WOS 3 / Programm / Panels / Freier Content / Wikipedia & Co. / Wikipedia & Co. / abstr


Wikis are, by all accounts, one of the most exciting developments on the Internet today. In February 2004, the Wikipedia project, a wiki-based encyclopedia, celebrated a milestone of 500,000 articles spread over 50 languages. The subsequent media coverage, particularly in Germany, was unprecedented (reports in Der Spiegel, Tagesthemen, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ, SAT1-News, and many local newspapers and radio shows).

The English version is now larger than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and all Wikipedias cover many articles which cannot be found in any traditional encyclopedia, because the subjects are too culturally sensitive ( List of sex positions), politically charged ( MKULTRA), too new and too local ( Salvadoran presidential election 2004), too niche-oriented ( Three-Dimensional Chess), too fictional ( The Duck family), and too subcultural ( Chewbacca Defense). Wikipedia's key criteria are verifiability and neutrality -- beyond that, almost anything goes.

But Wikipedia has far more conservative roots. In March 2000, Internet entrepeneur Jimmy Wales and his friend Larry Sanger started a project to create a "free encyclopedia." The project was called Nupedia, and its goal was to get unpaid experts to write professional articles for free. The project was shut down in September 2003 and had produced less than 30 articles (all of which were later imported by Wikipedia). The complex, bureaucratic peer review process and the lack of motivation contributed to its failure.

But in January 2001, something extraordinary happened. Sanger persuaded Wales to set up a wiki as a kind of scratchpad for developing Nupedia articles collaboratively. Wikipedia articles should be subjected to peer review and integrated into the larger Nupedia later. But Wikipedia grew faster than anyone had expected, with the first 1,000 pages created by February 2001. Wikis in other languages were quickly set up, and Internet coverage in popular weblogs like Slashdot made Wikipedia well-known among active Internet users by the end of 2002.

All Wikipedia content is copyleft. Take it, do with it what you want, as long as any derivative works are available under the same terms. As such it is based on the principles of free software and proves beyond all reasonable doubt that these same principles are applicable to all types of content. Wikipedians take their own photos, they write or adapt special programs to render timelines, mathematical formulas, chessboards, star charts, and musical notes, they create complex tables, and most of all, they write prose, sometimes brilliant, sometimes bordering on dyslexic, but almost always gradually improving over time.

Wikipedia benefits from one fundamental truth which cultural pessimists seldom acknowledge: most humans are at least trying to do the right thing, and given the opportunity to do so, they can and will work together to achieve greatness.

But Wikipedia is not all love and roses. There are conflicts about how to neutrally describe controversial issues like the morality of abortion, the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, or the church's role in the Middle Ages. There is constant tension between the English and the non-English parts of Wikipedia, caused by the language barrier and heightened by substantial cultural differences. There are "trolls" who deliberately provoke flamewars, there are serious conflicts between contributors, there are very different ideas about what types of articles Wikipedia should include, how the decision making process should work, whether a quality control mechanism is needed, and so forth. Many challenges remain in making Wikipedia a credible, widely accepted reference work, in formulating essential policies, in uniting the languages and the newly created spin-off projects like Wikibooks, Wikiquote, and Wiktionary.

In his introduction, Erik Möller, one of the developers behind the MediaWiki software used by Wikipedia and an active contributor to the encyclopedia, will tell the fascinating story of the Wikipedia project since its inception and the challenges that it has met along the way. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales will describe ways in which these challenges can be answered, talk about the Wikimedia foundation, and about Wikipedia's sister projects. Sunir Shah, founder of the meta-community MeatballWiki, will show general patterns of behavior that can be observed on all wikis, and explain appropriate technological and social responses to these patterns.

After the panel, there will be a workshop and tutorial, which can be used for in-depth discussion, but should also prove helpful for people who want to set up their own wiki, who want to participate in Wikipedia, or who just want to get a better feeling for how and why wikis work.

On June 13, there will be a one-day community meeting for all interested Wikipedians.

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