© Getty Images – tomch 89% of Wikipedia articles are available in a language other than English.
The world’s largest free encyclopedia was founded on January 15, 2001. Growing steadily since it now offers nearly 55 million articles for free in over 300 different languages. All written, updated, and corrected by anonymous contributors and volunteers.
A giant encyclopedia, free and accessible to all. Behind this somewhat crazy idea, two men, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Wales, an American businessman, initially sees the Wikipedia project as a complement to another of his initiatives, Nupedia. This first site, which disappeared in 2003, wanted to bring together publications written, corrected, and validated by experts, in order to compete with “ classic ” encyclopedias.
But the problem quickly arises: after a year, the project has only 24 validated articles. The operation of Nupedia is too complex and too expensive: the experts want to be paid and the software of the site itself is chargeable.
From this observation of failure is born Wikipedia: during a dinner, emerges the idea of using the software ” mediawiki “. Created by students, who named it after the Hawaiian term ” wikiwiki “, “fast”, it is free open-source software, free and modifiable by and for all. The “ ULTIMATE format “, for Larry Sanger.
An extraordinary community of volunteer contributors
The idea is simple and ambitious at the same time: to allow everyone to contribute to the gathering of human knowledge, by intervening and by publishing directly on the website. Wales and Sanger are optimistic that the number of contributors will prevent mistakes from staying online for too long. The founding principles of Wikipedia are set: ” open, accessible to all, free, without advertising and non-profit “, summarizes Sarah Kingler, of Wikimedia France.
“ At the beginning, it was a very small project, a somewhat crazy utopia,” she explains. It was when everyone was able to add text and photos that it really took off ”.
The incredible deployment of Wikipedia is indeed primarily due to the community of contributors – 280,000 each month – who edit the site. They are also the main patrons. Wikipedia works thanks to donations, of an average of 15 dollars, which it collects from its readers. Its annual budget thus amounts to $ 120 million, 85 to 90% of which comes from donations from individuals. Some proof of its success.
39 national chapters
Very quickly after the launch of the English-speaking site, in fact, the history of Wikimedia accelerated. National ” chapters ” are created, under the pressure of volunteers from the web. Wikimedia France was born in May 2001, followed by many others. Nearly 39 currently exist, as well as a hundred or so more informal communities.
To oversee the whole, Wales and Sanger created the Wikimedia Foundation in 2003. A non-profit organization under American law, the foundation collects and redistributes my donations and manages the legal and technical aspects of Wikipedia, without further influencing the life of the various sites attached to it.
” Wikipedia brings together hundreds of extremely different skills,” Sarah Kingler analyzes. There are the contributors, who write the articles and take pictures of course, but also volunteer administrators, who monitor the content, as well as developers who create tools to improve the sites. One of them, for example, created a robot that automatically translates articles into Cebuano, a language spoken in the Philippines. More than 5 million articles are thus available, placing Cebuano in the second position after English on Wikipedia.
The development of Wikipedia is thus done, freely, according to the proposals and discussions which emanate from its thousands of anonymous contributors. Even if it means sometimes risking controversy on absurd subjects.
The endive war
The first major controversy experienced by the French-speaking site thus relates in 2005 to the name of the article dealing with endives. ” Contributors from northern France and Belgium insisted on naming the page ‘ chicory’, the name of this variety of vegetable in their region, ” recounts Sarah Krissen. For several months, those called Wikipedians tore themselves apart on the issue. The title of the page is ” vandalized “, contributors from one side and the other follow one another to change it abruptly, surveys are launched …
“ This episode led to the creation in 2006 of the ‘partial protection’ of the pages, ” continues Sarah Krissen. By temporarily freezing the modification of a controversial article, this tool allows contributors time to reach an agreement without falling into vandalism. In this way, ” the page is not subject to a modification war and remains accessible to reading until the controversy is settled, ” she says.
A useful tool, and all the more so when less light polemics emerge, in connection with international news. After the crash in 2014 of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing in eastern Ukraine, contributors are clashing for example again on the page. While the international investigation claims the plane was shot down in error by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, users are modifying the text to accuse Ukrainian soldiers. We scarf, a publishing war breaks out.
In general, Wikipedia and its developments largely follow the news. Unsurprisingly, the most visited page of its 20th year – 2020 – was the one on the outbreak of coronavirus. The site also forged a partnership with the WHO last October to continue to provide reliable information on the pandemic and to perfect its already effective fight against fake news.
But its story is not over. “ Wikipedia aspires to reflect the sum of all human knowledge,” says Anusha Alikhan of the Wikimedia Foundation. But there are still profound knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. Africans and women, for example, are not sufficiently represented on the site.
Several alternatives are developing, such as “ sans pagEs ”, which aims to increase the number of biographies of women on Wikipedia, or AfroCROWD , which develops articles on the history of Africa and Africans. “ The foundation has created a fund of 4.5 million dollars to increase diversity at all levels,” says Anusha Alikhan. So that the tools, the programs, and the communities of contributors themselves gain diversity and representativeness. »Friends readers, to your keyboards!
This January 15, 2020, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. GMT, Katherine Maher, CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation, and Jimmy Wales, its creator, will take part in a live-streaming to present the various contributions of the global communities of Wikipedia volunteers.