Jimmy Wales, the founder and partner of Wikipedia will be addressing the audience in New Media Order Conference 2011 to be held in Istanbul on the 5th of October. Short before flying to Turkey, Wales answered the questions of Ahmet Yeşiltepe, the Editor-in-Chief of ntvmsnbc news portal.
First of all, thank you very much for accepting our request for an interview. It is a great pleasure to meet you. You will be attending the “New Media Order Conference” organized by Doğuş Media Group on October 5th. First let’s make a short introduction for those who don’t know the history of Wikipedia. How did the Wikipedia idea come alive? Was this a kind of a pet project for you? Did you envision that Wikipedia would be one of the world’s most popular 5 sites during the establishment of the Project?
I was looking at the growth of the internet, and all the things that were going on, and I saw open source software; free software being created by programmers, volunteers who would give away their work online. Or they would rent their software. It turns out that most of the software on the internet is open source software. Database, web surfers, and the kind... and I realized that that kind of collaboration would be possible beyond just software but open to all kinds of cultural work. So that’s how Wikipedia came about.
We got started and struggled at first, but then we found the Wiki concept, which had already existed for several years online, and I adapted it for Wikipedia .. and very quickly it overtook my whole life and became my work. In terms of how big it would be; I was looking at a list of the top web sites at that time and there was and education – reference / encyclopedia - style site around number 50 so we would be doing a really good job if we were in the top 100 or even top 50, and now it’s in the top 5 sites of the world. Over 400 million people a month are using it. It’s grown even bigger than I had anticipated it.
Also… the word “wiki”…. For those who don’t know… what does it mean, why did you chose this phrase for your Project?
The word “wiki” comes from the Hawaiian word “wiki wiki” which means quick; and the idea is quick collaboration. When Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the first wiki 6 years before I started Wikipedia created the idea of a Wiki, he wanted it to be a tool for people to work together quickly, which it is. Basically the idea of a Wiki is a website that anyone can edit, that’s the very basic definition.
Wikipedia is a site that functions on a volunteer basis. You have many volunteer authors all around the world. What are the latest figures? Do you have any statistics regarding what type of person volunteers as a Wikipedia writer?
We know a lot about our contributors; they’re basically “geeky”, they’re very intelligent, we have about a double the percentage of PhD’s in our community relative to the general public. Unfortunately it’s traditionally been overwhelmingly male, around 85% of the contributors, which is something that we would like to change. Where Wikipedia is very strong is in the topics of interest to geeky men over 26 years old, so we are asking people who are not traditional contributors to get involved in order to expand it.
Could you share the latest figures for foreign countries? Which ones are increasing most?
As many people are aware of we are literally in 100’s of languages. We have over 200 different languages in Wikipedia. The largest languages traditionally have been the languages of Europe, mainly English. Bu Wikipedia is large in many many different countries and languages. In terms of the fastest growing, we’ve seen a lot of really strong growth from India; we’ve seen very strong growth in Russia. But I think the real superstar right now is one of the smaller projects – Kazakhstan. They’ve had an enormous growth. They’ve gone from 30 active editors to around 200 active editors in just a few months. It’s very exciting, I’m going to go to Kazakhstan in December this year to meet with them and see what has been the secret of their success.
How do you choose your local/language partners?
It’s volunteer, so it turns up on the website. The local communities get together and begin to discuss issues. Over time we allow people to get together and create a local chapter, so it’s a local organization, a local non-profit company, and we fund them, or we help them get funding, and they hold conferences for academics, and can do all kinds of activities, like partnerships with libraries. But it really comes from the community. People come together and form a membership organization.
How do you view the variation of information from one language site to the other within Wikipedia?
Well what’s interesting about it, is that each language version is written independently. Of course many people can read 2 or 3 languages, so people do bring information back and forth and do try to keep them in line. But there are a lot of reasons why they are different, some good and some bad. A good reason might be just cultural context. For example, in Turkish Wikipedia you could mention some famous person from 50 years ago, and you don’t need to explain who it is; certainly in Japan they might not know who it is.. there can be differences based on that, and that’s perfectly fine.
The bad differences can be if it’s an issue of conflict between two different peoples. What we try to do is present all sides of the conflict. But of course if people only know one side, it’s hard for them to do that but they make a valiant effort. Of course there are differences just based on people’s context of knowledge.
"GEEK CULTURE TRANCENDS NATIONAL CULTURE"
We know that you want to increase participation from other parts of the world, especially from the Middle East. How do you ensure healthy contribution from the regions with political instability and disorder?
What I always joke about is that there is certain “geek” culture that transcends national culture. There are lots of people who are really just interested in getting basic information written down accurately and fairly. And those people tend to overwhelm and dominate as compared to political extremists. Of course it’s always something that we pay attention to. But in general it’s not something that we have serious problems about, so it’s not something we really worry about.
If there is a very small wiki somewhere with only three contributors then you wonder, “Who are they? What are they writing? Are they good”; it turns out that it’s not been a serious problem.
Wikipedia is banned in some countries. What is your view about this? Could you share with us the number of countries Wikipedia is banned in, and which ones they are?
At the present time we’re not completely banned except in Syria. In China we are filtered, so were not completely blocked. We were blocked for three years, now they filter certain pages that are sensitive topics that are usual things you would expect from China; things that that have to do with Tibet, Dalai Lama or Taiwan, or Tiananmen Square. All these kinds of things they are quite conscious about.
About Syria; during the unrest they’ve shut down many sites, so I don’t think it’s specifically about us, it’s a bit of civil war right now, so it’s a little tricky to predict. But many of the countries in The Middle East do filter both for content related to sexuality and also for political content which is unfortunate.
But you know it’s changing; I think the world is changing. I think that what we are seeing with the Arab Spring is a reaction by the people against that kind of control. They know that reading something in Wikipedia about an opposition figure is not treason, it’s just about learning something. And when they see that kind of censorship, they think “this is not a fair system”.
A claim that I have heard about is that Israel officially supports the making of propaganda on Wikipedia.. Do you have any comments about this?
Yes, I’ve heard about it but there’s nothing like that. I’ve just been to Israel and I’ve met with a lot of Israeli Wikipedians. There was one conference where one group got together and said “we’re going to edit Wikipedia to be pro-Israel” and a couple community members went and talked to them and said “you can’t really do that, it’s not appropriate, but if you’d like to help in Wikipedia, that’s good”.
Wikipedia’s attempt to be neutral, and I always say attempt but we really try to be neutral, is very very strong. Obviously for any given location and any given article we can argue about it forever. But that spirit within the community that Wikipedia shouldn’t take a stand on controversial issues but should just present what the various new points are so that people can understand and take part in the debate; that’s the real core value of our community.
Going back to Wikipedia’s volunteer input: according to Wikipedia’s statistics, the number of contributors has been decreasing. What is your view on this? How do you plan to ensure the sustainability of the Wikipedia phenomenon?
What we’re seeing is more of a leveling off of contributors. To some extent we’re not concerned about it, and to some extent we are concerned about it. First of all this primarily a phenomenon of the largest languages of the Wikipedia. We already have 3.5 m articles so it’s just a lot less to do now. It used to be the case that you could be the first person in the English Wikipedia that looked up Istanbul, and there was no article, so you could start writing “İstanbul is a city…” it was easy to get started. But now, it’s a lot harder for people to get involved. We’re also looking at community diversity, our policies and procedures inside the community might have become too complicated or complex. We’re paying attention to this issue but we’re not in a panic about it…
In other parts of the world we see really strong growth in the number of people contributing. You never know what the future holds.
Do you have any statistics about Turkey?
We have 2,200 active editors for the Turkish Wikipedia. And there are about 172,000 articles. And then we look at the number of native Turkish speakers, which is around 85 million. When you compare it to Arabic Wikipedia; it’s a pretty good figure. It’s almost the same size as Korean Wikipedia, and Korea would have a similar number of speakers.
It’s always interesting to look at the different places around the world, how many people speak that language, how big is the Wikipedia, and what are the similar factors. The kinds of things that matter are level of education, access to internet, and access to broadband. So for example, in Hindi which is a quite a small language for us, although it has 280 million speakers, it only has under 100,000 articles, because most of the people who speak Hindi don’t have access to a computer, only the wealthier people do.
Another big factor is keyboards. In many places around the world, countries don’t have keyboards. That makes it difficult for them to type their own language. If you have a language like Arabic, many of the Arabic countries have an English keyboard so it’s hard for them to type in Arabic. This is a big problem in India, people try to type in their own language but they can’t. But in Turkish, because it’s using the Latin alphabet it’s much easier. It’s easy to have a Turkish keyboard, even if you just have an English keyboard it’s easy to type up an article.
"NO PLANS TO BRING ADS"
You keep your site alive only through donations, without publishing any advertisements. What is Wikipedia’s current financial situation? Do you have a plan to partially or fully commercialize your site for survival?
We have no plans to bring advertisement into Wikipedia at all, and we hope to never do that. The budget for last year was just over 20m USD, and for the upcoming year it’s 28m USD. We get that from small donations. Every year in fall we have our annual giving campaign where we ask for donations, and we get hundreds of thousands of small donations, which is really the backbone of Wikipedia. And we are very happy about that, because it means that we are not dependent on one or two large donors or foundations; instead it’s the public that supports us which keeps us accountable to the public and it preserves the independence of the community, they can know that there’s not one big donor that starts pushing us around. We’re happy with the model and we don’t plan on changing it.
Do you believe that the donations you will be receiving will continue forever?
We hope so. You can never know. But we know that many fabulous projects all over the world have been funded by donations for centuries, so I don’t see why not. The thing that we do have to do at the Wikimedia Foundation, the foundation that owns Wikipedia, is that we have to think about financial sustainability, and building up our reserves. We’ve been quite fortunate that we’ve been getting enough every year that we have been able to steadily build up our reserves. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough that if there are any surprises or bumps, we are in a good position to deal with it.
My dream is that someday we will have an endowment fund much like a University might have; and there’s a big chunk of money there, and the interest earnings from that will cover the operations. We’re far away from that, but it’s a vision I have for the future.
You started a campaign last year for fund raising; did you reach your goal?
Yes we had a fabulous fund raiser last year. We had raised the most amount of money ever in the shortest period of time. We had a goal of raising 16m USD just for that fund raiser which we did in 59 days. We stopped at that point. One of the funny things about the most recent fund raiser was that every year we throw up a banner that says “please donate” and the staff asked me “can we put your picture in the banner this year?”, and I said that doesn’t sound too good, but that they could test it. When they tested the banner, it performed twice as well. It brought in two times as much money than any other banner we tested. That was one of the reasons for the success.
This year we have been doing some more testing, and we have found some banners that perform just as well as the one with my picture on it, so I should be less on the internet.
The motto of the “New Media Conference” to be held in İstanbul on October 5th is “Stay In the Game”… What are your views regarding staying in the game within the New Media Order?
It’s incredibly important. I think that there are a lot of different businesses already being impacted by New Media, and we will continue to see change and impact of all kinds. I think we’re really just at the beginning of what’s going on with the mobile internet and its impact on local businesses.
Even when you think about the old media, it is struggling. In many cases, even today on most newspapers websites the closest thing they have to new media is that they let people post their comments. We haven’t seen hybrid models emerge where we blend the best of the old and the best of the new to create new sources.
I think it’s an exciting time, and I think “Stay In the Game” is a good expression for all kinds of people to think about. It triggers the thoughts: what should I do now for the changes that have taken place already, and what do I have to do now to prepare for the changes that are coming.
Do you feel that the idea of “being able to reach an uncensored / unbiased encyclopedia reflecting humanity’s full knowledge” has reached its goal?
We’re not there yet, but in many languages we are there. When I think of my goal for a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language that would mean at least 250,000 articles in every language that has at least 1,000,000 people speaking it. So for example in Turkish we have 170,000 articles, so we’re not very far, that’s a pretty comprehensive encyclopedia already.
We’re seeing fast growth in India now. But we are very far in Africa. We have two African languages that have any considerable size, all other African languages have almost nothing. So there is a long way to go in many parts of the world. But it’s exciting. In Kazakhstan as I mentioned earlier, there’s incredible growth. In the era of the Soviet Union the Kazakh language was really pushed down, it wasn’t in the education system for example. So they are very proud of their language and they are really excited to have the opportunity to express their culture again. It’s an amazing thing.
Have you been able to maintain the basic principles you set out with 10 years ago?
Yes, it’s actually remarkable how similar Wikipedia is to its original vision: the idea of neutrality, the idea of very open editing and participation. I think that some of the things that have changed over the years have been driven by the community’s desire for quality. Before, if you just wrote “Istanbul is a city”, we were happy, it was a start. Now, they’ve become much more particular about the sourcing and quality issues.
In fact one of the struggles that we have within the communities, is that many of the very smaller communities think that they have to have all the rules of the English Wikipedia but it’s too early for them. In the Zulu language, if you want to write “Istanbul is a city” I think that’s perfectly fine. Instead they often start translating all the rules and regulations of the English Wikipedia which is just too much for a small community. It’s interesting how those dynamics works.
What are the principles that remain true today?
Well some of the core principles that remain true today would be either things that I set very early on, or things that emerged from the community and my management style in the early days that we realized made good sense.
For one, “neutrality”. Another one is “assume good faith”. If you see someone doing something wrong, assume not that they are an evil person but that they are trying to do something right and assume that they just made a mistake. Help them to see what they have done wrong and help them correct it.
Another one is “no personal attacks” in Wikipedia. In this community, we really want to have a standard where you don’t attack people. You disagree about ideas, or you debate about a topic, but you don’t attack the other person. I think that’s very valuable and something that a lot of internet spaces need to adopt much more strongly. Just as we have this social norm; if you have a party you invite people to your house, you all would welcome an interesting debate or dialogue or discussion; but just insulting someone is not a proper way to behave in public, and you don’t invite them to your party next time. So I think some of those early principles have really surfaced well and they do make the community a special place.
"WE WILL TELL YOU IF WE ARE NOT SURE"
Wikipedia is considered by many as one of the biggest enlightenment projects of the internet era. How do you feel about that? Do you agree that Wikipedia has contributed a lot to the enlightenment of its users?
Wikipedia is all over the world, in the local language that they speak and we are the top ten site everywhere. Actually our highest usage is in Germany, I’m not sure why. Germans love encyclopedias. We try to be a site that does embody the enlightenment ideals; sharing knowledge, learning, being thoughtful, and being reflective. I try really hard to put out that message; it’s one thing to debate in a blog, which is valuable; but it’s another thing to say let’s be more calm, less emotional, let’s just write the basic facts about the issue. If there’s a disagreement then we write about the disagreement.
One of the major topics of the “New Media Conference” is the sharing of information in social media.
Wikipedia has played a major leading role in this area for the last 10 years. It has taken on an important mission in the sharing of unrestricted information for free. Yet today there are some concerns regarding “user-generated content”. Do you feel that the trust towards social media is damaged through incorrect or intentionally deformed information?
Definitely. Anytime somebody is putting out misinformation, it damages the reputation of the really great work other people are doing. I like to think that over the years, the reputation has improved as the quality has improved. People see and understand that although Wikipedia is not perfect, its pretty good. People use it all the time. One of the things that is amusing is that in the short run something that can lower our reputation, can raise our reputation in the long run. In Wikipedia you’ll often see a notice that says “the neutrality of the article has been disputed” or “the references have not been cited”, so we tell you if we think something is not that good. In the short run people first think “oh what’s wrong with Wikipedia, it’s got errors, it’s got problems” but in the long run it means people trust us. We will tell you if we’re not sure, we’ll try to anyway.
The key is, with user-generated- content, there can be a huge range of quality levels. What’s important is, do you have a social system in place, do you have a process in place that tends to elevate the quality? If you do, that’s really good, if you don’t, that’s endless noise.. We need to see more ways of getting people involved and building interactive things of quality.
How do you manage the vast number of writers, especially with regard to “trust” issues? How do you balance this situation with the desire to encourage contribution from other parts of the world?
The biggest thing is that if we have strong communities who follow certain procedures and processes, a certain set of values, then the community can manage. As new people come in, the community educates them on how we do things. You definitely have to abandon top-down command and control because that’s obviously impossible. I speak very very bad German, and I can’t even read Turkish or Hungarian or hundreds of other languages. So there’s no way we can manage in a top-down way. What we can do is find good people, have discussions with them, set down some policies, procedures, and guidelines; it really works quite well.
Could you tell us about a serious clash between writers on a certain article or issue, to which you (or your chief-editor) had to intervene?
I can give you some examples.. it’s never the kinds of examples you expect them to be. Obviously editing around for example the Israel-Palestine is always contentious. But really from an editorial point of view you don’t have that much trouble with it. We just know that it’s a very difficult area, there’s going to be difficult people, it’s going to be a lot of work.
The more interesting debates are more bizarre internal editorial debates. For example, in the English language, most of the rivers in Poland are known with their German names for historical reasons. Polish people don’t like this, but it’s how it is in English. So there was this huge debate about what do we call the rivers in Poland, and it was very complicated and very acrimonious.
We had one debate that we called the “Date De-linking Case”. When you mention a date, like 1942, it will normally link to the page 1942 so you get an overview of that year. The question arose; how often should we do that? Some people were doing it all the time, some were doing it only once per article. It was a really big debate and difficult to solve because there was a choice to be made and a lot of interesting arguments on both sides and not a lot of actual evidence. So we do have our debates, but they’re generally not about what people would think.
Though sometimes it can be justified, do you think that “state secrecy” is often used against the good of many, even sometimes resulting in more life-threatening actions, for example in some Wikileaks examples?
It’s interesting. My view on this matter is that I do think there are perfectly valid reasons for there to be secrets. I’m not necessarily supportive of randomly publishing all kinds of secret documents. I think it could be very dangerous and very harmful.
At the same time, I think that when someone has evidence of wrongdoing, I think it’s important in society that there are ways of people to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing. Even in cases where the great powers that be don’t want that evidence to be uncovered. This is a role that traditionally newspapers have been really good at. Wİkileaks is doing some of the work in this area. But I think it’s a really complicated area.
In many cases, secrets are being kept that are incredibly damaging, and often they’re not even that exciting. But it depends what it is. Like corruption in contracts being awarded to the brother in law of a Presidents or a mayor of a small town. This kind of corruption eats away at society, it costs money, there are inefficiencies, and a deep injustice about how do people get rich. The question arises; “is it because they had a good idea and they worked really hard and they built an honest business, or did they get rich because they’re connected to somebody who funneled money their way?”
Any time we have a way for that kind of information to become more transparent, more open; where did the governments money go, how the contracts were awarded, who made the decision, why... That’s all really important information, so I would say it depends on the information we’re talking about.
Free flow of information is essential for a democratic society. But regarding some information, governments may intervene, or request to alter the content. How do you encounter such “requests”.
We don’t really get that many requests like that, not from Governments directly. We get it from companies or individuals. Most of it is completely legitimate, like some celebrity will say “Hey! You said this about me, it’s not true, something else is true..” completely valid requests.
WASHINGTON DOES NOT INTERCEPT
Did you ever get a request from a Washington?
How about from a government institution?
We had one. It came from the US Navy. There was an article about a formula that tells you how much explosives you need for an underwater bomb to pierce a hole in a ship from a certain distance. So this could be a very valuable piece of information for a terrorist who wants to blow up a U.S. warship, so you don’t want this to be public.
And the Navy requested that it be removed from Wikipedia. But there was a link to the reference, and the reference was a link to a document on the US Navy’s website! So they were the ones publishing the information to the world. So, if you want it off Wikipedia, first you should get it off your own website. They deleted it from their own website, so there was no source available, and was then deleted by the community. Sort of a funny case, but in general we’ve had very very little.
According to the latest statistics, internet usage in Turkey is over half of the population. When we look at Facebook and Twitter usage, we see that Turkey is ranking at the top in terms of social media. A young and vibrant population is the most important factor I believe.... How do you perceive Turkey’s activity?
We have an active community in Turkey. When I’ve been to Turkey before, I have met with some Turkish Wikipedians, who are just like other Wikipedians all over the world. They are very sweet, eager, and excited. There are over 170,000 entries, which is more than Arabic Wikipedia, and of course Arabic has a much larger number of speakers, so that’s a good sign. Turkey always has a lot of participation as well; they come to the annual conference which is held in a different place every year.
Turkey is an interesting place in the sense that it has in many ways physically and culturally one foot in the Middle East and one foot in Europe. So it’s Turkeys history to be a crossroads. So I think the Turkish Wikipedia is a lot more like the European Wikipedias in terms of its size and its vibrancy.
You mentioned that the Chinese Government made certain limitations on Wikipedia… The Turkish Government is carrying out a tight prevention policy especially towards sites with pornographic material. The sites which are prohibited or banned by the Government exceeds tens of thousands. How do you perceive this conduct? What are your perceptions regarding the different types of internet banning in the world?
I think it’s incredibly problematic and I think that the worst examples are not about banning pornography, although I think that’s a bad public policy choice. But what’s much much worse and much much important is the free flow of ideas, the free flow of information, and the free flow of debate. In many different countries when the censorship goes to political targets, I think it’s a very dangerous thing to start censoring that. Because when you censor the ideas, you don’t eliminate the ideas; in fact, in many cases you radicalize the ideas.
So for example, in Turkey, obviously one of the big difficult questions is the Kurdish people. It’s a very difficult question. I think that in Turkey ideas and views should be expressed as much as possible. Not cluster violence, not organizing terrorist activities or groups, but just debate and discussion. It doesn’t make the problem go away, it just radicalizes the people, who have no way of seeing any hope in moving forward in a constructive way.
The Turkish government aims to protect children and adolescents from sites which they perceive as harmful by applying a filter system. At one point, youtube was a banned website. How do you think these different types of censorship endeavors will affect the expansion and development of the internet?
It’s incredibly harmful to the expansion and development of the internet. One of the things which I thing is important for all countries in the world is to learn to use these tools, to be able to freely express yourself, to be able to participate. It’s one thing to say “we have one serious problem with this video, were going to block this one video in our country” which is choice, but a small choice, as opposed to banning all of youtube, at an attempt to force them to change is just suicidal and makes no sense whatsoever. And in fact you’re depriving your young people to express themselves and be innovative and creative, and live without the fear of getting in trouble for doing something. So I think it’s something that we have to be very very very careful about.
Do you believe in the filter system?
I think the filter system is almost always a bad idea, I think that there are better policy choices that can be made.
Yes, Jimmy Wales: the founder and partner of Wikipedia… As Doğuş Media Group, we thank you once again for the time you have given to us. It has been a most pleasurable discussion.
We are looking forward to having you at the “New Media Conference” in Istanbul on October 5th. Until then, goodbye and thank you.
Jimmy Wales talks about global expansion of Wikipedia and how they ensure the unbiasedness of the crowdsourced information.
Jimmy Wales, the founder and partner of Wikipedia will be addressing the audience in New Media Order Conference 2011 to be held in Istanbul on the 5th of October. Short before flying to Turkey, Wales answered the questions of Ahmet Yeşiltepe, the Editor-in-Chief of ntvmsnbc news portal.