Wikipedia Chief: Geeks are “Really Sweet”

(Speech begins at 09:30 mark)

“Geek culture transcends national culture.” So says Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who notes that the geeks who are prepared to spend their time editing the online encyclopedia are generally “really sweet people.”

Wales was speaking in my hometown of Bristol (England) as part of a series of events marking the site’s 10th anniversary this coming Saturday. As part of his address, he noted that one of the main goals of Wikipedia in the next 10 years was to vastly expand the range of people contributing to the site.

Of the roughly 100,000 people who edit Wikipedia, 87% are male. The average age is 26, and they are a disproportionately well-educated bunch: the rate of people having a PhD is double that of the wider population.

Wales was quick to admit the army of volunteer editors had “a preponderance of technology-loving geeky males”, and speculated this may be because such people fall neatly into a Venn diagram of intelligence, obsession and a lot of spare time.

So how to address this balance? Wales argues that one answer is to continue the work done by local “chapters” of Wikipedia’s parent company, the Wikimedia Foundation, in appealing directly to people to get on board.

Another tactic is to continue the efforts to simplify the editing process, in particular finding a way to make the editing technology “invisible” while keeping the sheer power of the technology. That need for simplicity is one of the reasons Wales doesn’t think Wikipedia itself will expand the use of semantic editing, such as labelling particular sections of text to explain what type of content they are, though he does expect others to do so thanks to the free license approach of Wikipedia content.

The balance between making editing more accessible and keeping the site working to its potential also came up in Wales’ answer to a question about site vandalism. He noted the dilemma of using semi-protection status on pages about high-profile living people such as George W Bush: not having protection leads to such rapid vandalism that editors turn into nervous wrecks, but the protection feature is a deterrent to new users who would have to register and then wait several days before posting.

At the moment the solution is a pending changes feature, by which anyone can make an edit, but it needs to be reviewed before it goes live. Wales said that while this approach appears the best solution for lesser-known people, it doesn’t seem to be working for high-profile pages, where the torrent of abusive and malicious edits is too much to allow for a timely vetting process.

It wasn’t just active participants that Wales discussed. He also unveiled some statistics about which types of article are popular among the most prominent of the 270 languages used on Wikipedia. While the general themes are consistent, there are some notable variations: the Spanish edition has the highest proportion of articles being on science and technology subjects (40%), German Wikipedia writers appear most interested in geography (which makes up a little over a third of all German articles), and a staggering 90% of all Japanese Wikipedia articles relate to popular culture.

Wales also shared several photographs of restaurant menus from China that offer such enticing dishes as “egg fried Wikipedia.” He suspects the most likely explanation is that, in the run up to the Beijing Olympics bringing a host of foreign visitors, restaurant owners used Google for some impromptu translating and, perhaps inevitably, the word “Wikipedia” appeared prominently in the highest ranked result for the terms in question.