'I wasn't sure if anyone would use it'

 

JIMMY WALES is 43 years old, wears red-framed glasses, and is from Alabama. All this I glean, not from his Wikipedia page, but from a face-to-face conversation with the man himself. And as if to illustrate that all information sources should be questioned, not just erratic Wikipedia entries, he tells me that his birth date, August 7th, is not what is written on his passport, writes FIONA McCANN

“All my legal documents say the 8th,” he explains, which is due to a clerical error that wasn’t discovered until he was well into his teens. This could be partly an apologia, perhaps, to detractors who point to the unreliability of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia Wales founded in 2001.

Yet despite the vandalism that has dogged Wikipedia from the get-go, it’s still the fifth most popular website in the world, and has added its own verb to the English lexicon. Want to find out about something? Just Wikipedia it. All this despite having begun as a by-product of Nupedia, another encyclopedia project being worked on at the time by Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger.

“I wouldn’t quite say by accident, but definitely was an experiment,” Wales says. “We didn’t know if it would work or not.”

The idea was to create a free encyclopedia on the internet, not written by experts (as was the case with Nupedia) but by members of the public, each of whom would be entitled to add to or edit the content, as long as they did so free of charge. “We weren’t sure that anyone was going to use it.” But they did, and today Wikipedia boasts more than 14 million pages, with more than 85,000 active contributors., and roughly 250 million monthly visitors.

Presiding over it all is its leader, Jimmy Wales – spokesman or co-founder, depending on who you credit. He himself goes by “founder”, and even went so far as to edit his own Wikipedia page to correct an assertion therein that he had co-founded the project with Sanger.

“At the time it was completely uncontroversial,” says Wales, in defence of tweaking his own Wikipedia biography. “For me it was simply an error I wanted to fix.”

He also tinkered with descriptions of his former business, Bomis.com, a web-ring hosting service famed for its “Bomis babes”, that had been described on the Wikipedia page as soft porn. Wales made no attempt to disguise his edits, despite the fact that editing your own page is a practice actively discouraged by Wikipedia. He has since apologised, yet he could hardly be described as contrite.

“I regret expressing regret to some extent, because it really wasn’t even taken in the right way,” he says. The point, says Wales, is not who is at the head of the project, but the community it creates and fosters who are the beating heart of Wikipedia. “The major innovations that have made Wikipedia successful have come from the community.”

This notion of online communities is also a key component of his for-profit business, Wikia, a publishing platform. Wales’s definition of these communities is simple: “They interact with each other, they make friends, they make enemies, they have fights, they make up – all of the things that human beings do.”

In the case of Wikipedia, however, this community of “editors”, as contributors are known, has created its own internal hierarchy, with established editors holding more sway than new ones, and exercising special privileges. So it’s not the free-for-all that has made it such an appealing alternative to the fusty tomes of encyclopedic yore?

“That idea of Wikipedia as some kind of wide-open anarchy was always wrong,” says Wales. Despite this, he feels that “over time, our trend has been towards more openness, not less”. Recent changes to the way Wikipedia pages are edited means that newcomers are now prevented from instantly editing certain newsworthy stories, a development some have criticised as creating more barriers for the public. Wales, though, says the move is rather towards increased accessibility, from a model that originally protected some pages from ever being edited by new users.

“We’ve always had this idea that we want to balance the whole system,” says Wales unapologetically. “And one of the things we’ve found over time is that openness is not the enemy of quality.”

YET ALL THESEnew barriers may well be discouraging the kinds of enthusiastic volunteer that have always been Wikipedia’s lifeblood as a non-profit organisation. A recent report in the Wall Street Journalpointed to a dramatic fall-off in participants, though Wales disputes its numbers.

“Definitely the number of active editors has stabilised in the last year or so, and we don’t know if we’re concerned about that or not,” he says. “We don’t know what the right number of editors should be: that’s kind of a mysterious question.”

This may, in part, be due to the fact that in the eight years since it was created, Wikipedia has already amassed such a body of knowledge that it has become harder to add anything new. “I remember when you could be the person who followed a red link – a red link is a link to an article that doesn’t exist – to Africa, and you were the first person to write ‘Africa is a continent’ and hit ‘save’,” recalls Wales, his eyes still wide. Such thrills are not so easy to come by these days. “The question is: are enough people interested in maintaining it, or is it going to become out of date over time? We don’t know. Nobody knows the answer to that because it’s Wikipedia. It was just invented.”

What Wales and company are working on is a way of making the editing process easier for those without much technical know-how. “Our goal is not so much about increasing total numbers of participants, although that’s fine. What we’re really after is increasing the diversity of the editorships,” he says.

At the moment, 87 per cent of its editors are male, something the site is eager to address. It has also been dominated by English-speakers, but that too is changing, a change that will affect not only who uses Wikipedia but how they do so. “In a lot of the languages in the developing world, Wikipedia has the potential to play a very different role than it plays for us.”

Wales points out that the problem for English-speakers is that they are inundated with information, which they need distilled. Not so for speakers of minority languages. “In the Wolof language , if you’re searching on the internet or in libraries . . . there’s almost nothing available, so Wikipedia will serve the function of being the first access to any information at all.”

It’s all part of a shared vision. “For Wikipedia the goal is to create a free, high-quality encyclopedia for every single person on the planet, in their own language.” It’s some ideal, though in practice, as Wales admits, it can be flawed.

The proliferation of information and misinformation appear to go hand in hand, and the instant nature of Wikipedia updates have brought headaches for Wales, as have allegations that he altered content for money and that he dumped a former girlfriend by announcing it on his Wikipedia page. He denies both allegations, but he acknowledges that problems arise when information is being circulated at the pace the internet allows, and that often a peculiar circularity is the result. Such was the case when an article about him appeared in Biographymagazine noting that Wales played chess in his spare time, something he says is not true. He confronted the magazine’s editors, who replied that the information had come from Wales’s own Wikipedia page. “Ouch!” It turned out the nugget had temporarily appeared on his Wikipedia page, with the adjunct “citation needed”.

“The funny thing is, it had actually already been taken out from Wikipedia because no one had a source for it – and the irony was that now there was a source for it,” Wales says. Yet despite its flaws, he doesn’t downplay the Wikipedia achievement.

“It’s part of the infrastructure of the internet now, part of the infrastructure of the world in an important way, and I think it’s going to be something that’s remembered 500 years from now as something that’s really interesting that people on this planet did.”

He has no regrets about keeping it non-profit either. “I’m really, really proud of it as it is, that it is this humanitarian effort,” he says. “It’s a human effort, so it’s got lots of warts and problems and things we have to work on, but in general this idea that there’s all these people out there who are really passionate about saying: ‘Let’s get the information here . . . Let’s just share what we know for free and try to make it as good as possible, because we think that’s useful.’ That’s pretty awesome, you know, that humans do like to do that.”

What Wikipedia Says About...Wikipedia

“Wikipedia is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its name is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning ‘quick’) and encyclopedia.

Wikipedia’s 14 million articles (3.1 million in English, have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site. It was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and is currently the largest and most popular general reference work on the internet.

“Critics of Wikipedia accuse it of systemic bias and inconsistencies (including undue weight given to popular culture), and allege that it favours consensus over credentials in its editorial process. Its reliability and accuracy are also claimed to be an issue. Other criticisms center on its susceptibility to vandalism and the addition of spurious or unverified information, though scholarly work suggests that vandalism is generally short-lived, and an investigation in Nature found that the material they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of ‘serious errors’.”


Jimmy Wales will be made honorary patron of the Philosopical Society in TCD this afternoon, and is giving a public lecture in Trinity’s Edmund Burke Theatre at 7.30 pm. Tickets available at the door