The importance of Wikipedia |

The importance of Wikipedia

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Mirror mirror on the wall, what's the most important open source project of them all?

  • Are you asking about economic impact? Then it's probably Linux, or maybe the Apache Web server.
  • Are you asking about user base? In that case I'm thinking Google's Android, or Mozilla.
  • But if you're talking about active participation, getting people's hands on the guts of the thing, having them donate that back to the commons, and fulfilling the idea behind open source, there can be only one answer. Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has over 100,000 active volunteers working in 270 languages. You're probably most familiar with the English language version, with its 3.8 million articles. But that's less than 20% of the total, which now comes to over 20 million.

Put it this way. When founder Jimmy Wales was on the game show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," they chose to ask him questions he could never answer. Their game was titled, "It must be true, I read it on Wikipedia." Wales lost.

Susan Hewitt, a 63-year old, energetic New Yorker with an interest in mollusks, is one of the 100,000. You may see her face on banners this month, during Wikipedia's annual fund-raising campaign. On the first day of that campaign, whose goal is to fund a $23 million budget, the site raised $1.1 million. That doesn't count $500,000 from Google co-founder Sergey Brin's foundation.

About half the money goes into feeding Wikipedia's servers and improving the MediaWiki software, from offices south of Market in San Francisco, said spokesman Jay Walsh. Another quarter goes to community management, and the other quarter goes to global expansion – India with its dozens of official languages is a special focus right now.

But no money for Ms. Hewitt. Or any of the other volunteers. So why do it? "I love to teach and I love to write; I love to communicate and to educate," she says. She first got involved in 2007, and found it fascinating.

"For the first three months I did 200 edits, then 300, then 400, and by month five I did over 1,500. That was the peak for a while. Then in October 2008 I did over 2,000 edits."

She insists she is far from done, and may never be. "Any time I have nothing better to do, even if it's just 10 minutes, I sit down and do some work on Wikipedia. I do it after I get up and I'm waiting for my husband to get up so we can have breakfast together. Or I do it in the evenings instead of watching television."

As important as the work may be, it's the acculturation of editors to the open source process that is most important.

"Wikipedia is self-organizing and self-correcting," Hewitt says. "There is no boss and police force, yet at this point in its development it's perfectly clear that it works really well." Wikipedia calls to the better angels of people's nature, and those angels respond.

"The voices of the Free Software Foundation are widely heard within our community," adds Walsh. "Our decision making is rooted in the ideals of open source. And our volunteers are adamant on that."

As to Wikipedia's own bonafides, the MediaWiki software is licensed under GPL V.2, as is the documentation, and the text itself is under a Creative Commons License, the By Attribution Share Alike (CC BY-SA) license.

In practical terms this means you can use anything on Wikipedia, with attribution, on your personal blog, but you better follow the letter of the license if you're a commercial project. That means proper credit on citations and images, says Walsh.

So can anyone do this? Technically, yes. In fact, knowledge gets found out and people gravitate to what they know. Hewitt was active in malacology (that’s the technical name for the study of mollusks) back in the 70s, publishing 16 papers, and has became active again since 2000, publishing another 14 papers. She’s one of several serious amateurs focused on WikiProject Gastropods.

But what do you know? Whatever it may be, Wikipedia can use you. Just play nice, understand there is no money in it, pick up a little HTML along the way, and you're in. One of the 100,000, and more, producing the world's most active open source project. And if you see Ms. Hewitt's face on a Wikipedia banner this month, kick in a few dollars. (The average financial contribution is under $30, says Walsh.) Whatever you got. They take rupees this year.

About the author

Dana Blankenhorn - Writer, journalist, futurist. Currently gigs,,, seekingalpha. Hungry for more.