Alison Wheeler, UK CEO, Wikimedia


UK CEO, Wikimedia

October 2007

Digital Thought Leaders | By Danny Meadows-Klue

The Wikipedia model has revolutionised knowledge classification and the linkages between content. Google pretty much anything and chances are that a wiki listing will be bubbling up on the results page. Clearly Wikipedia will remain a permanent fixture of the landscape, and we should all cherish the fact it’s a foundation. “But the problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice, in theory it would never work”, explains Alison Wheeler, Wikimedia’s UK chief executive. It’s a conundrum: after all, why should people want to dedicate their time to updating and managing entries on a public encyclopaedia?

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“People do it for the ‘feel good’ factor because their knowledge is being passed on”, says Wheeler. “Most people have something that totally gets them. We’re not guaranteed to be correct, we’re a work in progress. Everything is tracked. Everything is able to be measured. Everything we do is open and re-usable. We also have open source video and sound tracks.”

Wikipedia: Key stats:

285k page views per minute
12.3bn page views per month
2m articles in English
168m edits have taken place since July 02
1.4bn words (roughly 15 times the size of Britannica)
250 languages
Over 100,000 registered users in English

Wikipedia is a mass of contradictions: giant in presence, yet non-commercial; a robust central authority, yet decentralised authorship; monolithic in presence, yet democratic in creation, and Wheeler acknowledges “It’s not a democracy, it’s not a bureaucracy… it’s everything”, with the caveat that “it’s a charity, we don’t have adverts now and we don’t plan to”.

8.4% of US internet users visit Wikipedia every day, clocking up an average of 5.6 page views each. They’re the largest site in many countries. In terms of the internationalisation of what we’re seeing in the Wiki switch-over, Wheeler cites Bengali as an example of maybe something you wouldn’t expect. “Among Bengali sites, Wikipedia is ranked top in terms of traffic from native speakers”. India’s digital economy is rapidly changing, and although it’s far behind many other nations and suffers a huge digital divide, the creation of diverse language content fuels the desire for access and that triggers social change. “Bengali Wikipedia is the largest website in the Bengali language and the project serves as a sustainable information source for millions of poor village kids, who cannot afford to buy even a single volume of a printed encyclopaedia.

“You end up with lots of people doing things altruistically. But the fact the internet is worldwide creates a new additional challenge many publishers will encounter because suddenly the same information is available everywhere, even if things like television shows are taking a while to roll out.”

In terms of copyright, Wikipedia have found themselves championing new models: “There are multiple licensing models in use. Sometimes they are under the Creative Commons and sometimes under the GFDL model.”

However, not every publisher is getting audience participation right. The editing of content by viewers has left many publishers scarred, and on the LA Times’ decision to leave their front page open to users, Wheeler is clear where the fault lies: “The LA Times suffered a great deal of vandalism. Either you end up with some delay factor while you edit, or you have to get people to take part.”

At Digital Strategy we’re interested in the future and implications this holds for scientific, technical and medical journals, and though I sense Wheeler can see the gap between the models closing, today she is clear that “we’re not the primary source. The standard peer review model is based on those reviews of experts. Some of our reviewers are also professors and leaders in their fields, but editors and contributors don’t need to be. We can give you pointers to those original sources; we’re only the simplified version. In the model, you read Wikipedia and you just start opening up another tab with more content, then six hours later you realise how much time has passed! We’re not detracting from the original source, we’re helping people find what they need.”

One of the grand philosophical debates that emerges is about the nature of truth: Where is the truth? And what is the truth? While the beauty, speed, breadth and depth of what Wikipedia has created is unquestionable, how truth is managed to prevent the tyranny of the majority prevailing is a question yet to be answered. Maybe it’s one to post on the Wiki.

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