When you find out Wikipedia is the one of the most visited (top ten) websites in the world, it just makes sense. It’s where curious minds land and often your first search result when “Googling” an unfamiliar topic.
In the age of fast, safe-at-a-distance communication, ABILITY Magazine’s inquiring mind, Chet Cooper, needed some answers and Zoomed with Katherine Maher, CEO and Executive Director of Wikimedia Foundation, the supporting organization behind Wikipedia. What’s behind that curtain? Where does Wikipedia get all its information? Katherine Maher dispels the darkness of our minds and enlightens us about the inner workings of Wikipedia and her goals for the organization.
Cooper: Will you share some background on Wikipedia and Wikimedia so readers have a better understanding of the history.
Maher: Sure. Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales–who is our founder–with the idea that the world would be better off if there was a free encyclopedia on the Internet. At the time, if you think of 2001 on the Web, it was a very different place. While you could get a lot of information, there was still a ton that wasn’t accessible, available. Jimmy saw the future of the Internet as being something that would be a place that we would spend a lot of time and utilize for information-seeking, and he felt like an encyclopedia would be a core element of that, a core building block.
So, he created Wikipedia. As you know, it’s a community-created encyclopedia. All the content is built by volunteers. And very quickly, from 2001 to 2003, was the initial rapid expansion to other languages, globally. Because as it turns out, it’s not just a good idea in English; it’s a good idea everywhere in the world. And then through today it’s grown tremendously. You could talk about different phases of Wikipedia. Up until 2006, it was a little bit more of the Wild West, and then it grew up a little bit in 2006 and is now a much more mature product with a much higher focus on quality today. It’s widely read. It’s amazing to me–who did not have Wikipedia as a student–to see how much it is an essential piece of the way young people, who come online and have never known a world without it, expect it to be there and seek information from it.
Now, our focus as the Wikimedia Foundation is what does the next generation look like for Wikipedia? What does it mean to be the best version of the encyclopedia that we can be, but also to be the best version of the encyclopedia for the greatest number of people? I think the promise of Wikipedia was not just that it was free–which was different than historic encyclopedias, which were very expensive–But now, we’re also looking at how we make sure the knowledge that Wikipedia contains reflects the things that people seek and want to know and that they can participate in it, they can contribute to it, learn from it, regardless of where they come from or what their background is. It’s a much more inclusive understanding of what knowledge can and should be.
Cooper: How do you monitor, filter, incorporate the information, the content to be sure it is what an encyclopedia used to be in dealing with—checking the facts? How do you deal with that?
Maher: The community volunteers are the ones who do it, and they are remarkably good at it. The way that the Wikimedia Foundation works is we host the website and we take care of the infrastructure to make Wikipedia works. And we support these global volunteer communities, who are the ones who create the content, set the editorial policies and write the articles. Some of the core principles of Wikipedia are that every single article has to have citations, at the bottom, back to the original source of information from which that article was created. The idea here is that all information on Wikipedia has to be verifiable in some way.
For us, that means that because we’re not creating the original knowledge, we’re not the researchers, the academics, the journalists. We have a commitment to readers, that they should be able to know where the information comes from and to research it themselves. It has proven to be a really effective way of ensuring the overall quality of Wikipedia because it means that in general, the information doesn’t stay on Wikipedia unless it can be referenced back to a reliable source. We call it the “verifiability principle.” That is the core of how Wikipedia works. Information comes from somewhere. It is integrated into a Wikipedia article. And you always have the ability to check where that information came from, including when that information changes and the ability to change the article to reflect what has changed in the world around us.
Cooper: That’s where the fact-based issues have to be looked at. The source? Anybody can build a website these days and put up information. And what you just said, put something into a Wikipedia page and link it back as a reference. How do you monitor that? How do you monitor with the mass numbers of volunteers you have doing the work, that you couldn’t get bad players as volunteers?
Maher: Such a great question! The sources that belong—that are accepted on Wikipedia have to have—they are required to be what we consider a “reliable source.” This is a policy definition that our community has come up with–a content policy. A reliable source must be a source that’s respected or known in its field. It has to have its own editorial policies. For example, you wouldn’t be able to just put up a blog and cite information back to that blog. You could have a blog, but it would have to be a specialized blog that is reputable in the field. Maybe it talks about user-centric design, for example. It would need to be notable in its own right. It would need to have its own editorial processes to be recognized for its reliability. That’s how you end up with Wikipedia articles cited back to sources like the BBC and The Lancet, academic journals, and not my personal blog or my Twitter feed, heaven forbid! That is the differentiation, the emphasis on reliable sources–sources with their own editorial processes, editorial review, peer review, that are reputable in their field.
The reason it’s both as specific and as vague as that is because, of course, the types of sources that you would look at to cover the coronavirus pandemic would include sources like breaking news events, like government reports on economic trends, medical journals like The New England Journal of Medicine and all of these different sectoral areas will have very different sources for that information. So, you need to be flexible enough to be able to say, “What’s the impact of COVID on the arts?” and also “What’s the impact of COVID on the vascular system?” These are very different sources that we’ll be pulling that information from.
Cooper: To stay on COVID for a second–which is such an interesting topic because you have coming out of the White House oftentimes a different version than what might be coming out of the CDC or other health experts, WHO–How do you carve out that strange scenario that’s happening right now with different sound bites that may or may not be true because of political issues?
Maher: This is really where the community is so spectacular. The volunteer editor community is responsible for doing this work. They hold—first, to answer your question from a while ago, they hold themselves to account for quality of contribution. For example, you might have a thousand editors working on one of the main COVID articles, and those editors have—(For) every contribution they make, there’s a record of what their contribution is, which means that their peers editors can see if somebody is contributing constructively, productively, or in a way that would be damaging to the encyclopedia and its quality. And they use that peer accountability to ensure that contributions are high-quality. And when somebody, for example—and now I’ll get back to the COVID question, if somebody were to introduce misinformation or unverifiable or unsupported assertions, the community can say, “Hey, editor ‘ABC’, we’ve noticed that you introduced this. Perhaps you made a mistake here. Perhaps this was unintentional.” And if the editor was like, “Oh, you’re right, it was a mistake,” there’s no problem. They can keep editing. If it turns out that editor has the particular point of view they’re trying to push, a political point of view, a set of perspectives, and a form of bias, and they continue to come back and continue to try to introduce inaccurate or misleading or biased information, the rest of the editors can prevent them from editing that page or can block them from contributing to Wikipedia for a day or a week or longer. That’s that form of self-regulation that helps the community stay accountable to itself.
On the question of COVID, what’s really interesting to me is that this is probably one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever seen when it comes to breaking news with Wikipedia. We know more now than we did six months ago, but we knew nothing about the virus when it first emerged. It was a novel virus. So, there are all sorts of competing information from various different sources. You mentioned the CDC, but of course, there’s every national health institute on the planet and then contradictory information within the U.S., between clinicians and practitioners—all the sorts of challenges. What the community members do is that they will only put information that has been substantiated from multiple sources if it is controversial in some sort of way. If it is a new interpretation–Let’s say, that the virus is airborne or aerosolized, and we don’t have any—and we sort of know that now. But, at the time, that was unsupported or uncertain. It was new information. The community would write something along the lines of, “Reports from the CDC, the NHS, the Korean Center for Disease Control indicate that coronavirus SARS COV2 is aerosolized.”-And I’m making this up because I’m trying to use an example of how they would do it.–“However, more evidence is needed,” or something to that effect.
Similarly, on [the issue of] should people wear masks or not, they might say, “Research in Germany indicates that mask-wearing compliance is correlated with a lower transmission. Current scientific communications say that mask-wearing is recommended.” But they wouldn’t take a side on one issue or another. They wouldn’t come in and say, “Donald Trump says X, Boris Johnson says Y, Antony Fauci says Z,” and try to determine what’s right. They would describe the conversation as it’s happening and root it in the evidence-based publication that has occurred within the medical space.
Cooper: What I was hearing was something that was kind of different in my mind of what Wikipedia is–What I know of Wikipedia, in that I always thought it was materials put together by anyone who could post on there, but it sounded as though you’re describing it more as editors and journalists putting the pieces together from information that comes in. I know you’re calling them volunteers, but it’s almost sounding like they’re acting as journalists as well.
Maher: I think they would differentiate themselves and say they’re not journalists because they don’t do source information-gathering. What they do is tertiary source information, which means they do more of a desk review of materials that are available, whereas most journalists–The differentiation is that the field of journalism requires engaging with primary sources. Wikipedians engage with secondary sources, and journalists engage with primary sources. Like, you’re talking to me as a primary source. A Wikipedian would read the article in ABILITY Magazine and say, “Ah, OK, this is written by a journalist. This is now a secondary source,” and they would use it to write Wikipedia.
Where that comes into practice is, for example, we have numerous Wikipedians who are medical doctors. None of them would ever consider writing an article based on what they have experienced in their own medical practice the way a journalist might. In fact, a great article just came out in the Washington Post or GQ. I know the journalist–and it’s not her outlet–where she wrote about having COVID and the implications of her personal experience and used that as a way of going out and exploring COVID in society. A Wikipedian would never do that. They would only start with what’s been published by other reliable sources. I think what you just brought up, Wikipedians may have a specialization in a certain area But they don’t view themselves as experts on any particular topic. And instead. they look at what many experts say and then work to synthesize that information.
Cooper: Do you know the amount of time that a typical volunteer puts in?
Maher: Oh, my gosh! So many hours! (laughs) It depends. We have about a quarter of a million editors a month who edit Wikipedia. About 75,000 of those–it changes month to month–are editors who edit five times or more in a month. If you’re one of those 75,000, you’re probably spending a few hours at least in a month editing Wikipedia. If you are one of the other 180,000, you are probably spending very little time at all. You might read an article and correct a grammatical error or make a sentence flow more smoothly or something like that, and maybe you spend 30 minutes on it. But to write an article from soup to nuts or to maintain the quality of an article that’s already in existence can require quite a bit of time, because you’re doing research into secondary sources, you’re learning about a topic, and you’re going really deep in a way that for people who do it is extraordinarily satisfying. It’s a project you do, like sewing a new piece of clothing or finishing a book or preparing a meal. It’s a project that people engage with with tangible production at the end. But then there are lots of people who do much lighter-weight forms of engagement with Wikipedia as well.
Cooper: The volunteers have diverse backgrounds.
Maher: Oh, yeah, totally. We have people who are experts in their field, but even they edit with the understanding that they’re one of many experts in their field. We also have 13-year-old high school students and retirees. We have grandparents, school teachers, electrical engineers, farmers—oh, my gosh, the range of individuals who contribute to Wikipedia is stunning when you get global. A man reached out to me on Twitter today who is an arborist. He works with trees, and he writes Wikipedia articles and has been on a quest to identify all the indigenous trees of the UK.
Cooper: Right. I heard he’s branching out.
Maher: (laughs) Yes. It’s just fascinating the range of people and interests that show up on the projects themselves.
Cooper: And did you respond to him?
Maher: I haven’t yet. He pinged me after my calls had started for the day. But he invited me, if I’m ever in London or in the UK, to go on—it was like a tree journey. It was really sweet.
Cooper: And you’re based in San Francisco?
Maher: I am, yes, although I’m from the East Coast originally. I came out here to work for Wikipedia.
Cooper: And your background?
Maher: I’m from the East Coast. I was raised in Connecticut. I studied in the Middle East, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. I thought I was going to be an academic. Instead, I worked primarily for human rights and international development organizations. I was very passionate about technology, a big nerd as a kid. I loved the computer. The Internet was new at the time, it was very exciting. My career was around merging these two passions of technology and human potential, human rights, access to dignity, access to opportunity, and how technology could enable that. So, when I was at UNICEF, we did work on access to health through mobile phones. And now I’m at Wikipedia working on access to information online.
Cooper: Where in the Middle East were you?
Maher: I spent two years living in Cairo and then was in—spent quite a bit of time in Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia. Those are the three countries I probably spent the most time in other than in Egypt.
Cooper: So, you really have a different view when you look at what’s happened after the Arab Spring and Syria and all that compared to when you were there.
Maher: (sighs) Oh, yeah. Certainly. I moved to the Middle East in 2002 as a student. And then I worked in the region with UNICEF. But in 2011 I spent quite a bit of time there in the aftermath of the revolutions doing research on the ground with human rights activists and independent journalists communities on their hopes and aspirations for a democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. I was not able to go back to Syria at that point because it was too dangerous. But I’m certainly still in touch with a lot of folks from across the region.
Cooper: It’s just amazing how most of the people in the U.S. are pretty much clueless on what’s still going on in these regions.
Maher: There’s a lot of really good people trying to live lives of dignity and opportunity in the world, and the Middle East is full of them as well. I wish that we met their needs and aspirations better in the U.S.
Cooper: Did you go to the World Wide Web conference in San Francisco?
Maher: I went to the one the year prior in Lyon, I think, and spoke at it. But it’s a great conference, fascinating.
Cooper: We’ve been working with Web-for-All, but missed Lyon. That must have been a great experience. When you think about the WWW, it really wasn’t that long ago since Sir Tim Berners-Lee was at CERN. Do you know Vint Cerf?
Maher: Of course!
Cooper: He’s now on our advisory board.
Maher: Oh, fantastic!
Cooper: I’ve known him for about 25 years.
Maher: He’s wonderful! I’ve had the chance to interact with him on a number of occasions. Fun story: Before COVID I used to go to a seminar on the future of the Internet with some of the people who were responsible for building it every fall. Vint used to take such great pleasure in going around with a towel draped over his arm and serving everyone wine. Being served wine by the father of the Internet was the weirdest experience! (laughs)
Maher: It’s like, “Shouldn’t we be doing that for you, sir?” (laughter) And he always wears a three-piece suit. (laughs)
Cooper: We were both speakers at the National Press Club before COVID about the benefits of employment of people with disabilities and some of the work—the reason I was speaking is because we built the first job board for people with disabilities.
Maher: No kidding!
Cooper: It’s abilityJOBS.com and it’s been online since 1995.
Maher: Oh, my gosh, that’s remarkable!
Cooper: More recently we built the first accessible online career fair. You’ve been to career fairs?
Maher: Of course, yeah.
Cooper: If you ever do any recruitment outreach to people with disabilities—
Maher: Oh, we would love to, Chet. It’s one of the things that is a big part of our values, particularly since we’re a totally remote organization, and for people with mobility challenges, we would love to be able to recruit more from your community.
Cooper: Our success is both with the large number of job seekers, but our growing number of recruiters —we have Google, Wells Fargo, CBRE, IRS, NSA, Facebook, National Institutes of Health; it’s a who’s who list. I’ll quickly tell you what we do. It’s face-to-face video event. Not all career sites are like that, a lot of them are just chat-based, where you text it in.
If we were there right now, there’d be a queue. Let’s say you’re the recruiter, I’m the job seeker. You’d see me. If I happened to be deaf, a third video appears and a sign language interpreter communicates between us. It’s built with accessibility in it’s DNA allowing screen readers for people that are blind, real time speech to text for people needing extra understanding for communication and internal video messaging for any candidate that didn’t get a chance to meet a recruiter.
Maher: That’s phenomenal. We’ll definitely follow up. I would love to find a way to do this. One of the things that is so important to us as an organization–Our mission, as you know, we’re the website–The website is great, and it’s really useful to so many people. It’s used by hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is already fantastic. But it could be so much better. And that’s my passion. It’s around all of the ways in which the full diversity of lived experiences on the planet, from ability and disability, place of origin, cultural identity, religious identity, ethnic or racial identity, indigenous culture are not yet really well represented. A huge part of the way that we better serve those communities is by having an organization that is more reflective of the diversity of the world. Just recruiting and enabling staff of all backgrounds. I would love to follow up with you on that.
Cooper: Let’s do that. I would love to figure out a way also to make it easier for people—I’ve heard so many stories of problems they’ve had with putting their own content on Wikipedia. They can’t figure out how to do it when they feel like they have the facts, and then the model is as you described it, it has to be coming from another source. The idea that the editors, the volunteers, look at it as, “This sounds like it’s marketing.” Have you heard about that issue?
Maher: It’s a real challenge. I think there are two general categories that falls into. One is when people try to write an article about themselves. That happens all the time, for very understandable reasons. I just had a nice young man, a social media influencer, reach out to me this weekend asking for help with that. Writing an article about yourself is considered a violation of our policies. It violates our conflict of interest policies. We like to say it’s very hard to be neutral about yourself, so it’s better if other people do that for you. Conflict of interest means you can’t write about your employer, about yourself, your spouse or partner, things like that. That’s the first category, and it’s such a common one. Very often, once people understand why that policy exists, it becomes easier to have a conversation about what another form of contribution looks like.
The other one, which is very frequent, is that someone writes about something they’re really passionate about or love–Let’s say, their hometown, their favorite car manufacturer, their favorite video game–And they do so in a way that’s so enthusiastic that it comes across like marketing. I think we do not do a good enough job, if I’m being very honest, of educating people when they first sign up to contribute about what the policies are around tone, neutrality, verification, conflict of interest, etc. One of the things people experience is that they might get frustrated because they put in a lot of good effort and don’t feel appreciated for that effort. So, [what] we’re working on right now is trying to find better ways to get what we think of as “onboarding people” into the process so that they learn those guide lines up front, as opposed to after they’ve already made a contribution, and they’re feeling demotivated or dispirited.
Cooper: Are there tutorials out there that talk about those two areas?
Maher: There are a few, but I think the bigger issue is that because Wikipedia is so widely known, the tutorials that you would access maybe are harder to come by or find relative to the ease of just clicking “edit.” It’s much better known than the learning resources that we have for how to learn the project. What we’re trying to do, what my hope is, what we’re working on is how we can make that learning part of the editing process itself so you don’t have to read or participate in a separate tutorial. But when you go to “Edit Wikipedia,” it’s sort of like signing up for any—it’s very common these days to sign up for products and platforms and services, where you sign up and they ask, “Do you want to fill out your bio? Have you considered what your passion areas are? What your interests are?” And communicating that. Or signing up for channels or topics. We could do a much better job of onboarding people so we could say, “Hey, have you learned about the conflict of interest policy yet?” for example.
Cooper: If somebody’s flagged as a conflict of interest, at this point, do they get some notice of what your rules are and how to deal with it to get possible information that they would like to see on Wikipedia done in a way that fits your framework?
Maher: The answer is yes, except of course this is both a good thing and a bad thing about the way that we work. The good thing is that we are so community-driven and historically, always have been. The bad thing is that oftentimes people get that notification from a community volunteer, and sometimes that person is trained on how to support and educate and sometimes that person is not. Sometimes people get a very supportive experience and correction and mentoring, and sometimes people get their wrist slapped. That is the outgrowth of being an organic community-driven grassroots organization in the sense that we have far fewer resources, and the community has always led the way, which has been wonderful. It’s made Wikipedia exist. We view it as a strength and an asset.
But what we now, at our size and scale, need to do as an institution is to put in more supportive tools, training for editors, and training for newbies so that everyone has a more positive experience. When we were a tiny website, this was less of an issue. Now that we’re so well established and popular and widely utilized, it’s a responsibility on our side.
Cooper: That’s great to hear. I was thinking about languages, have you heard of Amara?
Cooper: Amara has crowdsourcing for closed captioning. We use it for our videos not just to ensure they are accessible to deaf and hard of hearing viewers, but they are captioned in multiple languages. We have over 2,000 volunteers working with us captioning in their native tongue.
Maher: That’s really cool. This is something we were just talking about the other day. Wikipedia is the most famous of our projects, but Wikimedia Commons is where all of our media comes from, images and videos. We have been talking about how we really want to improve the quality of video on Wikipedia because so many people these days learn through video. It’s a huge part of YouTube, if you are a non-native language speaker, to be able to watch a video helps with comprehension and also language acquisition and skill acquisition. One of the things we’ve been talking about is ‘what can we do to support better video?”
One of the really exciting things for us has been—our community is phenomenal at translation. We’ve been talking about closed captioning and captioning of videos as a great jumping-off point for our volunteers, given how many of them are multilingual and how well established the multilingual capacity for translation among articles is for Wikipedia. I’ll definitely look into that, thank you.
Cooper: It’s used by TED Talks, Scientific American, Udacity, Net in Nederlands and many others. I will connect you with them.
Maher: That’s great, thank you!
Cooper: I know you have to go is there anything that you’d like to talk about before we end?
Maher: What I would want your readers to know is that Wikipedia is a work in progress, but it’s also a work that we make together. So, all the best things in the world, in my view, are the institutions that we steward as communities, but also the institutions that we have a hand in building, that reflect our aspirations as humans–whether that’s at the level of local governance or whether it’s in the sense of community centers. The things that we love and cherish are the things that represent our humanity. And Wikipedia, for me, really is that because it represents what we do together as people.
There are certainly issues. We’ve talked about some of them. I wish it were easier to contribute. There are ways in which it is not fully reflective of the world as a whole. A lot of work to be done. And yet also, Wikipedia is a reflection of this tremendous thing that people can do when they collaborate with no exterior, no ulterior motive or external reward promised. As a nonprofit, it’s a complete gift that people give their time to build this work for people they’ll never meet. For me, it’s a tremendous gift of human generosity. Wikipedia runs on the generosity of volunteers. I would want people to know that. This is a truly human project, which means that it both has its foibles and is flawed, but it is also aspirational and beautiful and collaborative. It’s a thing that we do together
If people are interested in participating, we often say there are many ways to contribute. You can be a donor, that’s probably the way most people interact with Wikipedia. You can be an editor, which is its own form of contribution. But I also think you can just be an engaged citizen and contribute to Wikipedia. The very nature of seeking information validates how important knowledge is to the world. Every time you read an article on our site, you’re saying, “I value knowledge.” When you say that, it’s a reminder to institutions like ours and others that knowledge needs to be protected and defended. You’re showing up on behalf of knowledge by the act of seeking it. For me, truly, in this world today, that act of seeking knowledge, of seeking understanding, and what that might lead to in terms of cooperation, collaboration, and dialogue, that’s the basis for how we solve the greatest challenges of our time, from climate change to social and political division. We start by showing up and working together and by seeking to understand.
I hope that that’s the thing people would hear, that this is a thing that we do together. That means there’s a chance for you to be involved in it, no matter who you are, no matter what your background is. There’s a chance for you to build the way that the world understands itself. That is profound. Nothing like that has ever existed in the history of humanity. That’s my pitch! That’s what I want people to know.
Cooper: That was beautiful! It did bring me to another thought about the digital divide and how we can deal with that. You’re hearing more and more because of the distant learning with schools and children in certain areas in the U.S., but what about the digital divide globally. Since you are a hundred percent digital, is there anything tangible you could share about what you’re trying to do in dealing with that?
Maher: Absolutely. You’re completely right about the digital divide, and you just hit on one of my passion areas from my time at UNICEF. As you may know, it’s not even as pure as a digital divide, because it’s not just that half the population has Internet and half doesn’t. It’s also who has access to the Internet. it’s highly gendered, for example. Most women in the world do not have access to the same degree of digital connectivity as men, heads of household, patriarchal structures, things like this. That goes on all the way through any form of invisible, whether it’s minority or marginalized community. You have less access.
From our perspective, the digital divide is one of these issues, content divide, what we call “knowledge equity” is one of our big focuses, “knowledge gap” is another one. Within the digital divide in particular, though, especially since it tends to disproportionately affect learners, because even those who may have access to technology in a household tend to be the adults, tend to be primary breadwinner, things like that. So schoolchildren are often the ones who are most excluded from participation as we look globally. What we have done with our community, it’s been a community-led initiative from day one, was from the very early days of Wikipedia to look at what Offline Wikipedia looks like.
Offline Wikipedia is an imperfect response to the digital divide, because it doesn’t address questions, say, of literacy. But it does start to get into questions of connectivity and electricity. From the very early days, the community was focused on an offline version of Wikipedia which had no images, really low memory requirements, things like that. And now more in these current days, we support an organization financially and through some product work as well called Kiwix. They create a productized version of Offline Wikipedia for distribution globally, along with other learning resources. It’s all packaged together into an offline resource. That and an initiative from some of our—we have other initiatives around our editing communities around Offline Medical Wikipedia, which is a really popular app for doctors and other medical professionals who need access to basic medical information. Wikipedia’s medical articles are rigorously edited by our editing community, and that includes in multiple languages, as well as some efforts with a project called WikiFundi, a project from our African Wikipedia community, to engage people in offline editing, so that people don’t have to have access to the Internet in order to be able to contribute their knowledge.
There’s a range of different projects. Kiwix is certainly the biggest, and I know we can send over a little bit more about that. And if you were interested in talking to the folks behind that, they’re wonderful. They’re based out of Switzerland but have a pretty global footprint at this point. It doesn’t address, as we said, literacy, indigenous languages, a number of these other issues, but it does start to address that distribution. And the crazy thing about it, something I love, is that we know that Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world. We have about a billion visitors a month. We have no idea how widely used Kiwix is. We’ll never know. We know we distribute it. We know it goes like hotcakes whenever they produce it. The team will show up with physical items to distribute in communities. It’s also a digital version. You can download it, copy it infinitely. That’s another aspect of us being freely licensed. It means that not only do we not know how far and wide Kiwix is distributed, because we have no licensing requirements around our IP, there’s no way for us to track it, and that’s completely fine. That’s part of our mission. That’s a huge part of why we are freely licensed. So we do the work. We support it with grant-making with the expectation and knowledge that it goes off and does good in the world, without having an understanding of just how large that global footprint is.
We know it’s big, based on some data, but we’ll never know. And I think that’s kind of beautiful on some level.
Cooper: How is it distributed? If you’re talking about a digital divide and you have a download, you can’t download if you don’t have—you’re not printing?!
Maher: (laughs) No, we don’t print Wikipedia. That would be enormous. We did a project to figure out how big it would be, and they found that English Wikipedia alone was something like 6,000 volumes. It’s huge. Bigger than many small community libraries. So no, it is entirely a digital package. It is distributed in one of two ways. One is that you can download, and it’s very small. The total size of a Wikipedia when stripped of images in particular is tiny, because it’s all text-based. The bandwidth requirements are incredibly low. I don’t know the exact number because it changes as Wikipedia keeps growing, but it’s it in the MB size, not the KB size, if that makes any sense.
And if you include the images it’s still relatively small, because we can do all sorts of fun things with compression to get that down. We’re able to offer that as a download package. Many people in countries with inconsistent access to electricity and network bandwidth use things like trickle downloads. That allows you to be able to sync up whenever you’re on and then go offline when you’re not. That’s a feature even in our apps for people who are in inconsistent connectivity environments. You can set it so that Wikipedia updates when you are offline.
The other one is physical distribution. It’s really easy to copy these flash drives. You just stick them into the appropriate device drive, make a copy, and move it around. In my old world, we would call this a “sneaker net.” You literally create something by sneakers.
Maher: So we know that’s how versions of Wikipedia get distributed in Cuba. There are other interesting issues with people trying to distribute it in areas with internet restrictions. The physical distribution on flash drives and copying tends to be the best way. As I said, because there are no IP restrictions, we don’t have any digital copyright around restrictions. You can copy them endlessly and give them out however you would like. That tends to be the way that those get distributed. People will literally carry copies of them to conferences, and we’ll be like, “Hey, are you going back to Ghana? All right, here’s a box of them.” And the community members will take them back and work within their own community networks to distribute them.
I’m so sorry. I do have to go. But I would love to continue the conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been fun to talk to someone who has such a historical and deep sense of what the work is.
Cooper: We will re-connect with you, both on the employment side, but also just some other ideas that might be very interesting for—not that you need additional projects.
Maher: (laughs) I love it. Let’s do it.
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To be continued…