Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia Founder, Visits Bush Radio

Transcript of interview with Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales who visited Bush Radio during his stay in Cape Town.

The interview was recorded in for the programme Sakhisizwe and aired on the 19th April 2007.

Wales visited the station as part of a tour conducted for him by Bush Radio Managing Director, Zane Ibrahim.

What is a Wiki?

A wiki is basically an internet website that anyone can come and add information to and edit and change. So really it’s a community built resource for people to share knowledge.

Why did you decide to call it Wikipedia?

There’s a Hawaiian word ‘wiki wiki’ which means quick. It’s a quick way for people to collaborate without elaborate software mechanisms. The idea of Wikipedia is to have a quickly written encyclopaedia. So that’s the root of the name.

Where did the idea to start it come from?

The original concept of a free encyclopaedia came from the idea of watching free software. There’s a whole bunch of people on the internet who’ve been writing software, web server software, web browsers, a whole operating system called Linux that competes with Microsoft Windows, basically doing it under a free license so people can share it and copy it and do whatever they want with it. I saw the movement on the internet to create a completely free operating system and I thought, this is actually working, there must be a way to bring more people into doing this kind of cooperation and it doesn’t have to just be about software it can be about anything people want to try to build together.

If this is free, where do you get the money to run it?

Wikipedia is run by the Wikimedia foundation, which is a non-profit organization. We exist completely on donations, and actually most of the money we get comes from the general public, small donations from all over the world. Last year we had donations from 50 different countries. Since we are such a volunteer effort, we only have a very small number of staff. There are only seven full time positions at the foundation. The vast majority of the work is done by people who just have a passion for it and are volunteers working for the internet.

The information that is available on Wikipedia, where do you get it?

It’s written, directly written, by all the volunteers. We have thousands of peoples in 125 different languages or more, who are doing research, editing articles, adding new information, updating things all of the time. We take great pride in the fact that we wrote it all ourselves.

People can edit some information, who can edit it?

Anyone can go and edit almost every single page in Wikipedia. Anyone can just come and hit the edit link, make a change, save it and it goes live immediately. Which is pretty surprising, because it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Because the community has the tools they need to roll things back to a previous version, or if someone’s misbehaving we can block them temporarily, it actually works out pretty well.

There’s some debate around the “exclusionary” nature of the Wikipedia editing. What’s your take on this?

It isn’t very exclusionary, I mean, anyone who has access to a computer anyway can jump online and make a change immediately. And so we try to be as inclusive as possible and really be open to newcomers and really welcome input from anyone who is trying to do something constructive.

You’ve been quoted as saying that students should not quote Wikipedia in projects. What do say to people who question the reliability of Wikipedia’s information?

The main thing about this is that of course students shouldn’t really be quoting from even a traditional encyclopaedia, particularly college students. That really isn’t the right role for an encyclopaedia in the research process. But there’s an additional element too, Wikipedia is edited live, and so we know that the average quality across the board is quite high, but for any particular article at any particular moment, someone might have just messed it up just before you got there. So you do have to treat it with a little bit of caution, and really to check other sources if you really need the information to be reliable. Of course for a lot of purposes that people need you just need the broad background, you’re not going to find something too crazy, you just get the broad background information, if there is couple of small errors here and there. People find it very useful.

How does Wikia fit in?

Wikia is my new project, this is a new company completely separate that I founded. Basically to take the idea of Wikipedia, which is the encyclopaedia, and now say, gee, we see that this works, let’s let everyone else build the rest of the library, the magazine rack; let’s really take this whole community generated content revolution to the next step, so people can do stuff that’s not necessarily neutral, so people are doing political sites, people are doing humour, people can do all kinds of things. Whereas Wikipedia really sticks to being an encyclopaedia. The other big project that Wikia is working on is a search engine. People know of Yahoo! and Google and places where you can go and search for things on the internet. But they keep it very secret as how they do their work, how do they decide which sites to show you and which they don’t. I want to bring a little bit of the Wikipedia style openness and transparency and freely licensed software, all that to the search industry. So that’s a lot of fun, it’s got a lot of attention, and we are just getting started on that project.

The issue of languages, you can find it in various languages. Are there plans to get more?

Yeah, absolutely. Our goal has always been stated as we want to have a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. We want to have a really good encyclopaedia in every language that has at least one million native speakers. That’s the base line that I look at for important languages. Right now we have about 128 languages that have at least 1,000 articles. But we’ve got another 100 or so started that are still quite small. We’re very eager to have more work in all of the languages of the world. It’s a little difficult because a lot of the languages that are smaller languages, that we are trying to reach, there aren’t a lot of people online yet. If people don’t have access to the internet its hard for us to help them, it’s hard for us to do something for them. But what I’m seeing is, there are about 1 billion people online now. In the next 5-10 years we’re going to see the next billion people online. That’s already going to begin to have a big impact in terms of having enough people to form a critical mass. You know, you can have a really big Wikipedia project with just a couple hundred core volunteers. That’s what they have in German, which is the second largest. We’re always looking at how we can reach out to people and bring more people in the project. That’s part of the reason I travel the world a lot of the time to kind of reach out to people and say, if you have the opportunity to help us, we’d love the help.

How do people get their languages on Wikipedia?

You can contact through the website, you just come and send an email or just leave a notice on a page. There is a page on Wikipedia that is all about new languages. Someone would take a look at your request and then they would create that language and then the first thing you’d be asked to do is to help us translate the software. You don’t have to be a programmer to do that, if you have English and another language, its just things like where it says ‘click here to edit’ you have to put that in your language, like the homepage, things like that, basically translate that, then translate some of the help pages to sort of explain to people how to edit and things like that. Try to reach out. Then people just start in writing an article about their language, their people, their country, and sort of email different people to kind of help people get involved. Sometimes it is a little slow and lonely getting started, that’s why I always say, once we have 1,000 articles that’s when I consider it really started. Because then at 1,000 articles, normally there are 5-10 regulars, they’ve made friends with each other, they are thinking about how to reach out to more people, but we are really eager to get people involved who speak languages we don’t have yet.

You are here as a guest speaker at the Digital Freedom Expo, can you tell us more about it?

It’s at the University of Western Cape, and there’s a group here in South Africa, ICommons, the headquarters of ICommons is here, this is a group that really tries to promote the idea of sharing online, free licensing, free culture, so they organized the whole thing. They invited me; they invited Larry Lessig, the head of the creative comments movement, actually one of the founders of the Apache web server project. All the people who come from the non-proprietary software and culture space to try to get this group together to kind of talk about and present these ideas and get them out there.

International Telecommunications Union suggest that there were approximately 3,6 million Internet users in South Africa in 2004. Our population is over 40 million. How do you think this expo will help the majority of South Africans who are not online?

A big part of what we are trying to do is make all that kind of technology more accessible. If you are having to use a computer that runs Microsoft Windows, you’ve got maybe a $100 extra cost that you’ve got to pay for the software. So we would encourage people to say ‘well don’t use that, that's too expensive and it's not that good anyway, use Linux, it’s free.” There’s actually a project here, Mark Shuttleworth here in South Africa is creating a version of Linux called Ubuntu, which is easy for people to use. It’s this idea of "lets make it easy for people to use and but let’s also make it free." So we want to get those kinds of ideas out there and the other thing is, it's thinking more long term. When people come online, it’s great if they can come online and use the internet in English, but people also really want things in their own language. The people who start a new language on Wikipedia, they may be starting when most of the people who speak their language are not online yet, but they are putting down a base line of something that other people will find interesting, and attractive, and worthwhile to go online for, and sort of get them involved in this global conversation.

What are some of the threats to digital freedom?

I think one of the big threats to digital freedom is these ideas of digital rights management, where everything online would be completely, very tightly locked down and controlled through some encryption technology so you can’t copy your music to something else or you can’t share something with a friend. Another big threat is the patent system, which has completely broken globally, particularly around software. You have threats where the most trivial sort of ideas are patented, and somebody will come to someone like Wikipedia and threaten to shut us down if we don’t pay them a lot of money, when, well, their idea is really nothing. So there’s a lot of people in the community who are trying to fight this by documenting where a lot of ideas come from. A lot of times people may get an idea just sort of bubbling up from the culture on the internet, then patent it as if they invented it, even though there is people who’ve done it before. It’s really hard to fight that if they’ve got money, and lawyers, and it's just like a bunch of stuff on the internet. There is nobody organized to do that. There is a guy, Eben Moglin, who does a lot of work, he is a very well known lawyer in the US who is really trying to say ‘look, you just can’t patent something because you found it on the internet. Right, you’ve got to appreciate that most of the great ideas on the internet are just kind of bubbling up from lots and lots of different people. It’s actually healthier for free speech, healthier for democracy, for sharing knowledge, if instead of having a patent system where people lock things up we say, "let’s not have software patents, it doesn’t help the industry at all, let’s keep it open." That’s one of the biggest threats that I worry about.

When you look at South Africa as a developing country – how have we progressed in digital technology compared to some of the countries you have visited?

So that’s something I unfortunately don’t know a whole lot about, that’s actually one of the reasons why I came here to Bush Radio. Later someone’s going to take me on a tour of the city, we're going to see some things that you wouldn’t normally see. I really feel that as part of my work, I really need to have an understanding of that. I want to help, I can’t do anything myself, it’s all about the community. But if I can help my community understand better what people’s needs are, then we can all work together on it. Hopefully I’ll find out today what the status is.

As an Internet entrepreneur, what advice do you have for the young entrepreneurs out there?

I think for me, it’s a lot about having fun. If you’ve gotten something you think would be an interesting and fun way to live your life and you can find a way to make a living doing it, then that’s really the best. I think a lot of people who want to be entrepreneurs, they would be people like me: I just don’t feel I’m suited for a normal job. I just can’t go to work every day and do something. You really have to find some spark or something that makes you passionate, it could be something really quite simple, if you are starting a restaurant or something, and say "that would be fun for me." If it isn’t fun, then you won’t be able to push through the difficult moments. That’s the only thing that I can recommend.

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