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Jimmy Wales keynote at Wikimania

My wife asked whether I thought anyone would mention Steven Colbert’s recent segment on Wikipedia at the Wikimania conference.

“They won’t shut up about it,” I speculated.

And, indeed, Jimmy Wales led off his opening keynote at Wikimania with the Colbert segment, which includes the memorable phrase, “If enough other users agree with them, it becomes true,” a partial explanation for the phenomenon Colbert calls “Wikiality”.

After reviewing Wikipedia’s – and the Wikimedia movement’s – goals: “Imagine a world win which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” We’re doing this, Jimmy tells us, pointing to some of the recent milestones Wikipedia has hit, including a million entries in the English Wikipedia in March 2006.

But quality continues to be a major concern for Wikipedia. Referring to the “Seigenthaler Controvery”, Jimmy notes, “Apparently there was an error in Wikipedia.” The audience responds with mock horror, and cries of “Eek!” and “Just one?”

But Jimmy acknowledges it was a serious error – for four months, the Wikipedia biography of John Seigenthaler Sr. included speculation that he was involved with the JFK assasination. After appearing on CNN – “to be yelled at” – traffic to the site increased three-fold.

As he appeared on CNN, Jimmy was aware – but embargoed from speaking about – the Nature article that compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica articles. The article, as most folks know, looked at 50 selected articles from Wikipedia that were roughly the same length as comparable articles in Britannica. In this sample set, the average Wikipedia had four errors, while the average Britannica article had three.

Rather than championing these results, Jimmy takes a critical look at them: scientific articles are where Wikipedia is strongest – a comparison on articles on poetry would have been less kind to Wikipedia, he suggests, acknowledging a systemic community bias towards the sciences and against the humanities. The article did a fact by fact review, not a style review – some Wikipedia articles suffer stylistically from group editing. And a random sample of articles might have found more stubs. “We are not as good as Britannica… yet” – and all know this.
We can’t just count articles for success – we need to improve the core topics as well.

Jimmy mentions that the structure of the organization – the Wikimedia Foundation – is growing and becoming more stable. “The project has always been far ahead of the foundation’s organizational capacity.” The foundation expansion includes hiring Brad Patrick, who now serves as the general counsel and interim CEO of the foundation. And it will include starting an advisory board – probably with a strong academic tone – to help strengthen the board.

Explaining Wikia, Jimmy’s VC-backed open content for profit, he explains that the success of Wikipedia has made it very easy to raise venture funds and has made it possible to put some unusual conditions on investors. As a result, a significant portion of investment funds are authorized to support Wikipedia, which includes several full time engineers supporting Mediawiki.

Making some news announcements, Jimmy offers the exciting news that the One Laptop Per Child project is including Wikipedia as their first element in their content repository. (Indeed, SJ Klein, who has chaired the organization of the Wikimania conference will be working with OLPC on this project.) Not only could Wikipedia be the “killer ap” for OLPC, the existence of connected computers in developing nations might well help Wikipedia create editions in new languages.

Jimmy also announced Wikiversity, a project to create free multi-lingual learning materials. The project is intended to be broader than Wikibooks, providing quizzes and review materials as well as hosting learning communities. The project is launching in three languages in a six month beta test.

Over the next year, an exciting new development may be Wikiwyg – wysiwyg Media Wiki developed in conjunction with SocialText, which already has wysiwyg functionality. Jimmy believes this is a major priority, citing the story of a high school friend – a brilliant Chinese literature scholar – who was scared off from contributing by the wikitext markup language. While we sometimes think of this complexity as a good barrier to entry, Jimmy says, it’s not. “It’s a barrier to folks who are geeks, but not computer keeps. And it doesn’t keep out the idiots.”

Quality initiatives will focus on making sure that images are properly tagged, hoping to use more free content images and invoke fair use less often. Policies taken up by the WP:BIO articles – articles about living people – which require better and clearer sourcing, might apply to more articles in the future. And an experiment with “stable versions” – versions of Wikipedia that are editable, but where a “clean” edit is the one most of the public sees – is in the works with the German Wikipedia.

Updating people on his “10 Things that Will be Free” talk, Jimmy declares “mission accomplished” on creating a free encyclopedia in English, German, French and Japanese. He pauses, acknowleding that “mission accomplished” might not be the right phrase: “Mission Accomplished but there are still skirmishes everyday.”

That said, and despite the fact that there are now 100 languages with 1000 or more articles, “we are not making enough progress in developing world.” Jimmy wants to solve this by raising money for funding for coordinators in languages that are currently underdeveloped.

Progress on Wiktionary will depend heavily on software development – Jimmy points people to the work taking place on WiktionaryZ, a software project designed to build a true multilingual dictionary.

And to make Wikibooks and Wikiuniversity work well, Jimmy points to the need to work closely with educational innovators like Taddy Blecher at Cida City Campus, an usual university in South Africa which works with some of South Africa’s poorest students. The developing world is very clearly on Jimmy’s mind in the talk – in response to one question, he notes that global communication costs are dropping, while other costs are not. This means, “all those people who are starving in africa are going to call us to complain.” It sounds like many of his personal measures for Wikimedia success will be tied to the impact of the project in the developing world.

4 thoughts on “Jimmy Wales keynote at Wikimania”

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  2. WiktionaryZ, a software project designed to build a true multilingual dictionary.

    Does that mean you could look up a word or phrase and get a set of words or phrases that translate to it in many languages at once, with translations of them to explain the nuances?

    That is, say you could look up ‘to speak’ in Mexxican Spanish or Maori or Russian and get a list of verbs that indicated kinds of speech — as in English you might get “to call”, “to profess,”, “to mutter” and so on. And for each word, you could get an English translation, so that you understood how they differed. Given infinite space and memory, you could then get verbs for “to speak” from as many different languages as the dictionary covered.

    We’ve already got onling dictionaries, translating dictionaries, dictionaries of words that don’t exist in English, languiage dictionaries anyone can edit (you know about the Swahili dictionary Yale was working on?) and dictionaries of slang in all kinds of languages… but a database that could compare and contrast them and could include shrinking languages or languages that only exist on paper now…

    Geeks who aren’t computer geeks? I don’t know what you’re talking about. ;-) I just want to know which words in Mohican are animate and which are inanimate. Distinguishing not by gender or number or position in time but by soul is such a tremendous thought.

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