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Technology > Internet > Wikipedia
Can Wikipedia Survive?
JUNE 20, 2015
The New York Times
SundayReview | Opinion
By ANDREW LIH
WASHINGTON — WIKIPEDIA has come a long way since it started in
2001. With around 70,000 volunteers editing in over 100 languages, it is by far
the world’s most popular reference site. Its future is also uncertain.
One of the biggest threats it faces is the rise of smartphones as the dominant
personal computing device. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 39 of
the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from
desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years.
This is a challenge for Wikipedia, which has always depended on contributors
hunched over keyboards searching references, discussing changes and writing
articles using a special markup code. Even before smartphones were widespread,
studies consistently showed that these are daunting tasks for newcomers. “Not
even our youngest and most computer-savvy participants accomplished these tasks
with ease,” a 2009 user test concluded. The difficulty of bringing on new
volunteers has resulted in seven straight years of declining editor
In 2005, during Wikipedia’s peak years, there were months when more than 60
editors were made administrator — a position with special privileges in editing
the English-language edition. For the past year, it has sometimes struggled to
promote even one per month.
The pool of potential Wikipedia editors could dry up as the number of mobile
users keeps growing; it’s simply too hard to manipulate complex code on a tiny
The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia’s operations but is
not directly involved in content, is investigating solutions. Some ideas include
touch-screen tools that would let Wikipedia editors sift through information and
share content from their phones.
What has not suffered is fund-raising. The foundation, based in San Francisco,
has a budget of roughly $60 million. How to fairly distribute resources has long
been a topic of debate. How much should go to regional chapters and affiliates,
or to groups devoted to non-English languages? How much should stay in the
foundation to develop software, create mobile apps and maintain infrastructure?
These tensions run through the community. Last year the foundation took the
unprecedented step of forcing the installation of new software on the
German-language Wikipedia. The German editors had shown their independent streak
by resisting an earlier update to the site’s user interface. Against the wishes
of veteran editors, the foundation installed a new way to view multimedia
content and then set up an Orwellian-sounding “superprotect” feature to block
obstinate administrators from changing it back.
The latest clash had repercussions in the election this year for seats to the
Wikimedia Foundation’s board of trustees — the most influential positions that
volunteers can hold. The election — a record 5,000 voters turned out, nearly
three times the number from the previous election — was a rebuke to the status
quo; all three incumbents up for re-election were defeated, replaced by critics
of the superprotect measures. Two other members will leave the 10-member board
at the end of this year. Meanwhile, the foundation’s new executive director,
Lila Tretikov, has been hiring developers from the world of open-source
technology, and their lack of experience with Wikipedia content has concerned
Could the pressure from mobile, and the internal tensions, tear Wikipedia apart?
A world without it seems unimaginable, but consider the fate of other online
communities. Founded in 1985, at the dawn of the Internet, the Well, the
self-proclaimed “birthplace of the online community movement,” hosted an
influential cast of dot-com luminaries on its electronic bulletin board
discussion forums. By 1995, it was in steep decline, and today it is a shell of
its former self. Blogging, celebrated a decade ago as pioneering an exciting new
form of personal writing, has decreased significantly in the social-media age.
These are existential challenges, but they can still be addressed. There is no
other significant alternative to Wikipedia, and good will toward the project — a
remarkable feat of altruism — could hardly be higher. If the foundation needed
more donations, it could surely raise them.
The real challenges for Wikipedia are to resolve the governance disputes — the
tensions among foundation employees, longtime editors trying to protect their
prerogatives, and new volunteers trying to break in — and to design a
mobile-oriented editing environment. One board member, María Sefidari, warned
that “some communities have become so change-resistant and innovation-averse”
that they risk staying “stuck in 2006 while the rest of the Internet is thinking
about 2020 and the next three billion users.”
For the last few years, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and
other world-class institutions, libraries and museums have collaborated with
Wikipedia’s volunteers to improve accuracy, quality of references and depth of
multimedia on article pages. This movement dates from 2010, when the British
Museum saw that Wikipedia’s visitor traffic to articles about its artifacts was
five times greater than that of the museum’s own website. Grasping the power of
Wikipedia to amplify its reach, the museum invited a Wikipedia editor to work
with its curatorial staff. Since then, similar parternships have been set up
with groups like the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that
focuses on evidence-based health care, and the Centers for Disease Control and
These are vital opportunities for Wikipedia to tap external expertise and
enlarge its base of editors. It is also the most promising way to solve the
considerable and often-noted gender gap among Wikipedia editors; in 2011, less
than 15 percent were women.
The worst scenario is an end to Wikipedia, not with a bang but with a whimper: a
long, slow decline in participation, accuracy and usefulness that is not quite
dramatic enough to jolt the community into making meaningful reforms.
No effort in history has gotten so much information at so little cost into the
hands of so many — a feat made all the more remarkable by the absence of profit
and owners. In an age of Internet giants, this most selfless of websites is
Andrew Lih is an associate professor of journalism at American University and
the author of “The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the
World’s Greatest Encyclopedia.”
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page SR4 of the
New York edition with the headline: Can Wikipedia Survive?.
Can Wikipedia Survive?,
JUNE 20, 2015,
Stop Spying on Wikipedia Users
MARCH 10, 2015
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages
By JIMMY WALES
and LILA TRETIKOV
SAN FRANCISCO — TODAY, we’re filing a lawsuit against the
National Security Agency to protect the rights of the 500 million people who use
Wikipedia every month. We’re doing so because a fundamental pillar of democracy
is at stake: the free exchange of knowledge and ideas.
Our lawsuit says that the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance of Internet traffic on
American soil — often called “upstream” surveillance — violates the Fourth
Amendment, which protects the right to privacy, as well as the First Amendment,
which protects the freedoms of expression and association. We also argue that
this agency activity exceeds the authority granted by the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act that Congress amended in 2008.
Most people search and read Wikipedia anonymously, since you don’t need an
account to view its tens of millions of articles in hundreds of languages. Every
month, at least 75,000 volunteers in the United States and around the world
contribute their time and passion to writing those articles and keeping the site
going — and growing.
On our servers, run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, those volunteers
discuss their work on everything from Tiananmen Square to gay rights in Uganda.
Many of them prefer to work anonymously, especially those who work on
controversial issues or who live in countries with repressive governments.
These volunteers should be able to do their work without having to worry that
the United States government is monitoring what they read and write.
Unfortunately, their anonymity is far from certain because, using upstream
surveillance, the N.S.A. intercepts and searches virtually all of the
international text-based traffic that flows across the Internet “backbone”
inside the United States. This is the network of fiber-optic cables and
junctions that connect Wikipedia with its global community of readers and
As a result, whenever someone overseas views or edits a Wikipedia page, it’s
likely that the N.S.A. is tracking that activity — including the content of what
was read or typed, as well as other information that can be linked to the
person’s physical location and possible identity. These activities are sensitive
and private: They can reveal everything from a person’s political and religious
beliefs to sexual orientation and medical conditions.
The notion that the N.S.A. is monitoring Wikipedia’s users is not,
unfortunately, a stretch of the imagination. One of the documents revealed by
the whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden specifically identified Wikipedia as a
target for surveillance, alongside several other major websites like CNN.com,
Gmail and Facebook. The leaked slide from a classified PowerPoint presentation
declared that monitoring these sites could allow N.S.A. analysts to learn
“nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”
The harm to Wikimedia and the hundreds of millions of people who visit our
websites is clear: Pervasive surveillance has a chilling effect. It stifles
freedom of expression and the free exchange of knowledge that Wikimedia was
designed to enable.
During the 2011 Arab uprisings, Wikipedia users collaborated to create articles
that helped educate the world about what was happening. Continuing cooperation
between American and Egyptian intelligence services is well established; the
director of Egypt’s main spy agency under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi boasted
in 2013 that he was “in constant contact” with the Central Intelligence Agency.
So imagine, now, a Wikipedia user in Egypt who wants to edit a page about
government opposition or discuss it with fellow editors. If that user knows the
N.S.A. is routinely combing through her contributions to Wikipedia, and possibly
sharing information with her government, she will surely be less likely to add
her knowledge or have that conversation, for fear of reprisal.
And then imagine this decision playing out in the minds of thousands of would-be
contributors in other countries. That represents a loss for everyone who uses
Wikipedia and the Internet — not just fellow editors, but hundreds of millions
of readers in the United States and around the world.
In the lawsuit we’re filing with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union,
we’re joining as a fellow plaintiff a broad coalition of human rights, civil
society, legal, media and information organizations. Their work, like ours,
requires them to engage in sensitive Internet communications with people outside
the United States.
That is why we’re asking the court to order an end to the N.S.A.’s dragnet
surveillance of Internet traffic.
Privacy is an essential right. It makes freedom of expression possible, and
sustains freedom of inquiry and association. It empowers us to read, write and
communicate in confidence, without fear of persecution. Knowledge flourishes
where privacy is protected.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is a board member of the
Wikimedia Foundation, of which Lila Tretikov is the executive director.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 10, 2015, on page A21 of the
New York edition with the headline: Stop Spying on Wikipedia Users.
Stop Spying on Wikipedia Users,
MARCH 10, 2015,
Steal This Column
February 5, 2012
The New York Times
By BILL KELLER
AMONG the wonders of the Internet, Wikipedia occupies a
special place. From its birth 11 years ago it has professed, and has tried
reasonably hard to practice, a kind of idealism that stands out in the vaguely,
artificially countercultural ambience of Silicon Valley. Google’s informal
corporate mantra — “Don’t Be Evil” — has become ever more cringe-making as the
company pursues its world conquest. Though Bill Gates has applied his personal
wealth to noble causes, nobody thinks of Microsoft as anything but a business. I
marvel at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his acolytes; but I marvel at their
imagination and industry, not what the new multibillionaire described last week
as their “social mission.” But Wikipedia, while it has grown something of a
bureaucratic exoskeleton, remains at heart the most successful example of the
public-service spirit of the wide-open Web: nonprofit, communitarian,
comparatively transparent, free to use and copy, privacy-minded, neutral and
Like many people, I was an early doubter that a volunteer-sourced encyclopedia
could be trusted, but I’m a convert. Although I find errors (a spot check of the
entries for myself and my father the other day found minor inaccuracies in both,
which I easily corrected), I use it more than any other Web tool except my
search engines, and because I value it, I donate to its NPR-style fund-raising
So as I followed the latest battle in the great sectarian war over the governing
of the Internet — the attempt to curtail online piracy — I was startled to see
that Wikipedia’s founder and philosopher, Jimmy Wales, who generally stays out
of the political limelight, had assumed a higher profile as a combatant for the
tech industry. He supplied an aura of credibility to a libertarian alliance that
ranged from the money-farming Megatrons of Google to the hacker anarchists of
Et tu, Jimmy?
For those of you who have not followed this subject — or who, like me, regard
phrases like “Net neutrality” as Novocain for the brain — the latest skirmish
concerns the rampant online theft of songs, films, books and other content.
Separate bills advancing in the House and Senate would have given the government
new tools to go after digital bootleggers. The central purpose of the
legislation — rather lost in the rhetorical cross-fire and press coverage — was
to extend the copyright laws that already protect content-creators in the U.S.
to offshore havens where the most egregious pirates have set up shop. Like most
people who make their living the way I do, I think parasite Web sites should be
treated with the same contempt as people who pick pockets or boost cars.
But the legislation in question, drafted by the once-mighty entertainment
industries, was vague and ham-handed, a case of overreach by Hollywood’s
lobbyists. In the journalistic equivalent of taking a bullet for you, I read all
78 staggeringly dull pages of the House version, called SOPA. Interpreted in the
most draconian way, it might have criminalized innocent sites and messed with
the secure plumbing of the Internet itself. The partisans of an unfettered
Internet saw their moment, and seized it. They unleashed a wave of protest that
included much waving of the First Amendment and an attention-grabbing blackout
of Wikipedia, the company’s most conspicuous foray into protest politics. The
legislation is dead, and proponents of the open Web have shown that they are the
new power in Washington.
The question is, how will they use their muscle now? Does this smackdown mean
that any attempt to police the Web for thievery is similarly doomed?
Jimmy Wales, when I connected with him in London, was the voice of reason
compared with some members of the openness alliance. He disavows the hacker
anarchists — whose most recent stunt to protest enforcement of the copyright
laws was to sabotage the Justice Department Web site — as “incredibly
counterproductive.” He said he believes copyright protection is “unquestionably
good” but that enforcement should focus on serious criminal enterprises, not the
music fan who burns a copy for a friend or the search engine that merely offers
the link to a bad place. (Agreed.) He worries that, under too-sweeping
legislation, a site like Wikipedia could be punished because its very
informative article about the aptly named site “The Pirate Bay” includes a link
to the offending destination. (That kind of prosecutorial overkill seems
unlikely, but it would be appalling.)
Wales thinks the current copyright protections — which require publishers,
broadcasters and other content-makers to watch out for piracy of their own
material and notify Internet hosts to take it down — work fine in the U.S. He
grants that enforcement in foreign countries is a problem, but he opposes as
burdensome and stifling any effort to make search engines or other
intermediaries filter what flows through them.
Wales is not endorsing legislation yet, but he had positive things to say about
an alternative bill, one that has won support from some tech companies and
Internet freedom groups. The so-called OPEN Act would give new powers to the
International Trade Commission to issue temporary restraining orders against
sites that specialize in selling bootleg copies of books, movies, TV shows and
so on, and to cut off their access to the online payment processors and
ad-placing services that fund them.
I read those 44 pages, too, and the best that can be said about the law —
drafted by the improbable left-right duo of Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon
Democrat, and Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican — is that
it’s a start. An impartial copyright expert who examined the bill at my request
pointed out many loopholes and ambiguities that could make enforcement
cumbersome and easily evaded. And personally, I’d go beyond OPEN (and Jimmy
Wales) to give the intermediaries — search engines, online sharing services —
greater responsibility to police what passes through their sites, rather than
obliging the victim to do all the work.
“Google can remove sites from its search results for causing too much spam; why
not for piracy?” said Robert Levine, whose 2011 book, “Free Ride,” is a
wonderfully clear-eyed account of this colossal struggle over the future of our
But the OPEN Act is at least something to build on, and its sponsors have
indicated they are flexible. The music and motion-picture industries should be
reaching out to the saner members of the tech industry to collaborate in making
it better, instead of demonizing it as if it were written by Blackbeard himself.
The online industry is not a monolith. Internet companies that have made
fortunes building paid venues — Apple (proprietor of iTunes) and Microsoft (Xbox
Live) and Netflix, among others — have been pretty quiet during the angry
backlash against copyright laws. They have a financial stake in protecting
“Basically, we need some serious reform,” Wales told me. “Everything should be
on the table. But it’s not a war; it’s a giant public policy question.”
Ah, Jimmy, Jimmy, there’s the rub. These days in Washington, everything is a
war. This is a complicated subject that has been turned into simplistic
sloganeering by rival vested interests dressed up as the saviors of freedom.
When the founders enshrined free speech in the Constitution, they did not mean
“free” in the sense of Wikipedia. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in an
important 1985 Supreme Court decision supporting intellectual property rights:
“the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By
establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright
supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.”
Content-makers would be crazy to let the Internet be stunted as a force for
invention, mobilization and shared wisdom. It’s the sea we all swim in.
At the same time, online companies would be crazy to let piracy kill off the
commerce that supplies quality material upon which even free sites like
Steal This Column, NYT, 5.2.2012,
Protest on Web Uses Shutdown
to Take On Two Piracy Bills
January 17, 2012
The New York Times
By JENNA WORTHAM
With a Web-wide protest on Wednesday that includes a 24-hour
shutdown of the English-language Wikipedia, the legislative battle over two
Internet piracy bills has reached an extraordinary moment — a political coming
of age for a relatively young and disorganized industry that has largely steered
clear of lobbying and other political games in Washington.
The bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the
Senate, are backed by major media companies and are mostly intended to curtail
the illegal downloading and streaming of TV shows and movies online. But the
tech industry fears that, among other things, they will give media companies too
much power to shut down sites that they say are abusing copyrights.
The legislation has jolted technology leaders, venture capitalists and
entrepreneurs, who are not accustomed to having their free-wheeling online world
come under attack.
One response is Wednesday’s protest, which directs anyone visiting Google and
many other Web sites to pages detailing the tech industry’s opposition to the
bills. Wikipedia, run by a nonprofit organization, is going further than most
sites by actually taking material offline — no doubt causing panic among
countless students who have a paper due.
It said the move was meant to spark greater public opposition to the bills,
which could restrict its freedom to publish.
“For the first time, it’s very clear that legislation could have a direct impact
on the industry’s ability to do business,” said Jessica Lawrence, the managing
director of New York Tech Meetup, a trade organization with 20,000 members that
has organized a protest rally in Manhattan on Wednesday. “This has been a
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, said that the technology industry,
which has birthed large businesses like Google, Facebook and eBay, is much more
powerful than it used to be.
“This is the first real test of the political strength of the Web, and
regardless of how things go, they are no longer a pushover,” said Professor Wu,
who is the author of “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information
Empires.” He added, “The Web taking a stand against one of the most powerful
lobbyers and seeming to get somewhere is definitely a first.”
Under the proposed legislation, if a copyright holder like Warner Brothers
discovers that a foreign site is focused on offering illegal copies of songs or
movies, it could seek a court order that would require search engines like
Google to remove links to the site and require advertising companies to cut off
payments to it.
Internet companies fear that because the definitions of terms like “search
engine” are so broad in the legislation, Web sites big and small could be
responsible for monitoring all material on their pages for potential violations
— an expensive and complex challenge.
They say they support current law, which requires Web sites with
copyright-infringing content to take it down if copyright holders ask them to,
leaving the rest of the site intact. Google, which owns YouTube and other sites,
received five million requests to remove content or links last year, and it says
it acts in less than six hours if it determines that the request is legitimate.
The major players supporting the legislation, including the United States
Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America, say those
measures are not enough to protect intellectual property. They emphasize that
their primary targets are foreign Web sites that sell counterfeit goods and let
people stream and download music and video at no charge — sites that are now
largely out of reach of United States law enforcement. And they are fighting
against what they characterize as gimmicks and distortions by Internet companies
opposed to the bills.
With talk of censorship and loss of Internet freedom, “the current debate has
nothing to do with the substance of the bills,” David Hirschmann, who leads the
Chamber of Commerce’s initiative on intellectual property, said in an interview.
“We will certainly use every tool in our toolbox to make sure members of
Congress know what’s in these bills.”
With financial resources that few other groups can match, the chamber is one of
Washington’s most powerful lobbying forces and has shown the ability to alter
Congressional debate on its own.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and author the Protect IP Act,
accused opponents Tuesday of trying to “stoke fear” through tactics like the
Wikipedia blackout. “Protecting foreign criminals from liability rather than
protecting American copyright holders and intellectual property developers is
irresponsible, will cost American jobs, and is just wrong,” he said in a
Opponents of the legislation have clearly seized the momentum in the debate.
Their protests have gained traction in that key provisions were stripped out of
one bill and the Obama administration has raised concerns. Legislators have
already agreed to delay or drop one ire-inducing component of the bills, Domain
Name System blocking, which would prevent access to sites that were found to
have illegal content.
A total of 115 companies and organizations have lobbyists working on the
antipiracy bills, spending millions of dollars to sway the outcome, according to
federal disclosure records. They include corporate and technology giants on both
sides of the legislation, with entertainment groups like News Corporation and
the Recording Industry Association of America backing it and Internet firms like
Google and Facebook raising concerns about it.
The largest advocates for the bills disagree with the tech industry’s main
rallying cry, which is the notion that they will hurt the average Internet user
or interfere with their online activities.
“The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social network sites,” said
Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a primary sponsor of the
Most people in the tech world agree that the problem of piracy needs to be
addressed. But they say their main concern is that the tech industry had little
influence on the language of the legislation, which is still in flux and so
broadly worded that it is not entirely clear how Internet businesses will be
affected. Big Internet companies say the bills could prevent entire Web sites
from appearing in search results — even if the sites operate legally and most
content creators want their videos or music to appear there.
“It shouldn’t apply to U.S. Web sites, but any company with a server overseas or
a domain name overseas could be at risk,” said Andrew McLaughlin, vice president
at Tumblr, a popular blogging service.
Mr. McLaughlin said the fear is that on large and diverse Web communities like
Tumblr, any user who uploads an unauthorized clip from a movie or an unreleased
track from an album is putting the whole company in the line of fire.
In November, Tumblr rigged a tool that “censored” the page its users see when
they log into the site, explained the legislation and routed them to contact
information for their representatives in Congress. The stunt resulted in 80,000
calls to legislators in a three-day period. Mr. McLaughlin said the company was
planning a similar approach for Wednesday.
Some who oppose the bill, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an
online rights group, see a bright spot in a potential compromise called the OPEN
Act, which would provide for the International Trade Commission to judge cases
of copyright or trademark infringement. If the commission found that a foreign
site was largely devoted to piracy, it could compel payment processors and
online advertising companies to stop doing business with it.
Silicon Valley has championed companies that provide alternatives to piracy,
like Spotify and Netflix. And the industry says that the problem could be solved
by letting it do what it does best — innovating.
“It’s something that could be solved using technology through collaboration with
these start-ups,” said Ms. Lawrence of New York Tech Meetup.
Reporting was contributed by Eric Lichtblau, Edward Wyatt
Claire Cain Miller.
Protest on Web Uses Shutdown to Take On Two
Piracy Bills, NYT, 17.1.2012,
Wikipedia – an unplanned miracle
Every day since its birth 10 years ago,
Wikipedia has got better.
amazing it even exists
Friday 14 January 2011
This article was published on guardian.co.uk
at 22.00 GMT on Friday 14 January
A version appeared on p36
of the Main section section of the Guardian
Saturday 15 January 2011.
It was last modified at 00.03 GMT
on Saturday 15 January 2011.
Wikipedia is the most widely used reference work in the world.
That statement is both ordinary and astonishing: it's a simple reflection of its
enormous readership; and yet, by any traditional view about how the world works,
Wikipedia shouldn't even exist, much less have succeeded so dramatically in the
space of a single decade.
The cumulative effort of Wikipedia's millions of contributors means you are a
click away from figuring out what a myocardial infarction is, or the cause of
the Agacher Strip war, or who Spangles Muldoon was. This is an unplanned
miracle, like "the market" deciding how much bread goes in the store. Wikipedia,
though, is even odder than the market: not only is all that material contributed
for free, it is available to you free; even the servers and system
administrators are funded through donations. That it would become such a miracle
was not obvious at its inception and so, on the occasion of its 10th birthday,
it's worth retelling the improbable story of its genesis.
Ten years ago today, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger were stuck trying to create
Nupedia, an online encyclopedia with a seven-step publishing process.
Unfortunately, that also meant seven places where things could grind to a halt.
However, after nearly a year of work, almost no articles had actually been
So, 10 years ago tomorrow, Wales and Sanger decided to try a wiki, as a way of
cutting through some of that process. Sanger sent an email to Nupedia
collaborators about this new way of working, saying: "Humour me. Go there and
add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes."
The "Humour me" bit was necessary because the wiki is social media at its most
radical. Invented in the mid-90s by Ward Cunningham, a wiki has at its core only
one technical function: edit. You don't need permission to add, alter, or delete
text, and when you are done, you don't need permission to publish.
More remarkably, though, a wiki also has at its core only one social operation:
I care. The people who edit pages are the ones who care enough to edit them.
Putting the people who care in charge, rather than anointing experts or
authorities, was so radical that Wales and Sanger didn't propose replacing
Nupedia with a wiki. Instead, they proposed using the wiki to generate raw
material for Nupedia.
The participants, however, had other ideas. The ability to create an article in
five minutes, and to make an existing article a little better in less, was so
infectious that in a matter of days there were more articles on the nascent wiki
than on Nupedia. The wiki was so good, and so different from Nupedia, it was
soon moved to its own site. Wikipedia was born. (Nupedia was shut down a few
months later; Sanger also left the project.)
That process continues today, making Wikipedia an ordinary miracle for more than
250 million people a month. Every single day for the last 10 years Wikipedia has
got better because someone – several million someones in all – decided to make
it better. Sometimes that meant starting a new article. Mostly it meant editing
an existing one. Occasionally it meant defending Wikipedia against vandalism.
Always it meant caring. Most participants care a little, editing only one
article. A handful care a lot, contributing hundreds of thousands of edits,
across thousands of articles, over years. Most importantly, taken together, all
of us have contributed enough to make Wikipedia what we have today. What looks
like a stable thing is in fact a result of ceaseless attempts to preserve what
is good, and to improve what isn't. Wikipedia is best understood not as a
product with an organisation behind it, but as an activity that happens to leave
an encyclopedia in its wake.
That shift, from product to activity, has involved the most amazing expansion of
peer review ever: Wikipedia's editor-in-chief is a rotating quorum of whoever is
paying attention. Many of Wikipedia's critics have focused on the fact that the
software lets anyone edit anything; what they miss is that the social
constraints of the committed editors keep that capability in check. As easy as
the software makes it to do damage, it makes it even easier to undo damage.
Imagine a wall where it was easier to remove graffiti than add it: the amount of
graffiti on such a wall would depend on the commitment of its defenders. So with
Wikipedia; if all its passionate participants were to stop caring, the whole
thing would be gone by next Thursday, overrun by vandals and spammers. If you
can see Wikipedia right now, it means that again, today, the good guys won.
Wikipedia isn't perfect, of course. Many mediocre articles need improvement. The
editors are not diverse enough in age, gender or ethnicity. Biographies of the
living remain a persistent site of mischief. Defences erected against vandals
and spammers also see off novices and exhaust old-timers. But Wikipedia isn't
just an activity at the level of the articles; from the individual edits all the
way up to the culture of the whole, Wikipedia is a public good created by the
public, so it falls to the people who care to try to take on these problems as
well. As long as that culture continues to embrace "be bold" as a core value,
its status as one of the largest cumulative acts of generosity in history will
persist. So happy 10th birthday to Wikipedia, and ardent thanks to the millions
of people who have added and altered and argued and amended, the people who have
created the most widely used reference work in the world. Thanks for telling us
the story of the Stonewall riots and how Pluto got demoted to "dwarf planet";
about the Great Rift Valley and the Indian Ocean tsunami; about lion fish and
tiger teams and bear markets. And along with the birthday wishes, here's hoping
enough of us keep caring enough to be able to greet you again, in rude good
health, for your 20th.
Wikipedia – an
unplanned miracle, G, 14.1.2011,
The wiki-snobs are taking over
Wikipedia is to curb its open-to-all policy
after a string of
its boss tells Giles Hattersley
February 8, 2009
The Sunday Times
Jimmy Wales is in the departure lounge at JFK airport, New
York, sucking his breath with shame as he tells me of the moment when his
beloved Wikipedia got it wrong.
“Take your pick,” I’m thinking. Was it the day Alan Titchmarsh’s Wikipedia entry
stated that he had penned a sequel to the Kama Sutra? Or when Bruce
Springsteen’s biography kicked off with: “This guy kinda sucks.” Or when
Alistair Darling’s life story was replaced with a sentence so profane it would
be impossible to reprint here?
“No, it was the Ted Kennedy thing,” sighs Wales. Ah yes. That. Also known as the
day last month when Wikipedia – the world’s largest online encyclopedia,
co-founded by Wales eight years ago – announced that a member of America’s most
scrutinised dynasty had died . . . when, actually, he hadn’t.
It was Wales’s tipping point. Tomorrow the youthful-looking 42-year-old guardian
of wiki-world is putting forward a controversial proposal to ensure that changes
to the most popular wiki-pages are vetted before they go live. The biographies
of living persons and hot topics such as Gaza and God will have to be
scrutinised by arbitrators chosen from Wikipedia’s most active volunteer
contributors. These “core users” are the wiki-devotees who have spent years
posting and editing content. Some have worked on 10,000 pages from their spare
room in Basingstoke or on a laptop in Tokyo – and all for free. As a thank you,
they now get a say in how it’s run.
Sounds innocuous enough? But given that Wikipedia was founded on the principle
that anyone can post, edit, tweak or vandalise it at any time, you have to
wonder whether Wales’s libertarian experiment has failed.
A not atypical tale of how a Wikipedia entry can come into being is the story of
Bertie, then 11, a friend’s son, who was charged to deliver a school report on
Deal castle. He found no reference on Wikipedia, so after researching his essay
the old-fashioned way (books!) he uploaded his report on the site. To be fair,
young Bertie’s is by no means the least scholarly posting on the site. “I think
that’s great,” says Wales, who is big on “access”.
Wales’s enthusiasm aside, there have been sceptics about the open-access model
since the site was launched. Many of the first entries were lifted from the 1911
edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, but most of the content is user generated.
Accordingly, the site often feels like the Mrs Malaprop of cyberspace. You will
no doubt be familiar with the poor spelling, shaky sources and downright
misinformation. With notable exceptions, many of the 10m posts have become a
dodgy crutch for lazy students with an essay due.
Last month the crisis took hold. Wales’s utopian dream of shared knowledge –
built on the idea that none of us is as smart as all of us – seemed to be
unravelling. The headlines stank. Miley Cyrus, Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs had
all been declared dead and Margaret Thatcher’s entry claimed she was a
fictitious character. Then the “Kennedy moment” occurred.
“What’s interesting is that I was personally trying to edit the page as it
happened,” says Wales, scratching the designer stubble he has sported since he
quit his job as a high-rolling stocks trader in the 1990s and headed to Florida
to live his internet dream. “I finished watching the inauguration and the
television was still on and there were these early reports that Ted Kennedy had
been whisked away, so I went immediately to Wikipedia to see how things were
looking and I saw that he was dead. I instantly questioned it, because CNN said
they didn’t have all the facts on his condition and I thought it was pretty
unlikely that we would have it before they did.
“I thought: somebody’s jumped the gun here. So I went to edit it out of the page
but it was already being used so I couldn’t get on there.”
He pawed impotently at his keyboard. “It was extremely frustrating. This was a
very high-profile biography on a very high-profile day and it would have been
pretty straightforward to have stopped that.”
But would it? Wikipedia may be open to all, in theory, but it is in effect run
by a cabal of 3,000 amateur know-alls.
“They are an extremely smart, committed group, who seem to work almost full-time
on the project while at work or at home,” marvels Wales, whose paid staff number
a mere 25. “I don’t know how they get anything else done.”
The know-alls squabble constantly over “facts”, undoing each other’s work and
posting their own, but they tend to band together to protect their supremacy if
any upstarts come along. Between them they manage more than 70% of information
on the site. As Wikipedia has featured in the top 10 most visited sites globally
for five years, they have become the de facto arbiters of mankind’s collective
memory. Aside from the practical impossibility of sieving so much information,
doesn’t the site’s gang rule fly in the face of Wales’s hippie-tastic dream of
access for everyone?
“Well, I’m not a hippie,” Wales says. “I’m a centre-right, free-market
capitalist. And, actually, I think the opposite to you. There is a core
community who are extremely powerful but that is a good thing.
One of the great misconceptions about us is this idea that Wikipedia is
anti-elitist. That’s just wrong. We are actually extremely snobby.” And proud of
it? “Yes. These core users really manage and enforce our standards. If it
weren’t for them Wikipedia would be chock full of rubbish.”
Perhaps that should be “more” chock full. When Wikipedia and Britannica were
pitted against one another, the website was found to have 33% more errors. “I’ve
always been concerned about this,” Wales says. “We get this error or that error
making headlines and it’s something I don’t like to see. But at the same time I
feel it’s a bit unwarranted and usually means people don’t understand how
Or doesn’t work? “Look, if some mistake is only live for five minutes, is it
really cause for thinking of us as completely insane? For one thing, in the old
days with print, correcting an error took a day. We can do it fast.”
But while howlers such as Kennedy’s death are easily spotted, what of the reams
of erroneous detail that the site presents as fact?
My entry features at least two errors, one libellous (unless my mother has been
keeping a dark secret, I am not Roy Hattersley’s son). “Yes, sometimes a person
will post something that is a commonly held error. I say to people that just
because you’ve heard something somewhere does not make it valid.”
Wales claims that the plans to vet will increase accuracy. However, as Wikipedia
gives more power to its vociferous elite, won’t it become just what it never
wanted to be – a wannabe Académie Française?
“Wikipedia is human, evolving and democratic, so it will always be different,”
he says. But will it ever be accurate?
Perhaps not, says Wales: “One of my favourite examples of a mistake was in my
own biography. Someone had edited it to say I relax by playing chess with
friends. I don’t. I’ve nothing against it, I just don’t happen to play chess.
But this stayed on my biography for weeks.” If they can’t get it right for the
guy who runs it, could it be that all of us aren’t smarter than one of us after
The wiki-snobs are
taking over, STs, 8.2.2009,
Wikipedia a force for good?
Nonsense, says a co-founder
From The Times
of the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia criticised the Education Secretary
yesterday for suggesting that the website could be a good educational tool for
Mr Johnson described the internet as “an incredible force for good in education”
for teachers and pupils, singling out Wikipedia for praise.
“Wikipedia enables anybody to access information which was once the preserve
only of those who could afford the subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica and
could spend the time necessary to navigate its maze of indexes and content
pages,” he told the annual conference of the National Association of
Schoolteachers and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) in Belfast.
But Larry Sanger, who helped to found Wikipedia in 2001, said that the site was
“broken beyond repair” and no longer reliable.
Wikipedia is among the top ten most visited sites on the internet, containing
more than six million articles contributed only by members of the public. But it
has been criticised for being riddled with inaccuracies and nonsense.
Last month it was revealed that a prominent and long-standing Wikipedia
contributor had lied about his identity, having claimed to be a tenured
university professor, when he was in fact a 24-year-old college drop-out.
Concerned about the website’s integrity, Mr Sanger left Wikipedia, and two weeks
ago launched an online encyclopaedia called Citizendium.org, which he said would
be monitored and edited by academics and experts as well as accepting public
He told The Times: “I’m afraid that Mr Johnson does not realise the many
problems afflicting Wikipedia, from serious management problems, to an often
dysfunctional community, to frequently unreliable content, and to a whole series
of scandals. While Wikipedia is still quite useful and an amazing phenomenon, I
have come to the view that it is also broken beyond repair.”
Nick Gibb, the Tory schools spokesman, said: “A huge amount of the current
curriculum, particularly in history, is devoted to teaching children to be
discerning when it comes to information on the internet.
“It appears the Secretary of State is not quite as modern as he needs to be in
this information age.”
Mr Johnson also used his speech to call on social networking websites to stop
pupils posting inappropriate videos of and abusive comments about their teachers
on the internet.
In one case a female teacher’s head was superimposed on to a pornographic
Mr Johnson said that the online harassment of teachers was causing some to
consider leaving the profession. He called on the providers of websites to take
firmer action to block or remove offensive school material, in the same way that
they have cut pornographic content.
However, Chris Keates, the union’s general secretary, told Mr Johnson that his
call was likely to have little impact.
Wikipedia a force for good? Nonsense, says a co-founder,
Related > Anglonautes >