DATE April 19, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder, on how Wikipedia
works, and responds to criticism of its easily corrupted entries
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the founder of one of the
most popular sites on the Internet, Wikipedia. It's an online encyclopedia.
Unlike the bound volumes of encyclopedias we grew up with, Wikipedia entries
can be written or changed by anyone who visits the Web site. This openness
has led to an enormous number of entries, drawing on the expertise of far more
people than any traditional encyclopedia. On the other hand, it's resulted in
inaccuracies, which have led many readers to treat entries with some
skepticism. The satirical newspaper The Onion recently ran this article:
"Wikipedia, the Online Reader-Edited Encyclopedia Honored the 750th
Anniversary of American Independence on July 25th" with a special featured
section. And Steven Colbert has lampooned Wikipedia a few times in his daily
essay "The Word" on "The Colbert Report."
(Soundbite of "The Colbert Report")
Mr. STEVEN COLBERT: Last year I defined the concept of wikiality. When
Wikipedia becomes our most trusted reference source, reality is just what the
majority agrees upon. To inaugurate wikiality, I called upon you heroes to
change Wikipedia entries to say that elephant populations had tripled. You
responded, the entries were changed, and Wikipedia crashed. Now, I thought
that was the end, but lo and behold, look what that page said just last week.
"Thanks to the works of Steven Colbert, the population of elephants has
tripled in the past 10 years."
We saved the elephant again, America! More proof of what happens when you
bring democracy to information.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Despite the criticisms, Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales is committed
to the philosophy behind Wikipedia.
Mr. JIMMY WALES: The larger philosophy is, we're a core part of the free
culture movement and this is--it really comes originally from the free
software movement, which people also know of as open source. The basic idea
is that, for all of our work, people can copy it, modify it and redistribute
it. They can do all of these things commercially or noncommercially. We're
really all about building the creative commons, essentially. The base of raw
cultural materials that people can build on, for whatever other purposes they
GROSS: And there's no advertising on Wikipedia. Is that by design? You
don't want ads?
Mr. WALES: Yeah. Wikipedia is owned and operated by the Wikimedia
foundation, which is a nonprofit organization I founded, and we kind of view
ourselves as being something like the Red Cross for information. In other
words, we are a charity. We exist off donations from the general public.
And, you know, for us advertising just wouldn't really suit our style. It's
not something that we're really interested in pursuing right now.
GROSS: How many entries would you say Wikipedia has now in English?
Mr. WALES: In the English Wikipedia, there are just below one and
three-quarters million, so I'm not sure exactly when but it's sometime in the
next few days we're going to be at 1.75 million entries. But the interesting
thing about that number is that the English Wikipedia is really less than
one-third of the total work. There are far more entries in all the different
languages of the world. We have more than 125 languages now that have at
least 1,000 articles. We've got over half a million in German. Several other
languages are also quite big. It's really a global movement. There are
people all over the world who are building out Wikipedia in their own
GROSS: Now, one of the things that makes Wikipedia just like a little
controversial is that it's not written--the entries aren't written necessarily
by experts in the field. It isn't edited by a panel of experts. Basically,
anybody can write an entry. So how does anybody go about writing an entry?
Mr. WALES: So the software that we use is called Wiki, and Wiki is a word
that comes from a Hawaiian word wiki wiki, which means quick, and the idea is
quick collaboration. So the basic idea of any wiki is that it's very easy to
get involved, very easy to get started. Anyone can edit. And then, instead
of having gatekeepers preventing people from edit, instead we give the
community the tools they need to control the quality. So we have the ability
to roll back to previous versions if somebody messes something up, the
administrators in the community can block people if they're causing trouble.
We can temporarily lock pages, although we don't like to do that very often.
And so it's a whole suite of software tools that puts the control of the Web
site, really, into the hands of the users.
GROSS: So who has the job of editing the new entries, and what is the editing
process like, and is there any fact checking that's part of the editing?
Mr. WALES: Right. So the editing job is everyone's, basically. Anyone who
comes to the Web site can participate in the editing process of new entries or
old entries. It's a very open-ended process. Nothing is ever really
considered to be done. The fact-checking that goes on is pretty extensive,
but it's done live, in real time, by the community, so people are always
discussing and debating entries, trying to decide if there's a good source for
something. If there's a controversial fact or claim, then the community will
take it to the discussion page and try to figure out where it comes from and
what to do about it. It's really a very vibrant community process.
GROSS: But don't you have a staff that's partially responsible for this, too?
Mr. WALES: Well, not really. There are seven full time positions at the
foundation, but they're mainly tasked with--you know, we've got a couple of
software developers. Somebody doing grants. It's financial, legal, technical
support. The actual editing, the actual management of the Web site on a day
to day basis is really fully in the hands of the volunteer community.
GROSS: You know, everybody--I shouldn't say everybody--many people who have
entries under their name in Wikipedia have like at least one fact or factoid
that is wrong. Sometimes it's slightly wrong, sometimes it's incredibly
wrong. So I thought I'd give one that relates to FRESH AIR. As we record
this, the entry includes some links, and one of the links is to our executive
producer Danny Miller. Now, if you tap on the link to Danny Miller from the
FRESH AIR entry in Wikipedia, you will read this:
(Reading) "Danny Miller: When Danny was 10 years old, he murdered an elderly
woman by the name of Lizzie Parks, smothering her with a pillow before playing
with her deceased body."
Now, that's the first thing I saw when I opened the page. Higher up on the
page, it explains that Danny Miller is a fictional character in a 2001 novel
called "Border Crossing" by Pat Barker. But anyways, our Danny Miller has
nothing to do with this fictional Danny Miller and--yeah.
Mr. WALES: Ah, yeah. Interesting. I can see how that happened is...
GROSS: How did that happen?
Mr. WALES: So one of the things that's interesting about the way our
software works is when you're editing an entry, all you have to do to make a
link to a different entry is you just enclose any words in square brackets.
So if I'm writing about FRESH AIR and I type "Danny Miller," well, I just put
a couple of brackets around his name and that automatically creates a link to
the article to Danny Miller, which may exist somewhere else on the Web site.
In this case, it sounds like there are two Danny Millers. There's a fictional
character and then there's the person from FRESH AIR.
Normally what happens in a case like this, someone will notice it and they'll
realize, `Hey, this isn't the same person. This fictional character probably
doesn't really have much to do with FRESH AIR,' and they'll create what we
call a disambiguation page. So somebody will go in and say, well, we need a
page that says, `Danny Miller may refer to, you know, the following
possibilities,' and normally there would be--well, in the case of a name like
Danny Miller, which is a fairly common name, there would be those two, but
there might be actually a lot more than that. There might be, you know, some
politician Danny Miller or a novelist Danny Miller. So normally there would
be a whole set of people that would be a disambiguation link. But that's
basically how that happens. The easy linking makes it easy to accidentally
link to the wrong one.
GROSS: So what do you think? Should we fix this ourselves?
Mr. WALES: You could. You could. It's actually an interesting question
when people see something that's an error, but it's on a topic that they
actually have some personal interest in, either your own biography or your
company or something like this. We don't really have a hard and fast rule
that says you absolutely shouldn't, but it's something we ask people to be
really careful about because it's really hard to be objective about yourself
or your own show. Something like that, it's clearly obvious somebody
accidentally made a link to the wrong person and so you could do a search and
find out if the correct Danny Miller has an article on Wikipedia and, if so,
you would just change the link to be the right place.
But the other thing you could do is just go to the discussion page, click on
discussion page and add a comment at the bottom and say, `Gee, I don't think
the Danny Miller that you're linking to is the right one because that's a
fictional character, not a real person,' so...
GROSS: And who would read that?
Mr. WALES: Oh, so the discussion pages are read--well, anybody can read it
but, you know, this is something that the active users of our site are
constantly monitoring, talk pages.
GROSS: So these are self-appointed editors that you're talking about?
Mr. WALES: Oh yeah.
Mr. WALES: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, within the community, people come and
go all the time, but it's a really tight-knit community. We're very much in
communication with each other through mailing lists, through the wiki itself,
through chat rooms. And so this is the people that I refer to as really the
core community so those would be the people who really are responsible for
Wikipedia on a day-to-day basis.
GROSS: My guest is Jimmy Wales and he's the founder of Wikipedia, the
Now, there's like one particularly infamous hoax on Wikipedia. You know,
while we're talking about mistakes, and this is with John Seigenthaler, who
was the founding editor of USA Today and formerly was an administrative
assistant to Bobby Kennedy, and at one point his bio on Wikipedia said that at
one time in his life he was thought to have been directly involved in the
President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. That's...
Mr. WALES: Right.
GROSS: ...apparently like a really major--not only mistake, a hoax. I mean,
somebody put that in knowing that it was a hoax.
Mr. WALES: Yeah.
GROSS: Tell us the story of how that was discovered, and what happened.
Mr. WALES: Yeah, so what happened was someone who lives in the same town as
John Seigenthaler thought it would be funny to play a prank on his friend and
so he made an edit to Wikipedia to create an article about John Seigenthaler
and added this incorrect information, and then he basically forgot about it.
He didn't go and clean up after himself after he was done, and so it just sat
there. And what was interesting about this particular case is that the
article wasn't placed into a category, it wasn't linked from anywhere else.
It was kind of off to itself within Wikipedia, so it slipped through some of
the normal processes. You know, I'd mentioned earlier the page where people
can see the new pages, so it was a new page, but somehow it slipped through
the cracks of the new pages patrol. So basically it just sat there for four
months until Mr. Seigenthaler noticed it, and he called us up and, you know,
I talked to him on the phone. We had it fixed within 10 minutes after he
notified me. You know, and then soon after he wrote a really scathing
editorial about Wikipedia in USA Today, and it became a big news story.
It was, you know, it was a really terrible mistake. You know, the irony of it
is, you know, Mr. Seigenthaler himself has been a very staunch defender of
the First Amendment, and that's been a big part of his career, and then of
course, he was a member of the Kennedy administration. He was actually a
pallbearer, I believe, at Bobby Kennedy's funeral. So, you know, it was quite
upsetting to him.
The person who put in the information was tracked down and apologized, and it
was kind of an embarrassing incident for him. He didn't really mean any harm.
He was just some guy who works in an office, you know, goofing around on the
Internet, which was unfortunate.
But since then, we've really tried to focus a lot of attention within the
community on these issues of biographies of living people because these are
really the most difficult and potentially problematic articles in Wikipedia.
There's a lot of things you can get wrong inadvertently, or if some malicious
person comes in. So we've really beefed up our policies about that. So the
communities become more and more vigilant about policing the biographies, you
know, pulling out unsourced information, positive or negative. If it seems a
little questionable, people will pull it out much more aggressively than they
would in the past to try to deal with that kind of problem so that we can, you
know, remain as reliable as we possibly can be.
GROSS: But there must be a lot that slips through the cracks.
Mr. WALES: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And you know, it's a really
interesting phenomenon. I think if you describe Wikipedia to people who've
never seen it, or if you kind of roll back your mind and imagine you've never
seen it before, and you say, `Well, it's supposed to be an encyclopedia but
it's open to editing by anybody. Anybody can come and change anything at any
time,' it sounds like a recipe for complete total disaster. It's a completely
insane idea. And yet, most of Wikipedia is kind of OK, you know. It has its
problems, but most of it's pretty good, and the community is really
GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there.
Mr. WALES: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: It's the "most" that I find really problematic. I mean, I refer to
Wikipedia a lot...
Mr. WALES: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ... and I sometimes feel like I bet nearly everything in this entry
is accurate, but there's going to be, you know, a few things that maybe
aren't, and I'm not going to know the difference. And that's what worries me.
Mr. WALES: Well, that's true of course for any kind of source. I mean, if
you look at Britannica, there are lots of errors in Britannica. You look in
the daily newspaper, there are always going to be errors. So I think we need
to be concerned, very much concerned, about the level of accuracy of
Wikipedia, but at the same time I always caution people, don't hold it to an
impossible standard. But let's talk about, you know, a possible standard,
like how good is it, and how effective can it be and what if something is a
little bit wrong? And I think these are very interesting questions. This is
something that the community really grapples with on a daily basis. How do we
continue the ongoing improvement of quality of Wikipedia? What are the things
that we need to change in the software? Where do the real problems arise, and
how do we start to deal with those problems?
The one thing that we can't do, that we don't want to do, is throw out the
baby with the bathwater. What I mean by that is we know that our process
works pretty darn good, and it's really sparked this amazing phenomenon of
this enormous, very high-quality Web site. And so as we make changes to
policy, as we make changes to the software, we want to be really careful to
preserve what's good, but then also find the tools that we need as a community
to make the site even better.
GROSS: Now, The New Yorker had an article on Wikipedia over the summer, and
that article reported that in some political campaigns, candidates have
changed the Wikipedia entries of their opponents to...
Mr. WALES: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...emphasize like corruption in their opponent's record and things
like that. Are you aware of these kind of like Wikipedia battles during
Mr. WALES: Yeah, it's a relatively minor matter, and we take a kind of a--we
try to take a balanced view of it. In other words, on the one hand, we
absolutely want to discourage campaigns from coming in and trying to use
Wikipedia as a propaganda tool or a battleground for their fights. At the
same time, you know, Wikipedia has now become really a part of the fabric of
our social dialogue, and I think it's important that if people, even
politicians, have, you know, an interest in seeing a full discussion and
debate of the issues. It's just really a matter of, when you have a
self-interest, when you have a particular participation in something, the
better way to interact with the community that's more respectful to the people
who are writing the encyclopedia is to go the discussion page and make your
case there rather than get involved in editing yourself.
The worst cases are when somebody comes in, they edit something that they have
a personal interest in or some kind of stake in, but they try to do so on the
sly or surreptitiously, pretending to be someone else. That's clearly
unethical and that's something that we would definitely discourage.
GROSS: So, let me give you an example. If you search George W. Bush, that's
an example of an entry where there'd be different points of view of how that
entry should read, you know, in describing his life and determining what to
emphasize, and what to mention and what not to mention at all. Is that an
example of an entry that has had a lot of changes to it, with people from the
left and people from the right wanting their version of his story to be in the
Mr. WALES: Yes, of course. The George Bush entry is the number one most
edited entry at Wikipedia. It has been for quite some time. But on a big
public entry and something really active, like George Bush, then yes, of
course, we do have people who come in and occasionally try to make it, you
know, incredibly one-sided or something like that.
GROSS: Tell us how you deal with that. You know, with somebody like the
President Bush entry where you have people with agendas or strong points of
view who keep changing it. You say it's the most revised entry, so...
Mr. WALES: Right. So...
GROSS: ...so who finally determines how it's going to read. What's that
Mr. WALES: Well, so the process is, there are about 1,000 administrators who
are elected from the community in the English Wikipedia--and every language
has their own administrators. But the administrators really keep an eye on
things like that. We really don't like it at all if we see, you know, the
left and the right battling back and forth switching an entry back and forth,
back and forth, because that isn't the productive dialogue. What we want to
do is push people to say, `Look, come to the talk page. Let's discuss what
the issue is,' and it turns out that far more people are in agreement with the
idea that encyclopedia entries should be neutral than the very tiny number of
people who are really trying to very heavily push an agenda and won't settle
for anything else.
GROSS: Would you guess that somebody on Karl Rove's staff reads the
president's Wikipedia entry every day to make sure there isn't anything there
that they find incorrect or...
Mr. WALES: I'm quite certain...
Mr. WALES: I won't name names, but I've met many politicians who tell me
that their staff watches the Wikipedia entry every day.
Mr. WALES: I think it's quite common, particularly as we've become very
important and well-known, for people to keep an eye on it.
GROSS: Does the amount of information that you have to deal with and that
Wikipedia is responsible for ever give you a really bad headache?
Mr. WALES: Yeah, and you know, this is actually one of the things that I
think is really interesting. That is, the differential impact of Wikipedia in
different languages. So in English, I think one of the great values that
Wikipedia has for people is that it does give you a concise summary. It's an
encyclopedia, so if you really want to know, you know, what happened at
Tiananmen Square, you can go and, in the space of a few pages, you get the
basic information you need instead of being overwhelmed with thousands of
essays and articles and so forth.
On the other hand, in the developing world, in many of the languages that
we're very active in, Wikipedia serves the opposite purpose. People who have
no access to information, they really don't have the flood of information that
we have, find Wikipedia very useful because, well, for the first time, they've
got some information and it's a nice summary. So for me, I think that's a
really interesting difference in how Wikipedia can impact different people.
GROSS: Well, Jimmy Wales, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. WALES: Yeah, well, it's great fun.
GROSS: Jimmy Wales is the founder of the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
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