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It's a wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki world

Ward Cunningham.

Founder of the first Wiki site, Ward Cunningham.

Frankfurt, Germany, was the setting earlier this summer for Wikimania, the first global gathering of self-styled "wikipedians" -- a group that's well on its way to providing free online encyclopedias in every language on Earth.

"I've seen things like this happen once or twice before," observed Mitch Kapor, software pioneer and head of the Open Source Foundation. "We're at the Big Bang of the next information revolution."

The beauty of the Wikipedia site, which now ranks among the top 50 most visited Web sites in the world, is how it's created -- by groups of volunteers who work collaboratively using an innovative new tool called a Wiki. This tool allows anyone from anywhere to write and edit a Wiki Web page.

If this whole operation, now in its fifth year, were a commercial venture, Wikipedia would be worth more than half a billion dollars today. But commerce is considered anathema among this crowd, whose most commonly articulated statement is "Free as in speech -- not as in beer!"

If this operation were a commercial venture, Wikipedia would be worth more than half a billion dollars today. But commerce is anathema among this crowd, whose most commonly articulated statement is "Free as in speech -- not as in beer!"

The Frankfurt gathering attracted more than 400 participants from 52 countries, and every continent but Antarctica was represented. Among the wikipedians I met were a brave editor from China, software executives from Jerusalem and Palo Alto, and a fisheries expert from Mozambique who has been contributing articles on the history of decolonization. Much of the multigenerational crowd had only met online until now, and it took a few German beers to convince some of them to put away their laptops and start talking to each other.

The event attracted a number of Web luminaries. Kapor was joined by the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman (of GNU/Linux fame) and Wiki developer Ward Cunningham, who created the first writable Web page program a decade ago and named it after Hawaii's Wiki Wiki buses ("wiki" is Hawaiian for "quick," and "wiki wiki" means "really quick").

"I was going to call it Quickweb," Cunningham told me, "and then I remembered these buses I took during a trip to Hawaii, and I thought, 'That's cooler!'"

For years, Cunningham ran his own private Wiki, using the Web to communicate with a small community of software developers. The software he created uses a simple formatting language that lets anyone with a browser edit a page. Together the community of developers came up with a uniquely collaborative way of working. They were encouraged not just to review, comment on and criticize each other's online contributions, but also to change them. Cunningham saw that when people work together cooperatively, they can create a product greater than the sum of its parts.

Cunningham worked in virtual obscurity until the day he got a query from an Internet entrepreneur named Jimmy Wales, who asked Cunningham if his tool could be used to create a free online encyclopedia. "Yes," Cunningham replied. "But then it wouldn't be an encyclopedia. It would be a Wiki."

Jimmy Wales.

Internet entrepreneur, Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia project.

It turned out to be both. Unwittingly, Cunningham had created one of the greatest social networking tools ever invented. But it took the vision of Wales -- and what rapidly became an online global army -- to take the Wiki phenomenon to the next level.

Offered the chance to create content and handed a tool that made it easy and fun, a community began to coalesce around the Wikipedia site. In rapid order, thousands, then tens of thousands, then literally hundreds of thousands of articles, photographs, illustrations, maps and other means of knowledge transfer were contributed, corrected, improved and posted online. The English and the German wikipedias were the first to take off, followed by French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Esperanto and even Klingon (to the dismay of many!).

If you could use a Wiki to create a high-quality reference work such as an encyclopedia, how about creating an online dictionary and thesaurus? Enter the Wiktionary. What about a better Bartlett's? Enter Wikiquote. Want a repository of source text in any language? Wikisource. All of these are now available through the parent organization, the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, whose goal is to create and promote free educational content to the public. The flip side to this grand experiment in collective intelligence is how consistent and accurate Wikipedia is when stacked up against more traditional encyclopedias and resources. Wikipedia critics, among them educators who fail students if they use the site for research, say Wikipedia lacks rigor and reliability.

Despite the 'How do we know it's true?' dilemma of Wikipedia's user-created and corrected content, the Wiki phenomenon has attracted a huge and loyal following. The site draws more traffic than The New York Times and USA Today combined, and Google searches send more and more people to the site every day. The result is a virtuous circle of newbies in search of answers. Once you see how easy it is to create rather than simply consume, it's easy to get hooked and begin writing and editing Wikis yourself.

Hundreds of other Web sites -- many of them commercial -- now use the Wikipedia site in a variety of ways. Robert Rosenschein, CEO of Answers.com, declared himself a huge Wiki fan at the conference, telling the audience that his company sponsored the event to "give back to the community."

The Big Bang of the next information revolution certainly got my attention. I went to Frankfurt to make a documentary about the Wikipedia phenomenon, but halfway through I thought, "This shouldn't be 'my' film, it should be 'our' film, and I should be making the world's first Wikimentary." I decided to cede control of the creative process to the wisdom of the crowd.

I'm now getting ready to post online much of the footage I shot at the conference for others to share. I plan to make a rough cut soon and will post that as well, then I'll sit back and see what hundreds of other people make of it -- adding, deleting, cutting, correcting and creating.

After all, it's a wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki world ...

Journalist and filmmaker Rory O'Connor last reported for FRONTLINE/World from India in "The Hole in the Wall."