Wikipedia founder speaks at US law school

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Pound Hall at Harvard Law School, where the event was held.
Jimmy Wales and Samuel Klein discuss rcbirds before the talk.
Samuel Klein, in black and red at right, describes the Bambara Wikipedia project.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales spoke at the Harvard Law School tonight with a presentation titled "Wikipedia and the Digital Divide." Projected on a screen behind Wales was a running list -- in real time -- of edits to the German and English Wikipedias. Over the course of the hour, the list showed changes to topics like "Time Travel," "Dante Alighieri" and, in German, "The Maronite Patriarchs of Antioch."

Wales started with a summary of Wikipedia's goals; the bulk of the time was given over to questions from audience members. Approximately 65 people listened to Wales' remarks. According to a hands-up poll that Wales conducted at the start of the event, about half of those present had edited Wikipedia before. Six of those counted themselves as "Wikipedians," a title Wales suggested than anyone who's edited the Wikipedia even once should consider.

Before the event, Samuel Klein demonstrated the program, RCBirds, that created the running list behind Wales. RCBirds plays a bird call in response to each edit made to Wikipedia. Wikipedians edit constantly; one attendee found the frequency of bird calls distracting and asked Klein to turn down the volume on the program.

Wales ran through some quick statistics about Wikipedia:

  • Wikipedias exist in roughly 200 languages, but most of those are dormant.
  • The five largest, in order, are: English, German, Japanese, French, and ("You'll never guess," said Wales) Swedish. One attendee suggested, to general assent, that there was little else to do during long, dark winter nights.
  • Over 20 languages have more than 10,000 articles.
  • Over 50 languages have more than 1000 articles.

Though the Chinese Wikipedia has over 25,000 articles, according to Wales, the Hindi and Arabic versions are smaller than Wales would like. Referring to those two editions, Wales said that Wikipedia is, "not so strong where we really need to be." Wales added later that the Chinese government has blocked access to the Wikipedia twice; once during the approach to an anniversary of Tiannamen Square, and once for no discernable reason. "We could make a big deal out of being blocked," said Wales, "but we'd just score points with the western media, and it wouldn't get us any closer to our goal."

Wales described the organization behind the Wikipedia as an "International Red Cross of information," able -- and impelled -- to work in a neutral fashion with governments and NGOs. When asked about reaching out to the UN, however, he said that he had been warned by a Dutch minister that large bureaucracies tend to be comfortable working with other large bureacracies; the Wikipedia employs only Wales and thousands of volunteers.

Wales cited three factors that correlate with Wikipedia growth:

  • Economic wealth
  • Degree of penetration of internet
  • the number of people who speak English

On the topic of the Hindi Wikipedia, Wales attributed the lack of growth to the prevalence of English keyboards. He said that when he has asked Hindi Wikipedia contributors what made the task difficult for them, they said that they were, "not used to typing Hindi."

"I don't know how to help with that," Wales said. He hoped that the situation would improve.

At this point in the talk, Wales opened the floor to questions.

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