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It's Wikipedia mythbuster time: 8 of the best on your 15th birthday

What Wales doesn't want you to know

Comment Wikipedia's 15th birthday has brought its predictable spate of news coverage, some of it thoughtful, some of it filled with the inevitable barrage of spin and half-truths issuing from Wikimedia HQ.

Here's a round-up.

1. Who founded Wikipedia?

Jimmy Wales says in the Guardian, "I created Wikipedia 15 years ago".

In 2001, he still remembered that "Larry [Sanger] had the idea to use Wiki software for a separate project" to feed Wales' struggling "Nupedia". Wales was reportedly sceptical about the idea at first. Sanger coined the name "Wikipedia" (to avoid damaging Nupedia's respectable brand name) and invited the first contributors. Sanger was Wales' employee at the time, and Wales agreed to give Wikipedia a go, but the history is more complicated than Wales's simplistic narrative.

2. Why doesn't Wikipedia have ads?

In the Telegraph, Wales says, "I don't regret not monetising Wikipedia." Perhaps so, but Wikipedia started out as a dotcom. As Torsten Kleinz notes, when the possibility of ads was raised in 2002, volunteers abandoned ship. They had no interest in working for free so Wales could get rich. The entire Spanish Wikipedia community left and set up a rival encyclopedia. As a commercial project, Kleinz says, Wikipedia would probably have tanked.

3. It's just love of free knowledge that motivates Wikipedians, right?

Not entirely. Many of Wikipedia's mostly male volunteers have definite motives besides altruism, participating for years in the "community" to live out grudges and personal vendettas, or to protect commercial or ideological interests. Even the humblest Wikipedians will concede that their attention needs and a desire for their "15 megabytes of fame" contribute to their Wikipedia "addiction". After all, even as a complete nobody, you can affect the content of a page that a potential audience of over a billion internet users will be shown as the top link for a search.

4. Still, no one makes money off Wikipedia, right?

Wikipedia has a Creative Commons licence, which means that anyone can make money off it. The information snippets Google and Bing display at the top or on the right of their search results pages draw on Wikipedia. They train your eye to ignore the actual search results and look at those parts of the page first. Lo and behold, that's also where the paying ads are, which allow Google to rake in revenue of about $200 million daily. Platforms like Google and Facebook love and promote the idea of "free knowledge", because they can and do display that content as bait for their ads. Some Wikipedia volunteers are waking up to the uncomfortable realisation that Google probably views them as "useful idiots".

5. But Wikipedia is all about providing free education to the underprivileged, isn't it?

Not exactly. Among Wikipedia's most viewed articles of 2015, movies led any other category by large margins. Most of the Wikimedia Foundation's bandwidth costs are expended so that privileged First World netizens can look up things like who played Chewbacca in Star Wars. Moreover, Wikipedia's coverage of topics that would actually be useful to those lacking access to good education is often inadequate.

6. But isn't Wikipedia all about the democratisation of knowledge, and diversity?

No, actually. Wikipedia, being a free resource, holds an inherent price advantage. It has no real competitors. As academic Heather Ford points out, "rather than this leading to an increase in the diversity of knowledge and the democratisation of expertise, the result has actually been greater consolidation in the number of knowledge sources considered authoritative. Wikipedia, particularly in terms of its alliance with Google and other search engines, now plays a central role." That's not a good thing: "What makes today's realignment different is the ways in which sources like Wikipedia are governed and controlled. Instead of the known, visible heads of academic and scientific institutions [she could have mentioned news organisations here as well, whose biases are a known quantity], sources like Wikipedia are largely controlled by nebulous, often anonymous individuals and collectives."

7. But isn't Wikipedia available in almost 300 different language versions?

Yes, but according to a 2014 presentation at Wikimedia's annual "Wikimania" conference, 159 of those Wikipedias have fewer than five contributors (65 have none). Moreover, many smaller Wikipedias have huge political problems. In 2013, the Croatian Education minister warned his country's youth not to consult the Croatian Wikipedia, because it had been usurped by fascists. The Uzbek Wikipedia's biography of Uzbekistan's dictator Islam Karimov, infamous for "boiling his opponents", is a hagiography in the best Soviet tradition. Pravda reborn!

In Azerbaijan, Wikipedia volunteers last year issued a desperate SOS, saying Wikipedians had been subjected to torture at the behest of an administrator with government connections. (Wikimedia banned the administrator.) In Kazakhstan, a smart functionary used state funds to transfer the censored, state-published Kazakh National Encyclopedia into the Kazakh Wikipedia – an effort Wales inexplicably* rewarded with an unprecedented "Wikipedian of the Year" award. It's an episode Wales now seems to find embarrassing; in best "benevolent dictator" tradition, he recently (unsuccessfully) tried to have a volunteer who raised the issue "permanently blocked" from Wikipedia.

The fact is that Wikipedia's volunteer model doesn't scale in many of the world's poorer or politically oppressed countries. It's a problem money won't solve; yet this didn't stop Wales from telling Associated Press that "One of the things that we are focused on is the idea of having an encyclopedia available for every person in the world in their own language. As you go in that direction, these (requests for money) are some of [the] things you need to do to build that long-term dream." Right.

8. But Wikipedia needs money, doesn't it?

That depends on your definition of "need". Wikipedia's article writers work for free. The Foundation's employees, however, don't. Their number has ballooned from eleven in 2007 to almost 300 today (17 in Fundraising alone). Internet hosting, once Wikipedia's main expense, cost less than $2m last year; at the same time, the Foundation reported net assets of $78m, including $35m in "cash and cash equivalents" and $29m in "short-term investments".

But the Foundation has long planned to set up an endowment; these plans are now going ahead. Secondly, with alternative knowledge delivery systems like Apple's Siri and Google's Knowledge Graph on the rise, some feel the days of the encyclopedia are numbered. Resources are being invested in Wikidata and a new "Discovery" or "Knowledge Engine" project said to have been a contributory factor in the current dust-up between the volunteer community and the Wikimedia board.

In the Washington Post, Andrew Lih asks, "Wikipedia just turned 15 years old. Will it survive 15 more?" One thing is certain: it will not be what it is today. ®

Andreas Kolbe serves on the editorial board of Wikipedia's community newsletter, The Signpost.


* According to Mr Wales, the awarding of the prize was unwitting. He has since said he was “not aware” the official had been working for the regime.

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