'Wikis' Meet to Chart Future of Wikipedia.org

Volunteer contributors to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia gathered this weekend at a conference in Boston. These so-called "wikis" met to discuss the challenges facing their online reference phenomenon. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Across the country, another gathering of hackers. These are encyclopedia hackers. Four hundred hardcore contributors to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia gathered at the Harvard Law School. Reporter Andrea Shea was there.

ANDREA SHEA reporting:

You might think of Wikipedians as obsessive types who get caught up in minutiae. But for Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, the goal is lofty and broad.

Mr. JIMMY WALES (Founder, Wikipedia): Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge...

SHEA: And that's the essence of the free information movement.

Unidentified Man: Oh, hi.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

SHEA: The registration table was buzzing, with a crowd that skewed young. They were dressed mainly in T-shirts and sneakers, and there seemed to be as many laptops as people.

(Soundbite of computer keyboard)

SHEA: Laura Fisher(ph), a physicist from Dallas, started writing for Wikipedia because it didn't have enough articles about optics. Now she admits to logging on up to 20 hours a week.

Ms. LAURA FISHER (Wikipedia Contributor): Everybody finds their own little niche. Some people only want to collect spelling errors, and some people only want to write articles, and some people only want to take photographs, and some people only want to stop vandals.

SHEA: Anyone can edit a Wikipedia article, but all permanent changes are made by committee. When an existing article is altered, the encyclopedia's editors, or self-appointed guardians, move in quickly to assess the corrections, additions, or damage. The word wiki means quick in Hawaiian, and speed is part of the appeal for Elizabeth Bower(ph), an administrator for the German-language Wikipedia.

Ms. ELIZABETH BOWER (Wikipedia Administrator): It's highly addictive. Everything is constantly on the move, and articles are growing and changing. Sitting in front of (unintelligible) alone, but you are part of a global community.

SHEA: And while the most active Wikipedians have a semblance of power, it's a community that feels remarkably free of hierarchy. The articles are written by anyone and questioned by everyone. In his opening remarks, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales acknowledged that questioning by showing a clip from Comedy Central's Colbert Report.

(Soundbite of The Colbert Report)

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Comedian): I am going to just log on to Wikipedia here, and I am going to change it. Any user can change any entry. If enough other users agree with them, it becomes true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEA: The Wikipedians laughed, but numerous, well-publicized controversies have dogged the encyclopedia project. Accuracy and reliability were hot topics at Wikimania. Lecture titles included Trust and the Wikipedia, and Sins of Omission.

But the questions about accuracy are part of the beauty of Wikipedia for Elijah Meeks, an academic from the University of California, Merced.

Mr. ELIJAH MEEKS (University of California, Merced): Most of the critiques of Wikipedia are actually critiques of knowledge itself, and so the fact that we're having this large, public debate about knowledge I think is a beautiful thing. I think it's something our society should be proud of.

SHEA: I asked editor Michael Noda of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, whether the convention was a chance for Wikipedians to kiss and make up after some of their brutal online edit wars.

Mr. MICHAEL NODA (Wikipedia Editor): It's not so much making up as a - I think - stepping back and looking at this thing that we've built and saying, wow, we've made this.

SHEA: And this is now the largest encyclopedia in the world, with more than a million articles in English alone. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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