Fundraising 2007/Why Give blog/Why Wikipedia is important

Catherine Munro is from Southern California and has been a Wikipedia contributor since February, 2003.

Wikipedia will never be perfect -- and the world shouldn't expect it to be -- but I think that it will always be useful. I am convinced that it is worth donating to help it along, and I'd like to explain why.

Wikipedia is not a company. It's not owned by a media mogul, and it doesn't have any ulterior motive in providing information to you on almost any topic you can think of. It's a non-profit organization with a simple mission: make knowledge free.

The text has been developed under a copyleft license, which means that anyone can not only read it for free, but can copy and use the text for any purpose for free (so long as they credit the source and don't try to claim copyright themselves). This is a radical departure from earlier models, where the ownership and pricing of knowledge was paramount.

Why didn't traditional encyclopedias have any real competition before 2001? Because they own the copyright on the textual presentation of the knowledge they've compiled, and the only way to compete is to write your own encyclopedia from scratch -- start with the facts and begin writing down everything human beings know in your own words. Why hadn't anyone done it? Because, by traditional means, it would take a staggering amount of up-front investment to hire the writers and researchers just to get started, and when it was finally done, then you'd be competing against some powerhouses of the reference world without any reputation to back you. Even Encarta, with all the resources of Microsoft on which to draw, began by purchasing the existing encyclopedia Funk & Wagnalls, rather than starting from nothing.

Wikipedia was far from the first, or the only, site to provide encyclopedic knowledge for free, but it does seem to be one which has found a key to expanding and staying current, in a way that no single stakeholder has ever been able to do before. There have always been lots of people out there who have wanted knowledge to be free. And there are millions of people out there with billions of true, verifiable, hard-learned and hard-earned facts in their heads, and at least some of them are delighted to share if you ask them — especially if it's easy for them to do, and doesn't require a huge commitment.

So how do you convince a lot of people to volunteer to write an encyclopedia?

Well, first you make it a non-profit project, so they're not being asked to donate their hard work to make someone else rich. Toss in a neutral point-of-view policy to keep controversial issues from tearing the thing apart, and a verifiability policy to keep out the cranks and pranksters. Then you commit to making it available in every language on Earth, so that even the poorest communities on the planet will eventually be able to read about water purification, and agricultural techniques, and the moons of Jupiter, not to mention every minor character on The Simpsons and Coronation Street.

On top of that, you find a license that allows anyone to use the content — human knowledge that can be freely distributed by anyone, instead of being locked up behind licensing fees and copyright laws. That makes it free for teachers, for students, for textbook publishers, for humanitarian organizations, for anyone. That includes the profiteers, and there will be many.

However, the fantastic thing is that the only way for a profit-making enterprise to compete with a free resource is to do something to add value to the content. They must organize it, proofread it, fact-check it, filter it, print it, distribute it on DVD, or otherwise convince people to spend money on something they could get for free just by coming to Wikipedia in the first place. By the terms of the GFDL, any improvements they make to the content must also be GFDL-licensed and can be incorporated back into the main encyclopedia, and any improvements they make to the presentation or distribution are simply helping to fulfill our mission of making the knowledge we collect here available to every person on earth.

You start talking about the long term — about what will happen if this works. Because it's free, Wikipedia is going to be the default resource for a whole lot of people. You start to get a little bit awed by the responsibility to build it properly, and keep it open, and keep it sane, and most of all, to get the facts right, because this work is going to be a base on which many unforeseeable future projects will be built. New technologies which allow others to mine Wikipedia's information are just now beginning to be developed. As we continue to develop our database structure and APIs to make this information easily available and machine-readable, Wikipedia data is going to be incorporated into a huge number of other online and offline applications.

The project will never be finished, as there's always an incoming avalanche of unreferenced, unformatted, badly written articles, but the core group of articles which have been refined and polished in the tumbler of our policies and guidelines is also always growing, and by definition, the articles which get the most attention are those at which the most people are looking.

We started out with a few articles, a few volunteers, and no reputation at all. Now we've grown fantastically — millions of volunteer editors, millions of articles in hundreds of languages, and we're one of the top ten sites on the web. Because our content grew out in public, the reputation grew along with it, almost without even trying; Google's funny that way.

Growing pains? Scaling issues? More at stake when we get it wrong? You betcha. Conflict between our foundation values and the needs of preserving what we've built? Absolutely. Worth helping it along? I sure think so.

I think that what we're doing here is going to be the ground level of something huge in the next century. I might be wrong — maybe the vandals and the point-of-view warriors will eventually overwhelm the dedicated core of editors to the point where people no longer trust us. Maybe the dedicated core itself will become insular and stagnant. Maybe the site will fade off the top fifty list in a sad, limping finale, but you know what?

Even if this project does fail in its present form, we will still have done something mighty, because anyone who wants to has access to the nine million articles we've already finished, in more than 250 languages. Anyone who wants to can copy our database and follow our license, discard anything they thought wasn't good enough, and put it in print or on the web in any format they want, editable or not, and still have one of the most enormous collections of general encyclopedic knowledge ever put together by human beings.

In the end though, I don't believe we're going to fail. I believe that if we receive the donations we need to support the infrastructure that sustains it, Wikipedia is going to continue growing and evolving and improving in quality in ways we can't even imagine. The Wikipedia of ten years from now may look totally different from what we have today, but I don't think this resource is ever going away.

I am an idealist, I admit it. Wikipedia will never be perfect -- and I don't expect it to be -- but I think that it will always be useful. And I am convinced that it is worth donating to help it achieve its mission: free access to the sum of all human knowledge.