Many students are aware of a little well-known fact in the United States: teachers don’t like when students use Wikipedia to gather information and it is certainly not accepted as a reliable source of information.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a meeting where Jay Walsh was being interviewed by Andrzej S Zwaniecki from US State department. Although Zwaniecki’s questions were a diverse aray of what is typically asked of those who work for the Wikimedia Foundation, he did in fact draw my attention to one key problem Wikipedia users face: how can Wikipedia be trusted as a reliable source of information when anyone or everyone is able to edit the information?

It is a truly fundamental question. How does one trust a product like Wikipedia to provide truthful information when it can be edited by anyone? When a company or a product gives the general public such free reign to edit information there is bound to be some sort of flaw in the information due to misinformed individuals and those who find personal enjoyment by vandalizing the information.

How does this problem not spin out of control and what does the Wikimedia Foundation do to manage it? The answer is surprisingly simple: no one who works for the Wikimedia Foundation does anything to manage it, minus a few technical revisions now and then.

The key to Wikipedia’s success to being a relatively reliable source of information is the community of volunteers who freely give up their time and skills to make sure that Wikipedia is as “vandalism free” as possible.

The Wikimedia Foundation does not employee editors or referees to regulate what comes and goes on Wikipedia, rather the volunteers create their own hierarchy which manages information on Wikipedia. The power of the information that this hierarchy manages is extraordinary; with over two and a half million articles on the English Wikipedia alone, information is categorized and available through the open source movement in a much more detailed and informative way.

What is unknown or maybe even just overlooked by many is that every single person in the world is able to join this community of volunteers. Only 20% or so of the visitors to Wikipedia actually edit the information on the Web site. Think about all of the information Wikipedia has already gathered and imagine that multiplied by 4x. If every visitor to the Web site chipped in a tiny bit of knowledge, just a little unknown fact that he or she happened to have come across, the world would be able to freely access almost any knowledge. The possibilities would be endless.

Some people dislike that Wikipedia is an open forum for people to add whatever little piece of information they have about a subject but that’s the most beautiful thing about Wikipedia. There are countless encyclopedias in existence, but Wikipedia is the most visited one online because Wikipedia’s information is always expanding and is up to date to the minute because of volunteers who dedicate their time to sharing knowledge.

Sarah Palin’s VP nomination is a perfect example of the advantage of the open source concept, most commonly known through Wikipedia, over the typical spreading of knowledge. It is no secret that Palin’s nomination was published on Wikipedia before it was announced on the news; someone edited her Wikipedia page minutes before it became public knowledge that she would be named the Republican VP nominee. Since anyone is able to add information to Wikipedia pages, more information can be gathered at a faster pace than other websites can produce and millions of volunteers all over the world regulate the information that goes in and out.

A Wikipedia page might not always be 100% correct, but odds are if you check back into that page, the error will have been fixed within a week. It is important for the public to have a source like Wikipedia, arguably the purest repository of information in the world today.

Welcome to Wiki-World

September 22, 2008

I won’t lie to you…I was more nervous than I have ever been in my entire life when I adventurously took the first leap out of my car, ascended ten steps up to the main entrance, and clutched the door knob of the Wikimedia Foundation office.

 

Thought after thought was soaring through my head. Am I appropriately dressed? What should I say? I don’t even understand what a Wiki is! I can’t believe I’m late. Wikimedia is the 5th most visited website in the world…how on Earth am I going to be able to do anything productive for them?

 

Insecurity is not something I usually struggle with. I am a typical friendly, fun-loving and hard-working 17-year-old girl. I work my butt off every night trying to finish all of my honors English homework and can’t stop worrying about college applications like every other senior in high school. J’adore my friends and my family. I live a very happy and American dream-ish type of life. I don’t have time for insecurity. But, let me tell you, those ten steps were the hardest steps I have ever climbed in my life.

 

I think I should back and up and provide some background information before I go on with my story and tell you what happened once I walked through that door.

 

My name is Mary Christian. You can call me Mary though. I am originally from Pittsburgh, PA but I moved out to California over two years ago. People ask me all the time which place I like better. They are both very different from each other. Pittsburgh is my home and always will be (GO STEELERS) but there is a mystique about living in California. It is not what I expected; I do not surf to school, my vocabulary is not mainly comprised of “dude” and no, I am not tan. However, I have experienced the contagious disease roaming around our beautiful golden state. I love California from San Diego’s beaches to San Francisco’s historic and chaotic beauty. Something about seeing the sun set in the fog under the Golden Gate bridge is able to make my heart beat as fast as it did when my friends and I were running around banging pots and pans, more excited than words can explain that the Steelers won the Superbowl.

 

Before I moved to California, I pretty much blew off school. The things being taught did not intrigue me, and I was pretty positive that my teachers didn’t really know anything. I had no thirst for knowledge and no desire to learn. Looking back at the information I didn’t retain freshman year makes me sad. I was given amazing opportunities but, like a typical 14 year-old-girl going through her awkward stage, I just didn’t care about learning.

 

Then when I hit California things changed slowly but surely. Sophomore year I had an inspirational class that molded me into who I am today. Not only was my third period class taught by one of the most gifted journalists I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, but she also had a fiery passion for teaching and her students. I remembering piling around the front door of Woj’s room, anxiously anticipating the door opening. I do not know a single person in that class who didn’t enjoy it and look forward to it everyday. As a new student in California, I was at first afraid and timid about going to a new school but this class, beginning journalism, provided a sense of security for me and that doorway was my vestibule into the omniscient valley of knowledge.

 

After I took beginning journalism, I knew that writing was something I loved to do. I immediately joined a publication at my school and was appointed news editor during the 4th quarter. Ever since then, I have jumped in front of any opportunity I am offered to practice my writing or publish a piece.

 

How exactly I was privileged enough to be offered an internship with the Wikimedia Foundation still baffles me. I got in touch with a few people there and set up and interview, which leads me nicely back to my story…

 

I walked up the steps and took a big, deep breath as a straightened out my typical “business-casual” outfit. Gathering all my courage, I walked into the front door and was immediately taken aback by the friendly atmosphere in the Wikimedia office.

 

It was obvious to me after my interview that day that the Wikimedia Foundation is truly a community company. Many companies claim to be non-profit and family friendly, but in reality are run by greedy and power hungry individuals who just want to make a buck and if they will end up with more money in their pocket by giving back to the community then hey, why not?

 

That is not the Wikimedia Foundation. Being easily one of the top 5 most visited websites in the world, Wikipedia could easily distract the Foundation of its vision to create a truly free, unbiased, and user-run online encyclopedia by the amount of money that a website of that caliber is capable of making. Wikipedia, which is only one product run by the Wikimedia Foundation, is not online to make a quick buck or even to positively influence just this generation of humans on Earth; Wikipedia is hopeful to exists from generation to generation, compiling evidence of our existence and records of our challenges, failures and good-deeds.

 

Businessmen, my father included, seem to have a hard time understanding the Wikimedia Foundation. They see the potential for enormous growth and an even bigger profit margin. This is true; the Wikimedia Foundation does have that potential. However, the impression I have gathered from spending four or so hours in the office so far is that the Foundation is taking baby-steps in growing and raising its products in order to maintain the purity of the Foundation’s vision.

 

I applaud everyone working at the Wikimedia Foundation, all of the volunteers that spend countless hours making Wikipedia what it is, and everyone else working to maintain the integrity of the desire for good instead of the desire for wealth and success.

 

On a happier note, I am hopeful that this blog will provide everyone with a little more insight into Wikipedia the truth and goodness in what the Foundation embraces. If there are any questions or concerns or things you would like to discuss, please email me and let me know. I would love to hear feedback and any suggestions with regards to the Wikimedia Foundation. All the feedback will be processed and sent to the appropriate people. Feel free to email me at welcometowiki@yahoo.com

So, lots has happened in the past few months. As much as I would have loved to be able to devote much more time and energy to the Wikimedia Foundation, college apps, production cycles and first semester finals got in the way of my fun. 

For the meantime, Jay Walsh and I have decided that I will write an article for my school magazine (I’m a managing editor) about Open Source and wikis. 

Gosh, well there’s a pretty broad topic, right?

Let’s see….I think I’ll start by talking about wikis, because that is the one I understand the least and if I hold off on the Open Source convo, I’ll be able to transition into my next topic better. But here I am already rambling. So, let’s focus. Wikis.

What is a wiki? Boy, if I had a penny for everytime someone asked me that, I might be able to buy a gumball at this point. But hey, 25 is still a large number of times to be asked. Back to wikis though…

A wiki, to the best of my understanding, is a page on the Internet that provides information about a certain topic, which can be contributed to by the general public in order to expand the quantity and quality of the information provided on the page. And, as I’m sure all of you out there know, Wikipedia is really the best example of a wiki. 

So, now for this Open Source nonsense. What is that even all about, huh?

Open Source is the idea put into action that information should be free; in order to better the world, information and knowledge should be collected and shared so that everyone can contribute to the subject at hand. Basically, two minds think better than one. Or, in Wikipedia’s case, the thousand of active contributors minds think better than one. 

In my opinion, the free sharing of information and knowledge with everyone seems like a completely logical thing to do. Isn’t it better to have an educated and engaged population rather than a naive and sluggish population?

I believe an Open Source share of information could engage youth to want to learn about physical science and the universe rather than go out and vandalize parking garages with their friends. I believe an Open Source share of information could take the ordinary flow of information and add detail and depth to the subject, which could not be achieved without universal collaboration rather than a team of 20 people collecting information. 

When I walked into Foo Camp over the summer, I immediately became so curious about these foreign ‘free sharing of information’ concepts that I was being exposed to. Throughout my time learning at the Wikimedia Foundation and through the work I will be doing in the upcoming months with Creative Commons, I have found something that I am passionate about. I want to contribute as best I can to the advancement of the Open Source movement, because I believe in the message it brings.

The people I have met and worked with have inspired me and continue to inspire me that there are still amazing people left out there. Not everyone is selfish. Not everyone is in the game for personal gain. There are people out there who dedicate their time and their lives everyday in order for a better tomorrow. These people can be found working on Web 2.0 software.

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