/ 14 November 2007

What has Jimmy Wales been up to?

“We are much better off in the long run by trusting each other,” says Jimmy Wales, founder of free-for-all internet encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Wales was speaking on Tuesday in Johannesburg at the inaugural session of the Innovation Series — an endeavour presented by iCommons, ITWeb, Mindshift and the Mail & Guardian Online where innovators in new media will travel to South Africa to give talks on their areas of expertise.

Wikipedia, now the eighth-most-popular website in the world, boasts more than two million English articles: an impressive figure, but these account for less than one-third of the total number of articles in its database.

Already there are more than 8 000 Afrikaans articles on Wikipedia — which compares well with the 14 000 Hindi articles (a language spoken by 280-million people). However, South Africa’s other official languages are lagging far behind, Wales said. Northern Sotho, isiXhosa, Venda and others — only a few dozen articles have been contributed in these languages thus far.

Wales (41) arrived in South Africa last week, and at the weekend attended locally organised Wikipedia academies, where South Africans from different language groups were given basic training in editing and updating Wikipedia in their mother tongues.

The weekend workshops resulted in the number of Wikipedia articles in isiZulu crossing the 100 mark. In video footage shot during the workshop, one young participant explained how he enjoyed being able to document some of his culture’s legends, which were previously only passed on verbally.

“Small languages start with one or two people, working by themselves — very lonely,” said Wales. It takes a while to build up “critical mass” for a specific language community on Wikipedia, and the Wikipedia academies aim to change this. “Wikipedia is a good platform for the growth of African languages,” he added.


Wales also spoke about his latest project, Wikia — a separate organisation from the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia.

To explain the goal of Wikia, Wales used the analogy of a library, where Wikipedia is the encyclopedia section — but there are thousands of other books on the shelves, too. “Wikia is every other kind of book, work or community that people might build,” he said.

While still freely licensed, Wikia is extending the Wikipedia principle beyond non-profit scientific and educational purposes. It is advertising-supported, draws in specialised communities and already counts more than 3 000 wikis on various topics, in more than 66 languages — even Klingon.

By way of explanation, Wikipedia offers about 3 000 articles on the Muppets, covering all the basics and more — movies, TV shows, different characters. However, on the dedicated Muppet wiki, a staunch community of Muppet-lovers has written a staggering 15 500 articles already, “and they’re just getting started”, laughed Wales.

Anyone can apply to develop a wiki on a specific subject, but the Wikia team carefully selects only topics that can draw on a large enough support community to make them viable. Also, there’s no use in having five competing wikis on the Muppets when there really should be a single authoritative wiki edited jointly by all fans of the famous puppets.

Wales and his team are further working on a new search-engine project, an open-source competitor to the Googles and Yahoo!s on the internet. The project is based on four principles: transparency (using open-source code), community (involving as many people as possible), quality (guaranteeing the correct search results) and privacy (of users).

Added to this would be easy-to-use templates or tools to allow users to build, for example, their own version of social-networking giant Facebook. Giving users the tools they need and trusting them to use them well has been a basic tenet of Wikipedia, and the philosophy also applies here.

Wales explained: “Imagine designing a restaurant from scratch. You want to serve steak, so you have to give people knives. But, customers will use the knives to stab other people, so you decide to put them in a cage …”

This is what happens in run-of-the-mill web design, he said. “You lock people down to prevent them from doing bad things, but you also prevent them from doing good things.”

And that, he said, is why trust is essential.