If Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales came up with the idea for a free, collaborative online encyclopedia today — when money-hungry tech giants rule the internet — it would be a hard sell.
It was already a hard sell in 2001 when Wikipedia first made its way onto the internet, says Wikimedia South Africa board member Douglas Scott.
“When you think about it, it is a giant, open-sourced information repository that can be edited by anyone and all of these people editing and adding content to it are unpaid,” he says.
“They do it for the joy of it. They do it for the civic good of doing it … Pretty much everyone who this was presented to thought this would not work. Even many of its early believers thought it would just be a fun project.”
On Friday, Wikipedia will have been around for 20 years, exceeding expectations by becoming a widely turned to and reliable public resource. According to web-analysis firm Alexa, in South Africa, Wikipedia is the 10th-most popular site on the internet.
Wikipedia, which puts its faith into volunteers to populate it with factual content, stands out from similar community-based websites, which have often become battlegrounds of propaganda and disinformation. It has been able to guard against this because of its community’s cause, Scott says.
“Wikipedia and the free knowledge movement have shared values of providing free, accessible, reliable, trustworthy information to everyone. And the community has grown around that vision … We all have a strong consensus that things like hate speech, misinformation and disinformation are bad things that must be fought.”
Scott says Wikipedia is one of the last vestiges of a more optimistic hope for the internet. “In the early days of the internet, the hope was that the internet would be used for a source for global good — bring the world together and provide a shared platform for everyone to know each other better,” he says.
“And 20 years later that vision of the internet has not materialised, very sadly. But there are a few vestiges.”
In the age of misinformation on the internet, Wikipedia has become a trusted source used by other platforms, like Facebook, to allow users to fact-check information, Scott notes. It has also become increasingly important in the wake of Covid-19, which has been accompanied by a flood of dangerous untruths.
For Wikipedia to have a quality and range of content, it needs to have diverse editors, something that South Africa is missing.
“We need more editors from all walks of life. There is just a blanket need for more people in South Africa voluntarily editing in South Africa … The South African community of editors is not representative of South Africa broadly,” Scott says.
“And if we want to represent the sum of human knowledge that is accessible to everyone everywhere, and we want to do so from a neutral point of view, then we need to increase the diversity of our editors,” he adds.
The South African editor base is predominantly white and male, Scott says. They also mostly live in Gauteng and the Western Cape, which means that the South African-related content tends not to cover the rest of the country.
Scott says that South African Wikipedia needs more content written in South African languages other than English. “This is where one person could make a huge positive difference. One person who really cares about their language,” he says.
The internet is a fraught and sometimes scary space. But without it, Wikipedia would not find the volunteer editors it needs to exist.
“One of the really important things for us is to raise awareness in the public that Wikipedia exists and that anyone can participate in editing Wikipedia. And they are encouraged to do so,” Scott says. “They are needed on Wikipedia. And hopefully, by appealing to billions of people, we will be able to find a small number of dedicated, self-motivated volunteers.”