This past weekend, Wikipedia held its second annual Wikimania Conference from Friday to Sunday in, of all places, the law buildings of one of the most exclusive institutions of higher learning in the world, Harvard University. An odd choice, given that Wikipedia was originally designed to discourage notions of privilege and entitlement that are traditionally associated with such institutions. In other words, in the Wiki world, one needn't a fancy degree to drop knowledge.
Lawrence Lessig addresses the crowd
In keeping with this academic theme, the conference was styled as a series of talks given by a variety of people -- educators, programmers, librarians, PhD candidates, grad students. Talks were given appropriately long-winded titles like: "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom" and "Sins of Omission? An Exploratory Evaluation of Wikipedia's Topical Coverage."
Despite the surroundings in which they found themselves, WIkipedians found plenty of other ways to contribute to the proceedings. There were people blogging on the event. Voluntary transcribers could be seen in just about every room, dutifully documenting each and every word spoken. Others captured the conference via audio and video streams. What follows, our account of two days of Wikimania.
Quality over quantity
9:10 am — Lights, carpets, mikes, rows of chairs. Laptops sprinkled liberally into the audience. Digital cameras, video cameras, cell phones; t-shirts, jeans, khaki pants, suits, Hawaiian shirts; name tags. Dudes.
Jimbo Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, takes the podium and begins to outline plans for wikiversity, wikiwyg, WiktionaryZ, and wiki water bottles (just joking about the bottles).
He spends time advocating for “stable versions,” a hot-button issue in the Wikipedia community. The idea is to keep on-record entries that cannot be touched (vandals, beware). His words to the wise Wikipedians in attendance: quality over quantity. We have a lot of articles; it’s time to make them more accurate and readable.
Britannica vs. Wikipedia
10:45 am — Surprise, surprise, Britannica doesn’t like the Wikis. But, for all the academics who thumb their noses at Wikipedia, who think its level of fact-mangling is rivaled only by Bush administration, get this: according to an article in Nature written by Jim Giles, for every three errors in Britannica, Wikipedia only has four — only four!
Giles explains that for his piece in Nature, he recruited scientists to compare 50 articles in Britannica to articles on the same subjects in Wikipedia. But slow down, Giles cautions calmly. Take it with a spoon of salt. This was a journalistic exercise, not scientific research. Apparently the folks at Britannica missed that distinction, and they’ve embarked on a balls-to-the-wall mission to discredit Giles's work since the storycame out this past winter. In a report refuting theNature article, Britannicans didn't pull any punches:
"Almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading."
Giles laughs. "I have to say, this is just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing."
Empowered to produce
1:30 pm — After lunch, free-culture icon Lawrence Lessig takes the stand in Ames hall, and starts skimming across the history of the free labor movement.
He points to a merger between read-write culture and free labor that’s resulted in free software, music, and other content online. "It is the lesson of the free software movement: people are creating and are creators. They are not slaves to wage labor but are themselves empowered to produce," he exclaims.
He then gets into a funk about the read-only culture —"a culture where the creativity is consumed, but the consumer is not a creator, a culture which is top-down, a culture where the vocal chords spread among the people have been lost"— which he says is perpetuated by copyright laws and companies like Apple.
Dump that junk, Lessig says, and move into the 21st century with — wait for it — the remix. It is a mode, he continues, "where people participate in the creation and recreation of their culture."
He screens some excellent videos mixing free images and music found on the Internet featuring anime, George Bush and Tony Blair, and Donna Summer and Jesus. In the end, we are left gleeful and celebrating as he charges us to practice free culture, and to enable free culture by making it possible in places outside the hackers’ den. Word up.
9:30 am — We attend a discussion given by GreenReaper, who is here to discuss his part in founding a wiki community called WikiFur for the furry fandom community. (“A cross between talking animals in stories and fluffy mascots on sports-playing fields.”) GreenReaper suggests ways that others can foster successful, growing collaborative communities, like actively seeking out contributors through live journals, MySpace, the real world. "One good contributor can make or break a site,” he says. His secret to success: “You need a lot of time. I was unemployed so I had a lot of time."