Blog for January 2019: Wikipedia & knowledge sharing

In January 2019, NetIKX held a seminar on the topic – Wikipedia and other knowledge-sharing experiences.  Andy Mabbett gave a talk about one of the largest global projects in knowledge gathering in the public sphere; Wikipedia and its sister projects.  Andy is an experienced editor of Wikipedia with more than a million edits to his name.  He worked in website management and always kept his eyes open for new developments on the Web.  When he heard about the Wikipedia project, founded in 2001, he searched there for information about the local nature reserves.  He is a keen bird-watcher.  There was nothing to be found and this inspired him to add his first few entries.  He has been a volunteer since 2003 and makes a modest living with part of his income stream coming from training and helping others become Wikipedia contributors too.  The volunteers are expected to write publicly accessible material, not create new information.  The sources can be as diverse and scattered as necessary, but Wikipedia pulls that information together coherently and give links back to the sources.

The Wikipedia Foundations which hosts Wikipedia says: ‘imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.  That is our commitment.’

Wikipedia is the free encyclopaedia that anybody can edit.  It is built by a community of volunteers contributing bit by bit over time.  The content is freely licensed for anybody to re-use, under a ‘creative commons attribution share-alike’ licence.  You can take Wikipedia content and use it on your own website, even in commercial publications and all you have to do in return is to say where you got it from.  The copyright in the content remains the intellectual property of the people who have written it.

The Wikimedia Foundation is the organisation which hosts Wikipedia.  They keep the servers and the software running.  The Foundation does not manage the content.  It occasionally gets involved over legal issues for example, child protection but otherwise they don’t set editorial policy or get involved in editorial conflicts.  That is the domain of the community.

Guidelines and principles.

Wikipedia operates according to a number of principles called the ‘five pillars’.

  • It is an encyclopaedia which means that there are things that it isn’t: it’s not a soap box, nor a random collection of trivia, nor a directory.
  • It’s written from a neutral point of view, striving to reflect what the rest of the world says about something.
  • As explained, everything is published under a Creative Commons open license.
  • There is a strong ethic that contributors should treat each other with respect and civility. That is the aim, although Wikipedia isn’t a welcoming space for female contributors and women’s issues are not as well addressed as they should be.  There are collective efforts to tackle the imbalance.
  • Lastly there is a rule that there are no firm rules! Whatever rule or norm there is on Wikipedia, you can break it if there is a good reason to do so.  This does give rise to some interesting discussions about how much weight should be given to precedent and established practice or whether people should be allowed to go ahead and do new and innovative things.

In Wikipedia, all contributors are theoretically equal and hold each other to account. There is no editorial board, there are no senior editors who carry a right of overrule or veto.  ‘That doesn’t quit work in theory’ says Andy, ‘but like the flight of the bumblebee, it works in practice’.  For example, in September 2018, newspapers ran a story that the Tate Gallery had decided to stop writing biographies of artists for their Website.  They would use copies of Wikipedia articles instead.  The BBC does the same, with biographies of musicians and bands on their website and also with articles about species of animals.  The confidence of these institutions comes because it is recognised that Wikipedians are good at fact-checking and that if errors are spotted or assertions made without a supporting reliable reference they get flagged up.   But there are some unintended consequences too.  Because dedicated Wikipedians have the habit of checking articles for errors and deficits, Wikipedia can be a very unfriendly place for new and inexperienced editors.  A new article can get critical ‘flags to show something needs further attention.  People can get quite zealous about fighting conflicts of interest, or bias or pseudo-science.

For most people there is just one Wikipedia.  But there are nearly 300 Wikipedias in different languages.  Several have over a million articles, some only a few thousand. Some are written in a language threatened with extinction and they constitute the only place where a community of people is creating a website in that language, to help preserve it as much as to preserve the knowledge.

Wikipedia also has a number of ‘sister projects’.  These include:

  • Wiktionary is a multi-lingual dictionary and thesaurus.
  • Wikivoyage is a travel guide
  • Wikiversity has a number of learning models so you can teach yourself something.
  • Wikiquote is a compendium of notable and humorous quotations.

Probably the Wikidata project is the most important of the sister projects, in terms of the impact it is having and its rate of expansion.  Many Wikipedia articles have an ‘infobox’ on the right side.  These information boxes are machine readable as they have a microformat mark-up behind the scenes.  From this came the idea of gathering all this information centrally.  This makes it easier to share across different versions of Wikipedia and it means all the Wikipedias can be updated together, for example, if someone well known dies.  Under their open licence, data can be used by any other project in the world.  Using the Wikidata identifiers for millions of things, can help your system become more interoperable with others.   As a result, there is a huge asset of data including that taken from other bodies (for example English Heritage or chemistry databases etc.

Wikipedia has many more such projects that Andy explained to us and the information was a revelation to most of us.  So we were then delighted to spend some time looking at an exercise in small groups.  This featured two speakers who talked about the way they had used a shared Content Management system to gather and share knowledge.  These extra speakers circulated round the groups to help the discussions.  The format was different to NetiKX usual breakout groups but feedback from participants was very positive.

This blog is based on a report by Conrad Taylor.

To see the full report you can follow this link: Conradiator : NetIKX meeting report : Wikipedia & knowledge sharing