What does Jimmy Wales think of questions
"The Wikipedia community will not say 'We think Donald Trump is an idiot' and vote to delete his page"
The online encyclopedia has managed to grow from nothing to more than 55 million articles within twenty years. And yet there are many problems. Co-founder Jimmy Wales talks about neutrality, fake news and diversity in the community.
Mr Wales, do you trust every Wikipedia article?
Well, it's important to remember how to use Wikipedia. Basically, it's pretty good. The Wikipedia community provides information such as “The neutrality of this article is controversial”. And usually there should also be a link to a source that you can look at and with the help of which you can decide for yourself what to think of it.
Wikipedia was founded twenty years ago, on January 15, 2001. Do you think that at some point she will be able to unite the world's knowledge and democratize it?
Yes. I think we've already managed to a large extent. But there is still a lot of work ahead of us, because obviously Wikipedia is not yet available in all languages. That is why we have projects in many developing countries, but they still have a long way to go. Even in the large language versions of Wikipedia there is a lot that has not yet been written down. And of course there is always room for improvement, for example by finding better sources. But I think the progress is already significant. We have become part of the world infrastructure. Everyone uses Wikipedia.
But the Wikipedia community doesn't really represent the world either. For example, there are significantly more male than female contributors. The proportion of women is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent.
Yes, this is a problem for us. If you look at Wikipedia, the best sections are those written by people with great expertise. So it is very important to have a diverse community with all sorts of interests. Wikipedians tend to be computer geeks. This is a male-dominated group - for reasons clearly unrelated to Wikipedia. So the article on the USB standard is very good - it's very interesting and knowledgeable. On the other hand, when you look at topics that computer geeks are less familiar with, the content tends to be thinner and more work has to be done on it.
What are you doing to change that?
We look at how we can ensure that we offer an inviting environment for everyone - also in a technical sense. If only computer geeks can use the editing system, then that excludes a lot of people. It's not just about gender. My father is an expert when it comes to old cars. He wouldn't share that on Wikipedia because he's in his seventies and he doesn't know the wiki markup language. But actually it could contribute a lot.
How do you want to reach such people?
If we had a simple answer to this question, we would have done it by now. We try different ways, like at events. There are also groups like “Women in Red”. If you set a link on Wikipedia, but there is no website behind it, then it appears in red. The idea behind the group is that there are many women missing on Wikipedia who should actually have an entry there. It therefore organizes thematic events, for example on women scientists, and aims to fill these gaps. So there is an effort, but we have not yet found a magic solution.
In Germany there was the case that an author made a list of German-speaking science fiction authors. This was then rejected by community members on the grounds that it was superfluous, created redundancies, its content was unclear and its concept was dubious.
I don't know the case, and that's why it's difficult to say anything about it. It probably took place in the German-language Wikipedia. But yes, these are complicated topics. We can look at the problem from the perspective that there is a gender component to what people read. If you have a bunch of male computer geeks, then they probably read a lot of science fiction and less so-called “chick lit”, that is, women's literature. You may find this uninteresting and less important - but hopefully you won't delete it anyway. That would be bad.
But that seems to be happening. If the community has almost only white, male members, then the majority may consider things unimportant that are very important to many other people in the world.
That's true. At Wikipedia, the rule applies that “I've never heard of this before” is not a valid reason to speak out in favor of deleting posts. It's an ongoing process in the community to work on these things and get them right. It is a problem that one often does not even notice prejudices and one-sidednesses until one pauses and reflects on them.
Wikipedia claims to be neutral. Does that work with such a community?
Neutrality is one of our core values. Our community ethos is very strong when it comes to being neutral and looking at all sites. Wikipedia will never have the community say, "We think Donald Trump is an idiot," and therefore vote in favor of deleting his page. It's more nuanced. On any controversial topic, Wikipedia should have no opinion and should present all reasonable views fairly.
What does that mean, "reasonable views"?
It should not be neutral in the sense of "some say the moon is made of stone, others say it is made of cheese". We want to show that there are serious differences of opinion in the world. One can take a step back, describe the controversy and explain what is being argued about. That's what is expected of an encyclopedia. I don't want to be told what to think. I want to understand the topic and be able to get enough information to make an informed judgment myself.
But someone has to say what is right and what is wrong, what is credible and what is not - keyword: fake news.
That's why we have the community and our processes. It's not as difficult as many might think. My favorite example is a headline that was shared thousands of times on social media during Donald Trump's first election campaign: “The Pope supports Trump”. It was on a fake news website. If you had shown that to a Wikipedian, he would have said: “Hmm, that's surprising, the Pope never supports political candidates. That should actually be in every newspaper in the world, but it doesn't. It's just on this one website that I've never heard of and that has only been around for a week. " This is very easy to identify as false news.
Who at Wikipedia decides which source is trustworthy?
This is a discussion in the community, we are looking for a consensus. As a rule, we don't come to very hard, set in stone decisions about which sources are reliable and which are not. Of course, there are sometimes very obvious fake news sites. Even if someone thinks we can't quote BBC News because they are completely biased - that's ridiculous. You just have to look closely at the difficult cases. The problems that are difficult for the Wikipedia community to solve are not about fake news.
It's about things like the dramatic decline of local newspapers and local journalism. Because it means that in many places the first narration of the story is simply no longer written down. Of course we cannot fix the problem. If there are no sources, then we cannot write about them. Nobody knows the information. For me, these are important structural problems that we are struggling with.
In many parts of the world there is also the historical phenomenon that events and stories were not written down, but passed on orally - and still are.
Yeah, it's complicated. In order to solve the problem, a lot of effort is made within the community. There is a group of people, including some scientists, who are very preoccupied with the problem. It is not easy when there are no written sources to check.
In some countries, not everyone has Internet access or can even read and write. What ends up there on Wikipedia can therefore be controlled by an elite.
There are some fundamental challenges: How can we involve people there and build a community? It's a slow process. We need leaders who stand up for Wikipedia and recruit people. Some hurdles are also of a technical nature. If the first access to Wikipedia takes place on a small, mobile device, then the articles can be read easily. But it is not so easy to write something yourself.
How many governments are currently censoring Wikipedia?
Only the Chinese. In 2017 we were locked in Turkey. But at the end of 2019 we got right before the Turkish Constitutional Court. In the past, certain content could also be filtered out. But this has not been technically possible for a few years, as it is no longer possible to understand from the outside which pages the readers are on. So today you can either read everything or nothing on Wikipedia. That was a big step forward for us.
Where do you see Wikipedia in twenty years?
I think it will be very similar to today. We're probably not going to suddenly start showing lots of funny cat videos, we're just going to be an encyclopedia. Many changes will probably be invisible to many people, because a large part will revolve around growth in the languages of developing countries. But that is an important development for our global influence.
Are you considering changing the financing model?
The backbone of Wikipedia funding is made up of small donations - from people who pay in 20 euros a year, for example. This is how the most money comes in. Other donations are small in comparison. This is very important. The independence of our community's intellectual judgment is what defines Wikipedia. To be financed by large companies and thus also to be connected is not a good way in my opinion. So we have no intention of changing our model.
Facts on Wikipedia
Wikipedia is the largest freely accessible online encyclopedia and one of the most visited websites in the world. It was founded on January 15, 2001 as a non-profit project by the Americans Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and is financed by donations. Wikipedia currently has more than 55 million articles in over 300 languages. There are around 2.5 million articles in German. Anyone can create and edit articles. There is no moderation of the posts "from above" like on Twitter or Facebook. The Wikipedia community, made up of more than 3 million volunteers, discusses disputes and aims to ensure that the rules are followed.
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