Running notes from the LIFT07 conference in Geneva.
At the end of October last year, Florence Nibart-Devouard became chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit entity that owns the very popular open-source online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Florence took over from the Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales (see his speech at TEDGLOBAL2005). She is an agriculture engineer, mother of three, lives in a small village in the center of France - that a French was chosen to succeed the founder as Wikimedia chairperson shows how international the project has become (over 120 languages, including some like bambara that didn't have a traditional encyclopedia) - and started her involvement with Wikipedia in 2002 by contributing some articles and edits.
Florence is the opening keynote speaker at LIFT07, talking about "an experiment in anarchy" - Wikipedia of course. She asks: is there anyone in the audience who doesn't know Wikipedia? No hands go up (there are 550 attendees from 30 countries). Is there anyone who has never edited a Wikipedia entry? About one-third raise their hands. She shows a few figures (155 million visitors to Wikipedia in September last year), explains how the site works, mentions the Wikibooks project. There are three strengths of Wikipedia vs other encyclopedias: it allows for information collection locally, sharing globally; it is a system for handling huge sets of data; and has a high degree of reactivity (can be updated almost immediately).
She isolates four global trends:
- virtually unlimited space (there is no restraint on information storage and sharing anymore). We used to have this notion that information has boundaries, that it's possible to define what information is relevant (and belongs in an encyclopedia) and what is not. But what is relevant to you is different from what's relevant for me.
- nurturing your critical mind: we are at a point where people do not accept anymore to be just passive recipients of media opinions. We try to give facts and let people develop their own opinion.
- empowering people. Everybody can join Wikipedia and become an information actor. Everybody knows things and can share them. She tells the story of someone who "alerted" her because he discovered that Wikipedia could be edited and thought it was a bug, rather than a feature. "It requires a mental switch to understand that you can go and correct and fix the encyclopedia yourself - but that's very empowering". She calls this the "SoFixIt" culture.
- a-priori trust. There is danger around, in the physical as well as the virtual world. We tend to close doors to prevent this. On Wikipedia we do the opposite, we open the gates, we say it's your place - and when people feel that Wikipedia is "their home", they start protecting it. She speculates that over time this may percolate into society, that people "may start to leave their door open".
How to make this sustainable? Wikipedia went from July 2001 to today from 1 to 350 servers; it contains 6 million articles. To keep it up this year they will need at least 5 million USD - a recent fundraising drive raised 1 million, with an average donation of 20 USD. Wikipedia has currently enough cash to pay the bills for three months.