thinking about it, I use Wikipedia as a constant reference and I love it.

So I was definitely excited when I heard that the staff at NPR's Washington H.Q. ("The Big Top," "The Mothership") would be treated to a presentation from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. He gave an interesting talk on how the open-source encyclopedia works, how the actual paid staff is just 3 people, and how they protect Wikipedia's content from vandals and evil-doers (or try to anyway).

But what's interesting is that I found myself thinking more about NPR than about Wikipedia during Wales' talk. I think we could stand to learn a lot from this burgeoning world of open-source information. Here are some parallels I see:

· Wikipedia successfully took a rigid, one-way medium — the super-formal "Encyclopedia" — and transformed it into an interactive, democratic community... a true marketplace of ideas. This is exactly the challenge NPR is working on today.

· Through this process of embracing "radical openness," Wikipedia gains the viewpoints and perspectives of a much richer, more diverse population. It's not just well-off, well-educated white people that participate. Anyone and everyone is welcomed into its core community. NPR would benefit from this sort of blooming.

· Wikipedia is transparent. While it is true that people of questionable intent update and post biased or negative information to the site (see my recent story about Congressional staffers updating their bosses' bios), you often learn more as a result of those updates than you are hurt by them (someone on Capitol Hill doesn't want you to know about Congressman Jim Nussle's divorce, for example). We at NPR could stand to pull back the curtain a bit on our own decisions about what news to cover and how.

· And finally I would like to assert that, in my opinion, services like Wikipedia are the information sources of the future. They take risks, act boldly, emphasize their content over their technology, and encourage the free flow of ideas and information. They break down the stuffy walls of academia and hand knowledge back to everyday people. They take joy in understanding and describing the world. And that is exactly what NPR should be doing.