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Jimbo Wales on Wikipedia and the Digital Divide

April 27th, 2005 by

Inspired by John Palfrey‘s disclaimer and subtle encouragement, I skipped the 2nd half of class last night to hear Jimbo Wales chat about “the digital divide.” An incoming Berkman fellow, Wales is best known as the founder of the mighty Wikipedia.

I snuck into the lecture hall about ten minutes late to find that Wales already had Q&A in full swing. Projected onto a screen behind the podium were two windows full of periodically scrolling text. We learned later that the left-hand window referred to activity on the German language Wikipedia while the (much more active) right-hand window represented activity on the English-language edition. Ambience was produced from four speakers playing bird calls triggered by the continuous creation, revision, reversion, and discussion of Wikipedia articles online. This multimedia display provided a fitting backdrop for the discussion underway on the development of non-English editions of Wikipedia.

Wales spoke first to the barriers slowing participation in several different cultures. One of the most interesting speedbumps is found in the design of PC interface devices. Hindi speakers, for example, rarely type in their spoken language. Their PC’s are typically equipped with a keyboard designed for English. This makes typing in Hindi a laborious process frustrating enough to seriously inhibit their participation.

Another barrier is attracting early adopters, the people who will write “seeding” articles to get the ball rolling. These articles represent the pre-natal stage of a new wiki. Often, the seeding process involves dumping in large quantities of rough data to be shaped later when the pool of volunteers has grown. There is an on-going effort by participants in the wiki about wikipedia about developing a list of articles all languages should include..

The dominance of English on the Web prejudices English-language speakers who can cut-and-paste wholesale from an enormous number of resources. For new languages, creating this stem-cell content can be difficult, especially if authors have to turn to traditional offline sources. There have been several approaches to dealing with this problem, some involving hiring or compensating a corps of seeding authors.

The Bambara Wikipedia provides an excellent example. Organizers pay authors approximately $0.20(US) per article with a maximum of 200 articles. With $4.00(US) being roughly equivalent to 10% of a respectable monthly salary, authors are eager to participate. Wales indicated some reservations about this startup method, however, citing confidence in the volunteerism and enthusiasm present in the community of “committed amateurs” who have made Wikipedia such a success in French, German, and Japanese (not to mention English!) While Wales was quick to dismiss the idea of using software interpreters to mass-translate any documents he suggested that organizers of a new bilingual Wiki start by simply translating articles directly from an
existing Wikipedia.

At this point, one audience member questioned the relevance many of the English-language articles might have for the residents of developing nations. Another audience member observed that Wikipedia works on shared interests. Wikis grow, he stated, because of connections made between contributors who write about their personal interests and visitors who find the information they need in these articles. Hopefully, as a new Wiki gains local users, the amount of content relevant to readers of a particular language will proliferate naturally.

Discussion turned here to serving the needs of the non-literate. Wales cited a peculiar penetration of mobile phones in some developing nations. There is a possibility that Wikipedia content could be made available over the telephone via text-to-speech synthesis. Audience members speculated on the possibility for non-literate users to edit content over the phone, either through sophisticated voice-recognition or a transcription service, a la Livejournal’s Post by Phone service.

Taking the discussion to the off-line, tangible realm, Wales expressed encouragement for any entrepreneurs wishing to provide printed editions of Wikipedia content. He imagined the cost savings for a school opting for printed Wikipedia over a shelf of Britannica. Wikipedia is committed to enabling the sale and distribution of Wikipedia content offline as CD-ROMs or print material. Wales cited Brewster Kahle’s bookmobile as inspiration.

While Wikipedia passed up tremendous sums by foregoing advertising, the financial future looks bright. As Wikipedia leaves its adolescence and receives 501.3c non-profit status, donations are more reliable than ever. Wales told of a three-week, $75000(US) fundraising drive cut short after $95000(US) was collected in only two! Yahoo recently donated a data center to create homebase for Asian wiki initiatives. The next step for Wikipedia is NGO-status which, according to Wales, requires a more traditionally bureaucratic infrastructure in order that it may “interface” better with other large-scale international organizations.

“Perversely, pathologically optimistic,” (and still afraid of kicking out the Klingons) Jimbo Wales is demonstrating the enabling, democratic promises of the Web with every ambitious new project.

53 Responses to “Jimbo Wales on Wikipedia and the Digital Divide”

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