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Monday, February 26, 2007 10:18:22 AM (IST)  

News headlines

Agency report

Chennai, Feb 26: "Why do I write so little (on my blog)? Because... I am intimidated by it."

Ironical, coming from a man whose initiative has spawned an entire community of voluntary writers and moderators of content, which has contributed over 5.3 million articles in more than 100 languages, in about six years.

Meet Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.org, which describes itself as a Web-based, free-content encyclopaedia. Wales was in Chennai on Sunday to participate in a Wiki Camp, an `Unconference' where everyone runs everything and there are no set schedules.

He explains, if what he says on his blog is misunderstood or misreported in the media, "I end up wasting two days setting that right. May be I should write everyday for two weeks on mundane topics," in the hope that he might not be taken so seriously every time he writes.

Wales also said that the Wiki Search engine, part of Wikia, a commercial venture that he floated in 2004, is due for launch before the end of this year. The search engine would use algorithms that would be published for view by all.

Isn't that dangerous, given search engine automisers and spammers who could tweak it to their benefit?

Sure, says Wales, "But security through obscurity is a bad idea." If you have published algorithms, then everyone, including scientists can see it. Then those illuminated minds could contribute to the improvement of the product, is the inference. "But if it is kept secret, then the bad guys, who have all the time in the world and are dedicated to gaining access to your algorithm, will somehow find a way."

For profit project

The Wikia initiative, targeted at specialised communities, is for profit.

"The Wikipedia project only uses two programmers and donations provide sustenance. Contrast that with Wikia, which has 31 employees, including 25 programmers. The search project alone would need hundreds of servers. We would need investments to push forward software."

He says that even if he garners 3 per cent of the search engine market, it would be a sustainable model.

All the software written by Wikia would be in the open source domain, meaning, it would be available for viewing and improving to the public. Currently, advertisements form a bulk of its revenue.

Some income

One of the minor by-products of Wikia would be a salary for Wales. "Wikipedia is now the 10th largest site in the world, but I haven't made a penny from it. I would like to make some money."

For Wikipedia, though, is the donation model sustainable? "A vast majority of money to Wikipedia comes in the form of small amounts. Last year, donations through PayPal came from 50 different countries. This is adequate to buy and maintain servers but not to hire programmers. Recently though, we have seen large sized donations from wealthy supporters whom we approached. A major Internet company actually offered to host and run our servers for free but we turned down that offer. We did not want to be known as Googlepedia or Yahoopedia, or whatever." In the long run, Wales says, Wikia could cross-subsidise Wikipedia.

Bandwidth costs, currently at $ 25,000 a month, are actually going down. "In December last, our traffic went up 3-4 times compared to the previous year, but our bandwidth costs were down."

Sharing of computer resources across users could well lessen costs for Wikipedia, but says Wales, "It would be very, very difficult to do peer-to-peer computing. However, it would be useful in China, where we are completely blocked out."

He did not seem too perturbed by `vandalism' on Wikipedia. "It is a small problem in the grand scheme of things. It's just a noise in the background. We now have vandal bots that monitor changes and look for tell-tale signs, such as URL changes or use of swear words."

Wouldn't login ids and passwords help keep vandalism down? "It might, but persistent vandals anyway get in. And if you want the good guys to spot and eradicate vandalism, they wouldn't take the trouble to edit if they first had to login."

He also emphasised, at a media gathering later, that the community approach helped keep away plagiarism as well as overt public relations exercises in the guise of objective articles.

Indian contributors

Wales also introduced a few Indian contributors at the gathering. Of note were Badani, Ganesh and Sundar whose last names were not immediately known.

Ganesh wrote a Wikibot that, with the help of the Indian Census data, generated basic articles on 5,000 towns, including information on demographics, places of interest, maps, and the like.

Sundar, helped initiate the Tamil language Wikipedia, which now has 50 editors and 7200 articles published to date.

Badani, easily aged over 50, showed an enthusiasm that matched the young crowd at the Wiki Camp. What started off as `mere browsing' while he was ill and holed up at home in 2004 is now a passion. He has, so far, contributed 500 articles to Wikipedia and is an administrator for three communities in Wikia. 



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