The remarkable Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia


I recently met Jimmy Wales, the remarkable man who launched Wikipedia in 2001. For anyone who may not have used Wikipedia – and there can’t be many internet users who haven’t– Wikipedia is a free open content internet encyclopaedia which has transformed access to information. Unsurprisingly, given that 500 million people visit Wikipedia each month, Time magazine listed Wales as one of the world’s most influential people.

In promoting transformative educational progress and in democratizing access to knowledge and information Wikipedia has become one of the most important egalitarian tools on earth. If there is truth in the old saw that “knowledge is power” Jimmy Wales has succeeded in putting power into the hands of millions of people.

In many respects the way in which Wikipedia works bears an extraordinary resemblance to the social teaching of the Catholic Church. It divests power from a central authority to the lowest possible level – subsidiarity; it demonstrates solidarity by reaching and enabling socially disadvantaged and remote communities; it shares the gift of a holder of privilege with those who are without; and, as a not-for profit charity, it works for the common good. It also believes that its raison d’être is to seek and uphold truth.

Another similarity with the Catholic Church is that Wikipedia is global in scope and there is also an echo of the belief found in the Acts of the Apostle that “everything should be held in common.

Wikipedia’s original inspiration was to ensure every person on the planet is provided with free access to the sum of all human knowledge. Jimmy Wales’ inspired philosophy is a belief in open sharing not cost sharing. These days he holds the “community founder” seat on Wikipedia’s Board.

There’s a big difference between Wikipedia and social networking internet sites such as Facebook (with 845 million active users) or Twitter, and Wikipedia isn’t YouTube.

It’s not there to generate money for its owners and, although they have an annual campaign for donations, Wikipedia don’t make constant demands for funds or bombard you with commercial sponsors. Nor, unlike the proprietors of Facebook, do they boast that they own the biggest data base in the world, worryingly acquiring and exploiting personal information which instead of insisting that they hold in trust, they have the temerity to claim they own.

Wikipedia is free as in “free speech” but not free as in free-for-all. It is run as an open community but it isn’t anarchy. It has hundreds of pages – a catechism -setting out is governance and rules and it has complex social structures.

It is a fascinating mixture of consensus and neutrality. In deciding how entries will appear on the site it encourages dialogue to find agreement when there is disagreement it has process to mediate and arbitrate, including rights of appeal. It has some elements of a democracy, with occasional votes and some elements of plutocracy, with its leaders and its administrators, ultimately determining what appears if there is controversy or conflict about an entry. Jimmy Wales is the final appeal – and says that “like a Constitutional Monarch I am there as the final line of defence.”

Wales also says that the Arbitration Committee sees itself as police not judges – and their transparently regulated approach becomes a mixture of consensus and control. It rarely leads to a final appeal. The last time he used his veto was in 2010 on the issue of child protection. Some users of Wikipedia had argued for free speech over the issue of paedophilia. Wales insisted and ruled that it was Wikipedia policy that such material should not appear, and it doesn’t.

Although he insists that the site should be a mirror of society there clearly have to be safeguards and ways of preserving neutrality. Deciding what is a neutral point of view also has its own hazards.

In describing events in the Middle East, for instance, Palestinians on the West Bank might call it a massacre while Israelis would say it was a response to terror. Wikipedia’s role is not to decide which it is but to allow both points of view to appear, to facilitate dialogue and to assist the search for truth.

Jimmy Wales says that where there are clear counter points of view or competing narratives the problem generally resolves itself while the bigger problem “is when the only viewpoint is that of a 26 year old white computer programmer. It could be very limiting.”

He says that in any controversy it’s not Wikipedia’s job to take sides; it needs to understand what the debate is about; to understand what all sides have said and why they have said it; and then to moderate it.

He describes a visit to Taiwan and how a student who had been brought up in a very nationalist home thought that all mainland Chinese were mindless robots, controlled by the Communist Party, but through reading the entries about China on Wikipedia he had come to see Chinese differently.

It’s not entirely trouble free or bound to lead to reciprocity. Wikipedia was banned for several years in China and, although finally given access, a firewall removes entries of which the Party disapproves – references to Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama and Tibet, for instance. But 300,000 entries are now permitted. Gradually China will come to see that it should not fear access to knowledge and will, in any event, ultimately fail to control access to it.

Wikipedia’s moderating and enabling role clearly has a role in peace making, in changing attitudes and in assisting reconciliation.

Wikipedia reaches an ever increasing number of people – currently around 500 million people each month. It is the most linguistically diverse web site on the internet with over a million articles in English, German and Dutch and less spoken languages are increasingly being translated. Swahili, for instance, now has 30,000 articles. Nothing like this ever existed before.

The opportunities for learning and education – allowing people in remote places to leap-frog their lack of educational opportunities are enormous. Ten years ago virtually no Nigerians had internet access, Today 29% of Nigerians are now connected. The size of the Wikipedia entries in Yoruba has grown at the same pace. Out in Turkana – in a remote corner of Kenya – I saw Wikipedia being used by people who previously had little or no access to books or libraries.

The exponential and explosive growth of the Internet means that none of us can ignore it.

By 2016 there will be 3 billion internet users – almost half the world’s population and mobile connections will account for four out of five connections. It is a part of most people’s daily lives. To take its message to the world – and especially the younger generations – the Catholic Church needs to understand and utilize the Internet. In using it to facilitate discussion, dialogue, and understanding, it could do worse than take a page out of Jimmy Wales’ remarkable book called Wikipedia.