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."