The opening talks of WikiSym 2006 have begun in Odense, Denmark. The proceedings have now been published. In theory, they would have come in handy last week, but in practice I had way to much stuff for my available time to prepare anything. Angela Beesley (Wikimedia Foundation) was the keynote speaker, talking about “How and Why Wikipedia Works.” The talk was an overview of the core principles of Wikipedia and an exploration of what the project actually is.
Those core policies are:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia — There is no original research on Wikipedia; it is meant to be a secondary source. Wikipedia strives for accuracy and demands sources whenever possible. This policy is what allows certain kinds of deletions, such as vanity pages.
- Wikipedia has a neutral point of view — Articles advocate no single point of view, but they often describe multiple points of view.
- Wikipedia is free content — The content is protected under GFDL and is meant to be reusable. This reflects the primary goal of free access of information to everyone.
- Wikipedia has code of conduct — Policies include an expectation of civility, no personal attacks, a “three revert rule” (no more than three reversions in the same day), and an assumption that even stupid things are done in good faith.
- Wikipedia does not have firm rules — In fact, “ignore all rules” trumps everything else. The founders want users to be bold, even if they haven’t read all the policies.
Although Wikipedia is best known as an encyclopedia (in fact, that is the first core principle), Beesley argues that Wikipedia is really a community. It is composed of users interacting with each other, through the site, in the form of article generation. It is also is a source of recent news, statistics that might belong in an almanac and cultural hotbeds of people appropriating Wikipedia to be their meeting ground. When Jimmy Wales asked the original wiki community if a wiki could successfully generate a useful encyclopedia, Ward Cunningham replied: “Yes, but in the end it wouldn’t be an encyclopedia. It would be a wiki.” The purpose of Wikipedia may be to provide every person free access to all human knowledge, but in the end it is just a very big wiki.
Big being the operative word. Wikipedia is currently published in 229 languages with 107 of those wikis generating 1000+ articles. The English version launched in January 2001, but shortly thereafter French, German and a dozen other languages were supported with their own wikis. All together, Wikipedia boasts 4 million articles, and only 1.3 million of those are English (still claiming the most, but no longer the majority of articles). This growth continues. There were 15 new language versions created in May 2006 and more on the way. Wikipedia has become so large it is outgrowing the Internet (ok, not really). There are now offline versions of Wikipedia and an official DVD containing selected articles, since everything can’t fit on one disc.
Supporting the notion that it is a community first, there are more users than articles on some Wikipedia wikis. The flagship English version has 2 million registered users and 1.3 million articles, while the Danish Wikipedia has 7,700 users and about 400,000 articles. Articles, it should be pointed out, are defined by a number of criteria and comprise only one-quarter of all pages. The other 75% are made up of user pages, images, help, discussion/talk pages, site interface and configuration, projects, and pages to help organize the wiki (portals, templates, categories). The project makes use of different access levels — unregistered or IP users, registered, administrators, bureaucrats and stewards, checkusers and oversights — to manage the content changes. The designations typically reflect a measure of trust. Potential administrators, for example, are discussed by the community before those extra rights are given to a user. The assumption is that anyone who is given the ability to delete a page, for instance, won’t abuse those powers. So, it isn’t a matter of trusting Wikipedia the organization as much as Wikipedia the community.
The community is maintained in several ways, including person-to-person interaction, on user talk pages and IRC. There is a welcoming committee consisting of users who contribute by easing new members into the Wikipedia process. There are also “barnstars” and other awards given by one peer to another and regional noticeboards.
Wikia is a new commerical spinoff offering wiki hosting for communities and applying knowledge of how and why Wikipedia works to new wiki projects. Wikia adopts many the core principles (free content, lack of ownership, openly editable, freely available) without the need for verification. Hence, “wookieepedia.”