Blog Post

Wikipedia is Learning: Talking with Jimmy Wales

My conversational tour with Information Age visionaries continues today at Wikimedia Foundation and its co-founder and promoter, Jimmy Wales.  I met Jimmy once before, when a MacArthur conference and his plane both ended up putting us at the same hotel in Newark, New Jersey, and Jimmy, danah boyd, and I ended up having a drink, and then riding the airport bus together.  That was a few years ago, some colleges were going on record as "banning Wikipedia" in their classrooms, and I wrote what turned out to be an influential, tide-turning editorial saying that, to me, Wikipedia was the definition of the new forms of participatory learning enabled by new global digital technologies.  HASTAC was one of the first organizations of any size to come out and strongly endorse the teaching of Wikipedia in the classroom and to actively promote participation by teachers in the creation of Wikipedia entries. 

If you think there's a problem of credibility, we argued, then have your students learn what credibility is by doing sound research and applying to the Wikipedia entries they think don't measure up.  That's a public good--and the best way to teach exacting research standards


Readers of this blog won't find that logic surprising--but it made me a target for some unpleasant and derisive comments from colleagues who were convinced that non-professionals could not begin to create the world's largest, multi-lingual encyclopedia, open free to anyone and everyone as a reader and (almost) anyone as a contributor.  So it was delighful to meet Jimmy in the midst of this and have a conversation about why higher education in general and all formal education is such a tough nut to crack.


In one of several blogs I've posted on Wikipedia, I told the story of "calculus."  In looking at the Wikipedia entry, I found a world of non-Western mathematical history--in Egypt, in India, in China, and virtually everywhere in the early modern Arab world, mathematics was developing with greater sophistication than in the West, which freely borrowed many of its concepts, and which history has forgotten.  I worked with a reference librarian to authenticate some of the points in this entry and it took her a while because no sources in English documented this history.   Eventually, through her professional contacts around the world, she was able to discern that all of the references in that piece were valid, but she was struck by the necessity of finding reference librarians in those countries who had their own refereed and reputable sources to verify this history since Western histories simply did not acknowledge them.  


This is significant because, of course, teaching credibility is increasingly important in our world of non-refereed news sources.  But teaching the credibility of the refereed or "peer reviewed" sources is also important.  Consensus among those credentialed to present the "truth" is not necessarily the best way to yield a larger truth, especially when there are limitations of the knowledge itself engendered by decades or centuries of discounting the contrary kinds of knowledge or the contributions of others.  Credibility must run in all directions at once, including at the sometimes specious and insular circularity of expertise.


That is what excites me most about Wikipedia, is that it makes us ask profound questions about the nature of expertise, and to think about the provincialism of peer review in certain situations.  It forces us (and our students) to look outward beyond conventional sources and to think about what creates a conventional source in the first place--including the systems of educational credentialing which can also reinforce the accepted rather than push the boundaries of the possible.


Jimmy Wales, so it says in his own entry on Wikipedia, didn't think Wikipedia would amount to much.  His own family invested a lot in his education and a private prep school, they believed in traditional education, and so does he.  Or did.  He thought Wikipedia would be trivial, inaccurate, and limited.  That humans would freely, without remuneration and without being forced to do so, contribute to knowledge simply to contribute to knowledge, and would do so on an epic scale that no one has ever seen before in human history, was beyond his imagining--or anyone else's.   No science fiction writer, to my knowledge, predicted Wikipedia.  Five years ago even, no one would have predicted what it has become.  For an educator, who believes learning never stops, who has dedicated her life to learning to and from and with her students and colleagues, Wikipedia is the most uplifting and inspiring cultural product of the Information Age. 


It will be a pleasure to meet Jimmy Wales again a few years later and to talk about what has happened in the past years.  One of Wikipedia's best qualities is that it constantly adapts itself to what "itself" is at a given point.   Adding layers of refereeing or additional safeguards (such as delays on the entries that announce the death of a celebrity until there is confirmation) makes it stronger even as it becomes stronger all the time.  That's what learning is.  Collaborative, ever changing, adapting itself to what it has learned so it can learn more.  Learning is Wikipedia. 



Wikipedia entry on Jimmy Wales (an excerpt):


Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales (born August 7, 1966[2]) is an American Internet entrepreneur and co-founder and promoter of Wikipedia.[3][4][5]

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Wales attended a small private school, then a university preparatory school, eventually attaining a bachelor's degree and master's degree in finance. During his graduate studies he taught at two universities.[1][6] Wales took a job in finance, and worked as the research director of a Chicago futures and options firm before retiring from the industry in 2000.[citation needed] In 1996, along with two partners, he founded Bomis, a web portal targeted at males, which hosted and provided the initial funding for the Nupedia peer-reviewed encyclopedia (2000  2003), and for its successor, Wikipedia.[citation needed]

In 2001, together with Larry Sanger and others, Wales helped launch Wikipedia, a free, open-content encyclopedia which subsequently enjoyed rapid growth and popularity.[7][8] As Wikipedia's public profile grew, Wales became the project's promoter and spokesman.[9] Wales has been historically cited as the co-founder of Wikipedia, though he has disputed the "co-" designation,[10] asserting that he was the sole founder of the encyclopedia.[11] He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit charitable organization which operates Wikipedia, holding the board-appointed "community founder" seat.[12] In 2004, he co-founded Wikia, a privately-owned, free Web-hosting service, with fellow Wikimedia trustee Angela Beesley.[13]

Wales has been married twice and has a daughter with his second wife, Christine, from whom he is separated. He self-identifies as an Objectivist and, with reservations, a libertarian.[1] His role in creating Wikipedia, which has become the world's largest encyclopedia, prompted Time magazine to name him in its 2006 list of the world's most influential people.[14] Wales is the de facto leader of Wikipedia;[4][15] his exact position on the project is a matter of public and press debate.[16]


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