The Festival of Media 2010 kicked off on April 19, 2010 at Valencia in Spain with most of its speakers and agenda changed due to closed airports and cancelled flights in most of Europe. The opening Keynote Speaker, Jimmy Wales, Founder, Wikipedia, however, was amongst those who braved all odds to be present at the event. Wales took a 24-hour bus ride to make it to the event, “though unfortunately not on the Fox team bus that turned to be quite the Lady Gaga bus ride!”, said Wales as he opened his address.
Moderator of the day, Patience Wheatcroft, Editor-in-Chief, Europe, The Wall Street Journal, described Wales as the man who had changed the shape of communication for many people. As Wales took centrestage, he took the audience through some of the changes in communication through pictures, using some from the Wikipedia photography collection.
He began, “In 1960, my role at home was of a remote control. There were three channels at the time. Then we got a VCR and my role then changed to hooking up the VCR. And now the role of my nine-year old daughter is to fix TiVo, which is far too complicated than what we were used to.” Wales first explained the change in technology and then moved on to explain the change in content.
He said, “Many say that culture today has become silly, but I don’t agree. Culture is getting smarter.” He cited the example of the changes in comedy from ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Seinfield’, in TV crime dramas from ‘Hill Street Blues’ to ‘Sopranos’, and in gaming from ‘Pong’ to ‘Doom’ and ‘Quake’ to ‘Warcraft’, and said, “‘Warcraft’, in fact, has 11 million people playing online. It is about a community of people who get together and do things together, and that is how complex everything has become today. Look at ‘Lost’, it is perhaps the most complicated show on television and audience are connecting with the show in a very different way today.”
The fans of show ‘Lost’ created Lostpedia. Conversations that were happening in message boards five years back are now seeing another form, where super fans come together and create articles that are available to, and can be understood by, ordinary fans. Wales informed that Lostpedia had 5,794 articles dedicated to ‘Lost’, and the articles were trying to figure out the show and its various complexities. He said, “JJ Abrams, the creator of the show, is a huge fan of Lostpedia, and uses it to gauge viewer reaction.”
Free access to the sum of all human knowledge
In Wales’ own words, Wikipedia had begun nothing more than as an experiment in 2001. The idea was not to create original content, but to source second-hand information that had already been published, or was available, in some other form of documentation of first hand information. The genesis of that idea came from the simple identification of the sharing ability that Internet created, coupled with the lack of knowledge. That working model has continued till today, and according to Wales, has been one of the reasons why most information on Wikipedia could be cross checked and was likely to be correct.
Wikipedia was based on the thought that every single person should be given free access to the sum of all human knowledge, and should be able to contribute to that. The company followed a free-licensed, open source software that gave the freedom to copy, modify and then redistribute modified version of the information. He said, “People are contributing to this storehouse of knowledge and it empowers all kinds of projects all across the world.”
The clarity of what Wikipedia is, and what it is not, has allowed this project to be successful enough to be a key player not only in English, but also in languages such as German, French, Dutch, Spanish, and in a sense, even in Chinese.
Wikipedia was the ninth most popular site in India, seventh in the US and, despite being banned in China for three years, was the 62nd most popular site in China. He said, “We are very global and the participatory culture has led us to be there. Everyone has the possibility to participate, and not just a random twitter comment, but to write something more robust.”
Of creating Wikia, and the Chinese experience
The success of Wikipedia prompted Wales to launch Wikia, which was about allowing people to build any kind of publication. He informed that Wikia, too, was seeing success on similar lines as Wikipedia and managed to double its traffic every year. He informed that a new Wiki was being created every six minutes. Wikis can be on books and TV shows to celebrities and political movement to even subjects like pet diabetes. Wikia’s traffic was already competing with the New York Times.
Wales observed, “This just shows how people are consuming media, and how quickly brands are being built. Everyone knows Wikipedia and our total spending on marketing is zero. It has all been a result of word of mouth and the quality that people who contribute to Wikipedia care about.”
One of the interesting chapters in Wikipedia’s history has been the experience in China. Wales made no pretence of the fact that even as an Internet market, China was pegged to grow larger than the US in terms of Internet users. The problem with the market was its heavy censorship, and for any player to be present there meant compromise. He said, “Google had compromised when it entered China and people were critical of it at the time. Though Google had said that they were trying to be a positive force of change in the market, but they decided to pull out when they realised they could not participate in what was happening there. And that was not an easy decision. Google let of 35 per cent of the market share that it had, and that is a big number for that market.”
Wales said that despite the ban that Wikipedia faced in China, it had 302,000 articles from that market, and that was a significant number. He added, “And we did begin to have some cultural impact as well. My friends from Beijing sent me copies of menus that had stir-fried Wikipedia, steam eggs with Wikipedia and no one knows what that means!” Wales added that perhaps China was beginning to understand that its approach on content censorship was not going to last.
Wales finished his address stating that the industry needed to understand that there were many growing markets that were adding more users every day, and that no one knew what would happen when the next billion come online. Preparation was the only key.