Wales talks Wikipedia

When Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia, he hoped his populist approach to cataloguing information would one day render the volumes put out by publishing giants such as Encyclopedia Brittanica and World Book irrelevant.

Wales discussed the development of Wikipedia and its function in today’s culture at a lecture co-sponsored by Yale Students for Free Culture and The Information Society Project at Yale Law School. In front of a packed auditorium in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on Wednesday, Wales focused on Wikipedia’s purpose as an Internet encyclopedia and its place in the future of free cyber fact-sharing.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, talks to students Wednesday about free culture online.
Daniel Carvalho
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, talks to students Wednesday about free culture online.

“Wikipedia began with a very radical idea,” Wales said. “And that’s for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

Wales’ idea to create a free encyclopedia took original form with Nupedia, an online encyclopedia he co-founded with careful restrictions on who could contribute material. Nupedia provided a very rigid arena for people to share information, failing to foster an environment conducive to volunteer contributions, Wales said.

“It was like grad school all over again,” Wales said of writing entries for Nupedia. “It wasn’t very fun; it was kind of intimidating.”

Wales then founded Wikipedia, a freely licensed encyclopedia written by thousands of volunteers in various languages, which Wales said overcame the contribution limitations that plagued Nupedia.

Wikipedia is now the fourth most popular Web site in the world, though the frequency of visitors differs from country to country. Using a bar graph, Wales showed the audience the varying popularity of different entry categories such as culture, geography and entertainment across the United States, Europe and Asia.

Despite its current global appeal, Wales said he is focused on the growth of Wikipedia in the developing world. The site is currently experiencing 10 percent monthly growth in the number of entries from developing countries. Wales said he hopes such growth will have a significant cultural impact on the global community.

With a budget of about $10 million for the coming year, a small staff of only 25 supports the site’s millions of contributors. They provide these volunteers with what Wales called “four basic freedoms”: the freedom to copy, modify and redistribute modified entries.

Wales said his vision for the future of the Internet and free culture does not stop with Wikipedia. This vision prompted his creation of a new organization, Wikia, in 2004 to provide a broader method of sharing information. Wikia allows communities with similar interests — interests that range from American Girl dolls to the Boston Celtics — to use “wiki” software to create and edit pages on their topic of choice.

“Wikipedia is the encyclopedia and Wikia is the rest of the library,” Wales explained.

Wales addressed a few popular concerns that the public has had regarding open information-sharing sites like Wikipedia and Wikia. Many people have called Wikipedia a form of “crowd sourcing,” in which a company dupes the public into working for it.

Wales said such characterizations were “a huge mistake” and an insult to the community of contributors.

Four students interviewed offered differing thoughts on Wales’ ideas.

Adi Kamdar ’12, leader of Yale Students for Free Culture, appreciated Wales’ focus on community, saying that such a wide base of collaborators could produce “great things.”

Machiste Quintana ’13 said he found the lecture redundant.

“[Wales] just kind of reiterated points that are inherent to functions of Wikipedia, Wikia and other Web sites, just from the perspective of the person who made them” he said.

Wale’s down-to-earth demeanor was striking, observed Daniel Zelaya ’13.

“He’s not caught up in details. He’s more interested in providing people with knowledge than with copyright,” he said.

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