Wikipedia turns 20: Our core value of neutrality has served us well, says co-founder Jimmy Wales

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Roughly 350 edits per minute. That’s how active the volunteer editors are on Wikipedia. But when Wikipedia started, nearly 20 years back in 2001, there was no password required for editors logging in to write these articles. That was a mistake that co-founder Jimmy Wales quickly decided to fix.

“I remember going all the way back to the very, very beginning when we were just on one server. In fact, in the early days of Wikipedia, there wasn’t even a real way to log in. Anybody could pretend to be anybody else. Well, that was never going to work. So very quickly I wrote a password system,” Wales told members of the media over a Zoom call.

Wikipedia has come a long way since then, and on January 15 will mark 20 years of the online encyclopedia. There are now over 55 million articles on the platform, available in 300 languages.

Underlining the core philosophies of the platform, Wales said the vision of “free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” has served them well. “We’ve never thought of ourselves as a wide-open, free speech or anarchy or democracy. We’re a project to build an encyclopedia,” Wales explained, adding that for Wikipedia, neutrality remains a core ideal.

“The idea that Wikipedia shouldn’t take sides on any major issue, we should explain the issue so that people can understand all sides is really a core value for us that’s served us very well,” he added. The Wikipedia co-founder also stressed on civility, adding that “no personal attacks” was one of the oldest rules of the platform.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia in this file photo. (Image via Wikipedia)

“It’s particularly poignant today, given that we have so many places online that seem to be devoted almost exclusively to people screaming and yelling at each other and being a really kind of an unpleasant place to be. The idea of having a place that tries to present ideas in a neutral fashion is incredibly important,” he outlined.

Wikipedia and India

In India, Wikipedia sees over 750 million visits each month, and it is the fifth-highest number of views from any country. While Wikipedia is available in 24 languages in India, regional languages such as Punjabi, Odia, Malayalam have far more active communities on the platform, compared to say Hindi.

“Certain language communities are much more active than others…We know that the Odia community is perhaps a bit smaller, but quite active. The Punjabi speaking community is quite active in the Wikipedia world. And it is perhaps a somewhat unfortunate trend that we’ve recognized that the Hindi language Wikipedia is, relatively speaking, less active than some of these other languages that I’ve referenced despite being so widely spoken as a language,” Katherine Maher, CEO and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation said in the call.

Maher also spoke about Wikipedia’s investments in mobile editing over the past two years to encourage participation in India, given it is a primarily mobile-driven market.

“Now you can edit Wikipedia on your mobile phone and you do not need to use a desktop. And you have nearly exactly the same functionality as you would on a desktop. This is intentional because we recognise that this is where the majority of the world lives is in the mobiles in their pockets,” she said.

Wikipedia turns 20 years, Wikipedia 20 year celebrations, Who started Wikipedia, Wikipedia 20 years, Wikipedia 20 year anniversary, Jimmy Wales, Jimmy Wales quotes Wikimedia CEO Katherine Mahers. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Wikipedia also launched an application on KaiOS, as they recognised it as one of the more common operating systems used across India.

COVID-19 and Wikipedia

While the COVID-19 pandemic ensured record-breaking increases in daily traffic for Wikipedia, it also contributed to new problems around misinformation. In October 2020, Wikipedia collaborated with the World Health Organization to ensure authoritative content on the platform around the pandemic.

Wikipedia now has over 7,000 articles related to various aspects of COVID-19 across all languages, including its impact on countries, events and people. The English Wikipedia article about the COVID-19 pandemic has gathered over 80 million page views so far. But creating this content was not easy.

“The access to good information that we have can very quite literally, be a matter of life or death. And so when the world was faced with all this uncertainty and people saw understanding, we saw Wikipedia shine,” Maher said in the call adding that the pandemic was one of only many high-profile topics, subject to scrutiny and attempts at misinformation.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic made the task a lot harder for even dedicated Wikipedia volunteers. One such volunteer editor is Dr Netha Hussain, who has been active on the platform for the past 10 years.

Sweden-based Dr Hussain is originally from Kerala, a medical doctor by training and now works as a researcher in clinical neuroscience. She writes articles in Malayalam, English and Swedish on the platform.

“I started editing Wikipedia in 2010 when I was a first-year medical student. The idea of sharing free knowledge with millions of people around the world sounded very exciting to me at that time and it excites me even today,” she said during the call.

When the pandemic started, Dr Hussain had to make sure that the information provided was reliable. “Writing about an ongoing pandemic was not easy. Misinformation about the pandemic spread like wildfire on the internet and many people believed in this, and also shared them to their loved ones out of ignorance,” she said.

She had to work on ensuring that the information was accurate and that it was easy for readers to see what was true. Plus the new scientific research coming out each day made it a challenge for Dr Hussain to keep up. “I had to present them on Wikipedia in a language simple enough for everyone to read and understand,” she told the media.

Future efforts

As part of its 2030 vision, the Wikimedia Foundation has developed a $4.5 million Equity Fund that will offer grants to advance more equitable, inclusive representation in Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia. Maher acknowledged in the call that Wikipedia is still largely edited by men, and that’s something they wish to change.

Wikipedia is also announcing its first-ever multilingual initiative on Indian Sportswomen, where journalism students will participate in a hackathon to make Wikipedia and the internet a more gender-equal space. In addition, the foundation will hold dedicated online workshops to educate participants on the basics of using the online encyclopedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation will also hold a virtual event, hosted by Maher and Wales to showcase the contributions of Wikipedia’s global volunteer communities. The event will kick-off a year-long celebration themed “20 Years Human,” which is a nod to those who make Wikipedia possible. The livestream will be available on January 15 at 9.30 pm IST.

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