Wikipedia founder gazes into site's future
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With close to 1.3 million English-language articles, is there any limit to the number of entries online free encyclopedia Wikipedia will offer? Jimmy Wales, the project’s founder, believes there may be, as he encourages contributors to focus more on entry quality than quantity.
“We’ve always had a love/hate relationship with numbers,” Wales said in an interview at Wikimania, an annual conference for users of wiki projects, including Wikipedia. Wikimania was held at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week.
While offering a caveat that in ten years his prediction might be laughably out of whack, Wales says the English version of Wikipedia might be starting to reach its limit, perhaps eventually topping out at two million or three million articles.
“How many entries can there be in the world, one for every person?” he asks. “That’s about six billion.” It would be impossible to verify that number of entries, and that’s not really the encyclopedia’s mission, he says. “The central thing [about Wikipedia] is that it’s the sum of all human knowledge, not all knowledge,” Wales says.
At the same time, it’s up to the Wikipedia community how fine a level of detail they want in the listings, he says. For instance, might certain groups want to put up biographies for the members of local county councils? It’s all a matter of what’s relevant to readers.
While the French, German and Japanese versions of Wikipedia already have hundreds of thousands of articles, other language versions of the encyclopedia still need to focus on bulking up their numbers of entries so they really can function as encyclopedias, Wales says.
The criticism Wikipedia has attracted in relation to the accuracy of its content has sometimes been misguided, in Wales’ opinion. “It turns out a lot of people don’t get it,” Wales says. “Wikipedia is like rock’n’roll; it’s a cultural shift.”
The “older generation”, not necessarily in age, but in their sense of how online communities function, might be disturbed by some of the internet vandalism that occurs on the Wikipedia site, Wales says.
For example, the brief substitution of a picture of the devil for a photo of US President George Bush might outrage them but be something that “younger” or more internet-savvy folk take in their stride and dismiss.
“Typically, these things happen every single day on Wikipedia,” Wales says. And the community tries to act as quickly as it can to rectify site vandalism or erroneous information.
Not many famous or semi-famous people can resist checking themselves out on Wikipedia and, perhaps, editing their own biographies.
Wales gave the example of rock star Lou Reed, who corrected the middle name given on his biography. When Reed returned to the entry, his own correction had been “reverted” — Wikipedian parlance for an edit that reverses a change. Reed had anonymously changed his entry, so another contributor fixed what they saw as an error.
Having his own article on Wikipedia, Wales says he’s particularly “sensitive” to the issue of living peoples’ biographies. He was incensed about a really harmless change to his biography, where a contributor, for reasons best known to him or herself, had added a sentence saying, “Jimmy enjoys playing chess with his friends.”
While the entry was plausible, Wales doesn’t play chess. He says the addition was one more indication of the need for verifiable sources for stated facts.