Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales - David Sheen - August 4, 2011
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at the annual Wikimania conference in Haifa, August 4, 2011. Photo by David Sheen
Text size

A world of information, accessible at the click of a button, open for general contribution and yet neutral and objective in essence: Is such an entity possible, even when it comes to the topic of Israelis and Palestinians? Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales thinks so.

About 100,000 volunteer editors and more than 50,000,000 web users yearly tend to agree. Wikipedia has the fifth highest online traffic in the world and is for many the default source of information on any given subject, from the life and death of Amy Winehouse to the full genealogy of the British royal family, from the peculiar anatomy of a petunia to a multi-layered dissection of the history of the Middle East.

Wikipedia is not a company, it's a grassroots community comprising just a few dozen staff members and hundreds of thousands of dedicated geeks, fact addicts and information hounds who want you to know what they know about everything there is to know.

Key members of this community, now celebrating its tenth year of existence, flew to Haifa this week for the 2011 Wikimania conference, to learn and share the ins-and-outs of how Wikipedia works. Wikimedians the world over compete for the chance to hold this annual confab in their locale each year, and this time around, the Israeli team won the bid.

Musicians, academics and other artists have backed recent calls to boycott Israel, but Wales says the Wikipedia community itself had no real internal struggle about choosing Haifa for the conference.

“I was very excited,” Wales tells Haaretz, as the first day of the conference gets underway. “I love coming to Israel.”

“We were in Egypt a couple years ago and that went really well,” he adds. “I think we got more objections to going to Egypt by far than coming to Israel. I did see [some boycott calls] but you know, whatever. People are always going to protest something.”

The Wikipedia community may often argue amongst itself about controversial topics, but one thing is for certain: It is intent on maintaining a policy of Neutral Point of View, or NPOV, as Wales calls it.

NPOV is “one of our core policies … one that I personally set in the very beginning,” says Wales. “NPOV is non-negotiable. We're not going to have a discussion in the community ever about should Wikipedia be neutral or not. It is neutral.” Or at least, he clarifies, “it aims to be neutral."

Enforcing this policy is not easy, Wales admits, but it is necessary for the success and viability of Wikipedia. “The community enforces the policy,” he explains. “It's a policy of the community, so if someone comes in – and it's very common, you know - people will immediately revert something and say that that's against policy. And then we have a big discussion about it.”

“There's no magic way [to enforce neutrality] but we set it as an ideal, we set it as a goal and that was important, because it means there was a lot of debates we don't have to have in the community,” he says.

“People don't say, 'I think Wikipedia should be pro-greed', for example, [or] 'I think Wikipedia should be anti-communist', 'I think Wikipedia should be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine'. No. We don't say that. That's not even the debate. They key is, we know Wikipedia is supposed to be neutral. Once you've got that as the baseline, to say, ‘look we're not going to argue about whether or not Wikipedia should be neutral’, now we can talk about how it can be neutral.”

In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the many controversial topics which the Wikipedia community struggles to keep as neutral as possible within its pages.

“Topics relating to Israel and Palestine are in the group - they're not the only, there are many controversies in the world - they're in the group of articles that are always heavily edited, heavily discussed, heavily debated,” says Wales.

“They get a lot of attention from a lot of different people, and of course it will happen every day that someone will come in with an agenda, in any direction, trying to push that agenda, but the community is quite vigilant about trying to be neutral, trying to follow reliable sources, and I think in general we succeed,” he says, adding that some biases inevitably slip through despite the best efforts. “I think any of us can point to particular pages here or there where we say 'I think this page is not good, I think this page is biased.”

In 2010, the right-wing group Israel Sheli (My Israel) embarked on a Wikipedia battle to insert "Zionist" editing onto the Web-based encyclopedia to combat the anti-Israel entries. Yet while the campaign featured heavily in the press, with the group issuing open calls for seminars on how to proceed, Wales says the battle seemed to have been in vain.

“I would say we saw absolutely no impact from that effort whatsoever. I don't think it ever – it was in the press but we never saw any impact,” he recalls. “I don't think they ever showed up. I don't know what happened, but we didn't see any impact.”

Such campaigns don’t really worry Wales, though. Had Israel Sheli actually followed through with its mass Wikipedia editing, he says, the community would have taken it in stride.

“The very first step would be to welcome new people in, and say, 'Hi, welcome to Wikipedia. .. if you have strong views, you may want to consider editing something else that you don't have strong views about, because it might be quite emotionally difficult.

“The other thing would be to say we really need reliable sources, we like to use very neutral language, and you know what? Most people get that. Most people are like, 'Oh, ok, well, my concern is...' and then state their concern: 'My concern is you didn't really represent the Israeli perspective on this issue’, in which case we say, 'Well we should, right?' If we say 'Yasser Arafat said this, this, this,' and we don't have, 'Oh well, Ariel Sharon responded in this way', then we should have that, and that's a good contribution to Wikipedia because it helps us to be neutral.

“I think that most people do get that neutrality, that understanding the issue is really important,” he maintains.

“It's important to have a diverse community, it's important to have a community that's committed to the principle of neutrality,” he says. “Even as we acknowledge that philosophically it's difficult to achieve, we also can say from an empirical point of view, to what extent do we do a decent job of it, and I think most people will agree: It's pretty good.”

Ultimately, working together is how such a mass project gets pulled off, day after day, says Wales.

“We're not here to fight,” he points out. “We're here to have an encyclopedia.”

Video by David Sheen