Communications committee/Subcommittees/2006/05/08 Bob Parsons radio interview

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  • How did Wikipedia start?
    Wikipedia start as an incubator of articles for Nupedia, a free-online encyclopedia project which Jimmy Wales suggested and Larry Sanger, then an employee of Jimmy's, implemented. Both Jimmy and Larry had been introduced to the idea of "wiki" websites, and Larry suggested starting one up. was the first domain, and it was set up there on 15 January 2001.
  • What was the inspiration for Wikipedia?
    <clear with JWales

[Audio clips outlining the term "wiki"]

  • Is that an adequate definition?
    Hawaiian "wiki wiki" meaning fast or quick
    Ward Cunningham wrote in 1994, installed on the web in 1995
    • Collective editing of pages (usually simplified markup)
    • Instantly available
    • Often no registration
    • Some of these features insure vulnerability
  • How do you turn a free site into a business?
    Tough one. Peer produced content has some great benefits: You have an audience which is clearly motivated regarding your content, they're interacting with the site rather than a one-way flow of information, they're interacting with each other - both positively and negatively.
    The audience wants to have a say in how they are marketed to; for example some wikipedians have proposed having an opt-in advertising scheme on Wikipedia, where registered users only may choose to receive advertisements while they are perusing or editing the site. It isn't likely to be implemented, but the idea came from the community, from the people who would be advertised to, and there was no outcry against it - because it would be only by choice.
    A website doesn't need to be a money-making proposition in its own right. There are many models where peer-produced content can be put to use in a business setting. Documentation and support are already using wiki, not necessarily to make money but to dramatically reduce costs associated with those elements of a business. Wiki catalogues are being experimented with. Imagine a clickstore using client content for adcopy, and also to drive product selection? The point of a wiki is it can, not that it will, produce high-quality content faster and cheaper than nearly any other model to date. Can that be turned into a business? of course it can; you just have to have a vision.

How it works[edit]

  • How does the site work?
  • How do visitors edit and contribute to the site?
  • What bring people to your site?
    We don't know, exactly. Because our traffic is so high, and keeps growing so fast, we can't afford the server power to do good audience metrics.
    Wikipedia is heavily linked, because it's a great first-stop when trying to research a topic. When people need to get up to speed quickly on a subject Wikipedia's articles are often a good starting point because they cover a wealth of subjects lightly, and give a lot of ways to expand on that start either by interlinking related topics or by the citations, references, and bibliographies associated with the article.
    When a blogger wants to give the audience a place to learn more, they link to a relevant Wikipedia article. Same with certain news sources, information aggregation sites, a surprising number of clickstores and e-bay items, anyone who wants to provide a backgrounder which is easy to read and reasonably reliable. All these links to the millions of articles of Wikipedia result in Wikipedia articles also turning up fairly high in many search engines, so people
  • Who typically visits your site (students? business? media?)
  • You must have a large staff to keep up!?
    Yes and no. We've pretty much doubled our staff in the past year. We now have two full-time employees in software/server management, a half-time employee in hardware, and a full-time office person.
    If you're asking about just the site infrastructure, there are about 7 volunteers who do constant management of the servers. Roughly the same number of volunteers who are active in the development of the software which runds the system.[1]


  • What growth rate have you experienced?
    Well, not quite exponential but still rather phenomenal. As far as content growth goes, the original "major goal" was 100 000 articles, and some rosy predictions suggested this might be attainable in 5 years. A few hours ago the number of articles on the english Wikipedia was 1 126 758 articles, five and a quarter years later. Yesterday around this time there were 1 125 013 (I was working with a journalist on another article), which means our growth rate is close to 2 000 articles per day (The actual number of new articles per day is closer to 4 000, but roughly half are deleted as spam, vandalism, or similar completely inappropriate content.)
    It's harder to say what our website traffic may be. Alexa shows the last time we fell out of the top 25 sites for Windows IE users was in mid-January. Our daily traffic cycles over 12 000 requests per second peak now, and we've begun to hit transfers over 1G bit per second in peak loads. Even in conservative estimates we're serving about 260 million page views per day. The Alexa traffic graph has shown a fairly straight rise in traffic ranking, but it's a rather exciting curve when you look at actual numbers.
  • The site is multilingual, was that the initial intent?
    Yes, even in the Nupedia days there was a plan to translate articles and provide a multi-lingual resource on the web. Early on projects were able to start new languages pretty much as soon as someone requested it. This has changed a bit, with over 200 languages of Wikipedia we want to have a motivated group of contributors to "seed" the new site with a number of articles. With this model a new language wikipedia can become a useful resource for native speakers quickly, and the project becomes self-sustaining.
    Some of issues with multi-lingual are still being worked out. For example, although the software could be localised to a language, only recently has it allowed user preferences for language localisation. And with quite literally thousands of user interface elements, many of which are contextual, creating and maintaining the 200+ language localisations is a project all by itself, including interface issues with right-to-left fonts and alphabets which do not have complete language fonts available anywhere.

Edit and contributing….[edit]

  • How can anyone add a new topic or person at will?
    By having a user account and being logged in. Actually, that's only on the english Wikipedia; on most of the projects anyone who has a web browser may create a new article about an encyclopedic topic.
    The easiest way to create a new article is to edit an article to create a link to a word, save, then click on the resulting "redlink". Red links indicate the article doesn't exist yet, while articles which already exist will be blue. If you click on a redlink you will automatically be brought to an edit page for the new, blank article.
  • Are there topics that are constantly debated?
    Certain articles are controversial for many people. Abortion, the current President Bush, and Palestine are topics which are of great interest for U.S. based contributors, while immigration and Prime minister John Howard are hot topics in Australia. Wikipedia isn't really set up to handle debates - it's just not a good software for forum-type discussions - but with such a large base of users (English has well more than one million registered user accounts) it's not at all surprising that they have gone off Wikipedia and set up websites for talking about articles and actions on the Wikipedia. And some of those seem pretty heated at times.
    One of the central guidelines of Wikipedia is the Neutral Point of View[2] which is in great part an effort to avoid the problems which develop with debates over the content of articles.
  • What's happening with the September 11th thread?
    The events of 9/11 happened during the first year of Wikipedia, and had a profound effect. The immediate effects - the entire community trying to respond first to the emergency and then to its terrible effects - resulted in a lot of content which was not really appropriate to an encyclopedia. This was moved to a memorial wiki which is still maintained, but perhaps is getting less attention than it deserves. There's a discussion about turning this over to a group which maintains some internet websites as shrines, to preserve some of this information for history.
    The articles related to the events which are encyclopedic, however, are still lightning rods for controversy. They aren't the most vandalised (that would be the article about [[George W. Bush) but the hyper-conflicting views about the meaning and effect of the events make it very difficult for editors to accept that more than one view exists about the events, and that all points of view should be fairly represented in these articles. Currently the main article, September 11, 2001 attacks, is semi-protected due some recent vandalism of just this variety.
  • Let's take a world-wide event like the Tsunami, with topics that will many inquiries; who initially posts the information?
    Anyone who has information then and there. Breaking events, though, don't make good encyclopedic articles. Wikinews, on the other hand, is a good spot for them because it works with very short-term articles. And, in turn, Wikipedia can use those short term, specific articles as resources for an over-view article which is encyclopedic.
    That's one of the tenets of Wikipedia; all information in the wikipedia should be previously published and verifiable. In mature articles every statement will be sourced to a reference, often including a url. So if someone in Aceh were to edit a new article about the Tsunami just after the event, by the time the article is really mature and well written everything in it should be sourced to a reference.
  • Are there any subjects prohibited from Wikipedia?
    Not that I know of.
    There are all kinds of subjects which may make people uncomfortable. A policy at Wikipedia says "Wikipedia is not censored." Articles may contain text or images which some people may find profane or pornographic.
  • What process is required to edit subject matter?
    To edit an article? There is no process; just click on the edit tab at the top of the article. Read the
  • Do people generally police themselves?
  • Let's look up Bob Parsons!

Growth and the Future[edit]

  • Given the incredible growth rate and worldwide attention what do you foresee five years down the road? Ten years?
    Wow, that's really difficult to respond to. I'm not able to make any predictions, but I think we'll see a lot more growth internationally as more cultures develop their online presence. In a few languages Wikimedia projects are the *only* content providers, which must be very difficult for them.
    There are some big developments possible with the software which operates the system, but even more fundamental will be changes in the way people interact with the internet. Cellular systems are being developed to carry broadband speeds, cellphone networks are already more pervasive world-wide, and really mobile interfaces to Wikipedia already exist; I think these could combine to really increase the non-english speaking userbase. Integrating geo-information into Wikipedias is actually beyond the experiment stages, though there isn't consensus on exactly how this will be standardized, and what kind of information will be stored.
    My personal predictions are that corporate support for Wikipedia, because of its immense impact on employee efficiency, will eventually form a substantial portion of the funding - which is currently averaging about $20 per donation from people all over the world. Some software innovations will be implemented, such as Wikipedia 1.0, to allow mature versions of articles to be stablized while still supporting ongoing development and editing. Probably the biggest challenge will be in the hardware side of things; as Wikipedia becomes integrated into desktops, schools, and business the hardware demands will continue to creep upward requiring new solutions to manage the load. One hardware person I spoke with was envisaging thousands, and that after assuming moving to more extreme equipment.
  • Will there be a day that visitors will be required to pay for access to the information?
    No. That's at the heart of Wikimedia's mission:
    Wikimedia Foundation is dedicated to the development and maintenance of online free, open content encyclopedias, collections of quotations, textbooks and other collections of documents, information, and other informational databases in all the languages of the world that will be distributed free of charge to the public under a free documentation license...[3]