Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talks about censorship, biased journalism, and the Arab Spring.

WPA Pool/Getty Images
WPA Pool/Getty Images

In 2001, tech entrepreneur Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia as a free and open compendium of the world’s knowledge — an Internet encyclopedia edited in real time and authored by its readers. A decade later, Wikipedia has become a global household name and a valued resource for tens of millions of people, with more than 20 million articles across 282 languages.

Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell, along with three other journalists, met with Wales at the third annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), hosted by the state of Qatar. Wales spoke about Wikipedia’s expansion plans, biased journalism, and his battle against censorship. Excerpts:

Question: Why are you here?

Jimmy Wales: Well, I’m here for the WISE conference. I think it’s an amazing event, and basically one of the things that we’re very interested in at Wikipedia is the growth of Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world. Arabic is quite important to us moving forward. There’s about 155,000 entries in Arabic, and part of our five-year strategic plan is to increase that substantially. So, we’re always looking for opportunities in the Middle East to meet people, to let people know what’s going on. Of course, personally I’m quite interested in issues around education and technology, obviously, so [that’s] another reason to be here.

 Q: And what is your expansion plan?

JW: This year our focus has been India. We have a few people on the ground in India; they’re there helping to solve technical questions, helping with outreach to universities, helping with PR — letting the public know that Wikipedia exists in all those Indian languages. So those are just some pilot projects that, as we learn from those, we’ll know what we’re going to do in other geographies. And in our five-year strategic plan we did identify the Middle East and North Africa as a key area that we wanted to move forward in.

Q: Did you observe an increase in interest in the wake of the Arab Spring?

JW: I don’t think so. It’s a very good question. We publish all the statistics; it’s all online. But I haven’t heard from anyone that there was any remarkable uptick — if it was a 20 percent uptick I probably wouldn’t have heard about it.

Q: There’s a lot of chatter in the region about the role of social media in the revolutions. Do you consider Wikipedia a social network, social media?

JW: I do consider Wikipedia to be social media, but we’re not a social network in the sense that you don’t go onto Wikipedia to link to your friends and share photos and updates and things like that. But it’s definitely social media in the sense that we’re open to broad participation by the public, we invite people to get involved from the community, and that sort of thing.

Q: Since we are at an education conference here, what do you do to improve education worldwide?

JW: One of the interesting things is that I just visited some of the universities here [in Qatar] this morning and met some students, and the one thing students will say when you meet them is, "Oh, thank you so much; I use Wikipedia all the time."

Q: Also journalists, by the way.

JW: [Laughs.] Also journalists, by the way.

Q: Does that scare you when you hear people say that?

JW: No, it doesn’t. I think we’ve moved into a position where it’s about making sure people know how to use Wikipedia correctly, both students and journalists, obviously. Journalists all use Wikipedia. The bad journalist gets in trouble because they use it incorrectly; the good journalist knows it’s a place to get oriented and to find out what questions to ask.

I think what’s really interesting in education is that the amount of formal schooling hasn’t declined. There are certain trends and so on, but it’s more or less stable. But in the last 15 years, 20 years, the amount of informal learning has exploded as people just have the opportunity to explore new kinds of resources and learn new things. And obviously Wikipedia plays a large role in that informal learning world, where someone just becomes interested for whatever random, personal reason in, I don’t know, Azerbaijan, and they say, "Oh, I can go and learn the history of Azerbaijan very easily. It’s all online; it’s quite simple to get to."

Q: As anyone can contribute and be an author [to Wikipedia], what is the quality control vis-à-vis unobjective news, biased news, slanted news? How do you deal with that?

JW: So the main way that we deal with it is that we have a community that’s very passionate about neutrality and quality. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. And we’re actually in many ways quite old-fashioned in our approach. We really look for reliable sources — we’ll say, for example, that just because someone wrote something in a blog somewhere, that doesn’t mean it’s a reliable source. We need to get sources, you know, that are quite old-fashioned about it. We’re looking for good-quality academic journals, books, newspapers, magazines — we’d prefer serious newspapers to tabloid newspapers and those kinds of things.

Q: But what is the quality control if something is obviously wrong or slanted. How do you deal with that? Do you correct that or do you leave it?

JW: No, it gets corrected quite quickly. It is up to the community — if we didn’t have a quality community, we wouldn’t have quality results. At the foundation, we’re very interested in making sure that the community is healthy, making sure that it’s quality-focused, that they’re happy, productive, etc.

Q: How many authors do you have worldwide?

JW: It’s hard to measure because if someone just comes and makes one small edit and we never see them again, it doesn’t really count. But what if they make three edits? What if they make 10? When do you cut it off? [Crosstalk.] My point is, the question of who counts as regular or not is a little vague, but we do have measures. And by those measures, it’s around 100,000 every month who are editing Wikipedia — more than just a small edit. And then, in terms of the very active editors, it would be numbers like 800 in Germany…. It’s different for different languages.

I always say probably 3-5,000 people really are the very, very active core community, and they would be the ones who would be always engaged in the deepest conversations about what does it mean to have quality and how can we ensure it, what counts as a reliable source, etc.

Q: When you moved into other languages, because it started as a very American-centric thing…

JW: Not really.

Q: Well, English-language centric.

JW: Yeah, we started in English, yeah.

Q: And there’s obviously a much larger community of English speakers. Were you surprised that you had to kind of promote the concept of building the community?

JW: No, not really, and in fact, the website was first in English but very soon after was in German and French. And in the early community — even though we were working in English — we had a lot of Germans, for example, and German is the second-largest Wikipedia language.

In terms of people getting it, I haven’t seen any real difference culturally anywhere. There are some cultural difficulties in the communities.

I would say our biggest difficulties had to do with more technical issues as we were moving across languages. So actually it took us about two years before the website was really functional in languages that are written right to left. There’s a whole host of complicated technical issues in being left-to-right versus right-to-left. And because our developers were all English- and German[-speaking], primarily, they had to learn about those things. They were passionate, but they were volunteer developers and it took awhile to get it working and to find enough people, say, in Arabic, to help test it and so on. So it took a while to get launched in those languages. And you can still see that reflected in the number of entries.

Q: What are your future plans? Is it geographical expansion — you mentioned India … or do you imagine having other platforms, like maybe news?

JW: I guess they would be three things. One, geographical, yes. Two, technical innovation that applies across the entire site but would have an impact on the large languages. And here I’m thinking mainly about the editing environment and making it easier for people to edit. We want the editing interface to be more like a word processor because there’s a lot of wiki markup text. It’s a barrier to entry that shouldn’t be there and that impacts, for example, contributor diversity, because if the only people who can edit are tech geeks, computer programmers, obviously that’s a certain demographic of society and it excludes a lot of people who would be great editors.

And then the third thing, if we think of new projects, whole new areas, I don’t think there would be much in that area. There is a community process for launching a new project, but it hasn’t been very active. We do have Wikinews; we’ve had it for many years, but it’s never been all that successful. It’s a great little project, but they’ve not managed to catch on and really grow it, in part because we’ve not had the resources to invest in fixing software issues unique to them, helping them promote the site, things like that. So because of that, the Wikimedia Foundation has enough on its plate. I doubt we’re going to launch into new areas.

Q: What is the role of Wikipedia in a closed society where there’s political censorship?

JW: Well, I think it’s really interesting what some of the possibilities are. In many places, particularly closed societies, one of the difficulties that people face is that all of the media that they have access to is one-sided, and they really need a broader access to information to help them understand the world, to help them respond to the authoritarian situation, and Wikipedia plays a role in that.

One of my examples here — and I don’t speak Farsi, for example, so I can only rely on other people’s discussions of this — but when there was the unrest following the elections back in ’09, I asked someone to translate for me the Farsi Wikipedia entry into English so that I could see how it looks. Obviously translation is difficult, but she said that it was actually quite easy to translate because it was all very matter-of-fact, it wasn’t metaphorical, which is harder to translate. And when I read what was there it was all quite very good; it was like typical Wikipedia — it just reported the facts in a very neutral way.

And I think that’s important. It’s an important role to play when people are torn between, you know, a domestic media that’s really all one-sided in favor of the government; a lot of Western press, which may be biased in a different way and in any case it isn’t written in their language; and random things from Twitter and blogs and so on. And to have a community that focuses on "Let’s just try to present just the facts and boil it down and not be too biased," I think is valuable, and I hope it serves the needs and interests of people who are in oppressive environments.

Q: Have you had to engage in any kind of discussions with governments about censorship?

JW: Yes, the Chinese government. We were banned in China for three years; then we were unblocked just before the Olympics. I’ve been twice to visit the minister in Beijing, and he’s been twice to visit me in the U.S. And, well, we don’t agree. As a matter of principle, we will never participate in censorship; that’s just a fundamental principle at Wikipedia. So doing something like Google did, going into China and agreeing to participate to get better access, is not something we want to do — which means that today, although we are broadly accessible in China, they do filter certain pages and, you know, we’re sort of at a comfortable-ish…

Q: No issues in the Middle East?

JW: There are issues in the Middle East, yeah. There’s filtering in many of the countries — I’m not sure about all of them, but many — and occasionally we get blocked completely, for example in Syria. I’m not sure if we’re even accessible today in Syria; I’m not sure what the status is. So yeah, there are those kinds of issues. We’ve not had direct contacts with the governments there. Typically they manage their own network and they filter certain pages, and we just don’t have the resources. If we had the resources we would do outreach and talk to them about the filtering, but we just don’t have that yet.

Q: How do you finance Wikipedia?

JW: Every year in the fall we have our annual giving campaign and we ask the public to donate. The vast majority of the money that supports Wikipedia comes from small donors — 20 to 30 dollars. We also have some funding from philanthropic foundations. Some major donors at various times have given larger gifts, although that’s a small piece of the overall puzzle.

We’re very happy to be financed primarily by small donations because of two things. One, it gives us independence; we’re not concerned about what any one donor might think. But, two, it also keeps us honest in a sense; it keeps us focused on the reader because if they don’t love Wikipedia, they won’t donate.