Sunday, June 18, 2006
Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia: how the open encyclopedia is surviving
Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy / NY Times
By KATIE HAFNER
Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit." Unless you want to edit the entries on Albert Einstein, human rights in China or Christina Aguilera.
Wikipedia's come-one, come-all invitation to write and edit articles, and the surprisingly successful results, have captured the public imagination. But it is not the experiment in freewheeling collective creativity it might seem to be, because maintaining so much openness inevitably involves some tradeoffs.
At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts — one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.
Those measures can put some entries outside of the "anyone can edit" realm. The list changes rapidly, but as of yesterday, the entries for Einstein and Ms. Aguilera were among 82 that administrators had "protected" from all editing, mostly because of repeated vandalism or disputes over what should be said. Another 179 entries — including those for George W. Bush, Islam and Adolf Hitler — were "semi-protected," open to editing only by people who had been registered at the site for at least four days. (See a List of Protected Entries)
While these measures may appear to undermine the site's democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.
"Protection is a tool for quality control, but it hardly defines Wikipedia," Mr. Wales said. "What does define Wikipedia is the volunteer community and the open participation."
From the start, Mr. Wales gave the site a clear mission: to offer free knowledge to everybody on the planet. At the same time, he put in place a set of rules and policies that he continues to promote, like the need to present information with a neutral point of view.
The system seems to be working. Wikipedia is now the Web's third-most-popular news and information source, beating the sites of CNN and Yahoo News, according to Nielsen NetRatings.
The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.
"A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence," Mr. Wales said. "But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community."
The administrators are all volunteers, most of them in their 20's. They are in constant communication — in real-time online chats, on "talk" pages connected to each entry and via Internet mailing lists. The volunteers share the job of watching for vandalism, or what Mr. Wales called "drive-by nonsense." Customized software — written by volunteers — also monitors changes to articles.
Mr. Wales calls vandalism to the encyclopedia "a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background." Yet early this year, amid heightened publicity about false information on the site, the community decided to introduce semi-protection of some articles. The four-day waiting period is meant to function something like the one imposed on gun buyers.
Once the assaults have died down, the semi-protected page is often reset to "anyone can edit" mode. An entry on Bill Gates was semi-protected for just a few days in January, but some entries, like the article on President Bush, stay that way indefinitely. Other semi-protected subjects as of yesterday were Opus Dei, Tony Blair and sex.
To some critics, protection policies make a mockery of the "anyone can edit" notion.
"As Wikipedia has tried to improve its quality, it's beginning to look more and more like an editorial structure," said Nicholas Carr, a technology writer who recently criticized Wikipedia on his blog. "To say that great work can be created by an army of amateurs with very little control is a distortion of what Wikipedia really is."
But Mr. Wales dismissed such criticism, saying there had always been protections and filters on the site.
Wikipedia's defenders say it usually takes just a few days for all but the most determined vandals to retreat.
"A cooling-off period is a wonderful mediative technique," said Ross Mayfield, chief executive of a company called Socialtext that is based on the same editing technology that Wikipedia uses.
Full protection often results from a "revert war," in which users madly change the wording back and forth. In such cases, an administrator usually steps in and freezes the page until the warring parties can settle their differences in another venue, usually the talk page for the entry. The Christina Aguilera entry was frozen this week after after fans of the singer fought back against one user's efforts to streamline it.
Much discussion of Wikipedia has focused on its accuracy. Last year, an article in the journal Nature concluded that the incidence of errors in Wikipedia was only slightly higher than in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Officials at Britannica angrily disputed the findings.
"To be able to do an encyclopedia without having the ability to differentiate between experts and the general public is very, very difficult," said Jorge Cauz, the president of Britannica, whose subscription-based online version receives a small fraction of the traffic that Wikipedia gets.
Intentional mischief can go undetected for long periods. In the article about John Seigenthaler Sr., who served in the Kennedy administration, a suggestion that he was involved in the assassinations of both John F. and Robert Kennedy was on the site for more than four months before Mr. Seigenthaler discovered it. He wrote an op-ed article in USA Today about the incident, calling Wikipedia "a flawed and irresponsible research tool."
Yet Wikipedians say that in general the accuracy of an article grows organically. At first, said Wayne Saewyc, a Wikipedia volunteer in Vancouver, British Columbia, "everything is edited mercilessly by idiots who do stupid and weird things to it." But as the article grows, and citations slowly accumulate, Mr. Saewyc said, the article becomes increasingly accurate.
Wikipedians often speak of how powerfully liberating their first contribution felt. Kathleen Walsh, 23, a recent college graduate who majored in music, recalled the first time she added to an article on the contrabassoon.
"I wrote a paragraph of text and there it was," recalled Ms. Walsh. "You write all these pages for college and no one ever sees it, and you write for Wikipedia and the whole world sees it, instantly."
Ms. Walsh is an administrator, a post that others nominated her for in recognition of her contributions to the site. She monitors a list of newly created pages, half of which, she said, end up being good candidates for deletion. Many are "nonsense pages created by kids, like 'Michael is a big dork,' " she said.
Ms. Walsh also serves on the 14-member arbitration committee, which she describes as "the last resort" for disputes on Wikipedia.
Like so many Web-based successes, Wikipedia started more or less by accident.
Six years ago, Mr. Wales, who built up a comfortable nest egg in a brief career as an options trader, started an online encyclopedia called Nupedia.com, with content to be written by experts. But after attracting only a few dozen articles, Mr. Wales started Wikipedia on the side. It grew exponentially.
For the first year or so, Mr. Wales paid the expenses out of his own pocket. Now the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports Wikipedia, is financed primarily through donations, most in the $50 to $100 range.
As the donations have risen, so have the costs. The foundation's annual budget doubled in the last year, to $1.5 million, and traffic has grown sharply. Search engines like Google, which often turn up Wikipedia entries at the top of their results, are a big contributor to the site's traffic, but it is increasingly a first stop for knowledge seekers.
Mr. Wales shares the work of running Wikipedia with the administrators and four paid employees of the foundation. Although many decisions are made by consensus within the community, Mr. Wales steps in when an issue is especially contentious. "It's not always obvious when something becomes policy," he said. "One way is when I say it is."
Mr. Wales is a true believer in the power of wiki page-editing technology, which predates Wikipedia. In late 2004, Mr. Wales started Wikia, a commercial start-up financed by venture capital that lets people build Web sites based around a community of interest. Wiki 24, for instance, is an unofficial encyclopedia for the television show "24." Unlike Wikipedia, the site carries advertising.
Mr. Wales, 39, lives with his wife and daughter in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the foundation is based. But Mr. Wales's main habitat these days, he said, is the inside of airplanes. He travels constantly, giving speeches to reverential audiences and visiting Wikipedians around the world.
Wikipedia has inspired its share of imitators. A group of scientists has started the peer-reviewed Encyclopedia of Earth, and Congresspedia is a new encyclopedia with an article about each member of Congress.
But beyond the world of reference works, Wikipedia has become a symbol of the potential of the Web.
"It can tell us a lot about the future of knowledge creation, which will depend much less on individual heroism and more on collaboration," said Mitchell Kapor, a computer industry pioneer who is president of the Open Source Applications Foundation.
Zephyr Teachout, a lawyer in Burlington, Vt., who is involved with Congresspedia, said Wikipedia was reminiscent of old-fashioned civic groups like the Grange, whose members took individual responsibility for the organization's livelihood.
"It blows open what's possible," said Ms. Teachout. "What I hope is that these kinds of things lead to thousands of other experiments like this encyclopedia, which we never imagined could be produced in this way."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company