As Wikipedia celebrates 10th anniversary, few remember its roots in St. Petersburg
When is the last time you celebrated an encyclopedia's birthday?
But, according to the good folks at Wikipedia, there are 350 celebrations planned in 111 countries to commemorate the debut of the most unique encyclopedia in history -- a site busting with content created and curated y the general public.
There is, however, one place where such a celebration is not scheduled: Its onetime hometown, St. Petersburg.
For about six years, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales ran the organization from a collection of rooms in downtown St. Petersburg, catty-corner from the BayWalk entertainment complex. The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation that oversees the site's operation was founded here in 2005 and the site's major servers still sit in Tampa, which means by a quirk of the law, that Wikepdia's content is subject to Florida statutes (Wales says that doesn't have much practical consequence; one attorney said it may mean any lawsuits against Wikipedia would be filed here)
I have a story on the front page recounting a bit of the site's early history in the Tampa Bay area, including a conversation with Wikipedia's third-ever employee and a look at the controversy over why Wales (left) is accused of downplaying the contributions of co-founder Larry Sanger.
(One recent reason may be that Sanger reported to the F.B.I. that a sister site to Wikipedia where anyone can upload media, the Wikimedia Commons, had drawing which might be considered child pornography. The resultant controversy -- Fox News covered it aggressively -- led Wales to relinquish some editing abilities after his attempt to unilaterally remove content sparked a fight with some of the site's contributors. See Wikipedia's response here and here.)
Over the past decade, the encyclopedia has grown to become the fifth-most popular website on the planet -- ads on most articles asking for donations with Wales' face plastered on them raised $16-million in a record 50 days -- so the notion that such an amazing example of Web 2.0 grew up in Tampa Bay is surprising and compelling.
As you might expect from a gigantic online project mostly run and implemented by volunteers, Wikipedia boasts a core of devoted editors and contributors who have taken the organizations goals and values to heart with an almost religious zeal. Way back in 2005, I profiled one of those "Wikipedians" as they call themselves, a shy, admittedly nerdy music student named Kat Walsh at Stetson University in Deland.
I didn't have room for her in the print newspaper story, but Walsh has come a long way in five years -- joining the board of trustees for the Wikimedia Foundation. Though most of the site's editors are male (the organization says the number tops 85 percent), Walsh still seems a good example of the people who have devoted themselves to making Wales' dream of a free, global encyclopedia in any language a reality.
Now just past earning a law degree at George Mason University, Walsh was kind enough to answer a few questions about the coming anniversary.
Deggans: There's a big push to add diversity in the contributors, especially among women. you're a woman; why are there more of you doing what you do?
“I don’t really know. The women who are participating are probably a little bit nerdier than the average. You tell people you write an encyclopedia in you spare time, I think that qualifies you for the label of nerd. People have to be encouraged to make small edits. And another thing we’re doing is trying to figure out what it will take to make people from more countries and languages to participate.”
I've heard part of the problem is that the community of Wikipedians can be tough on newcomers.
"One challenge is just maintaining the community. How do you make it a welcoming place? How do you prevent there beinfg a cultural division from people who have been on the site for 10 years and people who just joined. How do you make people feel their experience is valued? How do we not destroy the magic that makes this possible and still be open to a wider group of people? You think about the project it’s open to anybody. How do we convince people that being part of good citizen is adding to the information of the world? Like picking up garbage – if you know something good, you should share it. How do we make that a part opf the culture?"
What don't people understand about what it takes to run Wikipedia?
“They don’t realize how much it really is a team effort and Jimmy is just a part of it. In the early days, Jimmy’s being a visionary, keeping it going, that was more necessary. As it gains it own momentum ,it can’t depend on a team effort. Jimmy is particualry good in the role of someone who can be a convincing evangelist. It has a little extra weight because he was the founder of the project. He’s one of the best spokesmen for what we do."