Jimmy Wales was all over campus on Wednesday, Dec. 8, meeting with students and talking about his ubiquitous brainchild, Wikipedia. His visit was part of this year’s slate of events tied to the Spectrum Series campus theme, “Community and Technology.”
First stop was lunch with students from the Burton D. Morgan Program in Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship Education and a roundtable discussion about Wikipedia’s model of social entrepreneurship. Wales described the process of nurturing a nonprofit business and finding ways to embrace failure as part of the experience. He said it’s great that in the culture of this country, “young people can start a business, and if they don’t succeed, it’s no shame and no disaster. In fact, it’s cool that you tried.”
Then he joined the afternoon communication classes of professors Copple Smith and Kumar. In Kumar’s “Cultural Globalization and Identity” class, Wales provided some global context for Wikipedia, saying the free online encyclopedia has 16 million entries in some 270 languages, which are edited by more than 100,000 people.
It’s about community, he said, pointing out that Wikipedia can help to bring native speakers closer together. It’s also about freedom of information. Wales is proud of the ways Wikipedia has made gains in places like China, where it was once completely blocked. Since the Olympics in Beijing, most of Wikipedia has been made available to Chinese citizens, despite ongoing restrictions on controversial topics.
The day ended with a packed-house lecture in Swasey Chapel, where Wales expanded on the themes of community, freedom, and effective communication. He said part of the idea for creating Wikipedia came from the frustration born of trying to collaborate electronically. Try e-mailing a Word document to eight different people to add their contributions . . . it’s “a bit of a nightmare,” he explained. “The worst thing that could happen is that you have all eight people answer. Now you have eight versions of the same document and you have to figure out some way to get it back together.” This scenario made him realize there was a great need for tools to help people collaborate effectively.
Wales also spent the day emphasizing the responsible use of Wikipedia. Writing a paper on the Battle of Iwo Jima? Stop by Wikipedia to get an overview of the topic, then do the right thing: go to primary sources. That’s how it should work with any encyclopedia, he said. Wikipedia’s a great place to start, but not where your research should end.
And on the subject of that other similar-sounding but oh-so-different website that has been in the news lately—WikiLeaks—Wales really wishes they would have chosen a different name.