Jimmy Wales Describes What Wikipedia is Really About

On October 26, I attended the IStrategy conference, which took place in Amsterdam. I was there to deliver a keynote on social media are ROI/ROE. Still, I must confess I also attended the conference to listen to Jimmy Wales who gave us an overview of his celebrated online encyclopaedia: Wikipedia.

I was there in the front row, with my notebook in my lap. Here is the account of Jimmy Wales’s most impressive presentation, a good means of taking a bit of hindsight and LAN learning to know better a collaborative website which everyone uses but few have in-depth knowledge about.

Jimmy Wales Describes What Wikipedia is Really About

Jimmy Wales Describes What Wikipedia is Really About
Jimmy Wales Describes What Wikipedia is Really About

Who is using Wikipedia?

Was Jimmy Wales introductory question to the audience and not surprisingly, everyone raised their hands. “who has edited Wikipedia?” Was question number two and a couple of dozen delegates raised their hands this time, which shows that the audience was really upmarket! It also demonstrates a known fact, i.e. that only a fraction of users are content producers, and that most of them are content with the ability to look at other users’ entries.

No free beer

Wikipedia is “based on the concept of free software” Jimmy Wales went on. But free, in that instance, doesn’t mean that it’s free in “the free beer sense of the term” he added. What it really means, he explained, is that “everything that goes into Wikipedia can be reused and redistributed, repurposed for all kinds of things, namely the translation into a number of languages”.

What Wikipedia is … and isn’t about

Wikipedia is meant to be “the sum of all human knowledge”. A somewhat bombastic boast I would say, for there are instances in which, the online encyclopaedia is delivering false information; this should not be forgotten, even though – like me – one really dotes on the project, the crosschecking of information is a necessary and unavoidable process.
Regardless, what Jimmy Wales was hinting at was that the purpose of the online collaborative project is to collect information on Hamlet for instance, not to be a repository of everything regarding Hamlet, let alone to “keep a copy of Hamlet” he said. It’s about describing and debating Hamlet… and other subjects.

Here comes Wikia

At the end of his introduction, Jimmy announced that the Wikimedia foundation (i.e. the non-profit organisation he is heading) had launched a new project which caters for those wanting to debate Hamlet, and other subjects, on and on and on. This new project is called Wikia. But before we delve into this new venture, I remember that Jimmy Wales gave us an overview of Wikipedia and how it’s being used worldwide.

Wikipedia
Chinese Restaurant using Wikipedia to name weird dish

20 million articles in 270 different languages

with 420 million visits per month, Wikipedia is a behemoth even though “English growth is slowing down” according to its co-founder. Yet, other languages are soaring, namely those of emerging countries. Kazakhstan for instance is a fast-growing contender, but nothing like Chinese (Wikipedia has now been allowed there even though pages like that on Tienanmen Square are still filtered according to ‘Jimbo’).

Censorship issues and usage in China

“Wikipedia doesn’t want any involvement with censorship”

Jimmy Wales declared. Even though he has contacts with Chinese officials, he said he didn’t want to hear the complaints about the content being supposedly inadequate. “I’m still waiting to hear the complaints” he added. Yet, whether this is due to censorship or not, and despite the growth, he described early on, and regardless of the Chinese habit to recycle the Wikipedia brand name in weird and hypothetical dishes (see photo above), “usage is still lagging behind” in the  Middle Kingdom.

slide: topics sorted by percentage of page hits for top 100 pages – source: J Wales
slide: topics sorted by percentage of page hits for top 100 pages – source: J Wales

Pop Culture in Japan

Talking about usage, not all the world is using the popular online Cyclopaedia in the same way. Jimmy provided a very striking comparison (see above picture). The Japanese for instance, are very focused on pop culture which is according to Jimmy Wells, “a very important part of Japanese life”.

I personally couldn’t imagine it could be any worse than in Britain and France but it is apparently…

Our German neighbours seem to be very much into geography Jimmy went on “a joke which could only be made in Holland” according to him, hinting at the darkest hours of Europe. The Spanish and French are the only nationalities in which they are not articles about sex he added; maybe a sign that “they are the only ones who are actually having it” he ventured, and they are far more interested in culture and the arts than the average too.

A world of differences

“It is difficult to draw any conclusions from this” he commented more seriously, but it defeats the idea that we have all become similar. On the contrary, it “shows the great cultural differences between nationalities”. It is easy to explain and he gave us an example: “any Briton would be interested in reading facts about Nick Clegg” he said. Other nationalities wouldn’t even know what party he is from and why he is deputy Prime Minister.”

Wikpiedia: novel writer @alisonclement asking her students what and encyclopaedia is
slide: novel writer @alisonclement asking her students what an encyclopaedia is

Wikipedia user profile

The new generation doesn’t know what a regular encyclopaedia is Jimmy Wales went on: he gave us evidence of that when he shared a tweet with us in which a teacher (see above picture) was asking a student what and encyclopaedia was and the student responded: “is it some sort of Wikipedia?“. One may well surmise that Wikipedia has become the epitome of an encyclopaedia … for better or for worse.

Yet, don’t imagine that your average Wikipedia contributor is representative of the overall population: “87% of our contributors are male ” Jimmy pointed out. “This is because the software is very geeky” he added.
The technical complexity of the code is “putting off other people who aren’t computer nerds” he added. But the Wikipedia team is working on a new improved WYSIWYG interface (thank God! I’m not exactly computer illiterate but editing Wikipedia for me is a real chore).

For the same reasons, contributors tend to be very young, the average age being 26. And the number of Ph.D. among them is double the average numbers of what they are among the overall population!

The Wikimedia foundation

Wikipedia and Human Knowledge
Wikipedia and Human Knowledge

The Wikimedia foundation is the mother company behind the online encyclopaedia. Its primary source of funding is its yearly donation campaigns. “Last year’s campaign was most successful”, Jimmy Wells emphasised. $19 million were donated online, out of the $28 million which make up the annual budget of the non-profit.

Running servers and paying for the bandwidth supporting those millions of pages costs a mint of money, and $28 million is a handsome budget. The aim of the foundation is to be “independent, neutral and avoid the whitewashing of anything for anybody” Jimmy added.

Yet, how you ensure neutrality and fairness in the community in which not everyone is capable of editing the content (see part 4 in this series) is a much debatable issue.

Having said that, the foundation has 80 full-time employees working for it, and above 100,000 volunteers. “Do not expect our employee pays to grow to the 4,000 level within 10 years” Jimmy Wales said, “this is not supposed to happen!”

What the future holds for Wikipedia

What the future holds for Wikipedia
What the future holds for Wikipedia

The future trends for the foundation, according to its founder are twofold:

  1. on the one hand, it’s about expanding Wikipedia’s language capability and namely the most popular languages of India (in India there are over 20 different languages!”). In order to do that, keyboard issues will have to be overcome;  “this will be a challenge!” Jimmy Wales added,
  2. on the other hand, the future is also about a new project name Wikia. “If Wikipedia was the beginning, i.e. an encyclopaedia, wiki is much more ambitious platform; it is meant to be a library!” declared Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ Wales.

[slide: le languages of India, well … some of them at least]
The languages of India on Wikipedia, well … some of them at least
Jimmy Wales gave us a few example of new projects developed from the platform, in order to give us a flavour of what the future holds:

The Earl Guttenberg caught red-handed with a red-coloured bar code

The Guttenplag wiki (http://de.guttenplag.wikia.com) for instance, is a full-fledged critical report of the Ph.D. dissertation of Karl Theodor Freiherr (Earl) zu Guttenberg in which the authors of the collaborative project demonstrated that 371 pages of that dissertation (i.e. over 60% of the whole document) were actually copied from other sources.

This led to the resignation of this gentleman as defence minister of the Federal Republic of Germany (for details refer to “Karl Theodor zu Gutenberg: “baron without a title” BBC.co.uk 18th of February 2011). Hundreds of people, not just journalists, took part in this project, Jimmy pointed out. In essence, one could comment that what this Wikia platform is bringing the power of wikis to the people.

Lostpedia

Lost is a TV series (as I am not watching TV that much, please forgive my ignorance and my misunderstanding of the context). Apparently, Lost is a very complex programme and the Wikia project was used in order to help clarify certain aspects of the elaborate script or to help fans debate about interpretations of the script or other issues related to the programme.

The creator of the show is reported to have said to Jimmy Wales that “the lost staff was crazy about lostpedia” and that “the team used it a lot for creation to.”

Wikia is already very strong on mobiles, with 10% of visits from mobile devices. Jimmy added that this represents a 10% increase in market share in the past two years. Wikia  currently has 51 million monthly visitors (versus 20 million in 2010) and this enormous growth is very promising according to Wikipedia’s founder.
So now you know what the next big thing is all about!

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2 thoughts on “Jimmy Wales Describes What Wikipedia is Really About

  1. Yann, you’re right, Wikipedia is free but not as free as a free beer. So my question is: will Wikipedia always remain free? What is the future of Wikipedia in 10, 20, 50 years? Should Jimmy Wales die, who will take the leadership? This is a serious question, because I personally think Wikipedia should be part of the “patrimoine humain”, something under Unesco or something else responsibility.

  2. My! that’s a serious question. I suppose it applies to any previous piece of work on the same subject (Britannica, Encyclopeida Universalis etc.) except that in this case this is free content hence anyone can repurpose it and own the project after Jimmy is gone. Having said that, he is still a young man.

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