In just five years the humble wiki, a Web page that can be added to, excised from, and otherwise edited by pretty much anyone with an Internet connection, has fundamentally changed the way humans learn and communicate. If you think that’s an overstatement, just look at Wikipedia.com, which, with just five employees and an annual operating budget of $750,000, has become the 17th most popular site on the Web, boasting more than a million articles about every subject imaginable, written by hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. Compare that to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s measly 120,000 entries. Since its launch in January 2001, Stacy Schiff writes in a recent New Yorker article (from which those numbers are gleaned), Wikipedia has succeeded in realizing the dream of H.G. Wells, who “prescribed a ‘world brain,’ a collaborative decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision.”
Of course Wikipedia, editable by anyone, also raises the specter of a false “Wikiality,” as Stephen Colbert jokingly called it on The Colbert Report the other night: “If enough people agree with you, it becomes true.” Like when journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. discovered that his Wikipedia biography — edited as a prank by someone he didn’t know — alleged he was “directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations.”
Battling inaccuracies and vandalism is just one of the issues that will be discussed at Wikimania 2006, the second annual conference of the Wikimedia Foundation, which takes over the Harvard Law School campus this weekend. The foundation — the umbrella group that oversees projects like Wikipedia, Wikinews, Wikiquote, Wikisource, Wiktionary, Wikispecies, and Meta Wiki — met for the first time last year in Frankfurt, and this year should be even better, says SJ Klein, an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, which helped the school land and plan the summit. For a community that exists almost entirely in cyberspace, “it’s great, finally meeting people you spend ten hours a week chatting with or interacting with online.”
But there’s work to be done. One of the top priorities, says Klein, is “the development of more stable versions of content, of quality processes which keep the openness of the community but also give you some benchmark for quality.” Also on the agenda: looking for better ways to develop non-English wikis and deal with the “translation issues that you have once you’re dealing with 200 languages,” seeking ways to integrate wikis into academia, and addressing ways to increase wikis’ offline presence. “Wikimedia is not just about online content,” says Klein, citing a 2000-article CD-ROM that was recently produced and distributed to children’s orphanages. “If you can do that, you’re able to reach the other 80 percent of the world [that doesn’t use wiki technology].”
Indeed, while Wikimania’s slate of speakers include everyone from Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales to technology and free-culture heavy-hitters like Mitch Kapor and Lawrence Lessig, the presenter Klein is most looking forward to is Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, who will talk about “the future of libraries: making all knowledge available in libraries accessible to the world.”
For all its practical applications — from databasing to social networking and the development of political platforms — wiki technology’s ultimate utopian aspiration is nothing less than “a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” (as the Wikimedia Foundation’s homepage puts it). So far, in less than a decade, they’ve gone further along that road than many might ever had reason to expect.
Wikimania takes place August 4–6, primarily at Harvard’s Pound Hall and Ames Courtroom. For more information, visit wikimania2006.wikimedia.org. Also log on Monday, August 7 to read dispatches from the conferences.