Everything We Know

[For Esquire magazine, October 2011]

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The idea of Wikipedia is a huge one – putting the sum of all human knowledge in one place and making it accessible around the world. Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner, is the person who ensures it remains, in every sense of the word, free. She’s increasingly one of the most influential people on the planet.

Wikipedia is ten years old this year, and in the last decade it has become a phenomenon that encapsulates what the Internet can do; it’s a success story that perfectly sums up the Information Age. Centuries ago, access to knowledge was patchy at best. Then in 1768 Encyclopaedia Britannica was launched and it became the best place to find information, albeit amid accusations of inaccuracy, bias, racism and sexism. For years it thrived via libraries or (if you were rich enough) multiple volumes of books gathering dust on shelves. But by the 1990s computers were suddenly commonplace in the home and multimedia CDs were launched.

Microsoft approached Encyclopaedia Britannica wanting to buy some of its content for its own encyclopedia but was turned down amid fears that print sales of the Britannica would be harmed. In 1996, however, Encyclopaedia Britannica was forced to sell content to Microsoft anyway. Print sales could no longer compete with the software giant’s multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta, which was much cheaper and more user-friendly.

In 2009, though, Microsoft closed its Encarta service (which by then was available via online subscription or multiple CDs) stating that, “the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed,” and that, “People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways.”

They didn’t mention Wikipedia but they didn’t really have to. As of 2008 the Encarta collection contained 62,000 articles, while Wikipedia had 2,153,000 and was also free and being added to and updated every minute of every day.

Open-source and free had arrived. Today, if Wikipedia was presented in the same format as Encyclopaedia Britannica, it would run to over 1,557 volumes. But what’s the real cost of free? Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner, is the website’s chief fundraiser. “Our operating budget for 2010 was $20.4 million, and we intend to raise $16 million through the annual campaign from ordinary people around the world,” she tells Esquire over lunch in Dubai. “We are on track to hit our target.”

In a world of aggressive manoeuvring from the likes of Microsoft and Facebook, Wikipedia has a business model based on philanthropy. Over 408 million people read the site every month and clearly there’s a strong desire from the many who donate to keep the project going. It should be noted that, along with public donations, benefactors include Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal) and there was a $2 million contribution from the Google Charitable Giving Fund of Tides Foundation, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin stating: “Wikipedia is one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet.”

A few big names aside, though, it remains very much a site of the people. The altruistic nature of the model is not just one of sustainability — it’s at the very core of creation. The pages are edited by members of the public – known as Wikipedians – simply for their love of sharing information. All they receive is the satisfaction of sharing knowledge, something Sue calls, “the supremacy of reason and the goodness of others.” These Wikipedians are not only happy to work for free, but also willing donators to keep the project funded – it was revealed last year that Wikipedia itself only has 35 employees who mostly just ensure the site is up and running for the world to edit.

This rosy scenario begs one question: does the open-source model provide an accurate service? “If you’re an editor you bring to the table what you know – so editors are the key,” says Sue, fully aware that these contributors are numerous, variously educated and scattered globally. “Wikipedians are continually having conversations about what is a credible source. There’s so much disruption in the media industry right now: things that were once considered a credible source may now be less so, while sources that have not been considered reliable are up for negotiation.

There’s a whole conversation going on about what is worth citing and what isn’t.” The mass gathering of information is creating some surprising side effects. The project is now reaching a point where the original footnoted sources are being corrected by Wikipedia writers. Sue cites a significant example: “One of our articles on climate change refers to a BBC article that contained a small error.

So Wikipedians went back to the BBC and asked them to amend its site because people kept reinserting that inaccurate piece of information into Wikipedia under the assumption that the BBC must be correct.” With cuts at many traditionally reliable news sources, and the resulting pressure on fewer and fewer journalists to churn out more articles, the information gates of fact-checking have been left increasingly open to error or manipulation. Old media consumers might tut and perhaps write a strongly-worded letter to their newspaper in the hope that a correction will be printed the following day, but in the world of Web 2.0 the response can be instant. “There will be a virtuous loop back where people hopefully accept feedback from Wikipedians,” Sue says, clearly proud of those who have taken up the challenge.

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In general that process seems to be working. A study by British journal Nature examined a range of scientific entries on Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. It found few differences in accuracy; mainly because Wikipedia errors were corrected as soon as they were found, while the “dead tree format” remained until the new edition. Or as author Cory Doctorow puts it, “The Britannica tells you what dead white men agreed upon, Wikipedia tells you what live Internet users are fighting over.”

While corrections are easy for undeniable facts such as spellings of names or dates of events, pages of a more political nature are harder to maintain. In August of this year an article in The Huffington Post claimed that Indiana Congressman Mike Pence had been editing his own Wikipedia page to portray himself in a more flattering light, and he was not the first to do so. An article in The Washington Post revealed that numerous Wikipedia pages had been edited from computers on the White House server, although, encouragingly, the majority of edits were simply to add accurate information, correct factual errors or spelling mistakes. And not just on the political pages either – it turns out that one White House staffer had been substantially contributing to a Harry Potter page. But the point still stands. How can neutrality be ensured on any page, be it politics or Potter? “You do that by being open to everyone,” says Sue. “I was a journalist for a long time and I worked in newsrooms.

Although you try really hard to be neutral, the product always reflects the bias of the people who work on it – be that political, cultural, local censorship or in terms of gender, and so on. People have their own perspective and the answer to that is more perspective, more speech, more people contributing… and that’s one of the things that’s extraordinary and lovely about Wikipedia. It’s how you reach some kind of neutrality.”

Not all agree though. Larry Sanger, who helped to found Wikipedia, said after leaving the company, that the site was “broken beyond repair,” and no longer reliable, citing the many-hands approach as one of the causes. He claimed that expert views get “hacked to bits by hoi polloi,” which was a view shared by technology historian Scott Sadofsky who said, “There’s a small set of content generators and a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers.”

It’s those wonks and twiddlers that help to disseminate information, for good or for ill: Wikipedia was, along with Twitter, one of the sites to name celebrities who had taken out injunctions in the UK. Although moderators removed the information from the front page it was still available in the edit history.

This democracy of information is intrinsically linked to freedom of information, which manifests itself in several forms. One of the purest things about Wikipedia is arguably the absence of advertising. The fear from users of the site was that a lack of funds would mean adverts would be needed to keep it running. And once you let advertisers in, you not only irritate and potentially drive away customers (a conundrum Twitter is currently wrestling with), you also run the risk of losing the vital neutrality. For example, if Barclays Bank bought advertising, you could argue it would have financial leverage to pressure Wikipedia to remove the allegations on its Wikipedia page about its history of funding Robert Mugabe’s government, its links to the arms trade or its tax avoidance methods. Such a scenario would essentially be akin to buy a whitewashing of the facts.

Luckily Wikipedia is funded by the very people who want to know the truth, rather than those who may seek to use their financial clout to distort it. And it’s the public, again, who are keeping advertisers off the site. That fundraising is largely thanks to Sue, who is modest about her role. “We’ve always had a consistent position on advertising in that we would never say never. If it was a choice between that or shutting down Wikipedia we’d look at all the available options. But, honestly, the more time passes, the less likely that appears to be necessary. And the reason is because this model works – people like it and they are happy to cover its costs.”

With no Rupert Murdoch-type owner or government backing, Wikipedia has the ability to stay politically neutral and relevant — as anyone who’s ever read a government-owned newspaper will tell you, the big news-story of the day is what it doesn’t contain. And this is the part that makes Sue most proud about the site. “Around the world there are millions of people whose access to information is seriously constrained. Either by governments or PR firms or simply by economics – where a person cannot afford to buy a lot of textbooks.”

This freedom of collaboration and information is something she refers to as, “radical openness, radical freedom and radical convergence,” and is a model that’s made for the Internet. At the TEDx conference in Dubai she told a story of how the existence of Wikipedia helped a young boy living in a remote part of eastern Canada, where there was no library, to pass his exams so he could leave his small isolated town and go to university. He became the first in his family to do so. Upon hearing this story, the audience burst into applause and cheered. She followed that with a story of how it also helped a young gay boy growing up in a country where homosexuality was illegal and access to information about related issues was hard to come by. Through Wikipedia he was able to discover how attitudes have changed around the world and improve his own understanding and place in the world. Not one person applauded.

I mention this to Sue afterwards, because the episode reveals the inherent complications that complete freedom of information has in the context of different cultures. “Yeah… well, there you go,” she says and shrugs.

“Wikipedia isn’t safe; our job is to bring knowledge to people around the planet and that’s a radical act. And the people who edit Wikipedia are altruistic, high-minded, sincere people who want to make the world a better place.”

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, echoes that belief and earlier this year he told Esquire : “A huge amount of what goes on in the Middle East has to do with people being fed really bad information. If they have better access to information they can say, ‘I really disagree with these people but they’re human beings and they’re reasonable and we can have a conversation.’

While it might be naive to believe that Wikipedia could solve the region’s ills, Wales was on firmer ground when he also pointed out that Wikipedians are people who, instead of going online to argue with each other or read about celebrity gossip, are people of many nations building something together. Their endeavours have produced around 18 million articles in over 200 languages and the subjects are increasingly wide-ranging.

Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why The Future Of Business Is Sharing, is convinced that this is a system that can work elsewhere on the Internet for other businesses or projects. “Models like this are works in progress already for things like city planning, large enterprises and participatory democracies. You invite solutions for social challenges, introduce opportunities and engage a wealth of talent, concerns and insights,” she tells Esquire. “The idea of absolute control of an outcome is an idea that died with the Industrial Revolution — we are in the age of open engagement.”

Not that Wikipedia is a totally highminded project. Though it’s often promoted as a tool for education by those looking to champion the site, there was always the accusation that it was mostly pop culture rather than classical culture that the majority of people were looking up. A list of the top 150 most-viewed pages for 2009 revealed that while 13,629 people per day were accessing the “American Civil War” entry, there were almost an identical number of hits every day for “2 Girls 1 Cup”. And although “Henry VIII of England” was the 84th ranked page with an impressive 17,912 daily hits, either side in places 85 and 86 were the uneasily juxtaposed “Jade Goody” and “sexual intercourse” – perhaps a reflection of the short attention span of teenagers doing their homework.

You could understand why they would get distracted, as Wikipedia is awash with essentially meaningless pop trivia. Sue proudly claims that she’s “very happy to be the executive director of an organization that has been helping people settle bar bets since 2001.” However she insists the site is a lot more than a handy guide for pub quizzes. “People get the Wikipedia that they deserve; if you think there’s too much pop culture then that’s probably a reflection of what you spend your time reading,” she says. “But when I started in 2007 I systematically read through the content and was astonished at the range of topics like hard sciences and mathematics.”

While this is all very worthy, for many users it’s the contributions from obsessive fans (meaning you can look up episodes guides for Battlestar Galactica or find out the name of all the Muppets) which results in the unparalleled breadth of Wikipedia. Predictably, over eighty percent of the contributors are men. There’s something almost OCD about the male desire to make lists, put thing in order and then to share that information. However there seems to be a finite supply of these types.

The number of people adding editorial to the site has been constant since 2007 and, although the readership of Wikipedia has continued to increase, the number of editors has stayed the same. This is the next challenge. “We’re putting a lot of emphasis into recruiting editors, both to keep the overall numbers high but also to increase diversity,” Sue explains. “We want to reach out to women and people in developing countries because it’s disproportionately edited by people in Western Europe and Northern America right now.”

Nevertheless it has made good progress in its first decade. There are already articles on the site in languages such as Kanuri, Choctaw, Pontic, Ewe and other dialects that most people probably didn’t know even existed. “Wikipedia gets better, more complete and richer and every day,” says Sue with beaming pride, and – significantly – pride that that in this case “richer” means culturally not financially. Take note, Mark Zuckerberg.

This isn’t about making money and, largely because it isn’t a profit-driven exercise, she’s managed to secure the funding for the site for another twelve months – from the millions who see the obvious value in what Wikipedia is trying to do. It’s an idealistic, grassroots, never-ending, constantly-updated mission to store the sum of all human knowledge in one place and make it accessible to everyone for free. It could well be the biggest, most worthwhile thing on the Internet.

 

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