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Episode
192

A History of Wikipedia

Sep 10, 2021
How Stuff Works
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27
minutes
The Internet
The Enlightenment
Entrepreneurship
Weird history
Philosophy
Ethics

It is one of the most popular websites in the world and has the goal of being a comprehensive collection of all of the knowledge in the world.

In this episode, we'll learn about the history of this amazing website, why it succeeded where others failed, how it actually works, and its importance as a source of truth.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Wikipedia.

[00:00:27] It’s a website I imagine you know already, and one that you probably turn to as a source of information, whether that’s finding out someone’s date of birth, settling a bet with a friend on what the population of the United Kingdom really is, or whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit.

[00:00:48] Indeed, every month pages on Wikipedia are viewed 18 billion times, that’s more than two times for every human being on the planet.

[00:01:00] Despite it being one of the most popular websites ever created, many people don’t know all that much about it.

[00:01:08] So, in today’s episode we are going to tell the story of Wikipedia, how the idea came about, its early days and when it really started to take off, how it actually works, some of the criticisms of the website, and what the future might hold for a website with the ambition of containing the sum of human knowledge.

[00:01:33] Before we get right into today’s episode though, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:49] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s almost 200 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our awesome private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:02:09] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious people like you to improve their English.

[00:02:21] So, if that is of interest - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:32] OK then, Wikipedia.

[00:02:35] Let’s start with a few statistics, just so we truly understand the scale of Wikipedia.

[00:02:43] It’s almost always in the top 10 most visited websites in the world, with around 18 billion page views per month.

[00:02:53] It exists in 323 different languages. 

[00:02:57] English is the largest one, with over 6 million different articles available on the English Wikipedia.

[00:03:06] And, as you probably know, it is constantly evolving, it is constantly being edited, updated, with new information added, new pages added, and new knowledge being added to the website.

[00:03:21] The speed of this is astounding, it’s amazing.

[00:03:25] There are an average of 1.7 edits per second on the English language Wikipedia, and 600 new articles added every day.

[00:03:37] Nobody is paid to do this, as you may know.

[00:03:40] It is completely manned by volunteers, people sort of like me and you all across the world who are passionate about the goal of Wikipedia, which is to be “a comprehensive collection of all of the knowledge in the world”.

[00:03:56] Now, this is quite some achievement, it is a pretty amazing resource, available to anyone, anywhere, completely free, with no adverts, no selling of data, no ulterior motive.

[00:04:10] How has this been achieved?

[00:04:13] Wikipedia technically celebrated its 20th year of life earlier in 2021, but to understand where it came from we have to go back a lot further than 2001.

[00:04:28] The idea of collating all human knowledge and making it available to all is, of course, not something that arrived with Wikipedia.

[00:04:39] Since writing has existed, humans have wanted to document knowledge, to write down what people know so that it is not lost, and it can be referenced by other people.

[00:04:52] Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, was in the middle of writing a book like this, an early encyclopedia, when he was killed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

[00:05:05] And since Pliny the Elder, scholars and thinkers have worked on documenting knowledge, writing down what is known by mankind, so that others can benefit from it.

[00:05:18] The person probably most famous for this idea, though, the idea of an Encyclopedia, was a Frenchman named Denis Diderot, who published his famous Encyclopédie, his Encyclopedia, between 1751 and 1772.

[00:05:36] At the time of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, literacy rates were around 50% for men and 27% for women, in France that is. 

[00:05:47] The cost of printing had reduced sufficiently so that books were more widely available than ever before, and so that it was easier than ever to consult a book to find information about almost anything. 

[00:06:03] Of course, you still had to physically have access to the book, and finding the information required would have been a much more time consuming process than the one we are used to now, but it was still an important event in the history of encyclopedias.

[00:06:23] Fast forward a few hundred years, to the mid 1990s, and it was suddenly possible to access this kind of information from a computer, digitally, with programmes such as Microsoft Encarta and Encyclopedia Britannica. 

[00:06:40] I can vividly remember receiving a CD-ROM of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was probably in 1998 or something, and I can remember thinking that it was absolutely amazing that I could just put the CD into the computer, search for anything and this CD would contain the information.

[00:07:02] At the same time as this curious 11-year-old was trying to find information on his Encyclopedia Britannica, across the Atlantic Ocean a group of Americans had been working on something very different that would, ultimately, turn into what we now know as Wikipedia.

[00:07:22] Jimmy Wales was 29 years old in 1996, and had left his job working in finance to start an internet company. This was just as the dot-com-boom was starting, and Wales had seen the potential of the internet not just to make money, but to connect people, and to share information.

[00:07:46] The company he first started was not Wikipedia though.

[00:07:52] It was called Bomis, Bomis.com, which was a male-focussed search engine, and turned into, essentially, a way for people to find erotic images, nude pictures of women.

[00:08:08] Helping men find pictures of naked women wasn’t Wales’ passion, although there was plenty of demand for it. 

[00:08:15] Wales had long been interested in the idea of an encyclopedia, of creating a way for people to share knowledge about everything in the world, not just porn.

[00:08:28] So, in 1999, Wales launched a company called Nupedia, which was financed, it was paid for, by Bomis, the adult content discovery website.

[00:08:41] Nupedia was an encyclopedia, essentially, but with a few important differences. 

[00:08:48] The idea was that subject matter experts, whether they were academics, researchers, or just individuals who knew a lot about a particular subject, could submit an article about anything.

[00:09:03] There was then a seven-step process to review the article, to make sure that it was correct, and adhered to the guidelines.

[00:09:13] Then, if it passed this process, it would be published,it would be put on the website. 

[00:09:20] The main way in which it was different to previous encyclopedias is that it was crowd-sourced, the information was submitted by experts, rather than created by a relatively small selection of writers. 

[00:09:36] But, there was still this seven-step review process, which attempted to guarantee high quality.

[00:09:44] It is of course easy to say with retrospect, but this process meant that actually getting anything published took a long time. 

[00:09:53] And indeed, after 18 months Nupedia had only just over 20 articles in total, an average of one published a month.

[00:10:04] If you are trying to collate all the information in the world, well, it’s going to take a long time if that’s how fast you are going.

[00:10:14] Wales had hired a man called Larry Sanger to be the editor-in-chief of Nupedia, and soon Sanger grew frustrated with how long things were taking. 

[00:10:26] A few months after Nupedia had started, Wales and Sanger had launched another encyclopedia project to run at the same time as Nupedia, to test out an alternative approach that could grow faster.

[00:10:42] The name of this side-project? 

[00:10:44] Wikipedia.

[00:10:46] Now, why did Wikipedia succeed when Nupedia failed?

[00:10:51] One clue is actually in the name - “wiki”.

[00:10:56] A “wiki” is a kind of publication that can be edited by its own audience directly in the web browser

[00:11:05] Anyone can create articles, and they can make edits.

[00:11:09] In short, anyone can write for Wikipedia.

[00:11:13] There are some exceptions, and some articles require approval by administrators for changes to be accepted, but this is the basic concept of Wikipedia.

[00:11:26] Instead of the Nupedia model where for any piece of information to be published it needed to go through a very detailed review process, with a Wiki, and at least in the early days of Wikipedia, there was no review process - anyone could write it.

[00:11:45] This has its own share of problems, which we’ll come on to discuss a bit later, but the “open source” nature of Wikipedia meant that it grew significantly faster than its big brother, Nupedia.

[00:12:00] Wikipedia was founded on January 15th 2001, and within three months there were 3,900 articles. 

[00:12:11] The more articles it had, the more Wikipedia pages appeared as results on search engines, so the more people knew about it, and more people started to contribute to it, so more articles were published, and it started to appear in even more search results - it really was a snowball effect.

[00:12:30] The more it grew, the faster it grew.

[00:12:34] At the same time, growth at Nupedia was stagnating, it really wasn’t going anywhere, and both Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger’s attentions were devoted mainly to this new, open source, people’s Encyclopedia.

[00:12:51] As it started to be more and more popular, inevitably the criticisms started.

[00:12:58] If anyone can edit it, how can we trust it?

[00:13:01] If it hasn’t been reviewed by any subject matter experts, how can we trust it?

[00:13:06] If all contributions are anonymous, and you don’t have to use your real name, isn’t this just opening it up for spam, abuse and misinformation?

[00:13:18] These were all very valid questions, and indeed early Wikipedia was plagued with trolls and bad actors. 

[00:13:28] Because anyone could edit it, it was relatively easy for anyone to change an article to promote their world view, be rude about something they didn’t agree with, or just abuse the system.

[00:13:42] There were controls in place to try to stop this, but it was hard to keep up with all of them. 

[00:13:49] In an interview with Larry Sanger, he reported how many of the early contributors, people with honourable intentions, left the project because it was so dispiriting, so annoying and tedious, to be constantly removing the spam and abuse, instead of actually contributing real knowledge to it.

[00:14:12] Wikipedia at this point was still 100% funded by Bomis, which was itself, like almost every Internet company just before the dot-com crash, not doing very well at this time.

[00:14:25] Although Wikipedia could have easily started to make a lot of money if it had allowed adverts on the website, for example, Wales was completely against this, as he thought it went against the ethos of Wikipedia.

[00:14:41] Instead, he wanted the website to be paid for by donations from its users.

[00:14:47] His view was that if Wikipedia was good enough, and it helped enough people, then they would be willing to support it through donations.

[00:14:59] He proved to be right.

[00:15:01] One of its first fundraisers, its first attempt at raising money from its readers in late 2004, raised $44,000. Not much, but a sign that some people did value it enough to support it financially.

[00:15:19] Now, it raises around $130 million dollars a year from its readers, the majority of which comes in small donations.

[00:15:29] This might sound like a lot of money, but when you think that Alphabet, the parent company of Google, makes this amount of money in about five hours, it really puts it into perspective.

[00:15:43] Almost since the day it was founded, Wikipedia has continued to grow and grow in practically every language and country in the world.

[00:15:52] While English is still the dominant language, articles in English now only make up 11.5% of Wikipedia. 

[00:16:01] You might be surprised to learn about the second and third most popular languages on Wikipedia, at least in terms of number of articles.

[00:16:12] The second is a Filipino language called Cebuano, and the third is Swedish.

[00:16:19] Weird, you are probably thinking. I was certainly surprised when I found this out.

[00:16:25] Cebuano is the second most widely spoken language in the Philippines, but only has 20 million speakers.

[00:16:32] And Swedish, well there are only around 11 million people who can speak Swedish.

[00:16:38] And Sweden and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, have very high levels of English, so why are the Cebuano and Swedish Wikipedias so large?

[00:16:49] There’s actually an automated computer program, a bot, created by a Swedish programmer called Sverker Johansson that is responsible for all of these articles.

[00:17:01] Johansson’s bot, his computer program, creates articles in an automated way, using information stored in databases.

[00:17:11] It is, reportedly, pretty well written, but it isn’t always 100% accurate, and sometimes sounds a little strange.

[00:17:20] Imagine you were translating an entire document in English to your language via Google Translate - you can get the meaning, but it probably sounds a little weird, not quite completely normal.

[00:17:34] Johansson’s bot is a bit of a controversial point within Wikipedia, and actually leads us nicely on to the last section, where we will contemplate some of the questions that Wikipedia gets us thinking about, and look at some of the criticisms of the website. 

[00:17:53] If anyone can add articles, even a bot which adds information that isn’t always perfectly written, how can you ensure firstly the quality of what is published, secondly whether the information is actually accurate or not, and thirdly what actually deserves its own article on Wikipedia?

[00:18:15] To the first question, of the quality of the articles, the fact that there are thousands of editors means that badly written articles are normally quickly corrected, especially if the article has lots of readers. 

[00:18:29] Of course, the more speakers of a language that exist on Wikipedia, and the more popular an article is, the quicker this correction happens, so for major languages such as English and for more popular subjects, it isn’t such a huge issue.

[00:18:46] But the question of accuracy of information is a big, incredibly complicated issue.

[00:18:53] Ultimately, it is a question of who decides what “truth” is?

[00:18:58] There are some categories of articles where “truth” is perhaps easier to define. 

[00:19:05] An article about the chemical properties of oxygen, for example. With Johansson’s computer bot, it publishes lots of articles about living organisms, where facts are facts.

[00:19:19] But when it comes to almost anything else, especially people, who decides what goes on the Wikipedia page? And how can an article remain completely neutral

[00:19:33] Larry Sanger, the original editor-in-chief of Wikipedia, and the man who also designed the 7-step-process for Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, has become an outspoken critic of Wikipedia, or at least what Wikipedia has become.

[00:19:52] His relationship with Wikipedia ended in 2002 after it ran out of money and couldn’t pay him, and he now frequently gives interviews where he gives examples of some of the problems with Wikipedia, and with the entire philosophy of the platform.

[00:20:11] A recent example he gave in an interview with the British publication Unherd was of the differences between the Wikipedia entries for Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

[00:20:22] Now, of course they are two very different people, and they should have different entries, with different sections on different parts of their life, but in the Wikipedia article on Donald Trump there is a very large section on his controversies and on what Trump’s opponents have accused him of doing, whereas in the article for Joe Biden there is very little about what Biden’s opponents have accused him of doing.

[00:20:52] Sanger’s point is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a Trump or a Biden supporter, or neither. 

[00:20:58] The point is that what information is or isn’t included in someone’s Wikipedia page is incredibly important, especially as hundreds of millions of people, 490 million people a month in fact, turn to it as a source of information.

[00:21:16] If Wikipedia is a source of truth for hundreds of millions of people, then it needs to do a better job at neutrality, and being more equal in terms of what information is and isn’t included in an article.

[00:21:31] The third main criticism of Wikipedia is about the choices of what subjects are written about, and what are not.

[00:21:41] Given that the editors are not paid to contribute to Wikipedia, they typically write about what is interesting to them, and what they know about. 

[00:21:52] Thus, the content of Wikipedia is greatly influenced by the humans who have decided to contribute to it.

[00:22:02] And who exactly are these people, these editors of Wikipedia?

[00:22:07] Wikipedia doesn’t provide detailed information on the demographics of its editors, but studies have shown that up to 90% of the active editors are male, they are men, and it is widely believed that they are mainly young, computer-literate white Europeans and Americans. 

[00:22:28] Indeed, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, stated that it has "completely failed" to meet its goals of resolving the lack of diversity amongst Wikipedia editors.

[00:22:42] This has two main effects in terms of what you or I would see on the website.

[00:22:47] Firstly, the choice of what information to include, what points of discussion to highlight, and what sources to reference is reflective of the authors of an article. 

[00:22:59] Wikipedia is officially neutral and articles should not provide a point of view, but, as you’ve seen, in many cases this is very hard to do in practice.

[00:23:12] And secondly, the choice of what to actually write about reflects the authors. 

[00:23:19] In 2015 there was a study that showed that there were more contributors to the Wikipedia list of Pornographic Actresses than the List of Female Poets.

[00:23:31] So, this highlights some of the not insignificant problems that the site is battling.

[00:23:38] Now, it is easy to criticise Wikipedia. It is certainly imperfect. 

[00:23:44] I imagine that you might have read an article on Wikipedia and found something that was incorrect, or you thought that something was missing.

[00:23:53] Of course, the best thing you can do in that situation is correct it, if you like. 

[00:23:59] In case this was news for you, anyone can be a contributor to Wikipedia, and thousands of people edit it every month. I am not a frequent contributor to Wikipedia, but I have done it before.

[00:24:12] It does feel a bit strange doing it, but it is a pretty amazing feeling, knowing that you are contributing, even in a tiny, tiny way, to the largest collection of written knowledge in world history.

[00:24:26] And although Wikipedia is 20 years old, and has already firmly established itself as one of the world’s 10 most visited websites, and importantly the only one that is a not-for-profit, it believes that its work is far from complete.

[00:24:44] There are currently 6 million articles in English, and by one Wikipedia contributor’s estimate in order to record all of the world’s information, including every village, every elected official, every famous painting, there would need to be 100 million articles.

[00:25:04] If that is indeed the case, Wikipedia is only just getting started.

[00:25:12] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the history of Wikipedia.

[00:25:18] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that next time you find yourself on Wikipedia, which I guess might be quite soon, then you’ll know a little bit more about the history of this amazing project.

[00:25:32] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:36] What do you think some of the problems are with Wikipedia? 

[00:25:40] Who should decide what deserves to go into an article, and what doesn’t?

[00:25:45] What questions does it raise about what things like “neutral information” or “truth” really are?

[00:25:52] I would love to know.

[00:25:53] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:04] And as a final reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:26:20] I am on a mission to make Leonardo English the most interesting way of improving your English, and I would love for you to join me, and curious minds from 50 different countries, on that journey.

[00:26:33] The place you can go to for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:26:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Wikipedia.

[00:00:27] It’s a website I imagine you know already, and one that you probably turn to as a source of information, whether that’s finding out someone’s date of birth, settling a bet with a friend on what the population of the United Kingdom really is, or whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit.

[00:00:48] Indeed, every month pages on Wikipedia are viewed 18 billion times, that’s more than two times for every human being on the planet.

[00:01:00] Despite it being one of the most popular websites ever created, many people don’t know all that much about it.

[00:01:08] So, in today’s episode we are going to tell the story of Wikipedia, how the idea came about, its early days and when it really started to take off, how it actually works, some of the criticisms of the website, and what the future might hold for a website with the ambition of containing the sum of human knowledge.

[00:01:33] Before we get right into today’s episode though, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:49] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s almost 200 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our awesome private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:02:09] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious people like you to improve their English.

[00:02:21] So, if that is of interest - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:32] OK then, Wikipedia.

[00:02:35] Let’s start with a few statistics, just so we truly understand the scale of Wikipedia.

[00:02:43] It’s almost always in the top 10 most visited websites in the world, with around 18 billion page views per month.

[00:02:53] It exists in 323 different languages. 

[00:02:57] English is the largest one, with over 6 million different articles available on the English Wikipedia.

[00:03:06] And, as you probably know, it is constantly evolving, it is constantly being edited, updated, with new information added, new pages added, and new knowledge being added to the website.

[00:03:21] The speed of this is astounding, it’s amazing.

[00:03:25] There are an average of 1.7 edits per second on the English language Wikipedia, and 600 new articles added every day.

[00:03:37] Nobody is paid to do this, as you may know.

[00:03:40] It is completely manned by volunteers, people sort of like me and you all across the world who are passionate about the goal of Wikipedia, which is to be “a comprehensive collection of all of the knowledge in the world”.

[00:03:56] Now, this is quite some achievement, it is a pretty amazing resource, available to anyone, anywhere, completely free, with no adverts, no selling of data, no ulterior motive.

[00:04:10] How has this been achieved?

[00:04:13] Wikipedia technically celebrated its 20th year of life earlier in 2021, but to understand where it came from we have to go back a lot further than 2001.

[00:04:28] The idea of collating all human knowledge and making it available to all is, of course, not something that arrived with Wikipedia.

[00:04:39] Since writing has existed, humans have wanted to document knowledge, to write down what people know so that it is not lost, and it can be referenced by other people.

[00:04:52] Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, was in the middle of writing a book like this, an early encyclopedia, when he was killed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

[00:05:05] And since Pliny the Elder, scholars and thinkers have worked on documenting knowledge, writing down what is known by mankind, so that others can benefit from it.

[00:05:18] The person probably most famous for this idea, though, the idea of an Encyclopedia, was a Frenchman named Denis Diderot, who published his famous Encyclopédie, his Encyclopedia, between 1751 and 1772.

[00:05:36] At the time of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, literacy rates were around 50% for men and 27% for women, in France that is. 

[00:05:47] The cost of printing had reduced sufficiently so that books were more widely available than ever before, and so that it was easier than ever to consult a book to find information about almost anything. 

[00:06:03] Of course, you still had to physically have access to the book, and finding the information required would have been a much more time consuming process than the one we are used to now, but it was still an important event in the history of encyclopedias.

[00:06:23] Fast forward a few hundred years, to the mid 1990s, and it was suddenly possible to access this kind of information from a computer, digitally, with programmes such as Microsoft Encarta and Encyclopedia Britannica. 

[00:06:40] I can vividly remember receiving a CD-ROM of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was probably in 1998 or something, and I can remember thinking that it was absolutely amazing that I could just put the CD into the computer, search for anything and this CD would contain the information.

[00:07:02] At the same time as this curious 11-year-old was trying to find information on his Encyclopedia Britannica, across the Atlantic Ocean a group of Americans had been working on something very different that would, ultimately, turn into what we now know as Wikipedia.

[00:07:22] Jimmy Wales was 29 years old in 1996, and had left his job working in finance to start an internet company. This was just as the dot-com-boom was starting, and Wales had seen the potential of the internet not just to make money, but to connect people, and to share information.

[00:07:46] The company he first started was not Wikipedia though.

[00:07:52] It was called Bomis, Bomis.com, which was a male-focussed search engine, and turned into, essentially, a way for people to find erotic images, nude pictures of women.

[00:08:08] Helping men find pictures of naked women wasn’t Wales’ passion, although there was plenty of demand for it. 

[00:08:15] Wales had long been interested in the idea of an encyclopedia, of creating a way for people to share knowledge about everything in the world, not just porn.

[00:08:28] So, in 1999, Wales launched a company called Nupedia, which was financed, it was paid for, by Bomis, the adult content discovery website.

[00:08:41] Nupedia was an encyclopedia, essentially, but with a few important differences. 

[00:08:48] The idea was that subject matter experts, whether they were academics, researchers, or just individuals who knew a lot about a particular subject, could submit an article about anything.

[00:09:03] There was then a seven-step process to review the article, to make sure that it was correct, and adhered to the guidelines.

[00:09:13] Then, if it passed this process, it would be published,it would be put on the website. 

[00:09:20] The main way in which it was different to previous encyclopedias is that it was crowd-sourced, the information was submitted by experts, rather than created by a relatively small selection of writers. 

[00:09:36] But, there was still this seven-step review process, which attempted to guarantee high quality.

[00:09:44] It is of course easy to say with retrospect, but this process meant that actually getting anything published took a long time. 

[00:09:53] And indeed, after 18 months Nupedia had only just over 20 articles in total, an average of one published a month.

[00:10:04] If you are trying to collate all the information in the world, well, it’s going to take a long time if that’s how fast you are going.

[00:10:14] Wales had hired a man called Larry Sanger to be the editor-in-chief of Nupedia, and soon Sanger grew frustrated with how long things were taking. 

[00:10:26] A few months after Nupedia had started, Wales and Sanger had launched another encyclopedia project to run at the same time as Nupedia, to test out an alternative approach that could grow faster.

[00:10:42] The name of this side-project? 

[00:10:44] Wikipedia.

[00:10:46] Now, why did Wikipedia succeed when Nupedia failed?

[00:10:51] One clue is actually in the name - “wiki”.

[00:10:56] A “wiki” is a kind of publication that can be edited by its own audience directly in the web browser

[00:11:05] Anyone can create articles, and they can make edits.

[00:11:09] In short, anyone can write for Wikipedia.

[00:11:13] There are some exceptions, and some articles require approval by administrators for changes to be accepted, but this is the basic concept of Wikipedia.

[00:11:26] Instead of the Nupedia model where for any piece of information to be published it needed to go through a very detailed review process, with a Wiki, and at least in the early days of Wikipedia, there was no review process - anyone could write it.

[00:11:45] This has its own share of problems, which we’ll come on to discuss a bit later, but the “open source” nature of Wikipedia meant that it grew significantly faster than its big brother, Nupedia.

[00:12:00] Wikipedia was founded on January 15th 2001, and within three months there were 3,900 articles. 

[00:12:11] The more articles it had, the more Wikipedia pages appeared as results on search engines, so the more people knew about it, and more people started to contribute to it, so more articles were published, and it started to appear in even more search results - it really was a snowball effect.

[00:12:30] The more it grew, the faster it grew.

[00:12:34] At the same time, growth at Nupedia was stagnating, it really wasn’t going anywhere, and both Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger’s attentions were devoted mainly to this new, open source, people’s Encyclopedia.

[00:12:51] As it started to be more and more popular, inevitably the criticisms started.

[00:12:58] If anyone can edit it, how can we trust it?

[00:13:01] If it hasn’t been reviewed by any subject matter experts, how can we trust it?

[00:13:06] If all contributions are anonymous, and you don’t have to use your real name, isn’t this just opening it up for spam, abuse and misinformation?

[00:13:18] These were all very valid questions, and indeed early Wikipedia was plagued with trolls and bad actors. 

[00:13:28] Because anyone could edit it, it was relatively easy for anyone to change an article to promote their world view, be rude about something they didn’t agree with, or just abuse the system.

[00:13:42] There were controls in place to try to stop this, but it was hard to keep up with all of them. 

[00:13:49] In an interview with Larry Sanger, he reported how many of the early contributors, people with honourable intentions, left the project because it was so dispiriting, so annoying and tedious, to be constantly removing the spam and abuse, instead of actually contributing real knowledge to it.

[00:14:12] Wikipedia at this point was still 100% funded by Bomis, which was itself, like almost every Internet company just before the dot-com crash, not doing very well at this time.

[00:14:25] Although Wikipedia could have easily started to make a lot of money if it had allowed adverts on the website, for example, Wales was completely against this, as he thought it went against the ethos of Wikipedia.

[00:14:41] Instead, he wanted the website to be paid for by donations from its users.

[00:14:47] His view was that if Wikipedia was good enough, and it helped enough people, then they would be willing to support it through donations.

[00:14:59] He proved to be right.

[00:15:01] One of its first fundraisers, its first attempt at raising money from its readers in late 2004, raised $44,000. Not much, but a sign that some people did value it enough to support it financially.

[00:15:19] Now, it raises around $130 million dollars a year from its readers, the majority of which comes in small donations.

[00:15:29] This might sound like a lot of money, but when you think that Alphabet, the parent company of Google, makes this amount of money in about five hours, it really puts it into perspective.

[00:15:43] Almost since the day it was founded, Wikipedia has continued to grow and grow in practically every language and country in the world.

[00:15:52] While English is still the dominant language, articles in English now only make up 11.5% of Wikipedia. 

[00:16:01] You might be surprised to learn about the second and third most popular languages on Wikipedia, at least in terms of number of articles.

[00:16:12] The second is a Filipino language called Cebuano, and the third is Swedish.

[00:16:19] Weird, you are probably thinking. I was certainly surprised when I found this out.

[00:16:25] Cebuano is the second most widely spoken language in the Philippines, but only has 20 million speakers.

[00:16:32] And Swedish, well there are only around 11 million people who can speak Swedish.

[00:16:38] And Sweden and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, have very high levels of English, so why are the Cebuano and Swedish Wikipedias so large?

[00:16:49] There’s actually an automated computer program, a bot, created by a Swedish programmer called Sverker Johansson that is responsible for all of these articles.

[00:17:01] Johansson’s bot, his computer program, creates articles in an automated way, using information stored in databases.

[00:17:11] It is, reportedly, pretty well written, but it isn’t always 100% accurate, and sometimes sounds a little strange.

[00:17:20] Imagine you were translating an entire document in English to your language via Google Translate - you can get the meaning, but it probably sounds a little weird, not quite completely normal.

[00:17:34] Johansson’s bot is a bit of a controversial point within Wikipedia, and actually leads us nicely on to the last section, where we will contemplate some of the questions that Wikipedia gets us thinking about, and look at some of the criticisms of the website. 

[00:17:53] If anyone can add articles, even a bot which adds information that isn’t always perfectly written, how can you ensure firstly the quality of what is published, secondly whether the information is actually accurate or not, and thirdly what actually deserves its own article on Wikipedia?

[00:18:15] To the first question, of the quality of the articles, the fact that there are thousands of editors means that badly written articles are normally quickly corrected, especially if the article has lots of readers. 

[00:18:29] Of course, the more speakers of a language that exist on Wikipedia, and the more popular an article is, the quicker this correction happens, so for major languages such as English and for more popular subjects, it isn’t such a huge issue.

[00:18:46] But the question of accuracy of information is a big, incredibly complicated issue.

[00:18:53] Ultimately, it is a question of who decides what “truth” is?

[00:18:58] There are some categories of articles where “truth” is perhaps easier to define. 

[00:19:05] An article about the chemical properties of oxygen, for example. With Johansson’s computer bot, it publishes lots of articles about living organisms, where facts are facts.

[00:19:19] But when it comes to almost anything else, especially people, who decides what goes on the Wikipedia page? And how can an article remain completely neutral

[00:19:33] Larry Sanger, the original editor-in-chief of Wikipedia, and the man who also designed the 7-step-process for Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, has become an outspoken critic of Wikipedia, or at least what Wikipedia has become.

[00:19:52] His relationship with Wikipedia ended in 2002 after it ran out of money and couldn’t pay him, and he now frequently gives interviews where he gives examples of some of the problems with Wikipedia, and with the entire philosophy of the platform.

[00:20:11] A recent example he gave in an interview with the British publication Unherd was of the differences between the Wikipedia entries for Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

[00:20:22] Now, of course they are two very different people, and they should have different entries, with different sections on different parts of their life, but in the Wikipedia article on Donald Trump there is a very large section on his controversies and on what Trump’s opponents have accused him of doing, whereas in the article for Joe Biden there is very little about what Biden’s opponents have accused him of doing.

[00:20:52] Sanger’s point is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a Trump or a Biden supporter, or neither. 

[00:20:58] The point is that what information is or isn’t included in someone’s Wikipedia page is incredibly important, especially as hundreds of millions of people, 490 million people a month in fact, turn to it as a source of information.

[00:21:16] If Wikipedia is a source of truth for hundreds of millions of people, then it needs to do a better job at neutrality, and being more equal in terms of what information is and isn’t included in an article.

[00:21:31] The third main criticism of Wikipedia is about the choices of what subjects are written about, and what are not.

[00:21:41] Given that the editors are not paid to contribute to Wikipedia, they typically write about what is interesting to them, and what they know about. 

[00:21:52] Thus, the content of Wikipedia is greatly influenced by the humans who have decided to contribute to it.

[00:22:02] And who exactly are these people, these editors of Wikipedia?

[00:22:07] Wikipedia doesn’t provide detailed information on the demographics of its editors, but studies have shown that up to 90% of the active editors are male, they are men, and it is widely believed that they are mainly young, computer-literate white Europeans and Americans. 

[00:22:28] Indeed, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, stated that it has "completely failed" to meet its goals of resolving the lack of diversity amongst Wikipedia editors.

[00:22:42] This has two main effects in terms of what you or I would see on the website.

[00:22:47] Firstly, the choice of what information to include, what points of discussion to highlight, and what sources to reference is reflective of the authors of an article. 

[00:22:59] Wikipedia is officially neutral and articles should not provide a point of view, but, as you’ve seen, in many cases this is very hard to do in practice.

[00:23:12] And secondly, the choice of what to actually write about reflects the authors. 

[00:23:19] In 2015 there was a study that showed that there were more contributors to the Wikipedia list of Pornographic Actresses than the List of Female Poets.

[00:23:31] So, this highlights some of the not insignificant problems that the site is battling.

[00:23:38] Now, it is easy to criticise Wikipedia. It is certainly imperfect. 

[00:23:44] I imagine that you might have read an article on Wikipedia and found something that was incorrect, or you thought that something was missing.

[00:23:53] Of course, the best thing you can do in that situation is correct it, if you like. 

[00:23:59] In case this was news for you, anyone can be a contributor to Wikipedia, and thousands of people edit it every month. I am not a frequent contributor to Wikipedia, but I have done it before.

[00:24:12] It does feel a bit strange doing it, but it is a pretty amazing feeling, knowing that you are contributing, even in a tiny, tiny way, to the largest collection of written knowledge in world history.

[00:24:26] And although Wikipedia is 20 years old, and has already firmly established itself as one of the world’s 10 most visited websites, and importantly the only one that is a not-for-profit, it believes that its work is far from complete.

[00:24:44] There are currently 6 million articles in English, and by one Wikipedia contributor’s estimate in order to record all of the world’s information, including every village, every elected official, every famous painting, there would need to be 100 million articles.

[00:25:04] If that is indeed the case, Wikipedia is only just getting started.

[00:25:12] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the history of Wikipedia.

[00:25:18] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that next time you find yourself on Wikipedia, which I guess might be quite soon, then you’ll know a little bit more about the history of this amazing project.

[00:25:32] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:36] What do you think some of the problems are with Wikipedia? 

[00:25:40] Who should decide what deserves to go into an article, and what doesn’t?

[00:25:45] What questions does it raise about what things like “neutral information” or “truth” really are?

[00:25:52] I would love to know.

[00:25:53] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:04] And as a final reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:26:20] I am on a mission to make Leonardo English the most interesting way of improving your English, and I would love for you to join me, and curious minds from 50 different countries, on that journey.

[00:26:33] The place you can go to for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:26:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Wikipedia.

[00:00:27] It’s a website I imagine you know already, and one that you probably turn to as a source of information, whether that’s finding out someone’s date of birth, settling a bet with a friend on what the population of the United Kingdom really is, or whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit.

[00:00:48] Indeed, every month pages on Wikipedia are viewed 18 billion times, that’s more than two times for every human being on the planet.

[00:01:00] Despite it being one of the most popular websites ever created, many people don’t know all that much about it.

[00:01:08] So, in today’s episode we are going to tell the story of Wikipedia, how the idea came about, its early days and when it really started to take off, how it actually works, some of the criticisms of the website, and what the future might hold for a website with the ambition of containing the sum of human knowledge.

[00:01:33] Before we get right into today’s episode though, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:49] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s almost 200 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our awesome private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:02:09] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious people like you to improve their English.

[00:02:21] So, if that is of interest - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:32] OK then, Wikipedia.

[00:02:35] Let’s start with a few statistics, just so we truly understand the scale of Wikipedia.

[00:02:43] It’s almost always in the top 10 most visited websites in the world, with around 18 billion page views per month.

[00:02:53] It exists in 323 different languages. 

[00:02:57] English is the largest one, with over 6 million different articles available on the English Wikipedia.

[00:03:06] And, as you probably know, it is constantly evolving, it is constantly being edited, updated, with new information added, new pages added, and new knowledge being added to the website.

[00:03:21] The speed of this is astounding, it’s amazing.

[00:03:25] There are an average of 1.7 edits per second on the English language Wikipedia, and 600 new articles added every day.

[00:03:37] Nobody is paid to do this, as you may know.

[00:03:40] It is completely manned by volunteers, people sort of like me and you all across the world who are passionate about the goal of Wikipedia, which is to be “a comprehensive collection of all of the knowledge in the world”.

[00:03:56] Now, this is quite some achievement, it is a pretty amazing resource, available to anyone, anywhere, completely free, with no adverts, no selling of data, no ulterior motive.

[00:04:10] How has this been achieved?

[00:04:13] Wikipedia technically celebrated its 20th year of life earlier in 2021, but to understand where it came from we have to go back a lot further than 2001.

[00:04:28] The idea of collating all human knowledge and making it available to all is, of course, not something that arrived with Wikipedia.

[00:04:39] Since writing has existed, humans have wanted to document knowledge, to write down what people know so that it is not lost, and it can be referenced by other people.

[00:04:52] Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, was in the middle of writing a book like this, an early encyclopedia, when he was killed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

[00:05:05] And since Pliny the Elder, scholars and thinkers have worked on documenting knowledge, writing down what is known by mankind, so that others can benefit from it.

[00:05:18] The person probably most famous for this idea, though, the idea of an Encyclopedia, was a Frenchman named Denis Diderot, who published his famous Encyclopédie, his Encyclopedia, between 1751 and 1772.

[00:05:36] At the time of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, literacy rates were around 50% for men and 27% for women, in France that is. 

[00:05:47] The cost of printing had reduced sufficiently so that books were more widely available than ever before, and so that it was easier than ever to consult a book to find information about almost anything. 

[00:06:03] Of course, you still had to physically have access to the book, and finding the information required would have been a much more time consuming process than the one we are used to now, but it was still an important event in the history of encyclopedias.

[00:06:23] Fast forward a few hundred years, to the mid 1990s, and it was suddenly possible to access this kind of information from a computer, digitally, with programmes such as Microsoft Encarta and Encyclopedia Britannica. 

[00:06:40] I can vividly remember receiving a CD-ROM of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was probably in 1998 or something, and I can remember thinking that it was absolutely amazing that I could just put the CD into the computer, search for anything and this CD would contain the information.

[00:07:02] At the same time as this curious 11-year-old was trying to find information on his Encyclopedia Britannica, across the Atlantic Ocean a group of Americans had been working on something very different that would, ultimately, turn into what we now know as Wikipedia.

[00:07:22] Jimmy Wales was 29 years old in 1996, and had left his job working in finance to start an internet company. This was just as the dot-com-boom was starting, and Wales had seen the potential of the internet not just to make money, but to connect people, and to share information.

[00:07:46] The company he first started was not Wikipedia though.

[00:07:52] It was called Bomis, Bomis.com, which was a male-focussed search engine, and turned into, essentially, a way for people to find erotic images, nude pictures of women.

[00:08:08] Helping men find pictures of naked women wasn’t Wales’ passion, although there was plenty of demand for it. 

[00:08:15] Wales had long been interested in the idea of an encyclopedia, of creating a way for people to share knowledge about everything in the world, not just porn.

[00:08:28] So, in 1999, Wales launched a company called Nupedia, which was financed, it was paid for, by Bomis, the adult content discovery website.

[00:08:41] Nupedia was an encyclopedia, essentially, but with a few important differences. 

[00:08:48] The idea was that subject matter experts, whether they were academics, researchers, or just individuals who knew a lot about a particular subject, could submit an article about anything.

[00:09:03] There was then a seven-step process to review the article, to make sure that it was correct, and adhered to the guidelines.

[00:09:13] Then, if it passed this process, it would be published,it would be put on the website. 

[00:09:20] The main way in which it was different to previous encyclopedias is that it was crowd-sourced, the information was submitted by experts, rather than created by a relatively small selection of writers. 

[00:09:36] But, there was still this seven-step review process, which attempted to guarantee high quality.

[00:09:44] It is of course easy to say with retrospect, but this process meant that actually getting anything published took a long time. 

[00:09:53] And indeed, after 18 months Nupedia had only just over 20 articles in total, an average of one published a month.

[00:10:04] If you are trying to collate all the information in the world, well, it’s going to take a long time if that’s how fast you are going.

[00:10:14] Wales had hired a man called Larry Sanger to be the editor-in-chief of Nupedia, and soon Sanger grew frustrated with how long things were taking. 

[00:10:26] A few months after Nupedia had started, Wales and Sanger had launched another encyclopedia project to run at the same time as Nupedia, to test out an alternative approach that could grow faster.

[00:10:42] The name of this side-project? 

[00:10:44] Wikipedia.

[00:10:46] Now, why did Wikipedia succeed when Nupedia failed?

[00:10:51] One clue is actually in the name - “wiki”.

[00:10:56] A “wiki” is a kind of publication that can be edited by its own audience directly in the web browser

[00:11:05] Anyone can create articles, and they can make edits.

[00:11:09] In short, anyone can write for Wikipedia.

[00:11:13] There are some exceptions, and some articles require approval by administrators for changes to be accepted, but this is the basic concept of Wikipedia.

[00:11:26] Instead of the Nupedia model where for any piece of information to be published it needed to go through a very detailed review process, with a Wiki, and at least in the early days of Wikipedia, there was no review process - anyone could write it.

[00:11:45] This has its own share of problems, which we’ll come on to discuss a bit later, but the “open source” nature of Wikipedia meant that it grew significantly faster than its big brother, Nupedia.

[00:12:00] Wikipedia was founded on January 15th 2001, and within three months there were 3,900 articles. 

[00:12:11] The more articles it had, the more Wikipedia pages appeared as results on search engines, so the more people knew about it, and more people started to contribute to it, so more articles were published, and it started to appear in even more search results - it really was a snowball effect.

[00:12:30] The more it grew, the faster it grew.

[00:12:34] At the same time, growth at Nupedia was stagnating, it really wasn’t going anywhere, and both Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger’s attentions were devoted mainly to this new, open source, people’s Encyclopedia.

[00:12:51] As it started to be more and more popular, inevitably the criticisms started.

[00:12:58] If anyone can edit it, how can we trust it?

[00:13:01] If it hasn’t been reviewed by any subject matter experts, how can we trust it?

[00:13:06] If all contributions are anonymous, and you don’t have to use your real name, isn’t this just opening it up for spam, abuse and misinformation?

[00:13:18] These were all very valid questions, and indeed early Wikipedia was plagued with trolls and bad actors. 

[00:13:28] Because anyone could edit it, it was relatively easy for anyone to change an article to promote their world view, be rude about something they didn’t agree with, or just abuse the system.

[00:13:42] There were controls in place to try to stop this, but it was hard to keep up with all of them. 

[00:13:49] In an interview with Larry Sanger, he reported how many of the early contributors, people with honourable intentions, left the project because it was so dispiriting, so annoying and tedious, to be constantly removing the spam and abuse, instead of actually contributing real knowledge to it.

[00:14:12] Wikipedia at this point was still 100% funded by Bomis, which was itself, like almost every Internet company just before the dot-com crash, not doing very well at this time.

[00:14:25] Although Wikipedia could have easily started to make a lot of money if it had allowed adverts on the website, for example, Wales was completely against this, as he thought it went against the ethos of Wikipedia.

[00:14:41] Instead, he wanted the website to be paid for by donations from its users.

[00:14:47] His view was that if Wikipedia was good enough, and it helped enough people, then they would be willing to support it through donations.

[00:14:59] He proved to be right.

[00:15:01] One of its first fundraisers, its first attempt at raising money from its readers in late 2004, raised $44,000. Not much, but a sign that some people did value it enough to support it financially.

[00:15:19] Now, it raises around $130 million dollars a year from its readers, the majority of which comes in small donations.

[00:15:29] This might sound like a lot of money, but when you think that Alphabet, the parent company of Google, makes this amount of money in about five hours, it really puts it into perspective.

[00:15:43] Almost since the day it was founded, Wikipedia has continued to grow and grow in practically every language and country in the world.

[00:15:52] While English is still the dominant language, articles in English now only make up 11.5% of Wikipedia. 

[00:16:01] You might be surprised to learn about the second and third most popular languages on Wikipedia, at least in terms of number of articles.

[00:16:12] The second is a Filipino language called Cebuano, and the third is Swedish.

[00:16:19] Weird, you are probably thinking. I was certainly surprised when I found this out.

[00:16:25] Cebuano is the second most widely spoken language in the Philippines, but only has 20 million speakers.

[00:16:32] And Swedish, well there are only around 11 million people who can speak Swedish.

[00:16:38] And Sweden and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, have very high levels of English, so why are the Cebuano and Swedish Wikipedias so large?

[00:16:49] There’s actually an automated computer program, a bot, created by a Swedish programmer called Sverker Johansson that is responsible for all of these articles.

[00:17:01] Johansson’s bot, his computer program, creates articles in an automated way, using information stored in databases.

[00:17:11] It is, reportedly, pretty well written, but it isn’t always 100% accurate, and sometimes sounds a little strange.

[00:17:20] Imagine you were translating an entire document in English to your language via Google Translate - you can get the meaning, but it probably sounds a little weird, not quite completely normal.

[00:17:34] Johansson’s bot is a bit of a controversial point within Wikipedia, and actually leads us nicely on to the last section, where we will contemplate some of the questions that Wikipedia gets us thinking about, and look at some of the criticisms of the website. 

[00:17:53] If anyone can add articles, even a bot which adds information that isn’t always perfectly written, how can you ensure firstly the quality of what is published, secondly whether the information is actually accurate or not, and thirdly what actually deserves its own article on Wikipedia?

[00:18:15] To the first question, of the quality of the articles, the fact that there are thousands of editors means that badly written articles are normally quickly corrected, especially if the article has lots of readers. 

[00:18:29] Of course, the more speakers of a language that exist on Wikipedia, and the more popular an article is, the quicker this correction happens, so for major languages such as English and for more popular subjects, it isn’t such a huge issue.

[00:18:46] But the question of accuracy of information is a big, incredibly complicated issue.

[00:18:53] Ultimately, it is a question of who decides what “truth” is?

[00:18:58] There are some categories of articles where “truth” is perhaps easier to define. 

[00:19:05] An article about the chemical properties of oxygen, for example. With Johansson’s computer bot, it publishes lots of articles about living organisms, where facts are facts.

[00:19:19] But when it comes to almost anything else, especially people, who decides what goes on the Wikipedia page? And how can an article remain completely neutral

[00:19:33] Larry Sanger, the original editor-in-chief of Wikipedia, and the man who also designed the 7-step-process for Wikipedia’s predecessor, Nupedia, has become an outspoken critic of Wikipedia, or at least what Wikipedia has become.

[00:19:52] His relationship with Wikipedia ended in 2002 after it ran out of money and couldn’t pay him, and he now frequently gives interviews where he gives examples of some of the problems with Wikipedia, and with the entire philosophy of the platform.

[00:20:11] A recent example he gave in an interview with the British publication Unherd was of the differences between the Wikipedia entries for Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

[00:20:22] Now, of course they are two very different people, and they should have different entries, with different sections on different parts of their life, but in the Wikipedia article on Donald Trump there is a very large section on his controversies and on what Trump’s opponents have accused him of doing, whereas in the article for Joe Biden there is very little about what Biden’s opponents have accused him of doing.

[00:20:52] Sanger’s point is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a Trump or a Biden supporter, or neither. 

[00:20:58] The point is that what information is or isn’t included in someone’s Wikipedia page is incredibly important, especially as hundreds of millions of people, 490 million people a month in fact, turn to it as a source of information.

[00:21:16] If Wikipedia is a source of truth for hundreds of millions of people, then it needs to do a better job at neutrality, and being more equal in terms of what information is and isn’t included in an article.

[00:21:31] The third main criticism of Wikipedia is about the choices of what subjects are written about, and what are not.

[00:21:41] Given that the editors are not paid to contribute to Wikipedia, they typically write about what is interesting to them, and what they know about. 

[00:21:52] Thus, the content of Wikipedia is greatly influenced by the humans who have decided to contribute to it.

[00:22:02] And who exactly are these people, these editors of Wikipedia?

[00:22:07] Wikipedia doesn’t provide detailed information on the demographics of its editors, but studies have shown that up to 90% of the active editors are male, they are men, and it is widely believed that they are mainly young, computer-literate white Europeans and Americans. 

[00:22:28] Indeed, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, stated that it has "completely failed" to meet its goals of resolving the lack of diversity amongst Wikipedia editors.

[00:22:42] This has two main effects in terms of what you or I would see on the website.

[00:22:47] Firstly, the choice of what information to include, what points of discussion to highlight, and what sources to reference is reflective of the authors of an article. 

[00:22:59] Wikipedia is officially neutral and articles should not provide a point of view, but, as you’ve seen, in many cases this is very hard to do in practice.

[00:23:12] And secondly, the choice of what to actually write about reflects the authors. 

[00:23:19] In 2015 there was a study that showed that there were more contributors to the Wikipedia list of Pornographic Actresses than the List of Female Poets.

[00:23:31] So, this highlights some of the not insignificant problems that the site is battling.

[00:23:38] Now, it is easy to criticise Wikipedia. It is certainly imperfect. 

[00:23:44] I imagine that you might have read an article on Wikipedia and found something that was incorrect, or you thought that something was missing.

[00:23:53] Of course, the best thing you can do in that situation is correct it, if you like. 

[00:23:59] In case this was news for you, anyone can be a contributor to Wikipedia, and thousands of people edit it every month. I am not a frequent contributor to Wikipedia, but I have done it before.

[00:24:12] It does feel a bit strange doing it, but it is a pretty amazing feeling, knowing that you are contributing, even in a tiny, tiny way, to the largest collection of written knowledge in world history.

[00:24:26] And although Wikipedia is 20 years old, and has already firmly established itself as one of the world’s 10 most visited websites, and importantly the only one that is a not-for-profit, it believes that its work is far from complete.

[00:24:44] There are currently 6 million articles in English, and by one Wikipedia contributor’s estimate in order to record all of the world’s information, including every village, every elected official, every famous painting, there would need to be 100 million articles.

[00:25:04] If that is indeed the case, Wikipedia is only just getting started.

[00:25:12] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the history of Wikipedia.

[00:25:18] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that next time you find yourself on Wikipedia, which I guess might be quite soon, then you’ll know a little bit more about the history of this amazing project.

[00:25:32] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:36] What do you think some of the problems are with Wikipedia? 

[00:25:40] Who should decide what deserves to go into an article, and what doesn’t?

[00:25:45] What questions does it raise about what things like “neutral information” or “truth” really are?

[00:25:52] I would love to know.

[00:25:53] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:04] And as a final reminder, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:26:20] I am on a mission to make Leonardo English the most interesting way of improving your English, and I would love for you to join me, and curious minds from 50 different countries, on that journey.

[00:26:33] The place you can go to for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:26:40] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:45] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



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