WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- In perhaps the ultimate sign of a free and democratic Internet, the Web's most popular reference site has become one that is maintained not by a library or organization but by the site's users.
Neilson/NetRatings reports that Wikipedia's unique audience for September 2005 was 12.8 million, up from 3.3 million last September. It is not only the largest but also the fastest-growing educational reference Web site.
Other educational reference sites that gained in popularity include Yahoo! Education, which tripled its audience this year to 3.2 million, and eHow, which doubled its audience to 2 million.
Overall, Neilson reported, educational reference Web sites in general had 46 million unique users in September, a 22-percent increase over last September.
Wikipedia's most notable characteristic is that it allows users to post information and updates on all of its reference pages. This allows Wikipedia to maintain up-to-the-minute, precise information -- but it also opens the site up to misinformation, hoaxes and vandalism.
A user named "cirian" on a message board at GreatReporter.com posted that Wikipedia represents a good thing for information gatherers but also a conundrum.
"I think Wikipedia is an amazing thing, but you need to go into it with your eyes open," cirian wrote.
"The sheer breadth of its content makes it really useful for finding some background about something you know little/nothing about, but I'd never trust it alone as a source of fact," they added.
Ben Bergerac, a 21-year-old student from Portsmouth, England, said he doesn't trust Wikipedia as an information source.
"I don't use it for academic purposes," he said. "I try to use books as I believe Wikipedia and the Internet are unreliable for sourcing information."
Bergerac said he uses the site more for pop culture, the topic for which he feels the site is most useful.
"I normally use it to get a rough understanding of a subject," he said. "Say an American friend is talking about something that happened in the 1980s. I could find out basically what happened on Wikipedia."
Matt Biscuiti, a 29-year-old public-relations professional, said he uses Wikipedia both professionally and personally.
"It's one of the first places I go online, after Google and Technorati, to do client-related research, get background on a particular topic, or even to look up an obscure pop-culture reference," he said.
Biscuiti said he originally used Wikipedia when it came up on search engines, (no surprise; according to Hitwise, 71 percent of Wikipedia visitors arrive from a search engine), but lately he has taken to heading directly to the Wikipedia main page to search for information.
In addition to incorrect information, Wikipedia also has problems with users writing defamatory or vulgar messages on the site, referred to internally as vandalism.
On Oct. 19 the Wikipedia entry on political documentarian Michael Moore was vandalized to refer to Moore as "widely known for his outspoken, critical, and completely ungrounded lies about corporations and the Bush administration."
The vandalism was removed moments later by a Wikipedia moderator.
Moore's entry is vandalized about a dozen times a week. Other high-profile political figures, such as President Bush, have their entries vandalized many times each day.
Wikipedia vandalism is not just limited to politics. On Oct. 1, as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were doing battle, a user edited the Yankees' Wikipedia entry to mention that the "Red Sox own the Yankees."
In reply, on Oct. 14 the Red Sox page was vandalized to refer to them as the "Red Sphinx." Both edits were removed a few minutes later by moderators.
Biscuiti said that while Wikipedia is not fully reliable, the technological and social implications of its success may be significant as new electronic media move forward.
"I am fascinated at the amount of information available on Wikipedia and impressed by the subculture of users and editors that has formed to keep it honest," he said.
"In a world where consumer-generated media is getting so much attention, with blogs, podcasts, etc., popping up faster than the mainstream media can keep up," he said, "it's great to see that self-regulation of such content, and a series of checks and balances, is possible."