Expansion into Africa and other non-English speaking areas is a top priority for Wikipedia, site founder Jimmy Wales has said.
Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet programme, Mr Wales outlined the next step for the online encyclopaedia.
“When we look at the vision I have for Wikipedia – which is a free encyclopaedia for everyone in their own language – we’re succeeding, we feel pretty good. But we still have a long way to go.” He says his challenge is to encourage thousands more to contribute in their own languages. “In the languages of India, we’re seeing 10% monthly growth, which is really exciting but they’re still quite small. “In Africa, we have very few languages that have any substantial size at all – Swahili is around 10,000 entries now. But that’s quite tiny compared to what we think of as a really successful project with 200,000 entries.”
Mr Wales believes that greater interaction from less-connected countries is essential to bring their voice to the world and its media. “Even the media that is more globally focused, like the BBC World Service, there’s still a certain focus. “We’re not hearing from everybody. We hear very unevenly from places around the world. I think that’s going to start to even out, and we’re going to start getting cultural influences from places we know almost nothing about today.
“I think that’s going to be really fascinating.” Recent improvements to Africa’s internet access, such as the new East Africa fibre optic cable, will aid in encouraging more Africans online and, Mr Wales hopes, onto Wikipedia. “I think it’s important for Wikipedia, but I also think it’s important for the world. I think we’re about to experience some really interesting cultural implications.”
Meanwhile, in the developed world, Wikipedia has other hurdles to jump. The site has been heavily censored in China – at times being completely unavailable. Recently, however, the Chinese authorities have loosened controls. “We were completely banned in China for three years,” recalled Mr Wales.
“Now we are available in China, with the exception of a few pages – certain sensitive topics in China. Certain questions about the status of Taiwan are quite delicate – those things tend to be filtered. “We have a very strong view that access to information is a fundamental human right. We’re about trying to provide that neutral voice.
“We’re very hopeful that in the long run that as China begins to open up more and more, they’re going to realise that having a neutral description of the debate about Taiwan doesn’t damage their interests.”
Mr Wales praises the site’s neutrality when it comes to covering major issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Lots and lots of people, even around very emotional issues, really do believe in the idea of neutrality.
“That itself can be a really strong part of the healing process. Where you have a sense of humanity on both sides – I think that’s really important.”
Thrust into the public eye after Wikipedia’s success, Mr Wales has gained a degree of rock star status – particularly among students who increasingly rely on the site as a starting point to research. “I often go out and speak to college students. If I walk on a stage at a university it’s like a standing ovation and they’re screaming and cheering. I founded an encyclopaedia, right?”