Harvard Hosts 'Wikimania 2006' Conference

This weekend over 400 Wikipedia enthusiasts are gathering at Harvard for Wikimania 2006, a tribute to the Wikipedia Web site. Andrew Lih, who is writing a book about the Wikipedia phenomenon, tells Scott Simon about the conference.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In 2001 a man named Jimmy Wales started a website devoted to cataloguing information into a kind of Internet encyclopedia. His software document, called a wiki, allowed anyone to contribute an entry and anyone could edit or revise it.

Today there are more than a million entries on Wikipedia, and the site is updated constantly. When Mel Gibson gets arrested, it's in his Wikipedia entry within the hour. Today there are Wiki books, a Wiktionary, Wikimedia, and this weekend, Wikimania 2006.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, more than 400 people are gathering to attend the conference on all things Wikipedia. Andrew Lee is writing a book on Wikipedia, and is also an avid editor and writer on the site. He joins us from the studios of the Harvard campus, where Wikimania 2006 is taking place.

Mr. Lee, nice to talk to you.

Mr. ANDREW LEE (Wikipedia Writer/Editor): Thank you.

SIMON: What do all the Wikimaniacs do when they get together?

Mr. LEE: Well, they actually get to see what each other looks like, and to debate the issues of the day in the Wikipedia community.

SIMON: Now, as I understand it, one of the emphases that Jimmy Wales wanted to have when he was beginning the Wikipedia movement is to, in a sense, democratize information.

Mr. LEE: That's right. In other words, the merits of your contribution are the contribution themselves, and not the label or the degree that you tag along with it.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the essential reservation that a lot of people in the information business have about Wikipedia. I don't mind saying our own librarians and information people here, on whom we rely greatly, say, look, you can never really tell when something is accurate.

Mr. LEE: Well, that is true. There are extraordinarily good parts of it, and there are some that are quite poor. Part of it is to actually know how to critically look at who has edited the article, and the different types of dynamics in an article.

SIMON: But if somebody wants to log in today and say Harry S. Truman was really from Mars, they can't be stopped.

Mr. LEE: They can't be stopped probably on their first try, and normally what happens is that you will have an administrator, or sometimes they have what they call software robots, will undo that change very quickly.

But something that's interesting in this Wikimania 2006 is that Jimmy Wales, who is the founder of Wikipedia, did announce something that the German Wikipedia is initiating, which is what they call stable versions. They basically have two markers. One marker is basically the latest version of the article, which can be edited by anyone, and then another marker, which is basically telling you what is the last agreed upon version of the article or a stable version.

SIMON: Now, you're going to be leading the class on arbitrating disputes.

Mr. LEE: I will be leading a panel on the arbitration committee of Wikipedia, which decides on disputes and problem users within the Wikipedia community.

SIMON: Can you give us a good example of a Wikipedia dispute?

Mr. LEE: One of the most famous outbreaks of a dispute in Wikipedia was between the city of Gdansk or Danzig. So which one do you call it? Depending on whether it's the German name or the Polish name.

SIMON: How did they resolve it?

Mr. LEE: They broke down what time periods you should refer to it as Gdansk and what time periods you should break it down as Danzig.

And that case might be referred to the arbitration committee, which are some seasoned Wikipedians designated as the ones to decide on the case.

SIMON: They couldn't have been seasoning for more than five years, right?

Mr. LEE: Yeah. But remember, we're in Internet time here. So five years on the Internet is quite a long time.

SIMON: Andrew Lee is a writer and researcher. He works in Beijing. He joined us from the campus of Harvard University. Mr. Lee, thanks so much.

Mr. LEE: Thank you.

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