August 4, 2006 9:38 AM PDT

Wikipedia's Wales touts 'free culture' movement

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has set the Wikimedia Foundation's sights on improving the quality of the online encyclopedia and expanding "free culture" to new projects and countries.

Wales delivered a keynote speech at the second annual Wikimania conference here, which is bringing several hundred people from around the world to discuss the jointly authored Web pages known as wikis. The Wikimedia Foundation, where Wales is a board member, is a nonprofit that runs online encyclopedia Wikipedia and several other offshoot projects.

Jimmy Wales

"I see a whole world of possibilities, like in the world of politics, where free culture can expand and grow," he said.

Wales recapped an eventful year, where Wikipedia met scorn for hosting inaccurate information on people's biographies, including that of journalist John Seigenthaler. And it received compliments from Nature magazine for a relatively low rate of errors in scientific entries.

Although Wikipedia remains popular--the English version of Wikipedia passed 1 million entries this year--Wales said that Wikipedia users, or "Wikipedians," should focus on quality over quantity. The foundation has five full-time employees, but postings to Wikipedia are done by volunteers.

He said that the Wikimedia Foundation, which has launched several knowledge-sharing initiatives, is setting up a "quality initiative" and advisory board, which will include academics, to expand the foundation's operations.

"We got pretty lucky," Wales said in reference to Nature's assessment, which found that Wikipedia had four errors per sampled entry versus three errors for Encyclopedia Britannica. In general, Wikipedia is strong on scientific topics, but not as good in the humanities, he said.

"Although we have that as a goal, we are not as good as Britannica yet," Wales said.

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Can Wikipedia get bigger--and better?
At the Wikimania conference, Wales talked to CNET News.com's Martin LaMonica about managing the rapid growth of wikipedia and where else we may see the "wiki" label in the future.

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Wales said that German Wikipedians will start an experiment with "stable versions" of entries that will restrict attempts to vandalize them.

In addition, Wales announced a couple of expansion initiatives and a technical project to make posting to wikis easier.

He said that the One Laptop per Child initiative, started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, has decided to include Wikipedia with the content repository in its machines.

Within a month, the Wikimedia Foundation will launch Wikiversity, a project to create free online course material for all ages and languages. A six-month beta trial will start in three languages.

To invite more knowledgeable people to contribute to Wikipedia, Wales said that Wikia--a commercial company co-founded by Wales to host wikis--is partnering with Socialtext to make it easier to edit wiki pages.

"The problem is that the technology barrier to entry keeps out really smart people who are geeks but not computer geeks. And it doesn't keep out all the other idiots," he said.

Engineers from Wikia and Socialtext, which makes commercial wiki software, will work on a project to make open-source wiki editor Wikiwyg work with Mediawiki, the back-end software that runs the Wikipedia site. No date for the release has been set.

For some comic relief, Wales started his keynote speech with a video segment of the " Colbert Report" in which host Stephen Colbert ran a segment satirizing Wikipedia and people's ability to create their own reality by changing entries.

Wales made it about halfway through the satirical clip before cutting it off. "Enough of that," he said.

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