Wikipedia: Beyond the Encyclopedia
The atmosphere at Wikipedia: Beyond the Encyclopedia was lighthearted and warm as Guy Kawasaki, Chief Evangelist of Canva, sat down to interview Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the love it or hate it free-access, free-content Internet encyclopedia, was born out of the idea that great software was leading to an incredible explosion of creativity on the web. The ability to collaborate via wiki helped the encyclopedia take off.
“In order to succeed we had to be more academic than a traditional encyclopedia,” Wales said, but initial intentions to be highly academic turned out to be detrimental. “It turned out that the system that we had created with a seven step review process was no fun,” Wales said.
In the end, the huge academic system didn’t work to ensure accuracy. The best way to ensure quality was to open it up to the people – to the experts.
After adopting the wiki model, “We got more done in two weeks than we had in almost two years,” Wales said.
Wales is a self-proclaimed “pathological optimist,” and it shows in his response to Wikipedia haters. To parents and teachers who doubt the accuracy of Wikipedia because anyone can edit it, he kind of shrugs.
“I think having Wikipedia being something that you can site isn’t a goal that we have,” Wales said. “In a university paper you would never cite an encyclopedia. It’s a jumping off point to get a general sense of a topic.”
Another common criticism of the free encyclopedia is that a famous person can’t edit their own page, but Wales says that most of them don’t try hard enough. Yes, people can’t always get edits through right away, but that’s part of the beauty of the community. The number of people that want to correct the record on things that are pretty controversial is too high to remove these things immediately on request.
“One of the great concepts of Wikipedia is to ‘go meta.’ Wikipedia is not necessarily going to tell you the truth with a capital T but it will help you get to the answer.”
Sometimes arguments break out over a controversial Wikipedia page. Wales again sees the positivity in this interaction, as collaboration between level heads on both sides tends to present the entire scope of a concept.
People tend to think, “If you want to understand this issue, come look at what we’ve written and you will understand what we’re fighting about. It’s the people who don’t feel confident in their own views that want to suppress the opposing argument,” Wales said. “It’s really important that we have strong community of people who care more about Wikipedia than about the particular issue.”
Wales believes that the human touch of Wikipedia is what has made it endure. So what happens in a world where Google has such great machine learning that computers are writing encyclopedia entries instead of humans?
My belief is that other than poetry, writing an encyclopedia article is among the highest of human capacities. Google can’t even do a halfway decent translation, let alone write something from scratch.
Wales openly expressed skepticism toward the U.S. government and when the subject turned to Edward Snowden, hero or whistleblower, Wales didn’t miss a beat before he answered.
“I say hero,” Wales said. “He has been very careful about working with journalists, what gets released, it doesn’t seem sloppy. Security agencies scream and moan about it, but the idea has been to establish in the abstract what was going on, not releasing names. If we know in the main what the government is doing then we can draw those lines between security and privacy in a more thoughtful way.”
Unfortunately there is a large gender imbalance within Wikipedia editing. Kawasaki and Wales discussed some of the causes and cures.
“One of the things we see is that when you click edit at Wikipedia you get wiki markup language,” Wales said. “That’s very off-putting for a lot of people. Part of it is technical. When we look at the demographics of the Wikipedia edit community, it’s a lot of computer geeks. There’s no reason that being good at markup languages is a prerequisite for participation. That needs to be fixed.”
Still, Wales believes that Wikipedia doesn’t have nearly the problem that other online spaces face.
“You can go to a pro gamer gate subreddit and see right away that it is not a welcoming community for women,” Wales said. “That’s not the case at Wikipedia. We want more women to participate and we are trying to extend the invitation.”