"My dream has been to put a free comprehensive encyclopedia at everybody's fingertips," says 37-year-old founder Jimmy Wales, who spends up to 12 unpaid hours a day maintaining the site. "It's my obsession." It has also become the obsession of thousands of others who, out of sheer love for their subjects, contribute entries and programming time for free. The concept behind the project is as simple as it is ambitious: anybody can create or edit the articles, and the system relies on masses of users ensuring that the information is correct, comprehensive and up-to-date. "I realized that all over the world there are people that want to explain, want to discuss, want to describe," says Wales.
The site has articles in more than 50 languages—including Afrikaans, Bosnian and Thai—and they often make fascinating reading. Look up "Molotov cocktail," for example, and you get not only its history and uses but also tips on how to make one—an insight that a less anarchic endeavor might be loath to share.
Of course, any source of information as democratic as Wikipedia's is vulnerable to doubts about its editorial authority. "It's highly reliable but not perfect," allows Wales, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. Still, according to an IBM study, prank postings on the site are usually corrected "so quickly that most users will never see its effects." And for repeat offenders? An 11-member Wikipedia committee stands ready to ban habitual abusers of the site's hospitality. It seems even a dream like this needs to have its own thought police.