I’ve chosen these articles because, having reviewed a book on Wikipedia a few months ago and found it highly boring, I thought I would see if the Times and the Economist could make its founder Jimmy Wales any more exciting on the 10th anniversary of this Internet phenomenon. Facebook and Twitter may get the publicity but Wikipedia probably features more in the life of most of us, despite all the criticisms of its inaccuracies and limitations.
The Times article does bring Wales to life much more effectively than the book, which focussed far too much on technical issues. At a very early age, while other children played games. Wales apparently had a vision after his parents bought him his first encyclopaedia; ‘imagine a world in which every single person on the planet had free access to the sum of all human knowledge’. Thank goodness for all of us who now benefit from Wikipedia that he didn’t get out more!
Even though there was an early falling out with his co-founder that left Wales in full charge, he seems to be a very different person from the likes of Mark Zuckenberg of Facebook and is delighted that no-one wants to make a film about him. He is also not tempted by the riches that would come to him if he went down the Facebook and Twitter route and allowed advertising; he prefers to rely on the donations that keep Wikipedia solvent and has tried hard to keep the collegiate spirit going. Wikipedia really is an example of the ‘big society’ with its 100,000 volunteer contributors and principle of open axis. Wales retains the evangelical spirit and travels the world supporting Wikipedia’s global extension, now into 270 languages.
The Economist article acknowledges the achievement and the spirit behind Wikipedia but is more critical of the way it operates. It reveals how the campaigns to raise donations, while effective, have become annoying to many and how, despite the unpopular army of editors, inaccuracies are still to be found. Also hoaxers, announcing premature deaths or, for example, Tony Blair’s admiration for Hitler, find the free access principle irresistible. Wales insists however that inaccuracies are no more than are found in any reference work of its size and scope.
The more worrying criticism by the Economist is that Wikipedia has become ‘stiff and middle aged’; the number of articles has fallen by a third and it has lost the flexibility and dynamism of its early years. There are also concerns that it is not financially sustainable to continue to rely on donations but that any move to become commercial and use advertising would upset its contributors and lose the collegiate ethos that drives its content.
The next ten years will be interesting, maybe more so than the first ten. Perhaps we will then see the motion picture!
Click here to read the articles in full;
http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/profiles/article510905 (subscription required)