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What was my goal when I came up with the idea of creating a free encyclopedia for everyone?

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Jimmy Wales | 09:50 UK time, Wednesday, 22 July 2009

(Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, is an American Internet entrepreneur best known for founding Wikipedia.org, as well as other wiki-related organizations, including the charitable organization Wikimedia Foundation, and the for-profit company Wikia, Inc. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Jimmy's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

Aleks Krotoski repeats many of the popular myths about my goals for Wikipedia.  I am transparent, she says, in my goal to "challenge the academic Ivory Tower."  Wikipedia, she says, is "an extraordinary experiment in crowdsourcing an objective truth from the wisdom of crowds". But unfortunately, the story goes, and as Kevin Kelley has written, Wikipedia has drifted over time from "digital utopia" to something "more structured, more elitist, a little more bourgeoisie."

This is a common pattern - to posit that yes, in the early days, Wikipedia was an anarchist dream, a hippie commune, a little bit of socialism or communism that actually worked - but over time, it had to grow up, to institute controls. Some may actually sigh in relief: 
see, we always knew the old ways were best.

Unfortunately this rough storyline is not particularly in line with the facts.

To illustrate how, it is only necessary to recount the history - and media reaction - of our "protection" features which allow the community to lock down articles temporarily in case of a problem. In the old days, we could only "fully protect" an article - meaning that no one, other than administrators, could edit that entry for the duration of the protection.

This tightly controlled, top down system led to a number of problems that we didn't like. So we developed a new tool, semi-protection, that allowed us to remain more open. Now, when an article is semi- protected, it can be edited by anyone who has had an account for a certain amount of time, not just administrators.

When we introduced semi-protection, the reaction in the media was predictable - and wrong. Wikipedia, it was reported, was in the process of closing off editing. The storyline was just too tempting: open democratic participation is genuinely impossible, see, and so every change has to be interpreted under a filter of becoming more structured and more elitist.

Soon we are introducing into English Wikipedia a new feature ("flagged
revisions") which will allow us, I hope, to open the front page of Wikipedia to open public editing for the first time in years. This radical new opening up of Wikipedia is certain to be interpreted as Wikipedia finally becoming more controlled, more elitist, more top- down. The story line is just too tempting.

But it simply isn't that simple.

In fact, I am quite elitist (in the relevant sense), and always have been. The core of the community is as well. We are firmly convinced - and have the daily evidence to prove it - that some people simply have no business writing an encylopedia. Our openness is not a function of believing in some "hippie" or "communist" ideal of absolute egalitarianism. Rather, it is simply a practical reflection of the fact that open dialogue and debate, undertaken in a thoughtful and respectful environment, is the best way to get at the truth.

I don't know of anyone serious who disagrees - particularly in the Ivory Tower.

Jimmy Wales

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Am I reading this right? Aleks says "Wikipedia substituted a traditional, academically accredited elite which applies personal views and prejudices to 'truth', for a new, less visible elite that does exactly the same" and Jimmy's response is "Damn right we did"?

    Why the protection debate is relevant is unclear, but to categorise it as an issue stirred up by "the media" (you might as well call them them the-obsolete-20th-century-paradigm-of-information-dissemination and have done with it, or maybe just use scare marks in the original) ignores the fact that there was a long and heated debate on Wikipedia about the flagged issue.

    In any case, the honesty is refreshing - even if he glosses over the implications: it is possible, and in fact likely, that some of the critics crying foul are right, and have come up against a version of 'truth' subscribed to by the elite controlling the site. It also ignores the reality of the kind of elitism involved - that elites protect themselves by reinforcing each other.

    Aleks described Wikipedia as Libertarian. It isn't, and can't be, because there is no competition. If there was another source with similar authoritative standing then problems might be brought to light. Wikipedia isn't even Democratic, since moderators and admins make new moderators and admins. Hegemonic, perhaps.

    The Wikipedia cabal? There is no cabal...

    ('course, if you apply the same critical faculties to Wikipedia you would to any news report, none of this is an issue...)

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm looking at the Wikipedia homepage, which proudly states: "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."

    If this is no longer the case, that Jimmy (understandably) thinks that not everyone has the ability or should be able to edit an encyclopaedia, then they might want to change their mission statement...

    He strikes me as the kind of politician who shouts "Power to the people!" and then totally forgets about them once he gets into government...

  • Comment number 3.

    MTPTaylor,

    No, you are not reading it right. I absolutely reject the notion that a proper standard for an encyclopedia is "personal views and prejudices".

    Almostwitty,

    I'm not at all sure that I understand your meaning. You can still edit any page of Wikipedia, and I have argued that the proper future path for Wikipedia is more openness, not less. But note well that the open invitation to edit Wikipedia always has been conditioned upon good behavior and doing good work. Don't make the mistake of equating an open invitation to an endorsement of a view that everyone's opinion is equally valid - there is such a thing as good, high quality work - and we should all seek it.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think there's a contradiction here - you reject the idea that the standard for an encyclopaedia should be personal views and prejudices, but argue for the right of a small minority to determine what the standard for an encyclopaedia.

    If that's not reflective of their personal views and prejudices, what is it?

  • Comment number 5.

    It's a confusing post, but I think Jimmy is simply putting the emphasis on "edit" rather than "write". It's the encyclopaedia anyone can EDIT, a collaborative exercise in editing rather than writing.

    Arguably there's something inherently elitist in being an editor as opposed to a writer... either way, anyone in academia will tell you it's all about the editing :)

    So rather than demolishing what Wikipedia originally stood for, Jimmy's explanation is trying to adjust what we perceive that original mandate to be. It was to build a platform that allowed anyone to get involved in the debate, and a platform on a par with academia rather than at war with it.

    Seems to me it's not the information disseminators (wheher so-called experts or the man on the street) who have necessarily changed, just the medium used to disseminate information.

    Kat Sommers, BBC

  • Comment number 6.

    @2:

    "I'm looking at the Wikipedia homepage, which proudly states: 'the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.'

    "If this is no longer the case, that Jimmy (understandably) thinks that not everyone has the ability or should be able to edit an encyclopaedia, then they might want to change their mission statement..."

    Ah, but read more carefully: there is a distinction between -can- and -should-. It is quite true that anyone can edit a Wikipedia article (provided vandalism hasn't run rampant on said hypothetical article), but -should- anyone edit that article? No, obviously not, because not everyone has the requisite knowledge to do so.

    There are many things I can do. But I definitely shouldn't do all of them. Same principle applies here.

  • Comment number 7.

    As ever, the comments to this and Aleks' previous blog, are excellently put.

    For my two-penneth, to see the (pretty open) rules of Wikipedian engagement, it's well worth following the trail of links in Wikipedia's 'about' section - something you can delve into for hours, but a notable page is that covering verifiability which contains guidance on source material veracity, and the testing thereof. This contains advisory notice to editors or concerned parties:

    'Do not leave unsourced or poorly sourced information that may damage the reputation of living persons or organizations in articles and do not move it to the talk page (See Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons for details of this policy). As Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has put it:

    ''I can NOT emphasize this enough. There seems to be a terrible bias among some editors that some sort of random speculative 'I heard it somewhere' pseudo information is to be tagged with a 'needs a cite' tag. Wrong. It should be removed, aggressively, unless it can be sourced. This is true of all information, but it is particularly true of negative information about living persons.' Jimmy Wales.'

    Seems pretty clear from that that there is an 'elitism' there - an elite that demands veracity (Jimmy's point, I believe).

    For me (and other comments such as this one from Aleks' Wikipedia post)verifiability and citation is key. And while I know this can be gamed, Wikipedia is very clear that it is NOT a repository for original research - everything claiming to be fact needs a citation (see above).

    Therefore, as @jayfurneaux argues on the previous post, if you are using Wikipedia as reference, then why not cite the source article(s) for the fact(s) Wikipedia has enabled you to discover?

    To add to this debate, I'd also highlight @cyberissues' comment regards the emergent governance structures of Wikipedia, and their effect on 'democratisation of information and knowledge' to be found on Aleks' Wikipedia post.

  • Comment number 8.

    Jimbo says:

    "...some people simply have no business writing an encylopedia."

    Well, I for one happen to agree!

  • Comment number 9.

    Re MTPTaylors comment "Wikipedia isn't even Democratic, since moderators and admins make new moderators and admins. Hegemonic, perhaps."

    Actually all editors are welcome to participate in the appointment of admins, Arbcom members, and even trustees of Wikimedia - at most if you read http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Board_elections/2009 there are qualifying thresholds based on edits, to establish that someone is an active editor and is not currently blocked.

  • Comment number 10.

    Aleks described Wikipedia as Libertarian. It isn't, and can't be, because there is no competition. If there was another source with similar authoritative standing then problems might be brought to light. Wikipedia isn't even Democratic, since moderators and admins make new moderators and admins. Hegemonic, perhaps.

  • Comment number 11.

    Jimmy Wales pontificated that "Soon we are introducing into English Wikipedia a new feature ('flagged revisions')..."

    That was July 2009. It's now February 2010, and still no flagged revisions on the English Wikipedia.

    I have to ask, with such lazy ineptitude running the Wikimedia Foundation, just WHERE does go that $10.4 million per year in donations?

 

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