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