Wikipedia founder searches for info in Japan

by Setsuko Kamiya

Regardless of the language, a search on the Internet these days will likely bring up a reference to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to.

“Most of the people who are working in Wikipedia are doing it because it’s fun. There’s also the commitment to sharing knowledge and sharing information with others of all kinds,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, currently on his first visit to Japan.

Wales, 40, is here for a month to meet the Japanese Wikipedia community and to get some ideas from them as well as to promote several projects being done by his for-profit Wikia Inc., including a search engine that will go online toward year’s end.

Before coming to Japan, Wales was in India, meeting the “community” in Madras and New Delhi. Next month, he will visit Australia.

Launched in 2001 under the banner of “giving a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet,” Wikipedia is edited by volunteers and run by nonprofit organization Wikimedia Foundation, based in St. Petersburg, Fla. The site is constantly growing and has become a major source of information worldwide with over 6 million articles in 250 languages.

One-third of the content, or 1.67 million entries, are in English. The Japanese version has over 337,000 entries and is the fifth-largest Wikipedia.

Guidelines for the entries are that they must be neutral and that the information must be verifiable and include citations. While anyone can add to or alter a Wikipedia entry, there is a core group of editors called “community members” who make sure that people are following the guidelines.

Wikipedia’s main strength is its neutrality, Wales says. He said articles on very controversial subjects tend to be even-keeled and the people who do the editing try to take into account the many different points of view on the topic.

Another strength is its timeliness, Wales said. Conventional media only report what is happening now due to time and space constraints, but Wikipedia gives information on current events along with background information.

“Articles about the history of New Orleans in the U.S. became much more detailed because of Hurricane Katrina. People were very interested in that background information. That kind of timely response to the news is a real strength,” he said.

The idea of having a freely licensed encyclopedia written in different languages by volunteers came to Wales in 1999. He hired a person with a doctorate in philosophy to organize an academic encyclopedia called Nupedia. Wales said it failed because of its top-down structure.

Wales then came across the wiki technology, created by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Wiki allows anyone to edit material on the Internet quickly and easily. A group of Wikimedia employees and volunteers developed their own software called MediaWiki and with it Wikipedia was born.

There is skepticism about the accuracy of Wikipedia. While Wales says he is proud that in general the entries are accurate, he said people should keep in mind it is a work in progress that is changing every minute. While it is a good place to get the big picture on a topic, he said readers should still check the citations to get more specific details.

“I give the same advice for using Encyclopedia Britannica,” the Wikipedia creator said. “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.”

Wales, who is now a member of the foundation’s board and chairman emeritus, said the group has no plans to put advertisements on the Wikipedia Web sites.

“We never say that we’ll absolutely never do it, but we have no plans to do so,” he said. “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,” he said.