A few days ago, on Friday, January 15, Wikipedia celebrated its 20th birthday. Some youngsters might find it hard to imagine a world without Wikipedia. But, our generation remembers those times. When one had to rush to a library to find out every little fact. Today, Wikipedia has changed the game to access
Contrary to the problems that plague other forms of social media, Wikipedia has earned the grudging respect of friends and foes. Even a number of Google and Facebook results show you the information sourced from Wikipedia in many cases.
My accidental involvement with Jimmy Wales’ (and Larry Seager’s) baby goes back ages. Only last year, I suddenly found myself eligible to join the Wikipedia 15 Year Society. There are only 268 members of this group. To be fair, not all 15 years have seen consistent participation from me. In the early years, Wikipedia was more fun. Deletion-ism (the tendency to delete articles created) came in much later.
To continue with these humblebrags, sometime in October last year, I found myself named as the ‘Editor of the Week’. Oddly enough, it took me half a lock-downed year to become aware of this unsolicited recognition. But, as Wikipedia reminds you, this “good-natured recognition of enthusiasm and dedication” is “not intended as a form of one-upmanship”.
Anyway, on the 20th birthday of this amazing institution, let me share some of my own – not praises but – regrets about the Gutenberg equivalent of our times. These regrets deal both with how the outside world deals with Wikipedia, and vice versa. So, here goes.
1. Wikipedia started off by being so misunderstood. Its “anybody can edit” approach was seen as a means of opening the floodgates to nonsense, letting the vandals into the gates, and being irresponsible overall. Now, crowd-sourcing becomes much more understood. Besides, once you’re inside Wikipedia, you realise how sophisticated the light-touch control mechanisms actually can be.
2. Wikipedia is a window to the world. It has ranked between the fifth to 15th most-visited websites in the world. Unfortunately, few outside the West have realised its potential. We dip into it, but seldom contribute back.
3. It has the potential to help us understand ourselves. Wikipedia offers space for all kinds of entries. All? Well, within limits. These need to be encyclopaedic in form, and prominent enough to feature in a global, online encyclopaedia. It allows, for instance, pages to be created about every single village in Goa. Volunteers have already completed Bardez, and are currently working on the villages of Ponda.
4. It allows others to understand us too. Because of the above, we can create options to define ourselves to the outside world. No longer do we fall back on Bollywood to define Goa to the millions.
5. Creating information can also have other spinoffs. One study showed that making small changes in Wikipedia pages – to highlight local attractions and the city’s history – could lead to a nine per cent increase in tourist nights spent there, economists in Italy and Germany found. Whether Goa can or cannot cope with its seasonal rushes of tourism is another issue, but this is a point worthy to note.
6. Educators are yet to wake up to the potential of Wikipedia. The role it can play in this sector has already been well documented. Imagine the impact that knowledge production could have if thousands of college students could do their projects on Wikipedia, and thus be encouraged to generate real, live and useful knowledge instead of just writing for dusty shelves and to end up like wrapping paper.
7. Without a doubt, Wikipedia is a great place to learn new writing styles and practise skills with the written word. Anyone thinking of a career in research or journalism can learn skills about collating, citing and synthesising information in useful ways. Without violating copyright. But how many are open to this?
8. Wikipedia teaches you to share as few other initiatives do. Everyone gains by sharing. Again, another aspect little understood.
8. It is a great space to learn. When you write and read, you also learn.
9. It is likewise an unrecognised tool to build wider understanding. By its very collaborative nature, Wikipedia puts you in touch with all people of all kinds from all over the globe.
10. So few contribute photographs to Wikipedia. With a proliferation of mobile smartphones nowadays, you would have thought this was a very easy thing to do. Recently, an appeal for photographs relating to the village of Raia brought in some excellent
11. Despite so many claiming to be insanely in love with the Konkani cause, there are still only very few regular volunteers editors trying very valiantly to build a Konkani Wikipedia.
There are other complaints which come from the way Wikipedia itself functions.
12. Administrators of Wikipedia, especially of major languages like English, are still largely based in the West. Often, they are unable to comprehend what is important in a distant region. Their judgement is often based on how many citations one can show, to confirm its prominence. Thus, an important institution like the Centre for Post-Graduate Research and Instruction (Panaji, 1962-1985), doesn’t appear “notable” to them.
13. Few recognise the power of technology, to solve real-world problems. The Konkani Wikipedia, together with the Konkanverter, has shown its ability to build bridges of understanding between different Konkani scripts and communities.
14. There’s this elephant in the room called “Notability”. Some time back, it was a struggle to create and maintain a page about a locally prominent person. The problem is this: if they are well known locally, some might not be written about in the newspapers often. If they are written, it might be in Konkani. Till very recently, Konkani newspapers didn’t have an online presence. And even if present, might not be tracked by Google!
15. Wikipedia can still be used by supporters of certain politicians, or by “activists” to push hate and mistrust at times.
16. From groups like Wikipedia, we get an idea of the power of crowd-sourcing. It gives us a hint of a world beyond copyright. Other campaigns like Creative Commons, Free Software, and Open Source have also run in parallel.
17. Wikipedia teaches us that non-financial rewards can be a huge motivating factor for creators and volunteers. Volunteers give ‘barnstars’ and titles to each other.
18. This is not one of those NGO-style “pilot projects”. It is a campaign that can change the real world, information creation, knowledge transfer, through very real contributions of some 55 million articles in all the languages (over 300, Konkani being one of them) used.
19. Gender imbalances, global regional imbalances continue to plague this otherwise global effort.
20. The saddest thing is when an entry you spend hours to create can be deleted because an editor, sitting in some other part of the globe, sees things differently and doesn’t agree.
In spite of all this, it’s still a project worth supporting. It has particular significance to small language groups, and Konkani could take advantage of it. As its founder, Jimmy Wales put it: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”