Who's behind Wikipedia?

In January 2001 the English language version of Wikipedia opened for business, and was quickly followed by versions in French, German, Catalan and Swedish. Over the past seven years it has grown to include over 250 language editions with more than eight million articles, almost a quarter of which are in English. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia is the world's largest ever encyclopedia. Thanks to the GNU Free Documentation License that covers all Wikipedia content, it is also the most open and free. But just who is behind Wikipedia, and how does it work? Computerworld recently spoke to Brianna Laugher, a Wikipedia editor and 2008 linux.conf.au presenter of the 'Who's behind Wikipedia?' talk. Laugher was also a speaker atthe 2007 international Wikimedia conference, Wikimania.

What is Wikipedia?

It's a wiki - a term which defines a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content. Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is one of the world's top ten most visited Web sites, created by a community of editors that anybody can join. It is hosted and managed by the Wikimedia Foundation -- an American-based non profit organization.

"It's an encyclopedia, so that is the rule that is used to define what is appropriate content for it and what is not," Laugher said.

What Wikipedia is not is an almanac of absolutely anything that anybody can put in about whatever they like. Which is why the Wikimedia Foundation created numerous sister projects, such as Wiktionary and Wikibooks, to incorporate the huge volume of non encyclopedic content.

It is free to read, free of advertising, and free to join the Wikipedia community to edit and contribute articles.

"But it's really free in a much deeper sense; free as in freedom not as in beer. In that you can use it and reuse it however you like," Laugher said.

"You could make up your own little book full of Wikipedia articles and sell it, and that is totally accepted. You could start up your own version of Wikipedia and that would be fine too, as long as you are following the terms of the copyleft process."

Copyright means the author reserves all rights and control over a work. Copyleft works in reverse - it means the author uses the law to share and give those rights to anyone provided any resulting copies or adaptations are similarly bound by the copyleft practice.

"This means you have to offer all the people that you release the work to the same rights that you have, so that means once a work becomes free it can never become unfree after that. That is a really powerful mechanism," Laugher said.

"The idea of freedom to use and reuse as you like, freedom to modify and change, are things that are very important to Wikipedia and its success."

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The Wikimedia Foundation

Officially founded in 2003, the Wikimedia Foundation is a non profit charitable organization based in the USA. It is charged with operating Wikipedia and its sister projects (collectively referred to as Wikimedia projects) with a goal to develop and maintain open content, wiki-based projects provided to the public in full and free of charge.

"You wouldn't say they run Wikipedia because they do not maintain ultimate editorial control over the content. The key phrases are they provide the essential infrastructure and organizational framework," Laugher said.

Wikimedia projects generally depend on donations to survive, but the Foundation also organizes fund raisers, grants, sponsorships and brand merchandising in order to keep its servers running.

"So in one sense they are not much more than a glorified Web host at the moment, and that is kind of intentional as we are a grassroots community, not a top-down one. But they will intervene in extreme situations, such as to remove libelous content when it's brought to their attention," Laugher said.

According to Laugher the Wikimedia Foundation has for a long time run "on the smell of an oily rag", and is just beginning to expand and professionalize with the addition of more software developers and fundraising staff. Sue Gardner, former head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Web site, has recently been appointed as the Foundation's executive director.

The Wikimedia mentality

The Wikimedia Foundation's core principles are common to all projects under the Foundation's umbrella. The first and foremost being the idea that anyone can edit without registration or provision of personal information, can enjoy free access to that material, and have no claim of ownership under the copyleft policy. Equally as important is the ideal of consensus decision making, being that decisions are made from the bottom up and not the top down.

"One thing you could call it is the world's largest grassroots bureaucracy," Laugher said.

Neutral point of view - or letting the facts speak for themselves - is also a major principle, particularly applicable to Wikipedia and Wikinews. The idea of increasing the volume of content through incremental progress is also a fundamental element of Wikipedia. "It comes out of the very nature of a Wiki in that you don't have to submit a completed, finished and polished work. You can make just a little change, someone else will add another, and another, and it will get there eventually. The whole thing is a constant work in progress," Laugher explained.

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Wikimedia Projects

The Wikimedia Foundation facilitates numerous sister projects that have developed as a result of the proliferation of educational, non-encyclopedic content that isn't appropriate for inclusion within Wikipedia. They include, in order of launch date:

  • Wiktionary; a multi-lingual dictionary and thesaurus service available in over 150 languages.
  • Wikibooks; a collection of educational text books, manuals and other learning materials.
  • Wikiquote; a reference of quotations from historical and contemporary figures, books, films, and many other sources.
  • Wikisource; a project to provide and translate source documents including non-fiction and fiction, letters, speeches, constitutional and historical documents, laws, Shakespearean plays and many more.
  • Wikimedia Commons; a repository of images, sounds, videos and general media.
  • Wikispecies; an animal and living organism directory.
  • Wikinews; a news source from 'citizen journalists' around the world, allowing for original work.
  • Wikiversity; available in five languages for curricular, research and educational resources.
  • "Besides that there is also Metawiki for the Wiki organizations and foundations, and the Wikimedia Incubator where proposals for new projects start. There are also chapters in certain countries such as Argentina, Israel, Serbia, Switzerland, and we're currently trying to work on one for Australia," Laugher said.

    The Wiki-Hierarchy

    According to Laugher, the Wikipedia community is not a strict hierarchy, but there is an element of a chain of command that is essential to maintaining order and work-flow, resolving disputes and ensuring a relative level of peace amongst the community.

    "Everybody starts down the bottom as a reader. If you want you can edit anonymously which paradoxically is less anonymous than editing as a registered user because you are identified by your IP address. Whereas if you actually register, your IP address is hidden," she explained.

    There are over 6 million registered users on the English Wikipedia alone, but a large percentage of those never actually edit, and many people have more than one account. Registered users are divided into either new or auto-confirmed.

    "When you first register you are a new user for about four days, and there are a couple of things you can't do, one of them is move pages. Once you become auto-confirmed you are allowed to move pages, upload files and also start a new article."

    Sitting above the registered users are several hundred Wikipedians at the rollback level. "This was recently introduced as a shortcut way in the software of diverting a page back. So if someone makes a bad change you can go back to the previous version. Rollback just means you can do it in one click instead of about three."

    According to Laugher, the major level of interest comes at the next step up in the Wikipedia chain; the Administrators, of which there are roughly 1,500.

    "They have permission to delete pages, protect pages so only other Administrators can edit that page, and also block users from editing a page. To become an Administrator you go through a process known as RFA; a community driven process where members can comment and vote on the discussion."

    Next in the pecking order are some 26 Bureaucrats who have the ability to promote people to the level of Administrator as well as several other duties. There is also an Arbitration Committee, known as ArbCom, which is a panel of roughly a dozen users charged with resolving disputes that nether communal discussion nor Administrators were able to resolve. They are the last step in the dispute resolution process.

    In line with the ArbCom are the Oversight and Checkuser groups, both of which contain roughly 30 users each.

    Separated somewhat from the direct hierarchy, but still privileged above users, Administrators, ArbComs and Bureaucrats, are the Wikimedia Stewards and Developers. Above them sit the WMF Board and Staff.

    "And then we have Jimmy Wales, who is a founder and can do whatever he wants more or less, and is a member of the Board. Some of the Staff also have these higher level permissions, as do the Developers, but the difference there is the Board and Staff can and do on occasion intervene in a dispute and force a situation to be a certain way because of their rights, whereas the Developers cant," Laugher said.

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    Wikimedia policies guidelines

    "The first policy that everybody should know about is 'Ignore All Rules', which says that if a rule stops you from improving the encyclopedia basically you should ignore it, so it's kind of like a check on all the other rules," Laugher said.

    Since its inception Wikipedia has developed and continues to add to a body of policies and guidelines that express the behavioural standards which have gained community consensus. Wikimedia Policies are considered a standard that all users should follow, whereas Wikimedia guidelines are more advisory in nature.

    "There are quite a few rules relating to conduct, behaviour and civility, and there is one called do not bite the newcomers, which is about saying we are not a closed club, anyone can join us and edit," Laugher explains.

    "Related to that is one called be bold, which says people should edit first and talk later -- to directly improve articles instead of discussing or talking about it first," she said.

    One of the most important policies for content is neutral point of view, and Tone; which determines the tone an article should be written in and the weight one should give to various incidents or aspects of an article.

    Other significant policies relating to conduct include sock puppetry which says that people should not create extra accounts to represent their views more than once by pretending to be different people, and no edit warring, personal attacks, legal threats or wheel warring.

    Similar to the burden of proof in a court of law, in the world of Wikipedia verifiability carries more weight than truth.

    "The criteria for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability and not truth, because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia it is only a secondary source - it is reporting on what other primary sources have said. The idea is that you can read an article and follow the sources to go back and check or verify it somewhere else. If you can't do that then it is not verifiable and is not encyclopedic content," Laugher explained.

    A related policy to verifiability is no original research, which prevents the inclusion of unpublished research, such as a university paper, as no one can verify its accuracy.

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    Perhaps the most important guideline in determining what is suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia is notability.

    "Notability is a guideline and not a policy because it's a disputed area and the community hasn't really settled. You won't be able to find a hard and fast rule to apply," Laugher said.

    The most prevalent instance of conflict surrounding Notability stems from commercial entities seeking inclusion in Wikipedia.

    When the popularity of Wikipedia began to explode and receive higher rankings in search engine results, there was significant interest from companies seeking positive Wikipedia entries.

    "So they are stopped by the notability criteria, unless they have done something special or particularly unique that nobody else has done. And in another sense they are stopped by the neutral point of view policy which means you can't have an article that is just PR fluff, nor can you stop someone putting something negative in an article if it is verifiable and appropriate," Laugher said.

    For more information see Wikipedia's list of policies and guidelines.

    Controversies and edit wars

    Many of Wikimedia's policies and guidelines have come about as a direct result of controversies, conflicts, vandalism and edit wars.

    One of the most significant and serious controversies is known as the Siegenthaler Incident, which led to the barring of unregistered users from creating new pages, as well as the addition of the biography for living people's policy.

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