Jimmy Wales [ Wikipedia Revolution ] Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

By now, it’s hard to use the Internet without experiencing Wikipedia in searches and surfing. It has become an incredibly useful Internet resource in many languages. Yet when you use Wikipedia, you may not understand the philosophy behind it.

What is Wikipedia? Wikipedia is a freely licensed encyclopedia written by volunteers in many languages. That it is freely licensed is one of the most important things.

wikipediaWhat do I mean by free? I mean  free as in speech, not free as in beer . It means we give people four freedoms. You get the freedom to copy our work. You can modify it. You can redistribute it. And you can redistribute modified versions. And you can do all of these things commercially or noncommercially. When we talk about Wikipedia being a free encyclopedia, what we’re really talking about is not the price that it takes to access it, but rather the freedom that you have to take it and adapt it and use it however you like.

And that’s really core to our mission, and it’s really core to the vision of Wikipedia that gets people to work so hard on it.

How big is Wikipedia? It’s now extremely big. It has well over a billion words, making it several times larger than Britannica and Encarta combined.

How big is Wikipedia globally? We’ve got more than 2.5 million articles in English, but English is less than one-third of our total work. We’re truly a global project, in many languages. We have more than 800,000 articles in German, and more than 500,000 in each of the French, Polish, and Japanese editions. In total, there are twenty-five language editions that have at least 100,000 articles.

We have 10 million articles across some 200 languages. We have more than 70 language versions of Wikipedia that have at least 10,000 articles, and more than 150 have at least 1,000 articles. So a thousand articles is not really an encyclopedia—that’s just a beginning.

That number is significant, because once we have a thousand articles, we know there’s a community there. There are likely five or six people, and they’re getting started, they’re starting to build, there are regulars there, and that’s when it really starts to move.

How popular is Wikipedia? Wikipedia has become a real Internet phenome­non, in the last couple of years in particular. It is now, according to all Internet metrics, a top ten global Web site. And we now have a broader reach, for example, than the New York Times.

By reach, I mean the number of unique IP numbers that we see in a given day. We see more people, or more people see us, than the  New York Times ; we see more people than the  LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com , and the  Chicago Tribune . The really cool thing is,  we see more unique visitors in a day than all of these sites combined .

What is the amazing technology behind Wikipedia? The technology required for Wikipedia is essentially rather simple. You need a database, you need a Web server, you need a Web browser, and you need the wiki editing concept. While the wiki concept was invented in 1995 by Ward Cunningham, Wikipedia didn’t start until 2001. So all of the technology, including the idea of a wiki, which is a Web site that anyone can edit, has existed since 1995. Why then, if Wikipedia is a technological innovation, wasn’t it developed earlier?

The answer is, Wikipedia isn’t a technological innovation at all; it’s a  social innovation . What we figured out between 1995 and 2001 was not new technology. We had the Web already, but we discovered the basic idea of how to orga­nize a community.

What are the social norms, values, practices that you need within a community? One of the core features that really makes Wikipedia work is the free licens­ing. This is really empowering to all of the people working on the site.

When you  visit most Web sites, if you read the terms and conditions, you’ll see that they’re really abusive. They basically say, anything you enter on the Web site belongs to us. Sorry . And people have put up with that for a long time, but it does discourage people from feeling really empowered to take control of the site and really care for it. However, under free licensing they realize that if the organization running a site, if the company running this, does a botched job, the community can all leave. They can take the content and go. It really does belong to the community. And if you’re going to spend hours and hours and hours contributing knowledge to the world, I think it’s really important to have that feeling that it will always be available.

Lots of things come and go in the world, but as long as you put it out there under free license, and you’ve collaborated with other people, you know it will al­ways be there as a base for someone to move forward on. That’s really important.

Within Wikipedia’s community, we’re actually talking about very old-fashioned types of references.  Good writing. Neutrality. Reliable sources. Verifiability . We’re talking about people’s behavior in the community. We’re not talking about some kind of magic process. Quality matters, and a thoughtful community has emerged around that ideal.

I have a philosophy about the design of social software. Imagine that you’re going to design a restaurant. Just think about the problem of design for a restaurant. In this restaurant we’re going to be serving steak. Since we’re going to be serving steak, we’re going to have steak knives. And since we’re going to have steak knives, people might stab each other. So how do we solve this problem? What we could do is build cages and keep everybody in cages to make sure no one stabs anyone.

Well, this makes for a bad society. We reject this kind of thinking in restaurant design, and yet this is the predominant paradigm for social software design. Traditionally when we sit down to design a Web site, we think of all of the bad things people might do, and make sure that we have controls and permissions, everything to prevent people from doing the bad things.

This has two effects. While you do prevent people from doing bad things, there are often very obvious and direct side effects that prevent them from doing good things. If I look at a Web page and see a small spelling error, but I don’t have permission to edit that page, I can’t fix it. That’s the first order of fact, that by having complex permission models, you make it very hard for people to spontaneously do good.

But the second effect has to do with how human interactions are organized. How do people trust each other? How do people feel about society? Many, many people report that when they’ve been involved in some kind of online mailing list or other things like that, gee, it’s so hostile. There are so many hostile communities on the Internet. One of the reasons is because this philosophy of trying to make sure that no one can hurt anyone else actually eliminates all the opportunities for trust.

These considerations bring us into the nitty-gritty of how the software actually works. All the good intentions in the world, saying “Oh, we love everybody,” don’t get you very far if you don’t really have the software tools to make it work.

So the most important thing about the process is to understand that all of the rules are social. The software does not determine the rules of Wikipedia. Almost everything is completely open-ended in terms of what the software does. There’s very, very little in the software that serves as rule enforcement.  It’s all about dialogue, it’s all about conversation, it’s all about humans making decisions.  So that’s extremely important.

Let’s take these ideals of Wikipedia and bring them out to lots and lots of people in lots and lots of areas far beyond simply encyclopedias. I think the genuine communities, like Wikipedia, will be built on love and respect. But it’s really important, because of all the things I’ve been saying, to remember that Wikipedia is not about technology, it’s about people. It’s about leaving things open-ended, it’s about trusting people, it’s about encouraging people to do good. These communities, I believe, are going to be the norm on the Internet.

People have seen that some of the old models are really unhealthy. Wikipedia shows us a really powerful means to move forward to empower lots of people to do good work, cooperatively.

This book describes the story of how Wikipedia started and evolved along this path, from my company starting a traditional encyclopedia, to how this intricate community emerged and works today.


FEATURED IMAGE: David Carroll

TEDGlobal, July 2005

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