“Censorship is unfortunate”

CIOL Bureau
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Wikipedia describes itself as a free encyclopedia anyone can edit. A portmanteau of the words wiki and encyclopedia Jimmy Wales founded in 2001, Wikipedia has today burgeoned into a project that has over five million articles in many languages, including 1,417,580 in English. It is today the 17th most popular website in the world.


Wales was in Bangalore last week to participate in the Infovision summit and also to meet up with the Wikipedia community in India. Priya Padmanabhan of CyberMedia News caught up with him for an exclusive interview.

Wikipedia is today a model of egalitarianism, democracy, and association on the Internet. Did you intend that it would turn out that way or were you just out to prove something to the world?

I always thought it would grow big, but it has certainly grown very fast. It has been amazing. It started in January 2001 and we started in English and then quickly added on other languages


The basic concept has always been to have a high quality encyclopedia on the Net. We have always been careful to say Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is not just a place to air random opinions. Things need to be carefully sourced and neutrality is really important and those early principles are what made it successful, because if you agree upon presenting things neutrally it helps a lot of people work together.

We are the 17th most popular website in the world. If we look at the active community - it mostly consists of people in their late 20s and 30s. Unfortunately 80 per cent of the community is male. We would like to see more balance. In countries where there is a lot of Internet access, there are many more contributors and if it is low, there are few contributors.

What are your comments on attempts to gag Wikipedia in China? Has Wikipedia faced these kind of issues elsewhere? Even Indian authorities had tried to gag blogs here. Your views?


Wikipedia is blocked in China. We don’t know what they took offense to. We really don’t intend to compromise the way Google did. We also feel that the block is an error. I am trying to set up high-level meetings in China to state our case and explain why we should be unblocked. We have no idea what the result of that would be. But we are somewhat hopeful. Wikipedia is not a haven for dissidents but an encyclopedia. About 99.9 per cent of Wikipedia has topics that are not of interest to the Chinese Government. There is no political component. We are hopeful that they can see the point.

Censorship is unfortunate. It does not achieve much any good especially on the Internet. Even in China, many people know how to get around the firewall. When people are censoring, they are not just preventing outside information from coming into the country, but also preventing local people from having a voice in the world. So the Chinese people would like to contribute to Wikipedia to give the Chinese point of view for the entire world to see. And China needs to be better understood by the rest of the world.

How do you make sure the data that is presented on the site is authentic? How do you cope with vandalism of articles?


The core community is passionate about quality and they review all the copies as they come in. Of course, mistakes are made, but accuracy tends to be high. One of the things we do is that we keep every single version of every article. If someone comes and puts up something ridiculous, anyone can very quickly go back to the previous version. In terms of editorial standards we are traditional and old-fashioned. If something seems controversial, we insist that the contributor provide the exact source for it and we also evaluate the quality of sources in a traditional way. It is all about humans making editorial judgments.

Every article has a discussion page where people respond to an error. If you post a note calling attention to some mistake, the community will swarm in and clean up the article. If someone sees something ridiculous in Wikipedia, they can remove it and say please don’t put it back unless you have a source. This usually works well.

Isn’t Wikipedia inclusive in the sense that you would be missing out on content from people who have no access to the Internet. What are you doing to bridge this divide?


I agree with that. It is a difficult problem since the poorest people cannot access or benefit from Wikipedia. All our work is free. We would like to see people use Wikipedia commercially, for example, print out volumes of interesting articles and sell it cheaply to people who don’t have access to the Internet but who are literate and can benefit from it. We have no concrete plan but would like this to happen. It is like open source software. Anyone can use this information and send it wherever they like. The digital divide is something that we are acutely aware of. We have this large community of people who are ready to provide huge educational material for free and we have people who are very eager to become more educated and prosperous in the world but don’t have the resources to get started. So hopefully, in our own way we can give them more.

Would Wikipedia go paid in future?

Wikipedia will not go paid. That definitely won’t happen since the model doesn’t make sense for us. We are a charity non-profit organization with a goal to provide a free encyclopedia to the every person on the planet in his or her own language. In that spirit, one of the reasons I’m here in India is to promote the Indian language Wikipedias and to encourage people to contribute in many languages of India. We have active projects in many languages and some are more successful than others. But all could use some encouragement.


What according to you is the real motive that is driving millions of people to take time out of their busy lives to contribute?

The most important thing that motivates people is that it is fun. For very intellectual people, it is an enjoyable activity. You get to meet a lot of interesting people on the project and the community is friendly. If you are the kind of person that insists that your way is the only right way, you won’t find it a friendly environment because anyone can edit what you have written. People have fun working together.

Wikipedia is growing at a rapid scale, how do you fund the growth?


Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit that manages Wikipedia. We accept donations from the public. The project is not that expensive to maintain. Last year, we spent around $750,000. This year it would be between $1 million and $1.5 million. Most of this goes into servers and bandwidth. But we haven’t had trouble raising money from the public since we have such a huge audience. We make funding requests from time to time. We usually have a fund drive every quarter. But this year, we had a successful fund drive in the first quarter and also donations through the website. So we didn’t need another drive.

There is a lot of talk about languages on Wikipedia, but English remains too predominant. What needs to be done to encourage other languages? A bit on Indian languages?

In India, some of the languages are doing better then the others. Kannada for example, is growing 20-30 per cent a month. It is attracting a lot of people. What we find in small languages is that once we can get 20-30 people contributing it becomes more fun. Within three-five years, Kannada will be a large project. Other languages like Hindi, Bengali and Tamil are also growing. Very few people in India do languages. This is because of a lack of awareness. Many don’t know about the existence of these language projects. People here are enthusiastic about having more Internet content and activity in Indian languages.

Globally, we have over 200 language projects. But we count languages as being active when we have thousand plus articles. That way, we count 107 languages.

Don’t you think the academic and specialist orientation is missing with Wikipedia vis-à-vis the Encyclopedia Britannica?

We have a lot of experts in many fields contributing. People drawn into the project are those who know a lot about a subject and by having an open editing process, we allow other people like those who are more interested in copy-editing, style and grammar. Everyone can help. Sometimes, an engineering professor may not be the best person to present advanced concepts to the general public because he may be very technical. So someone who is a good science writer can help in presenting these things in a clear way to the public. The community that is enforced to keep things organized on track writes a lot of policies.

There are 3000 active members in the community and this is an arbitrary list.

(Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

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