If knowledge is power, then Jimmy Wales’ online brainchild looks set to empower the world for free
An Internet search for almost anything these days will likely lead you straight to Wikipedia, the worldwide online encyclopedia.
But unlike conventional encyclopedias whose entries are written by acknowledged academics and editors, those in Wikipedia are open to contributions from anyone at all. Even as you read this, you can be sure that Wikipedia’s cyberspace font of knowledge and information will be being added to by someone in Paris, Texas, Rochdale in Lancashire, Johannesburg or Kyoto. That’s because — precisely in line with its mission to create a freely licensed encyclopedia for everyone in the world — Wikipedia relies for its entire content on volunteers all over the world who are keen to contribute to the cause.
To add information to an entry, individuals must follow some basic guidelines, such as being neutral and only including information that is verifiable through cited references. At Wikipedia’s heart, a select group of volunteers serve as “administrators” who ensure that such core principles are adhered to. In the event of disputes, these administrators open debate on discussion pages linked to the entry in question, and try to sort things out from there.
Though it’s still only in its sixth year, this grand project has already developed into a major source of easily accessible information, currently with more than 6 million entries in 250 languages. Of these, entries in English make up a third of the total, numbering around 1.67 million, while the 337,000 in Japanese comprise the fifth largest. To enhance the objectivity of its content, Wikipedia carries no advertising, as all its funding currently comes in the form of donations.
By its very nature, though, as Wikipedia is constantly a work-in-process, questions do arise regarding the accuracy of its entries. However, an article in the December 2005 issue of the journal Nature reported that a peer review of comparative science entries in the English-language Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica found that both contained errors — but the differences between them were not of great significance.
Upset by this finding, Britannica published an advertisement attacking Nature, but the magazine stood its ground.
Run by the St. Petersburg, Florida-based nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia was launched in 2001 by the now 40-year-old Jimmy Wales, who had previously graduated from futures and options trading to running a search-engine company. Wikipedia stemmed from a 1999 project called Nupedia, for which Wales hired a person with a PhD in philosophy to organize a “freely licensed” (i.e. open-to-all for copying, modifying and distributing) encyclopedia written in different languages by volunteers. The project failed because it was too academic and top-down organized, Wales says.
Learning from this mistake, Wales then incorporated the “wiki” editing concept developed by one Ward Cunningham in 1995, which allows anyone to quickly and easily edit material on the Internet. Finally, Wikipedia was born.
Just now, Wales is making his first visit to Japan, along with his American-Japanese wife and their daughter, in order to meet this country’s Wikipedia “community” and to promote his for-profit company Wikia Inc., which is scheduled to launch an open-source search engine to rival Google and Yahoo!
Before arriving in Japan, Wales was in India, where he met members of the Wikipedia community and also visited a squatter township in New Delhi to see how the foundation’s goal of “providing a free encyclopedia for every single person in the world” might resonate there.
Two days after arriving in Japan, Wales talked to The Japan Times at his home for the month in Tokyo, where his wife’s family and friends were visiting. As they sat by and listened, Wales, dressed casually in a black turtle neck sweater and black slacks, explained just how the multilingual Wikipedia works, responded to numerous criticisms, and talked about its future in countries such as China, where he will visit later this year.
What attracts people around the world to join this project?
Most of the people working in Wikipedia are doing it because it’s fun. There’s also the commitment to sharing knowledge and sharing information with all kinds of people everywhere. However, I don’t think people would do it if we didn’t make the process interesting and enjoyable. So we spend a lot of time making sure that the volunteers have all the tools they need to manage the site by providing software, community support and ensuring that social policies are working well and any disputes are resolved in an appropriate manner.
What do you think is the key strength of Wikipedia?
The main strength is the neutrality. Even on very controversial subjects, Wikipedia tends to be very even-keeled and very neutral and tries to take into account many different points of view.
I also think the timeliness is quite important. You can really see, for example, when the big tsunami happened, if you turned to traditional media, due to space and time constraints, they generally just tell you what’s happening now. But a lot of people really needed background information. They needed more understanding about the places where this happened — the government there, the language, you know, everything about the people.
Wikipedia is really fantastic for this sort of thing, because it tends to get really, really updated when there’s something big going on like that.
And finally, I think the unbelievable comprehensiveness is pretty amazing. This particularly applies to the English Wikipedia, but increasingly to all the really large languages, so that pretty much anything you can think of is somehow covered in Wikipedia.
Some articles are written in different ways depending on the language. What happens then?
All the entries in different languages are written independently, and we do expect the articles to converge, and we hope there aren’t any really bad cases of bias where you have two completely different views on an event and neither language acknowledges the overall situation.
Of course it’s quite natural that people write what they know about. So, if there are cultural biases, then sometimes they are only discovered through this process [of volunteers' comparative analysis] at Wikipedia.
For example, it was brought to our attention a couple of years ago that the English-language Wikipedia said that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane — and the French Wikipedia said something completely different. Neither side is completely wrong. It just depends on exactly how you define it. It was a very fertile time, and inventions were in many different stages and processes.
Now when you go to see who invented airplanes in Wikipedia, you get this nice view where you understand why different people have different claims about it. And that’s really how an encyclopedia should be. We’ve seem similar types of things in many other languages.
The English-language version continues to be the largest Wikipedia. Do you see a difference in people’s ways of sharing information depending on languages?
It’s really hard to say, but one thing is that English is the largest first language of the people on the Internet. But even more importantly, it is by far the largest second language in the world.
As the English Wikipedia is so large, people often think that maybe others translate from English. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way. It’s really a matter of lots of things getting translated into English.
If you write an article about something in Japan that you think is probably not well known elsewhere, and you think “gosh, it would be great if this was known all around the world” — well, you wouldn’t just leave it in the Japanese Wikipedia. You would think, “maybe I should put it in English, because from there, it can be translated into French and German and Chinese and all the other languages.” People think of English that way, as sort of a meeting point.
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it is said that in the Japanese Wikipedia, people would go to the discussion page, then discuss and discuss and discuss until they reach a consensus — and finally someone will go and very cautiously change the entry. Whereas in English, we change the entry and fight about it. I’ve heard this not just from English speakers but Japanese themselves. I wonder if it might not be some kind of self-humorous image of Japanese that endless discussions for consensus occur before something happens. It could be true, though I don’t know. But I’m told that the culture is different. Maybe I’ll be able to find out when I hang out with the Wikipedians here.
Some doubt the accuracy of Wikipedia. How do you respond to that?
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The world of wikipedia
In general, if you use Wikipedia quite a bit, and follow the references and check up on things, you find that it is generally quite accurate. It’s surprisingly accurate. It’s pretty good for the most part.
On the other hand, it really is a live work-in-process at all times, and you do have to be careful. The main thing for people to remember is that in any source, if you see something that’s a little bit outrageous, you should check the sources.
Also, depending on what you are trying to do, you should check the sources. If you are trying to research for a school paper or a magazine article, and you are not just getting broad background information but are really going to use specific facts, you really better check them yourself. That’s really not the role of an encyclopedia.
I give the same advice for using Encyclopedia Britannica. There’s lots of errors in Britannica. People think of it as somehow perfect, but it’s far from perfect. It’s useful for broad background knowledge, essentially.
Where do you see Wikipedia going from here?
It’s really hard to predict for the English Wikipedia, because English is the first to run into some types of problems, because it’s so much bigger.
But it’s pretty easy to say what the Japanese Wikipedia would look like. It will hit 500,000 and 1 million articles in the next few years.
Right now in Wikipedia, less than a third of the total work is in English, but that percentage is steadily dropping because all of the other languages are growing. So what we are going to see in the next five years is really huge growth in a lot of the non-European languages. That’s pretty remarkable to think what kind of resources would be available.
The Chinese Wikipedia is one of the larger Wikipedia. But how is your situation in China, where Google had to accept censorship?
We’re completely blocked in mainland China. We were briefly unblocked last October but then reblocked. But the Chinese Wikipedia still grows. It’s still a big language with over 100,000 articles and it’s constantly growing. We’re patient; we’re sure they’ll unblock us someday.
I think the blocking regime in China is failing, and so lots and lots of people know how to get around it, and it’s just completely attainable in the long run. You can’t block the Internet and have economic growth, particularly censoring a free educational source.
If you talk to anybody in the IT industry, they’ll tell you that they use Wikipedia when it’s time to look up important IT concepts to get a quick background. Clearly that’s damaging to the IT industry in China. The truth is, I think the Chinese IT industry knows how to get around that block. But it’s a little depressing if one of your important industries in the future has to grow by getting around your censorship. So I suspect they’ll change their policy at some point.
Wikipedia relies on donations, but will you consider running advertisements in the future?
There’s no plans to do so. We never say that we’ll absolutely never do it, but we have no plans to do so. The thing we always remind people is that we are a charity, and we do have a charitable mission to give a free encyclopedia to everyone on the planet. The amount of money that we are turning down from advertising is substantial, and it can make a serious impact on that mission, and that raises the question of “well, why don’t we turn on the ads?” There are good reasons to turn down ad revenues. But there’s also good reasons to accept it, so, it’s a decision we have to keep making responsibly, year after year.
With your for-profit company Wikia Inc., you are planning a search-engine project. Could you elaborate on that?
It’s an effort to create a completely open-source, freely licensed search engine. We’ll publish all the algorithms [software codings] and allow people to copy and modify the software, and have the algorithms available for researchers.
It’s also going to include public participation in a Wikipedia-style fashion, where people can come in and basically edit the Web site and make changes to the algorithms and things like that. That’s under development. Right now it’s in the early designing stages, but even that early design stuff is being done in public.
We plan to launch some kind of a very basic initial public site in the fourth quarter of this year before the yearend. That will be a place where people will come in and start doing searches and submitting URLs, ranking them and rating them and you know, editing the Web site and building this up.
We expect that when it opens, it’s going to be useless and terrible. But of course it may be terrible! It’s like Wikipedia was, the first month of operation. If you came and looked for an encyclopedia and found 50 articles, you’d say, “Well, this is nothing.”
This is the start of a long-term community project that’s going to take several years to really build something that can compete with Google.
Are you dissatisfied with the current search engines?
The quality of search has reached a plateau in the last three or four years. There was definitely a time when there was a marked difference between Google and their competition. But now if you take a look at the search results from Yahoo! or Google or Ask, they are actually very similar.
Good-quality search has become something of a commodity. But I think it can be better. There are still areas where search isn’t as good as I think it could be. I don’t know the solution, but I do know that the open-source software projects tend to be able to find better solutions than proprietary projects.
The other thing is that it’s more of a political statement, with a small “p” — meaning, I think that search is a really fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet and, like other things on the Internet, I think it’s important to us as the Internet citizens of the world that we care that it’s open, transparent and auditable.
It’s a little bit of a cause for some concern that there is so much power in the hands of the search engines, who are not transparent about how they rank things. We just don’t know and it’s a black box.
I think it’s important that there could be an alternative, where people can understand how things are ranked because all of the algorithms are published.