‘Openness is not the enemy of quality,’ Wikipedia founder says

24 Nov 2009

The openness of internet phenomenon Wikipedia will lead to better knowledge, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says, and adds that his proudest moment was seeing the open-source built encyclopaedia become available in 175 languages.

Having created what is the world’s largest reference work – an online encyclopaedia that is apparently more trusted than Encyclopaedia BritannicaWikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says his next project is all about people creating their own mini reference sites or Wikis.

Wales, who will be in Dublin this Friday night to give a lecture at Trinity College, is the driving force behind what can be considered one of the biggest phenomena on the web. Wikipedia, which Wales started with Larry Sanger in 2001, has more than 14 million articles – 3.1 million of them in English.

Publicly edited

What is unique about Wikipedia is that it is an almost entire construct of the internet and is edited publicly. Built entirely on open-source software, it was spawned out of a project Wales called Nupedia, and eventually grew as volunteers, writers and editors contributed articles. By 2007 it had passed the 2-million article mark – eclipsing the 1,407 Yongle Encylopaedia, which held the record for 600 years.

Today, the site receives between 25,000 and 60,000 page requests per second and gets an estimated 330 million unique visitors per month.

Because of the public nature of Wikipedia and the fact that articles can be edited by anyone, the site has attracted much criticism. However, a dedicated global network of editors work to ensure that any vandalism is short-lived.

To prove a point, the Wikipedia entry of infamous French goal-scorer Thierry Henry was vandalised last week and today is “protected from editing due to vandalism”.

A liberal and open planet

Speaking to Wales, a self-confessed internet entrepreneur since 1996, it is clear his mission is about creating a more liberal and open planet where knowledge is the passport to better lives. “We started Wikipedia in 2001 with the goal of creating a free encyclopaedia for every person on the planet in their own language. We built it using open source as a language and today we are now in over 175 languages.”

Asked if he believes knowledge will help to break down economic barriers Wales says: “Definitely. I think it is important that we think of the internet in that way. We have the technology and as the next 1 billion people come online the possibility to share all kinds of useful knowledge with people will be paramount. For a lot of people around the world, I think Wikipedia will be their first real access to a general encyclopaedia.”

Wales believes there is an imbalance in the distribution of information in the world today. “The reason an encyclopaedia exists is to give people basic facts. But if I speak Swahili and no encyclopaedia exists for me then I lack the basic facts that others benefit from. Here’s a statistic, the number of books translated every year into Arabic is smaller than the number of books translated into German every day.

“Openness is not the enemy of quality and we can have
an open system without it being anarchy or chaos.”

– Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

“I believe that citizens will become more empowered through knowledge. If you live in a democracy you can cast your vote more intelligently. Because there’s much more information in the world, people who live under authoritarian rule can organise and raise reasonable complaints.”

If Wikipedia is perhaps the most open experiment in human knowledge ever, I put it to Wales that the idea of Wikipedia could be mired by criticism of vandalism. He disagrees. “One of the things I like to talk about is how openness is not the enemy of quality and we can have an open system without it being anarchy or chaos. As a result, if we can think about how to generate open communities with quality work, the rewards are potentially very high.”

Wikipedia non-profit

While Wikipedia is run as a non-profit organisation under the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales describes the decision to do so as both “the smartest and dumbest” decision he has ever made. Wikipedia relies on donations to keep running yet Wales himself estimated it could have been worth US$3 billion at one point.

Wales is, however, running a for-profit enterprise called Wikia to capitalise on the success of the platform he created. Wikipedia has spawned numerous spin-off versions, such as WikiHow and WikiTravel, to name a few.

His idea with Wikia is to spread knowledge sharing to the people. “People have created amazing things, such as Recipes.wiki.com and there’s WoWWiki, a Wiki dedicated to World of Warcraft that has generated over 70,000 articles.”

Raising funds

Returning to Wikipedia and its reliance on donations – the site needs to raise US$7.5 million and has raised US$1.25 million in donations – Wales is confident. “We always have to take fundraising seriously because we need to keep the lights on. The public are enthusiastic about Wikipedia – fundraising’s never been an issue – and while I’m not totally relaxed about it, it’s not a crisis.”

Looking to the future, Wales says the internet is blossoming in ways we haven’t imagined. “I think we’re at the beginning of an era of community and collaboration – a lot more is going to come from that – I think we’re going to have many surprises.”

To book tickets to see and hear Wales speak at Trinity College in Dublin on 27 November, click here.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is proud the world’s biggest encyclopaedia is available in 175 languages.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years