There are few more pleasant surprises than finding out that the woman some have labeled ‘most powerful woman in the world’ and the ‘librarian’ to it is being interviewed by your favourite interviewer.
The woman in question is Wikimedia’s Executive Director, Sue Gardner. Her interviewer was none other than Richard Fidler. Gardner was in town for a conference and we (and by ‘we’, I mean the State Library of Queensland and the ABC) were fortunate enough to snarfoo her for a side talk.
Fidler opened by saying that he’d grown up with the weighty, doorstop tomes of Encyclopaedia Britannica; how large, by comparison, is Wikipedia? Somewhere in the vicinity of 24 million article and still growing, was Gardner’s answer. Wikipedia also has a hefty (but, as we discovered by the end of the conversation, entirely achievable) ambition to bring the ‘sum total of all human knowledge’ to everyone, everywhere, in their own language.
There was much to muse over during and after the conversation, and I’ll not bore you by repeating everything here (besides, you can hear it firsthand via the podcast). Some points that stick out, though, are that Wikipedia has morphed from a site not accepted as a viable resource and one that few editors would admit contributing to, to one that we use multiple times daily and which people are including their contribution details of on their college applications and resumes.
Wikipedia is in some ways an accidental success. Jimmy Wales set it up to complement and feed into his real baby, Newmedia, an encyclopaedia populated through contributions from experts. That’s in stark contrast to Wikipedia’s egalitarian, anyone-can-edit ethos, and it ultimately didn’t pan out. Wales reportedly says that he ‘always knew’ Wikipedia would work, although Gardner earned chuckles from the audience by saying she thinks it’s possibly ‘revisionist history’ (albeit an entirely entitled one).
When you think about it, Wikipedia’s success and unlikely, common-people beginning actually kind of fits with knowledge publications’ habits and history. For example, The Surgeon of Crowthorne documents how of the most prolific and respected contributors to the inaugural Oxford English Dictionary was actually a man in Broadmoor, the worst of the worst lunatic asylums, for murder (not that I’m implying Wikipedia’s editors are of unsound mind or morals—more that editing competency and access are what counts, not where you currently reside).
Gardner was careful to stipulate that she’s not Wikipedia’s publisher. A publisher, she clarified, is ‘editorially responsible’ (and, one can extrapolate, sue-able for it). The machinations of Wikipedia are fascinating, including the challenges Gardner and her team face to consolidate and strengthen its work.
Most of the editors are educated males, which makes sense as they’re the most likely to have the time and resources to contribute, but which also lends itself to a skew in articles towards a male, western audience. How to get more women involved, as well as more people from developing nations, are challenges that Gardner is trying to tackle now.
Fidler then asked the question that had been puzzling me for the majority of their interview: If you’re not writing or editing the content, and if you’re not corralling the editors, what exactly do you do? It was, Gardner admits, a huge initial ‘trust fall’ to accept that she didn’t have editorial control—as a former editor and newsroom runner for CBS, she was used to running the show.
The internally devised rules and the democratic editing community overseeing them mean that Gardner can instead dedicate her time to developing new functionality (for example, Wikipedia’s about to release a WYSIWYG CMS, which I didn’t realise they didn’t already have) and working with lawyers.
It seems there are a bunch of people out there who aren’t keen on what’s been written about them and who aren’t afraid to loose some lawyers to try to get entries taken down. That’s not even starting on the contentious entries, including those of Barack ‘was he or wasn’t he born in the US’ Obama and Todd ‘legitimate rape’ Akin, which come with their own, specific and special challenges.
Gardner first came to know Wikipedia because her staff was complaining: ‘The interns are using Wikipedia. How do we stop them?’ She first truly came to respect its level of operation and its efforts to source and authenticate information when it was reporting the Virginia Tech Massacre. Wikipedia’s editors, she realised, were having the same conversations as bona fide journalists in newsrooms around the world: How many are dead? Has that been confirmed? Who’s confirmed it? And so on.
She also said something that stopped me in my note-taking tracks: We’ve had it all wrong for decades. Journalism isn’t a profession. It’s a function, a tool, a way of thinking, something reasonably smart people do as they try to investigate something.
It was Fidler who, despite earlier expressing well-founded incredulity at Wikipedia’s aim to bring information to anyone and everyone everywhere, ultimately led us to realise its reasonable, achievable, and important ambitions. He told a story of meeting a Chinese exchange student at a dinner party. When he and his co-diners raised the topic of Tiananmen Square and its cultural, world-changing ripple effects, the student thought they were joking. Having grown up in mainland China, she hadn’t known about the event at all. It’s sites such as Wikipedia, we shocked, goosebumped audience members realised, that will likely prove integral in disseminating information in future decades.
You can download and listen to Gardner and Fidler’s interview in full here.