Wikipedia founder Wales chats with students

Over 400 students and faculty stuffed into the Tech Square Research Building Ballroom and the additional overflow room to see and hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. Wales gave a talk on the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikia Inc. and the present status and future progress of Wikipedia. According to Amy Bruckman, associate professor in the College of Computing, the chance to get into Wales’ lecture was so popular that some people were turned away at the doors.

One of the students in the audience, Andrea Forte, a graduate student in CS, was instrumental in inviting Wales to come to Tech.

“Andrea and I, together with Susan Bryant, wrote a paper called Becoming Wikipedian about how Wikipedia really works,” Bruckman said. “Andrea happened to meet Jimmy at a conference, he really liked our paper, and they got to be friends. I figured, ‘Andrea’s graduating, we better invite Jimmy to visit before Andrea graduates, because if she invites him, it might work out. They’ve been friends a long time, and they’re mainly friends because Jimmy admires our research about Wikipedia.”

Wales’ talk was scheduled for an hour, starting off with a quick rundown of some of Wikipedia’s first challenges.

He described a time in the early days of Wikipedia where someone decided to put in the full text of Hamlet. Discussions about these and other types of situations helped the Wikimedia Foundation solidify its notions that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, with essentialized summaries of human knowledge.

As for the future, Wales appeared eager to observe the effects of worldwide information accessibility.

“The access to knowledge for people speaking in Swahili has traditionally been very miniscule…. I don’t know when, but they’ll have a comprehensive encyclopedia in their language, and it will be accessible to essentially everyone,” Wales said. “I think that’s pretty amazing. For me that’s the future of Wikipedia. We’ll have more viewers in the developing world than the developed world.”

Wales’ lecture also touched on the work at Wikia with interest-specific wiki communities, aspects of Wikia Search and parts of his own operating philosophy.

For the last 20 minutes, Wales fielded almost a dozen questions from the audience.

In response to a question on Wikipedia’s policy against publishing original research, Wales responded that Wikipedia’s role as a summary of generally accepted knowledge doesn’t involve supporting research until it has garnered reasonable acceptance by the larger community. However, he said that this means that Wikipedia could serve future historians as a record of how common understanding changed over time.

When the questions session concluded, more than 400 pairs of hands applauded together. “[Wales] said he had a fantastic time here, and I was so pleased he thought it was worth his while. He’s… on the road more than he’s home… and for him to say that this was a blast for him, I think reflects well on Georgia Tech,” Bruckman said.