Was there a ‘tipping point’?
There was no point that we could point to as the tipping point. From the very beginning it kept doubling every three or four months.
So is it not so feasible to let it just grow organically in some of these other countries?
We do let it grow organically and we do see it happening. For example, in India right now there’s a huge amount of excitement. I was there about a month ago and we had a little event called Wikicamp and we had two or three hundred people there. There’s so much excitement amongst Wikpedians there because they finally have reached a point where they’ve got communities building, in some of the languages like Bengali and Kannada they’ve got between three and fifteen thousand articles in many of the languages. There are 23 languages in India. They’re growing at 10% a month so there’s a lot of excitement around that. It’s really hard when you have only 90 articles because usually there’s only one or two contributors, there’s not really a community yet. So my view on how to help that along is by getting press coverage, going there, reaching out to people – so anything I can help with is important.
That must be crucial to your ‘an encyclopaedia for every person’ goal, because they’re just the places that need an encyclopaedia most.
Exactly. It’s interesting because the benefit of Wikipedia for people who live in different cultures is actually very different. If you’re an English-speaker, one of the main benefits of Wikipedia is not to give you access to information, but to give you a concise summary of information. Our problem is we have way too much information. We can go on Google and get millions of hits, we can go to the library and there are thousands of books. Sometimes you need just a quick summary – that’s what an encyclopaedia is for. For some languages there’s almost no written tradition at all and this would be the first encyclopaedia in that language period and that’s kinda cool, but it’s a very different kind of need that they have. They don’t have information overload, they have a shortage of information. That’s another area where the free licencing comes in because it means that people are able to take work from different language Wikipedias, translate it or just use it as a source to build up resources in other languages. They don’t have to ask permission, they can just do it right – so it’s really fabulous.
So where to next?
I’m going to Mainland China later this year, it’ll be the first time I’ve been and that’ll be interesting. I’m going to try to go to Beijing to meet some government officials to see if I can get us unblocked in China.
Is Wikipedia blocked there?
Completely, in all languages, for well over a year now. That’s a problem, so I’ll go talk to people and see if I can do something about that.
Is there any opportunity for a partial unblocking? I imagine it’s just the stuff about China they would want to block.
What we say is that, they have the technology to filter. We would not approve, we would not cooperate with any censorship, period, that’s just not my thing. That’s become even more important now that a lot of the big internet companies have agreed to censorship, it’s even more important that I stand strong and don’t and say, access to information is a human right, period.
The distinction that we would make though is that they have the ability to filter certain key words that they’re uncomfortable with so they should be doing that and not blocking all of Wikipedia… You know, Falung Gong, Tiananmen Square, democracy – some of the things that upset them. We would like to encourage them to be a little bit more sophisticated about what they’re doing at a minimum, we’re not going to help them do it, but it would still be better if they weren’t blocking everything. Most of Wikipedia is really of no interest to the Chinese Government.
You’re trying to do something fundamentally ‘good’, right?
I think so.
Does it bother you then that people, particularly the press, tend to pick what you’re doing apart, rather than support it? Or is that just a recent thing?
No it’s ongoing, but it’s the kind of thing that as long as they spell the name right, I don’t really mind. I actually think in some ways it’s been beneficial to us to be controversial because it brings us to people’s attention.
And at least it gives you a chance to explain some of Wikipedia’s shortcomings.
That’s been our strategy from the very beginning. The most we ever try to say in praise of the quality of Wikipedia is that parts of it don’t suck too much. It’s kind of ok in parts. We don’t want to overstate the case because if you overstate the case then people really would take you apart. If people want to complain about this or that aspect of Wikipedia usually they can’t be any more harsh about it than we are internally. We are a very critical internal community and we’re always discussing what’s wrong and how to fix it. It’s a really big part of who we are that a lot of the articles will tell you right in the article, ‘This article doesn’t cite its sources’, or, ‘The neutrality of this article has been disputed.’ You don’t see that at CNN. You don’t see a little disclaimer saying ‘This isn’t a very good article’, ‘We’ve got some good stuff over here, but this one sort of sucks’. They like to pretend that everything is the same standard and that it’s all very high quality, but we try to be a little more upfront and say, we’re really proud of it as a whole, but parts of it aren’t so great and we’re working on it.