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April 21, 2024

Wikipedia founder caps off MSE Symposium

By FRANK BRANCATI | November 15, 2012

Jimmy Wales, famed Internet entrepreneur and founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, spoke last night at Shriver Hall in the last of the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium events.  The event was very heavily attended, drawing a crowd of between six and seven hundred people.

“It was great fun actually, a great audience.  People laughed a lot and that’s always good.  Sometimes you get an audience and they don’t realize you’re trying to be funny and it’s awkward,” Wales said to The News-Letter.

Wales’s talk, titled the “Wiki Future,” focused on a broad range of topics concerning Wikipedia as well as broader ideas concerning the Internet community.

“I’m going to talk a little bit about the theme ‘The Power of the Individual,’” Wales said. “It’s an interesting theme for the whole series because you don’t normally think of the Wiki as being something about the power of the individual.  People think of it as the power of a large number of people.”

He talked about the idea of crowdsourcing -- the practice of mass, impersonal solicitations, especially via the Internet -- and how it is a flawed way to view things like Wikipedia.  He stressed the importance of the individual people, both employed by Wikipedia and in the greater Internet community, who all contribute in a unique way to the website.

“Every single word in Wikipedia was written by an individual,” Wales said.

He spoke with great enthusiasm about the core concept behind his brainchild: that of a world in which everyone on the planet had “free access to the sum of all knowledge.”  He stressed its relation to the idea of free speech.

Having established this point, Wales took a survey amongst the audience asking how many had used Wikipedia, resulting in a unanimous show of hands.   He explained the universal nature behind Wikipedia and the specifically encyclopedic information that it provides.  Wales commented on the unbiased and direct nature that all Wikipedia articles possess, regardless of what language the article is written in.  He highlighted the readership habits of certain countries, peppering the facts with levity -- especially regarding the almost universal presence of sex as a search topic.

Wales then turned to an issue of greater controversy: Wikipedia’s entry into China, where the website had previously been blocked.

“Wikipedia was completely banned in China for about three years.  We have now been open in China for just over four years because just before the Beijing Olympics they opened up quite a bit.  They unblocked the BBC.  They unblocked Wikipedia but they didn’t quite completely unblock.  They still filter some pages,” Wales said.

He elaborated on the nature of censorship and ideas of freedom of speech and the freedom of knowledge.

“The thing is, we took a stand a long time ago, and we when we were blocked in China we made the decision that we would never cross a line.  We would not go into China and participate in the censorship.  My view is that fundamental information and the access to knowledge is a fundamental human right.  It’s a corollary to freedom of expression.  Freedom of expression means nothing if you don’t have the right to read and learn so that you can express yourself,” he continued.

Wales talk then talked on the topic of Wikipedia’s presence as the main information provider for the current generations and those who are writing this information.  He cited the statistic that eighty seven percent of all Wikipedia writers are male and how this needs to be corrected.  Wales hopes that females will become more prevalent contributors to Wikipedia in the future.

He then showed a video highlighting those who work and volunteer at Wikipedia.  He stated that Wikipedia only has approximately one hundred employees but over one hundred thousand volunteers.  He elaborated on the structure of the Wikipedia community, making jokes about his place in it.

“We have a little bit of monarchy, which is my role in the community.  And like any good modern monarchy this mainly means that I wave at parades and do ceremonial acts but that does not mean that I am the dictator of all human knowledge.  I am not.  I don’t want to be. It’s exhausting,” Wales joked.

He then shifted the topic of his talk from Wikipedia as it affects our daily lives to the impact of the website in the developing world.

“I think this is one of the most fundamental things.  I’m not going to just talk about Wikipedia in the developing world, but also the Internet more broadly,” Wales said.

Wales used the example of the introduction of mobile phones in Africa and their rapid spread as well as the huge serge in Internet use across Africa in the past decade.

“What this is leading to is, it’s coming to consumers there a little slower than we might hope, but the broadband backbone whole sale price of data transfer is collapsing.  It’s going down very, very quickly and in the city people are beginning to have reasonable speed for Internet.” Wales said.

Wales then posed the question of what people in these developing countries are doing with their Internet.  He explained that it’s effectively the same things that everyone else does on the Internet.

“What do people do? They get online.  When people start having real, usable Internet access the top sites the go to are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and local newspapers,” Wales said.

“There is something much bigger going on, which is on the market technologies making real and usable Internet access available to millions of across Africa today,” he said. “When you think forward to twenty years from now, you’re going to have massive activity on the real Internet for hundreds of millions of people.”

Wales concluded with a brief anecdote about the power of Wikias, specifically Lostpedia — a corpus of information pertinent to the popular ABC television series -- and how the creators of the show used it frequently in the making of the show as a means to see what the community was saying about it.

Wales then opened the floor for questions.  Students touched on many topics ranging from why Jimmy Wales’s home is in England to his protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill, which he discussed in great detail.

“I was very happy to get Jimmy Wales to come and speak today at the MSE Symposium,” Symposium co-chair Chris Alvarez said.  “Everyone knows Wikipedia.  When [Wales] asked ‘Who here knows Wikipedia,’ everyone raised their hand — that’s a very powerful thing.”

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