For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Wikipedia. Imagine an online encyclopedia, where all the information is free to access, and even free to share. Not just that, but one which is created largely by volunteers. To top it all, this grew into the sixth most visited site in cyberspace.
It almost seems like magic. How does one achieve all of this?
This is what makes Wikipedia so counter-intuitive. An online encyclopedia which everyone can edit should be a low quality product, right? Not so. The ability to edit, and make speedy corrections, turns out to be an asset. Not a liability. Further, Wikipedia also actually has a sophisticated system of checks and balances.
It doesn’t work in the random manner you might think it does. When someone starts editing its pages, a close watch is kept. After you prove your bonafides, you earn the confidence of those keeping track of the changes being made, and you’re given more freedom. Less of a closer watch is kept. But still, if you make obvious mistakes, there’s someone to check and remind you about it.
This is not to say that mistakes are not possible. Sometimes, it’s worse than just mistakes.
Everyone by now has heard about the ‘Bicholim conflict’, a fictitious war that is supposed to have happened between the Portuguese rulers of Goa and the Maratha empire between mid-1640 and 1641. This entry was marked as a ‘good article’ in September 2007, and only in 2012 was shown to be a complete fake! So much so that the carefully described war never happened in the first place. See http://bit.ly/bicholim-battle
For that matter, there is even a page on Wikipedia itself which lists the ‘hoaxes on the Wikipedia’! So much for honesty…
Somewhere in the past week, I got a chance to attend the second WikiConference India, which was held in Chandigarh. The Wikipedia worldwide operations has built up fairly huge resources for itself. Any appeal for funding quickly gets responded to, and this is not surprising given how many hundreds of millions use its services. So, over a hundred who wanted to attend the conference were given tickets and a decent stay in the city of Le Corbusier.
Having access to a lot of funding is a mixed blessing. It allows work to be taken up. But it also can attract people with the wrong motives.
Way back in 2004, some three-and-a-half years after Wikipedia was founded, I began working as a volunteer editor. To be fair, my work hasn’t been consistent. Over the years, I’ve made just a little over 2200 edits. (Every single change you make is counted as an edit. But if you write a full article in a single go, that too would be one edit.) Some have made over two lakh edits in a far shorter period! My online records show I’ve created 366 articles (mostly in English) out of the over 5.2 million articles the English Wikipedia has! A drop in the ocean, but still.
In its initial years, Wikipedia used to be a very welcoming place. All new work was easily accepted. Over time, as its clout grew, it got more selective. At times, its overseers would adopt ludicrous standards. At one stage, someone argued back that a prominent Konkani personality from Goa might not be prominent enough. It was not easy pointing out that the contributions made in a language like Konkani are often not digitised enough, and definitely not visible enough in an English-dominated cyber-world.
Whatever the case, Wikipedia gives you a lot of leeway to create and share information. Not just that, because it is such a prominent site, the information you create is easy to find. It could show up in the top few finds that Google throws up each time.
Chandigarh – rather, Mohali, its twin city where the conference was held in the gigantic Chandigarh Group of Colleges (CGC) campus – was a learning experience. One could run into a whole lot of intelligent young men and women (to keep the gender balance, a quarter of those invited were women) working to build shareable and useful India-centric information. They were buzzing with ideas, and threw up a lot of Indian-style jugaad solutions.
Of course, different language groups have different strengths. The languages of South India appear better placed than even huge, officially-backed languages like Hindi. India seems suspicious, at least unhelpful, when it comes to a language like Urdu. But, on the other (eastern) border, the Bengalis and Bangladeshis are collaborating and cooperating in amazing ways to promote their language on the Wikipedia.
Tulu, a small language from coastal South India, also got its own wikipedia. This was the 23rd Indian language Wikipedia — there are so many that you end up with different counts.
Four diverse sets of people are currently building Wikipedia, I feel. Some are hard-core Wikipedians, who believe strongly in the idea of building shareable (and ‘free’) knowledge. Others are language supporters, of the type who hold a my-language-is-in-danger perspective. The third are techies, whose skills can also help boost the strengths the Wikipedia, even though it is primarily meant to be an information-driven, content-rich site. The fourth lot are the NGOs, who would undertake projects only if they get the funding for it, but can be good at pushing things, writing reports, sometimes even delivering results.
The mistrust between the pure volunteers and the NGOs is obviously strong. For, why should some work for free when others get paid to do so?
In June 2015, the Konkani Wikipedia itself went live. It took some nine years (largely of inactivity) to reach this status. Goa University donated its languishing encyclopedia, and boldly put it out in the public domain or the commons. While a lot of initiatives have been taken to promote the Konkani wikipedia, the results have been scarce and few. In contrast, the Marathi wikipedia, from a neighbouring language many of us love to hate, is the tenth most-visited Marathi site among all.
Clearly, we are falling short in the numbers game. Or are we failing in the commitment game too? My experience is that many techies realise the importance of building local language wikipedias, including in Konkani. But very few techies here would be confident enough of their language skills, or willing to donate their time to do it.
To my surprise, while talking to prominent personalities from government-funded Konkani language bodies, they took the position that if they were not going to get anything from it, they were not going to get their hands dirty. What ‘support’ was available, some wanted to know. Aren’t initiatives like this worthy of getting government support, specially since once the knowledge is available, it will be there for all time and for anyone to use?
Let me end with a short story of why I continue to be convinced by Wikipedia magic.
These days, I had made quite a few trips to the Tivim railway station. At one point, I photographed the station from its outside. It struck me that the Tivim (or, Thivim as it is officially spelt) station needed its own page on Wikipedia. After all, so many visitors reaching Goa by rail just don’t have a clue as to whether they should get down at Thivim, at Karmali, or at Madgaon (to use the official names).
It was easy to create that page. When you’re creating content on Wikipedia, it’s not just guesswork. You’re actually looking around on the internet for what exists, and linking it all together to make sense of it. Not tough. Quite fun, in fact.
In awhile, I was tempted to create some more pages for railway stations in Goa. Next, for a few in coastal Karnataka too. But that was not all. Someone came along and tidied up my work. He (or she, Wikipedia names can be tough to decipher sometimes) added a route map of the rail stops. Rough information was converted into some useful knowledge. Of course, there’s a lot to improve still, but surely that too could get done. The Wikipedia approach is: if you don’t like it, improve it.
Which is why a dozen years later, I still find it a useful place. Despite all its problems, disagreements and imperfections that the Wikipedia undeniably has.