Friday, May 30, 2008

Interview with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia

The Living Encyclopedia

David Ansara

People of influence often pass through Cape Town; a sign of the increasing cosmopolitanism of the city. However, few fly so stealthily under the social radar as Jimmy Wales, co-founder and creator of Wikipedia. The encyclopedia has changed the way people access knowledge online by decentralizing the sources of articles, allowing anyone to edit content. With little fanfare, Wales appeared in Observatory last Friday night to talk at the Independent Armchair in a special music and software-sharing event. He spoke to Varsity about new developments in the Wiki world and some of his personal ambitions.

Wales is now developing search engine software which he hopes will bring the same level of transparency to internet searching as Wikipedia brought to encyclopedias.

“This is something that I’m very excited about and it is to take the idea of search, which is currently proprietary, closed, secretive and do it completely open source. We publish all the algorithms, we make it completely transparent, and we invite the public in to control the editorial content of the story. A lot of people don’t think about it this way, but search is actually a very political thing. In other words if you type in a key word, what comes back to you? Who decided that? Why is that more important than something else? And it’s really important to us as citizens to actually care about that and to … to be able to understand how things are ranked. Why is this the most highest rated? Why is this on pg. 7 of the search results? And so, what we should do is pull together in the open search community, build a free search engine, distribute the software so anybody can copy it, duplicate it, set up a competitor. All kinds of things could be going on and I think that we could have an explosion of creativity around search, in the same way that we’ve had an explosion of creativity around free content.”

Chief among Mr. Wales’ concerns is the growth of the smaller languages on Wikipedia, especially those of the developing world. Addressing the crowd, he discussed the possible growth trajectory of the African languages and what his hopes are for the near future.

“We’ve got about 125 different languages [on Wikipedia] that have at least 1000 articles. I did a check this morning in the languages of South Africa. In English … we’re doing pretty good [laughter]. In Afrikaans we have almost 7000 articles. Not quite as good as the Dutch, a slightly related language which has over 300 000 articles. But still, that’s an encouraging sign. But one of the things that I am concerned about is that in the languages of SA, after English and Afrikaans, there are no languages which have more than a hundred articles right now. So we have a long way to go. The ultimate goal of Wikipedia is to give a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet, in their home language. So you might be a bit discouraged that in the other languages of SA and Africa we have such a small set of projects. But the situation in India about a year-and-a-half ago was very similar to the situation today in SA. [Currently] in India we have about seven languages that have between 5 and 15 thousand articles. And a lot of those languages are growing at a rate of 10% a month.”

Ideologically, Mr. Wales espouses the principles of Libertarianism, describing himself as ‘centre-right’ politically. Is there a political agenda behind the work that he does?

“Well a political agenda, yes, in a certain sense; but I always say a ‘Small-People political agenda’. My political agenda is that open societies and democracies are best served with transparency, openness, and clarity about what’s going on. I trust people. I trust ordinary people to make the right decisions - if they have the right information. The important thing for that is freedom of speech, a broad, diverse environment, where people feel safe to express perhaps even a controversial opinion so that others can evaluate it. I really believe in the marketplace of ideas and I think that the internet is a fabulous tool for realizing that, but only if we stand up and say, ‘This is what it’s for’. It’s not about selling dog food, it’s not about pop-up ads, it’s not about spam. It’s about people talking to eachother about real issues that matter.”

This article originally published in Varsity Newspaper

Listen to the full interview on streaming audio at the Internet Archive:

Photos courtesy of Mark Oppenheimer

Interviewed by David Ansara, Erin Bates and Mark Oppenheimer in Cape Town South Africa on the 20th of April 2007

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