“Imagine a world in which every person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” That, Wikipedia co-creator Jimmy Wales told his audience at a BBVA Compass Bank event in Phoenix last month, was the genesis of a project that has become a worldwide resource accessed by 400 million visitors every month.
But making it truly accessible everyone necessitates presenting it in the language each individual can understand, and, Wales noted, the world’s linguistic diversity manifests in 288 languages. Currently, 234 languages have at least 1,000 entries each in Wikipedia. Especially with the explosive growth of mobile phones — big in the developing world and enabling Internet usage even in countries like Nigeria — Wales sees massive connectivity coming within 20 years. “It’s important for everyone to have an encyclopedia in their own language.”
Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has become “part of the infrastructure of the world,” Wales said, adding, “It’s a heavy responsibility.”
And it’s one that he is passionate about, as he observed, “The mainstream media is going to hell. And people want good information — not like Fox, which is opinionated.”
Said Wales, “What’s most important is honesty.” So all entries must go through the “Wikipedia community” of volunteers.
Still, there is a bias inherent in compilation of information. “Wikipedians” (editors) are about 80 percent male; the average age is 26; and the percentage of doctorates is about double that of the general population. “That’s a problem, because people write about what they know,” Wales said. Details about Princess Di’s wedding dress, for instance, would likely not be covered by the above editors.
A challenge in the developing world is the fact that sources may not be available and, in some countries or cultures, there is not much that is written. “So we have to decide if we’ll allow sources from other languages,” Wales shared.
While acknowledging the need to understand the context of the reader and the fact that there is a cultural element to understanding information, Wales explained why the majority of Wikipedia entries are in English: The English language has the largest population online (native English speakers) and is “far and away the largest second language” spoken in the world.
In the Beginning, and Continuing
To begin compiling the online repository of knowledge, Wales decided to use the 11th edition of well-respected resource Encyclopedia Britannica, which had at that time recently come into the public domain. He recognized that some information would have become dated, but “how much could possibly have changed with Julius Caesar, Henry VIII — a historically researched person?” A lot, it turned out.
And, he related, “There are huge debates over what to call something.” There have been changes over time in the way names are Anglicized, such as “Peking” being replaced by “Beijing.” The Polish city “Gdansk” was, earlier, referred to as “Danzig” — which is the German name for the city. In fact, notes Wales, most Polish rivers are known in English by their German name.
Trying to keep up with changes presents its own complications, Wales observed. What to do about referencing a person’s birthplace if that name has changed? “An entry might say a person was born in a place he would not have heard of, as it wasn’t called that then.”
Historical research, after all, is a continuing endeavor. Wales noted Wikipedia reflects that ongoing effort, including a “View History” as part of each entry’s “Discussion” page. “Historians of the future can see how Wikipedia [entries] changed — what was the consensus of knowledge at a given time, such as regarding the ‘weapons of mass destruction.’”
At the Source
Wikipedia relies on a cadre of dedicated volunteers who are committed to a set of basic principles, which co-creator Jimmy Wales enumerated when he spoke in Phoenix last month at a BBVA Compass Bank event:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia — not a library, not YouTube.
- Neutral point of view — all sides will be presented fairly.
- Free licensing — entries will respect copyrights and reject plagiarism, but access to Wikipedia will be free, and information thereon will be free to copy and use.
- Civility — there will be no personal attacks.
- Ignore all rules (IAR). The aim is to stay fluid and flexible, and Wales explained, “The rules should be so obvious, they don’t need to be written down. We don’t want to let a rule stand in the way of improving Wikipedia.”
Although a business entry on Wikipedia “is not like just doing a promotional piece,” Wales says companies can email proposed information — with references — and ask the “Wikipedia community” to look at it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Core_content_policies