Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Open Sourcing in 2010

Last Updated Jan 3, 2010 11:55 PM EST

Jimmy Wales has discovered the only thing more challenging - and satisfying -- than launching Wikipedia nearly a decade ago is refining the free, open source encyclopedia even as it is in the grip of its devoted users and contributors.

Wikipedia's free-form collaborative nature -- like the Web itself -- contributes to both its wonder and its weakness. It has Wales, Wikipedia's self-appointed chief promoter and spokesman, proudly boasting one minute and fiercely going on the defensive the next.

"We are fundamentally changing the way we think about media and society," Wales said during a recent interview.

During the past year, the Wikipedia co-founder propelled the multi-lingual project to its first official mobile app and green effort, a web site redesign, stricter revisionist policies and latest controversies. But nothing has sparked more impassioned response within the Wikipedia community on its own website than flagged protection and patrolled revisions which have been mulled for years.

The objective is to provide an additional level of editing and verification before revisions of existing Wikipedia articles are released for general viewing. Increased vandalism such as deliberate attempts to compromise integrity, post misinformation and or harm reputations can be visible for a time before being removed.

The stricter editing and posting policies have been the subject of debate on Wikipedia's own talk pages (chat rooms), "village pump" (users social network) and "signpost" newsletter for contributors and the community bulletin board created to keep Wikipedia as democratic a knowledge exchange as originally intended. Committees, consensus and other tools of communal decision-making make Wikipedia sounds and feel like a socialist state. Bugs and credibility issues have been publicly worked out since its inception, except for when lawsuits zing.

The proposed restrictions represent "Wikipedia's necessary acceptance of the responsibility that comes with its vast influence," according to The New York Times. The social media web site Mashable lamented the end of Wikipedia's "egalitarian spread and the use of information."

Wales has seen it all before. Wikipedia chronicles the criticism leveled at it for being a "hive mind" of consensus-formed content to a hotbed for "flame wars" of user insults and text hackers that can create a hostile environment.

A recent Wall Street Journal story claiming a surge in exiting volunteer editors threatens the maturing Wikipedia prompted a quick, detailed response on the official Wikimedia Blog.

"Our data shows that the number of active editors across all projects is stable; that new editors are being replaced at about the same pace as existing editors are leaving. This active data can be tracked across all languages on our web site," Wales told me.

"There isn't much else to say except that the media, as usual, is full of nonsense and hype to the detriment of genuine understanding," he said.

Even with an overall 14 million articles in more than 250 languages by 85,000 active contributors (according to its web site); Wales insists Wikipedia's basic goals remain unchanged. It uses technology to promote universal knowledge-sharing and to protect creative commons, free licensing and free culture for 65 million monthly visitors to its more than a half dozen branded web sites. Wikipedia's peer production has inspired countless companies (such as Intel and Oracle) and organizations to harness the power of mass collaboration and free talent, bringing open sourcing into the mainstream.

Wikipedia, the world's fourth most visited web site, is not a dictionary, a publisher of original thought or personal essays, a directory, textbook, blog or crystal ball, according to its web site.

"And it's definitely not crowd sourcing!" Wales insists about his complex collaborative network. "No one is tricked into contributing for free to Wikipedia's content," he said.

Five years ago, Wikipedia had one full-time salaried employee (a software designer), 1.4 million monthly page views, and a mere $5,000 in total monthly expenses for bandwidth.

Today, Wikipedia requires nearly $10 million in annual donations to operate across an expanded platform of servers and bandwidth supported only by about 32 paid employees and thousands of volunteer writers, administrators and technicians. The nonprofit charitable Wikimedia Foundation also governs Wikibooks for free textbooks, the Wikisource library of free documents and Wikinews by and for citizens. The web sites are supported by MediaWiki open sources software and more than 5.5 million freely usable media files in the Wikimedia Commons repository.

Pressure to integrate more images and video into entries in 2010 will likely intensify run-ins with the Associated Press and other professional news organizations over Wikipedia's radical influence in the news-gathering space. "Wikinews remains an experiment which has yet to fulfill its potential," Wales said.
Copyright laws must be revisited; we're moving in the wrong direction. Increasing penalties is out of step with the times and not applicable," he said.

Some of the framework and assumptions in place will begin to change as the focus increases on the mobile space and open source operating systems like Google's Android. Apple's iPhone is demonstrating consumer brand loyalty to the device - not the carrier," Wales said.

Wikipedia is preparing for a future shaped by the non-English speaking world, the global proliferation of mobile devices, and consumers willing to pay for improved quality, 3D, on-demand, portable video-on-demand anchored in Apple's iTunes. An new palm-sized, battery-operated WikiReader allows portable access and revision of Wikipedia entries.

Wales is soliciting advice and support of fellow entrepreneur board members Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and venture capitalist Roger McNamee, new Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board members who also have handsomely profited from their own open network innovation. The business of Web innovation is changing "now that everyone is an expert," Wales said.

  • Diane Mermigas

    Diane Mermigas has been a contributing editor and columnist at Mediapost, The Hollywood Reporter and Crain Communications as well as writing for such sites as Seeking Alpha, TrueSlant and BNET. In addition to speaking and television appearances, Diane consults with companies in digital transition, and is completing a book on the future of media.