Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was in Bangalore (13 Dec, ’08, at the Bangalore International Centre), to talk about the world’s favourite free encyclopedia, and what we can expect from it in the near future. I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia not just because one can find information on just about anything, but also because of the way it works. In my mind, Wikipedia represents the future of knowledge, in that it adds the element of knowledge being freely available to anyone regardless of his/her background. It’s a step, in a larger sense, in allowing everyone an equal footing.
Jimmy spoke at length about a number of topics for over an hour, including the ideation and working of Wikipedia, its current growth, how he sees it panning out over the next few years, Wikipedia in languages other than English, Wikipedia in India, and so on. I wasn’t surprised to learn that its the 4th most popular website in the world, or that Wikipedia has articles in over 250 languages. However, what intrigued me most were the questions I’ve had for some time about the site: how credible is Wikipedia? And will Wikipedia adapt to the expectations people have of Web 3.0?
Jimmy answered the first question by saying that articles on selected topics from both Wikipedia and Brittanica were analysed by experts in those fields, and they found Brittanica articles to have an average of 3 errors per article, while Wikipedia articles had 4. He also said that the interesting thing is not how the two compare, but how each party reacted: Brittanica attempted to file a lawsuit citing the study to be a defamatory exercise, while Wikipedia users asked for a list of the errors so that they could go fix them. I believe that this says a lot about society is slowly beginning to see knowledge as less of a commodity and as more of a right.
As to the next question, I have an idea myself. If the web is going to get more semantic, it should understand your needs and objectives, and give you the information you want. So let’s take a scenario: Wikipedia can have an article on guitar pickups, which is accessed by people from various backgrounds (an accountant with a passing interest in guitars, a musician, an engineer, etc.). Each individual will want different parts of the article – one person may want just the basics, another may want news on the latest happenings in the world of pickups, and yet another may want to know about the workings of a pickup. Wikipedia already has version tracking – this allows anyone to see all the changes that have been made to an article. This feature could be expanded to include tags for each change, which define what the change entails. For example, if someone writes a paragraph about the working of a pickup, he/she could tag the change appropriately, and based on a user’s preferences,browsing history and a trace of how he/she has reached that page, the appropriate information can be displayed.
The Q&A session answered most of my other questions, related to controversial topics, edit wars and so on. I’m glad that Wikipedia is growing as fast as it is, given that this is exactly what we need – for knowledge to turn into a freely available resource – in order to progress as an intellectual society.
The Bangalore International Centre hosts lots of interesting events, so be sure to check out their website, as well as Time Out Bangalore for more listings. I’d like to conclude with a video of Jimmy Wales speaking about Wikipedia at TED.