Angela Beesley, vice-president community relations and co-founder, Wikia; chair of Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board
A wiki is a website that you can edit – a simple definition. They’re not new, but although they’ve only reached consciousness in the past couple of years, they first went online in 1995. It’s a quick way to collaborate with other people.
The Wikimedia Foundation is completely funded by donation; people who read it make small contributions.
‘Imagine a world in which every person can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.’
Wikimedia isn’t just an English language project, but exists in 230 other languages, including Gaelic, Welsh and even Cornish. The most well-known project is Wikipedia. It started in 2001, and is the eighth most visited site in the world. There are 10 million articles, completely created by volunteers, built completely bottom-up by the community. It is openly editable; you don’t have to apply to become an editor – just click ‘edit this page’ and you’re an editor straight away. There are problems with inaccuracies, particularly deliberate or malicious. Everyone is permitted to use it for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial. People can take Wikipedia and use it in other contexts.
Wikiversity is a sister project, and the word comes from “wiki university”. It’s not an institution, and we don’t award degrees. It’s a place where students can explore their learning goals and teachers can share lesson plans. The Wikibooks project ties into this, and is aimed at high-school students.
Wikipedia is a community made up of millions of people. A core of thousands are there on site regularly, keeping it up-to-date and accurate and welcoming new users in. It remains cohesive because we’re working towards a shared goal, which is why so many people volunteer their own time. It’s collaborative between people who are very involved in the site and discuss how to improve the quality of articles. It’s very welcoming to newcomers; existing members will talk you through the guidelines and suggest how you can improve your article. It’s rewarding to old-timers, with awards that can be put on users’ pages. However, people don’t always get along, so we’ve developed dispute resolution processes to deal with that, for example getting a third party in to assist.
One big question people always ask is – can you trust user-generated content? The answer is no. But you can trust the process. On average, the articles are fairly high quality, and they are useful. As long as you’re aware of the downside, it can be a useful starting point for your research – never an end point. It’s open to correction and improvement. If there’s a bad edit made, someone else can come along and correct it. Everything is reversible. Someone might make a bad edit, but that can be changed. All the changes are transparent. It’s hard to disguise if you’re doing something bad, because it’s recorded in the history. Every edit is logged – it shows who edited what and when. We tag problematic content; we say that we have particular problems. It warns the reader, so they are aware that the article might have a bias, and it helps particular groups of editors, who might like doing particular tasks, such as making text more neutral.
A big development that hasn’t actually happened until now is stable versions. At the moment, you’ve no idea if someone else has checked the article you’re reading. Now, we’ll be able to mark if something’s been checked for quality or if it’s not been read at all. Someone might do a basic check to make sure it’s coherent, and that will be marked as ‘sighted’. If you’re looking at a current event, you might want the most up-to-date article, not the one that’s been checked for accuracy. It won’t make it 100% accurate, but at least the content has been checked, making it more reliable.
You can have unchecked bad edits, which is something stable versions is hoping to correct. There is the problem of spam, and marketers creating entries about their companies. With smaller wikis, one of the problems is inactivity. Occasionally a lack of focus creates an unorganised entry. And community disputes can impact on the entries.
Wikipedia has 1.7 billion words, whereas libraries have tens of trillions of words. This is where Wikia comes in. Wikipedia is the reference shelf; Wikia is the rest of the library. There is so much content out there that isn’t on Wikipedia and isn’t in libraries. Wikia uses the same software and is based on the same principles. We enable communities to go into greater depth, for example the World of Warcraft Wiki – people who play the game a lot and want to write about their world create the content. There are a lot of wikis on environmental topics, and an academic publishing wiki.
Social tools are one way that Wikia are different. You can invite your friends to the wiki; you can see what they’ve done recently; you can add polls, quizzes and games. We’re also integrating with third-party tools, allowing people to pull content they’ve created elsewhere into the wiki, for example pictures from Flickr.
Something that’s new this year is Wikia search. We are trying to apply a Wiki model to search. Thousands of volunteers have downloaded web-crawling software, and all the information they get is released back into the open access community. You can even make your own search engine if you want to. It’s the start of a roject to open up the whole idea of search.
If you want to start your own wiki, there’s a number of different options. It’s easiest to get a hosted option, where someone else hosts the site for you (such as Google Wiki or WikiSpaces). The other option is to install the software yourself. It’s easy to get your own wiki set up. Some of the uses you might want to put it to – documentation, fan sites, user-to-user support, and communities of practice. In the corporate setting, people find it’s a cost-effective knowledge management tool, it can decrease email, proposals can be drafted. In education, you can write collaboratively, share research, plan courses, or peer-review students’ work. A wiki doesn’t need to be as open as Wikipedia; you can lock it down just to your class or research group, or you can open it up so it’s cross-curricular or cross-institutional.
Once you’ve got your wiki, the question is how do you get anyone to use it? Have a clear goal and focus to your wiki, so people know what they should and shouldn’t do there. Encourage new editors and welcome them; bring people in. You can provide editing suggestions, because often people don’t know where to start. It’s also useful to have helpers to organise the wiki, just linking articles together, adding categories and navigation.
What are the futures of wikis? I think formats will change. Now, it’s text-based, but we’re introducing video editing, so people can mash up segments. People are using images more to illustrate articles, and we’re beginning to see tools where people can collaborate on diagrams. The semantic web is perhaps the future of the internet in general; we’re seeing tools allowing the introduction of structured data. I think stable versions are really important, as they become more reliable, and people have more trust in a wiki – they’ll see whether something’s been checked and who it’s been checked by.
I’d like to leave you with the thought – how can you use a wiki?
Question and answer session
Q: There’s suspicion in universities about Wikipedia – what would you say to them?
AB: You can’t stop them from using it. Students shouldn’t be citing Wikipedia as a source, they should be trained how to verify information against other sources.
Q: Is there a straightforward peer review model of editing on Wikipedia?
AB: Stable versions hasn’t gone live yet, but what it’s likely to be is a subset of the community – people who know what a good article is and know what problems to look out for.
Q: What is the commercial thinking behind Wikia?
AB: What we’re doing is not trying to gain content from existing companies, but build up that content from scratch. We’re finding very passionate people who want to write about a particular topic.
Q: Would it still leave commercial content out?
AB: Yes. We’re not trying to replace content that’s out there, but build up an alternative to it.
Q: What if Britannica became open source?
AB: If Britannica became open source, that would mean we could take their content! So it wouldn’t mark our demise. We’re keen for more material to be open source. It can never been taken away or locked up. The content will live on.