Lunch with Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales
Lunch at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Jimmy began by asking how many of the people in the room have edited Wikipedia. Most of the hands in the room went up. “Very good!” he exclaimed. He made a few jokes about sitting in a Wikipedia meetup without using meetup technology.

The English Wikipedia is larger than Britannica and Encarta combined. It has more than 130 million words and is the largest of the Wikipedias. Then it’s German, Japanese, French, and Swedish.

1.5 million articles across 200 languages; 20+ languages with 10,000 articles and 50+ languages with more than 1,000 articles

Wikipedians encourage people to call the different language versions anything but translations. They want people to know that they’re independent versions with people who have written original articles. They aren’t translations of each other.

Jimmy told a great anecdote about attending a conference at the Poynter Institute. Someone from a large national newspaper tried to shrug him off saying “Well, our Web site has 300 million pages, but you wouldn’t know about that.” Jimmy replied, “Well, we have about 400 million pages and only one person on staff.” The editor stood corrected.

Jimmy mentioned Popedotting–a traffic surge that happened when word got out that Wikipedia had fantastic and current information about the papal election. He told the story about getting everything updated in Wikipedia before the media had it.

MediaWiki is the wiki software they use. It works well for a large public wiki that’ll get a lot of traffic. Jimmy admits it’s not ideal for a corporate, internal wiki.

Most of the machines are in Florida with 3 (soon to be 6) squids in France. They’re getting some servers in Belgium and … another country I just forgot.

They don’t worry too much about downtime.

Jimmy talked about the value of the IRC network and having volunteers who watch the servers around the clock. “I can go into IRC at any point and have a conversation with 8-12 highly knowledgeable people about server stuff.”

“The community organizes itself” like with the votes for deletion pages.

There seem to be two veiws of Wikipedia: basically: people either love or hate Wikipedia. The emergent view is that a bunch of ants maintain Wikipedia. Another view is that communities of volunteers maintain Wikipedia and its projects. Jimmy showed some photos illustrating the community aspect of it all. He likes the community model much better.

80/10 Rule: 10% of all of the users make 80% of all the edits. 5% make 66% and 50% are made by just 2 1/2% of all users.

Anonymous editing i still controversial and intriguing.

Ethan asked about new article creation. Jimmy explained that new article creation isn’t that valuable to track because a lot of the new articles are just “asdf asdf,” like people testing the wiki or testing the community. Many of them get deleted within minutes.

sj adds that a number of anonymous users create new pages.

Sock Puppeting is when someone deliberately uses someone else’s account to log in and edit.

Ethan remarks that a number of people get involved because they find something wrong or find something that’s missing and they keep coming back. Ethan described it as an opportunity to fix something someone isn’t happy with.

“One of our rules is to ignore all rules,” Jimmy explains. It’s a way to get people to get involved. People will go in to fix things. If it’s easier for someone to ignore the rules and just write, they can do that. Someone else will take care of the nitty gritty details. Jimmy says they try not to yell at people. They try not to be that kind of community where yelling is ok.

Someone asked about deleting articles. Only administrators can delete articles. Articles disappear from public view, but not the server. Certain things–like the “asdf asdf” pages or vandalism–can be deleted immediately. There are rules for deleting other problematic articles.

“In the future, Wikipedians are going to win every tv quiz show,” expounds Jimmy on the ability to learn about all sorts of weird things just by working on the encyclopedia.

A tech person asked about whether anyone has any ideas about what’s missing from the encyclopedia. Jimmy answers that they don’t really track what’s missing and what’s not missing.

Ethan describes a project of comparing another encyclopedia’s index to Wikipedia to judge the coverage. One limitation is that peer constructed pieces of media rely on the peer group. The amount of knowledge in Wikipedia reflects the knowledge of the group. If no one in the group knows things, they won’t be in the encyclopedia.

The Wikipedia community is about 80% male and 20% female, but many of the women are heavily involved and have powerful positions within the community. Jimmy jokes that he shouldn’t talk about such gender differences at this university, but that’s what the breakdown is. About 26 people are here. The group in the room isn’t 80/20. There are more women.

Jimmy describes the governance of the community and encyclopedia. He praises Angela, a superuser and board member.

Jimmy laughs over the “Queen of England” story. One of the British newspapers ran an article about a talk he gave and thought he said something about being the Queen.

A Neo-Nazi group tried to get enough votes to delete certain articles in Wikipedia. Fearing a disruption from this organized group, the community wondered what they could do. Jimmy suggested that since they weren’t operating by Wikipedia’s community’s rules, the community could ban them and take any necessary steps to protect the encyclopedia’s content. Jimmy emphasizes that Nazis and others with controversial viewpoints are welcome to work on the encyclopedia. The problem here is that this group was not playing by the community’s rules.

Rebecca asked about whether public relations folks have found Wikipedia and begun to use it as a PR tool. Not to Jimmy’s knowledge, he answers. He shares the difference between PR people enhancing an article about a company versus someone creating an article as a PR tool. Jimmy doesn’t support the idea of people editing articles about them. He thinks that gets too tricky and some people can’t let go and let others write about them.

Jimmy continues praising the community throughout his talk. He seems awed by it and by all of the volunteers involved in it.

John inquires about whether Wikipedia has received any cease-and-desist letters. “Yeah, all the time,” Jimmy responds. He talks about a few cases and how they’re actively seeking permission from copyright holders. John interprets the situation to be a way for copyright holders to get Wikipedia to get a license from them. In many cases, the complainant wouldn’t win in court. They’re just trying to avoid taking Wikipedia to court on principle.

Jimmy announces something about digital images of paintings that have been released into the public domain. He said something about the German DirektMedia DVD of Wikipedia, too. It might be that DirektMedia bought the rights of the photos, then released them to the public domain.

Jimmy explains how governments releasing content to the public can be beneficial. The French government, for example, doesn’t do that. The photo of Jacques Chirac in the French Wikipedia comes from the United States government. NASA is known world-wide for its space images because of their open use status. The European space agency wants to improve their PR, but they aren’t willing to share their images.

Benjamen wants Jimmy to talk about Wikinews. Jimmy defers to Pingswept, a Wikinewsie. Because it’s a small community, the interests of the group are strongly reflected in which articles are there. Pingswept says there’s a lot of overlap between Wikipedia and Wikinews. But many don’t have enough time to do both. Some people enjoy working on current events stories more than encyclopedia entries. Pingswept says he’d much rather work on news stories than encyclopedia articles.

Pingswept showed us the placeholder for Jimmy’s talk at the law school tonight.

Jimmy and Ethan complains very few people in the room have their own Wikipedia entries. (I was told I’m not famous enough to have my own yet.)

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