How Wikipedia solved the knowledge gap | Andrew Lih | TEDxAmericanUniversity

Translator: XINHUI WANG
Reviewer: Theresa Ranft Thanks a lot. So, let me tell you a story
about how I got started 20 years ago on this mission to discover what Wikipedia had
as a solution for humanity. One of the things that folks
in this room may not know, because it predates your birth, is that 1994, what was
the dominant way for multi-media or for new media storytelling was what we called the CD-ROM. And I was just hired
by the Columbia Journalism School and we had some decisions to make. Their new media program at the time
was designed around CD-ROM production and I was the renegade who came in
and said, “You know what? We should be looking
at this thing called a web-browser.” And that instead of CD-ROMs
which were great and had video, audio, pictures, they could fit 650MB on a disk
that was there on your computer. I said, “We should, instead
of using that rich media, go with this untested browser
from a weird company that had no video, had no audio,
had texts and barely pictures. That was a tough sell, but the real benefit of going with the web
in 1994 for journalism curriculum was that it connected people. You could click on a link and suddenly be looking
at a page in Russia, or looking at a page across the country. That was powerful, but we didn’t know
exactly how powerful it would be. To convince the folks
at the Columbia J. School why this was important, I said, “I don’t know how it’s going
to solve this problem yet but the Internet is going to solve
what we call the knowledge gap.” Which is when you read a newspaper,
when you read a magazine, you have that knowledge there at the time, but until a movie, a book,
or the encyclopedias write about it there’s this of void in the middle. We really don’t have a good record
of human history in that in-between state. The Internet would help solve this problem
but we didn’t know exactly how. But now we know that with Wikipedia and what I call “How a bunch of nobodies
created the world’s greatest encyclopedia” there is a crowd that help fill
this knowledge gap. And here’s how. The first thing
that’s important is that Wiki, that Wikipedia’s built on,
had this crazy idea that anyone could edit
any page at any time. If I told you this
without seeing Wikipedia you’d say this is clearly a lunatic
who created this product, right? You may not know
is that Wikipedia started off as a for-profit commercial encyclopedia
called, and the guy who started was,
in fact, Jimmy Wales, who you might have seen before. It was the sum of all human knowledge
that was the goal of this encyclopedia but there’d be a company
that held the copyright but allow anyone to copy it. So Jimmy Wales was the guy
who started this project, as one of the many projects
in the company, and he hired this guy named Larry Sanger,
who was a Ph.D student, to head this project, but he was to find volunteers online
to contribute to Nupedia and get production
going in this encyclopedia. What they did was they, like pretty much
anyone else at the time said, “We need a rigorous process here.” So they came up
with a seven-step process that had everything from assigning
an article to finding a lead reviewer, to copyediting, to open copyediting. Through the seven-step process, they said, “We’ll get volunteers who are qualified
to come write this encyclopedia.” Can you guess how many articles they created in the first year
of this production process of one paid employee
and dozens of volunteers? Unfortunately, it was… twelve. So they had a problem. This was not scalable,
it wasn’t going to work, but they had to look at other places
for ideas of how to solve this problem. What they did was they said
that if something had to change they want to look to where
other things were happening. One of the inspirations
was the Wiki-Wiki bus, the shuttle bus between terminals
at the Hawaii airport. It was the genius guy
named Ward Cunningham who had this piece of software
called wiki software that allowed computer programmers
to upload computer code, share them with others, have them downloaded, modified,
and re-upload that computer code. The folks who were running Nupedia said, “Why don’t we try this wiki software
to start the articles. We’ll still use the seven-step
process to finish them but at least we’ll get the crowd
to come start articles on, let’s say, the site we’ll call Wikipedia, as a joke. And what happened was they found
that after a few weeks there was more production in Wikipedia
than in one year of Nupedia. So what we see is that there are now roughly 4.5 million English language
articles in Wikipedia, over 31 million articles
across all languages, and 270 languages represented
in Wikipedia, as of April this year, which is pretty amazing
if you think about it. So some of the representative languages
of Wikipedia that you see here, number in the millions of articles
for these different language editions. If you were to print out Wikipedia
on paper without photos it will fill up ten stacks on the shelves. If you were to print out all Wikipedia, not just English but in all languages,
it would fill up 69 stacks without photos. It’s pretty staggering how much the crowd
has been able to do in this time. If you look at the traffic,
20 billion pages views a month, that’s pretty staggering
in terms of traffic. The only sites that rank above Wikipedia
in traffic, consistently, are Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. We’re talking about multi-billion
dollar companies up there. Wikipedia as a nonprofit has a budget
of roughly 40 million dollars. So pretty staggering
the difference that you see there. We see that in terms
of the editing community there’s about 75,000 users
who edit more than five times a month, and about 11,000 users
that edit more than 100 times a month. So that 11,000-user number
is about what you consider the core audience of Wikipedia. What are the things
that make Wikipedia work? One, it has a neutral point of view
as objectivity standard in Wikipedia, that is really the core non-negotiable
policy in Wikipedia that makes it work. How do you get the crowd work together
in the same direction? It’s that you want a neutral point of view
to bind those articles together. But in recent years,
as Wikipedia’s got more popular, we also need to make sure
that it’s not just people who are editing, but there’s verifiable
information in Wikipedia that use reliable resources
as references out there, and that more and more we’re seeing that as companies understand
how influential Wikipedia is we need to look out
for conflict of interests of editors and making sure the contributors are actually unconflicted
in their editing activities. So what we see
with a neutral point of view is that this one policy
has allowed Wikipedia to flourish, that’s representing fairly,
proportionally, and as far as possible, without bias, all significant views that have been published
by reliable sources on a topic, and this is what makes Wikipedia work. Now what is Wikipedia’s role other than help you on your term paper
and get you through high school? (Chuckling) And the quest that started 20 years ago I think we finally start seeing
in major ways today. And the way I explain it
is that if you look at what we consider
our priorities in information, the most important thing
about information is that it’s accurate. If information isn’t inaccurate,
it’s misinformation, not something that we want. But we make two choices
when we talk about information. We either want it fast, or we want
it deep in terms of engagement. So what we do at least here
in communications, in journalism, or any field,
is that we make this choice. In journalism, we care about speed,
to make the six o’clock newscast, it’s out for tomorrow’s newspaper, I don’t care if it’s better in a week because the deadline
is coming up today or tomorrow. Then we make another choice
on the other side. We have different types
of journalism here. We make a choice on the other side
when we talk about scholarly research, we talk about encyclopedia writing, pre-Wikipedia, and we talk about
encyclopedias and museums. These are folks who care about
not the view tomorrow, or the next week, but the book published
two years from now, the film made three years from now, the history recorded
in museums for posterity. So we make this choice and this is where
the knowledge gap comes in. Because we actually didn’t have a good way of filling in this gap
before we had Wikipedia. You had to go back and look
at stacks of newspapers or you’d have to wait
for the museum or the book to come out on a certain topic. So this knowledge gap
has really been impossible to address until we saw Wikipedia come along. If you really want to illustrate
how this happens in what we consider the news cycle, consider a breaking news item
where we see lots of activity in the first week of something happening. The next week
you might have more coverage, but by the end of the month,
after the monthly magazines come out, you really don’t see
much written about a topic. You need to wait in fact for what we call heritage institutions, book writers,
historians to come around and write about that topic
or to cover that topic. What Wikipedia does,
if you look at how it functions, is it actually fills in that gap and is this continuous
working draft of history. So the real goal here
is to have Wikipedia, not just as a fast way
to create information, which is what it was known for in 2001 – it was a way for people to quickly
add information to an encyclopedia, but we weren’t sure about its depth
or its accuracy at the time – to about 2005, when we start
to see Wikipedia become popular and mainstream. And then finally we see that Wikipedia
has filled in this knowledge gap in a way that really is unique
in terms of Internet phenomena. So we like to say
that in the journalism world that news is the first draft of history,
or the rough first draft of history. And there’s also that saying
in historian circles that history is written by the victors. But I like to say that Wikipedia
instead is the continuously edited, globally contributed
working draft of history. It’s something that everyone
can contribute to. And my favorite saying,
related to the first one, is that instead of the victors
write the history books, the writers write the history books,
and Wikipedia has lots of writers. One way that this is making huge impact
is in the world of GLAM, or galleries, libraries,
archives and museums. One of the interesting things
they’re doing now is noticing that Wikipedia has a lot
more traffic than these museums do. This was a similar moment in 2010 when the British Museum realized that there were ten times as many people looking at the Rosetta Stone
article on Wikipedia than actually visiting the Rosetta Stone
in the British Museum or visiting its website
for this information. So in 2010, they invited
a Wikipedian in residence to spend five weeks teaching curators
at the British museum more about Wikipedia’s culture and actually in helping
to improve articles in Wikipedia related to the Rosetta Stone
and other artifacts in their collection. So this was a huge moment where museums
and libraries and government institutions, at least here in the U.S., looked at Wikipedia
as a strange project on the side written by people in the basement
in their pajamas, and weren’t sure whether
these were human beings or not that were doing the editing. For that culture to change to have curators
at the top museums in the world invite Wikipedians in was a huge change, and that has only continued
in more and more ways, to the point where the National Archives
and Records Administration, there is a federal employee whose job
is to be the Wikipedian in residence, and this was just a new thing
that happened last year. Dominic McDevitt-Parks
is the Wikipedia guy at the National Archives, which is pretty astounding,
if you think about it. We also see that there are great
and many ways for these GLAM institutions to collaborate with Wikipedia editors. One of the things I did this past semester
was to structure a whole class around Wikipedia editing with museums
here in Washington D.C. Over the course of a semester,
we had what we called edit-a-thons. So we had students leave the classroom, go down and sit next to curators at the American Art Museum
and other institutions, to actually look at entire swaths
of Wikipedia content to see what things
could be improved on in those areas. Some of the things that we covered: women scientists, the gender gap. In terms of coverage
of females in Wikipedia it’s been a mixed record, and we want to address
some of these systemic biases in Wikipedia to see how these things can be improved. One of the organizations
that we collaborated with was the Smithsonian Institution Archive which actually had a scholar in residence who looked exactly at this problem
of woman scientists being much lower profiled than male scientists
in American literature. And we also had an edit-a-thon
with a bunch of these other museums here. Some of these shots
that we’ll take a look at. This is at the American Art Museum
down in Gallery Place. We had a scan-a-thon
actually at the National Archives where David Ferriero, the Head Archivist
of the United States came and gave a pep talk to our students. And students were scanning
Civil War era documents there, uploading them to National Archives but also bringing them into Wikipedia. Then finally getting
museums into the space of where news organizations
are working as well. We worked with the National Museum
of the American Indian to look at issues of cultural appropriation, the Redskins mascot controversy. Really interesting questions that museums historically
have never really addressed in terms of current events, but folks like the National Museum
of the American Indian have and they looked at the Wikipedia articles, and our students helped
to improve those articles in Wikipedia. How do we address this knowledge gap or how have folks been addressing
this knowledge gap in a way that is interesting? Well, one is that we know
that Wikipedia fills in the space, but besides the GLAM side of galleries, libraries, archives
and museums filling in this space we see that there are new ways that museums
are interacting with the public in an area that we call
“Open Authority” in the museum world. So that museums are no longer
the last word on what is historical truth, they’re actually engaging the public
to find out these things. The National Museum
of the American Indian is a good example. Another example from the journalism side is that there are a lot
of journalism start-ups that are looking to Wikipedia as models. One great example of this is something
happening here in Washington D.C. As Recline started this new thing
that he calls the Newzia Wikipedia. News organizations are looking
at the Wikipedia model and saying, “Why are people reading
the news on our site but then leaving us to go to Wikipedia to find out what
the historical context is. Some things they’re trying
is to create Wikipedia-like experiences in their news organizations. What are the challenges
going forward then? Wikipedia has solved this knowledge gap, but there are challenges, and it’s not clear Wikipedia
has another 15 years of guaranteed existence in the future. And why is this? One is that sustainability is a big issue. Every time you see that fundraising banner
at the top of Wikipedia, it is a hand-to-mouth existence. There is no endowment
that the Wikimedia Foundation has. They raise money every year
to pay the next year’s bills. That’s it. That’s the model that you have. So is there a black swan event? Is there competitor on the horizon that suddenly Wikipedia will not be
the favored encyclopedia on the Internet and is the infrastructure there
to sustain Wikipedia even if you have a gap in funding
or a gap in fundraising? Right now, it’s not clear
if that’s possible. Another thing we need to look at is that Wikipedia right now
is predominantly text and images. When’s the last time you looked
up a Wikipedia article and saw a video? Probably don’t remember ever. Only 0.1% of Wikipedia articles
have any video content related to them. So it’s lacking multimedia,
videos, interactivity. So we made that choice
in ’94 to go to the web and we’ve never
looked back, and it’s great. But what we have lacked is,
believe it or not, that multimedia capability
we had 20 years ago. So we would rather have an encyclopedia
that had multimedia features that we had for CD-ROMs. Unfortunately, Encarta
and those other folks have been killed by Wikipedia
as a text-based encyclopedia, but the multimedia functions
need to come back to encyclopedias. Finally, the big problem with Wikipedia
is this massive gender gap. How can Wikipedia woo women editors was a story that the BBC
came out with recently, and if you look at the demographics
it’s pretty grim. Over the last ten plus years, it has consistently been 90% male
in terms of editorship. Any time, any place,
any way that you measure it, it’s been between 88 to 92 percent male. There really is no budging
from that number. So to get more woman involved
is a huge problem for Wikipedia. Well, the good news is if we start
to look at those two other areas, journalism and museum studies, the good news is they’re about 70% female,
at least in academic programs, so there’s a lot of opportunity here to tap more female editors
to contribute to Wikipedia, drawn from those two fields. And then finally, how many productive online
collaborative communities exist today that existed 15 years ago? You’d be hard-pressed to find any. In fact, history is not on the side
of long-lived online communities that can keep generating good content. So we’re in unchartered territory. That’s why Wikipedia could use
a new generation of diverse volunteers, and I can think of no better people
than folks like you in this room that now know more about Wikipedia
than the average person and can be that next
generation of editors. Thanks a lot. (Applause)


  1. TheGreatWhiteMexican

    May 24, 2014 at 7:26 am

    See people said the same thing about the TV news that its people who know nothing about a topic that get to edit it. The also said the same thing about newspapers and even people telling a story about what had happened to a large crowd. Hell people still say to this day the internet is a false source of information. And of course Wikipedia its not going to tell you up to date info on Ukraine that's not how a encyclopedia works if you Dimmed Diamond cant figure that out then you fall to see the purpose of Wikipedia. It has solved a huge part of the knowledge gap in the world information is now readily available to billions of people. You know what Wiki has done its done this. In stead of asking "What can I learn" it has changed to "What do I want to learn"

  2. I Am The Bucket

    May 24, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Fantastic talk. 🙂

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