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.


  • Gregory Kohs

    Traci, you’re joking when you say “When Wales founded Wikipedia”, right? Why do you hate Dr. Larry Sanger so much?

  • CC’09

    It’s too bad that Wales didn’t take the opportunity to discuss the relationship that Wikipedia and universities and how they can benefit from each other.

    Wikipedia has a troubled place in academia, and the problems it poses are only going to become more acute as it continues to grow. Most into-level research and writing classes at university begin with a discussion of plagiarism and use of sources–which often explicitly includes a warning that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source of information (or text).

    While this is of course a necessary lesson for students to learn, professors should also recognize that Wikipedia offers their students a great advantage. The ideal Wikipedia article is well-sourced: although students can’t take Wikipedia at its word, they CAN take advantage of its often extensive bibliographies. (Of course, they still need to be able to judge the quality of those sources for themselves, too.)

    If we want to be idealistic: Wikipedia and universities (ostensibly) share the same mission: spreading the wealth of human knowledge. Universities ought to recognize that Wikipedia is the first place that many people turn to for info on unfamiliar subjects. (Libraries and JSTOR are great if you are affiliated with a university and have access–but lets face it, even many students at YALE don’t realize what resources are available to them.) If the promotion of human knowledge were actually the central mission of the academy (which, of course, I realize isn’t entirely true), universities could further their mission by encouraging professors to contribute to Wikipedia–by fact checking and supplying reliable sources, if nothing else. I realize I’d be laughed off campus if I ever publicly suggested that contributions to Wikipedia might be considered as part of tenure decisions (ranking around or below committee work), but wouldn’t that be an awesome world to live in?

    Of course, some reciprocity from Wikipedia would go a long way. Central to the site’s mission is the notion that everyone is welcome to contribute, and of course that shouldn’t be changed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that (as current policy dictates) an editor’s credentials ought to count for nothing. Of the academics I know who’ve contributed to Wikipedia (many of whom were stellar editors by wiki standards), most have given up the project because they spend most of their time in petty fights with cranks who believe in lizard people living at the center of the Earth. Wikipedian ‘society’ is already stratified between IP’s, registered users, and admins; why not create a class of users who are confirmed specialists, whose sourced edits can’t be reverted and who can be called upon for arbitration in disputes?

    (I realize what a starry-eyed fantasy this is–neither side wants to make the necessary concessions–but I still think it’d be a meaningful opportunity for academic research to share its knowledge with the world outside the academy.)


    I don’t see what the Welsh have to do with Wikipedia at all.

  • Adi

    @CC ’09

    He touched on Wikipedia and universities earlier in the day in class. To boil it down, he stressed on the fact that it is a reference source — and that’s it. It’s a great place to find background information (because that’s its mission), but just as you wouldn’t (normally) cite Encyclopedia Britannica in a paper, you probably wouldn’t cite Wikipedia. There are exceptions, and many authors have cited Wikipedia for background information in books and papers. Hell, even a few court cases have cited Wikipedia for non-disputed information. I don’t think it expects to be a source for anything else.

    As far as academic contributions, my friend had the exact same thought as yours. I believe that he asked Jimbo about this earlier this year, and I’ll post his response once I find out what he said. I have a feeling that it has to do with neutrality. When one person has a monopoly over information, it kinda defeats the purpose of a community-edited resource and neutrality is potentially compromised. The idea is that, if the person contributes and their information is verifiable, neutral, and isn’t original research, it should be fine. And given the sheer number of quality articles, I’d say the community is doing a great job at keeping up those principles.

  • Gregory Kohs

    And not a single bright Yalie is going to question the line, “the site’s billions of contributors”?

  • dke

    Information is not always knowledge.

  • Adi

    @Gregory Kohs
    You’re right. That information is wrong and should be fixed. More importantly, though, it is possible to comment productively without unnecessary, sarcastic trolling.