9 Jan 2021

Twenty years on: How Wikipedia changed the world

From The Weekend with Emile Donovan, 10:10 am on 9 January 2021

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

When it was conceptualised, the core goal of the Wikimedia Foundation was to make sure every single person on the planet had access to a free encyclopaedia.

Two decades later and Wikipedia is one of the top 10 most visited websites globally, and it is the world's only major website run as a not-for-profit organisation. And it's also seen a huge cultural shift on the way we access information.

No caption

Photo: By Zachary McCune / Wikimedia Foundation5

Founder Jimmy Wales told The Weekend the site’s strength lies in its foundation as a community.

“What’s really important to understand about Wikipedia is there is a strong community behind Wikipedia and that community is empowered to make decisions.

“If someone comes on to Wikipedia and starts posting nonsense or spamming links the community will very quickly revert it, they will block the person if they continue to misbehave and so, if we didn’t have that strong sense of community and also a community that’s empowered with the technical tools at their hands to be able to control the site, then it would be a mess.”

There are up to 100,000 regular volunteers, he says. But a core of around 5000 who do much of the work.

“It’s a lot of different types of people, but basically we’re a bunch of geeks.”

Donations fund the site with the money going to technology, servers, developers and accounting functions, he says.

There is no big Wikipedia HQ however.

“We don’t have a big building somewhere with a thousand editors … that’s all done by the volunteers,” Wales says.

The kind of aggressive harassment common in the online world has no place on Wikipedia, he says. One of its oldest, rules is no personal attacks.

“We are not a wide open, free speech forum and we don’t approve of that kind of behaviour and people do get blocked or banned for it all of the time.

“That’s really important because if people can be silenced because they are just being insulted and harassed that’s a bad thing, a very bad thing.

“We are a charitable group, we are volunteers we are trying to give a gift to the world, we are trying to be helpful and offer free knowledge. There is just no room in that for abusing other people.”

The site has a huge number of visitors.

“Over the course of a month hundreds of millions of people visit. I believe the number is 6000 people are visiting Wikipedia every second.

“We are part of the infrastructure of the world, people are using Wikipedia constantly.”

The biggest problem the site faces is not, as you might imagine, weeding out false information, Wales says, but the death of local newspapers.

“That first draft of history that qualified journalists write isn’t even there, so how are we going to write an encyclopaedia article about the mayoral election of Peoria, Illinois?”

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes