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News & Stories: 2009-10

January Series 2010: Jimmy Wales
January 15, 2010

Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

On January 15, 2010, the world's sixth most-popular Web site, a collaborative online encyclopedia known across the world as Wikipedia, turned nine years old.

That same day, Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales, spoke to Calvin's January Series about the democratization of knowledge via the Internet. He also spoke openly about challenges to the availability of that knowledge in countries like Cuba, China and Iran.

Wales began his lecture talking about technology and culture. In opposition to those who say that culture has devolved in recent decades, Wales contended that as culture creates more complex technology, it is becoming smarter and smarter. Access to knowledge in that smarter world is of vital importance.

As a global online encyclopedia, Wikipedia's goal is to give "every single person on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge." Wales explained this goal by defining some of its phrases:

  • "free access" means that any person has the ability to read, edit and reuse for any purpose (commercial or otherwise) the information contained in Wikipedia.
  • the "sum" of human knowledge means knowledge in an encyclopedic sense. Wikipedia is not trying to be YouTube or a social networking site like Facebook.

Wales mentioned, also, the commitment that Wikipedia has made through its authoring and editing processes to remain neutral in political and other matters.

"For us, it's not about political activism, it's about neutrality. What we're there for is to give you the basic information not only from today, but from history," he said.

Wikipedia in German, Farsi and more

Wales continued his lecture by taking the audience on a trip around the world to places where Wikipedia is being used and where it isn't (as much as Wales would like). A few salient points include:

  • Only 20 percent (3.1 million articles) of Wikipedia's article repository is written in the English language.
  • German contributors are catching up with English-language contributors by writing over one million articles for Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia contains 88,373 articles in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran. The Web site is the 10th most viewed site in Iran.
  • Wikipedia entries written in Chinese number only 290,000, due in part to an intermittent ban of the Web site that spanned from 2004-2008.

Wikipedia in Cuba, Iran and China

Wales finished his talk with comments about the status of Wikipedia in three countries not typically regarded as democratic.

In Cuba, Internet users could read over Wikipedia 550,000 articles written in Spanish. Still, the Web is heavily filtered there, Wales said, recounting a story of an American government subcontractor who was recently arrested for helping a Jewish group get access to Wikipedia.

Wales spoke positively about the quality of Wikipedia articles in Iran, where recent political unrest has led to a government crackdown on protests. The Farsi (Persian) language version of a Wikipedia entry on the political unrest is fact-based and devoid of political commentary. Still, there is concern that government censorship of the site will increase post-election.

Finally, in China, Internet users have access to Wikipedia insofar as the government does not filter it. In contrast to Google, Wikipedia does not host servers in China and does not actively censor content for Chinese Internet users. The relatively low number of articles written in Chinese (290,000 articles) suggests that several government bans of Wikipedia are still affecting the Web site's level of success in the world's most populous nation.

Wales is pleased, however, that some access to Wikipedia in China is visibly changing the nation's culture: dishes like "Stir-fried wikipedia with pimentos" are available on English-language versions of restaurant menus across China.

~by Allison Graff, communications and marketing

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