Wikipedia's Wales has Google in his sights

A young population and relatively low internet penetration rates are set to put the Middle East on the frontline in the war for virtual mindspace. With another one billion people expected to join the one billion already online over the next 10 years, the region is fast emerging as a hot new source market for internet businesses.

And this region, like other parts of the developing world, will change the way people interact online, says Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the open-source online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

"In the next five to 10 years we're going to see the next billion people come online from Asia, Africa, India and South America. Needless to say these are all brand-new people joining the brand-new conversation and its going to have a really interesting cultural impact," he told Emirates Business. He was speaking ahead of yesterday's Global Brand Forum in Singapore, an annual branding think tank that attracts some 700 people, including many corporate leaders from the UAE.

Reaching this new wave of users, however, means the internet will need to become more accessible, both with the exploding social-networking forums such as MySpace and Facebook that are part of the trend called Web 2.0, and by reaching out in languages these new audiences can understand.

Arabic, for instance, is the native language of some 300 million people and the official language of 25 countries, but Wikipedia's Arabic version only has some 65,000 articles. Contrast that with the 2.5 million individual entries on the English version, a quarter of the combined 10 million articles across all 253 language versions.

"The Arabic version is smaller than it should be because it started about two years later," says Wales, who believes online content in local languages drives people to use the internet.

"But I don't think the situation is as bad as some might think," he adds. "We have had very strong growth and had a really fabulous conference in Egypt [last month], so we're getting a lot of attention from the Arab community to think about how we can get more people involved and how we can grow."

In July, 600 Wikipedia contributors and followers from 47 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, gathered at Wikimania 2008 in Alexandria to discuss issues of public collaboration, free knowledge, wiki technology and open source software. To bring Arab users in, Wales is considering organising what he calls Wikipedia academies, where "we go to a university and we teach professors and students how to edit Wikipedia. So we're hoping to do a lot of those next year if we can get the funding to do it".

But Wales is not content with creating an internet resource that is often the first stop for anyone looking up anything at all (earlier this week, news broke that 71-year-old United States presidential candidate John McCain, who has confessed to being internet-illiterate, apparently lifted parts of his speech on the conflict in Georgia from Wikipedia).

Right now, this champion of internet-enabled egalitarianism, as he has been called, is more interested in taking on the Goliath that is Google with his newest brainchild, Wikia Search, which was relaunched last month.

As of yesterday afternoon, the site had registered 2.8 million queries and received 1.1 million contributions, a tally that dates to the beginning of June. Google processes 200 million searches a day.

The Global Brand Forum heard yesterday how Wales hopes the project will alter the world's online search engine market, currently dominated by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Citing industry statistics that more than 90 per cent of online searches in the US are made through these three firms, Wales sounds a note of caution: "Do we really want all our traffic, all our editorial control of the internet piped through one, two or three companies. I don't think we do. I think we want to have a broader marketplace than that," he said. "All the existing search engines are proprietary black boxes. You have no idea how things are ranked and what's going on."

Like Wikipedia, Wikia Search takes internet searches down the social route; and users "can participate in meaningful ways" when browsing the internet. A free, open-source search engine, it allows anyone to add to searches and delete misleading or wrong results.

Separate from the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation that runs Wikipedia, Wikia Search is part of Wales's for-profit company Wikia and he hopes it will employ collaborative wiki technology to create the "rest of the library", including books and articles about health and hobbies – with no pretense of objectivity. "Creating a search engine where you can delete things, add things and move things around and all that – it's pretty mind-blowing to sit there and play with it and do it and realise the editorial control is in your hands. I don't know if these will work, but I'm having a lot of fun doing this," he says, alluding to the fact that internet searching is already a competitive market and Wikia Search will not have the first-mover advantage that Wikipedia did.

Google's answer is to go after Wikipedia's encyclopaedia business. Last month, the web behmoth launched Knol, a kind of Googlepedia that allows people to publish authoritative articles under their bylines. Knol believes knowing who wrote what helps readers trust the content; and users are not allowed to edit or contribute to an article unless the author lets them do so. (But clearly, the site has a fair way to go: a search for "United Arab Emirates" threw up only two results, both on leisure-related activities in Dubai.) Better yet, users can allow Google to sell advertisements on their pages, and consequently share in the profits.

Wales, predictably, does not see it as a threat: "Google's not calling it an encyclopaedia and I don't think it is going to become one. I don't know how it's going to affect us, but, so far, it looks very cool. We're excited to see it; we're not a competitive organisation, so we just don't think in the way that lots of people do," he says.

As for the advertising, he does not believe it means users will favour Knol over Wikipedia. "I don't think it is really going to have any impact at all; If I were thinking about the impact, I would be more interested and concerned about whether the software is fun to use. I don't think that anybody really can make much money doing that and I don't think the people who are trying to make $10 from running something are really coming out with the right passion."

Who's Jimmy?

The Wikipedia entry on Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales describes him as an American internet entrepreneur known for his role at Wikipedia, which he co-founded in 2001 together with Nupedia founder Larry Sanger. He serves on the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, and in 2004 founded Wikia, a privately owned free web hosting service.

Wales, 42, is the son of a grocery store manager, Jimmy, and the owner of a small private school, Erma. Born in Alabama, he has a master's degree in finance from the University of Alabama. As research director at futures and options trading firm Chicago Options Associates from 1994 to 2000, he reportedly earned enough to support himself and his wife for the rest of their lives by speculating on interest rate and foreign-currency fluctuations.

He has been married twice and is currently separated from his second wife, Christine. It is his romantic life as much as anything else that saw him hit the headlines: he reportedly announced the termination of a brief relationship with Canadian journalist Rachel Marsden on his Wikipedia user page before informing her.

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