August 2, 2005 ·
As I work through the list of ten things that will be free, the order that I go in has no special meaning. Even so, it should not be surprising that the first thing I’ll discuss is the encyclopedia, since I’m best known as “the Wikipedia guy”.
“Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” This is the Wikipedia mission statement.
The goal of Wikipedia (and the core goal of the Wikimedia Foundation) is to create and provide a freely licensed and high quality encyclopedia to every single person on the planet in his or her own language.
What does this mean, operationally? How can we define success?
“Freely licensed” is easy: free means that people can copy our work, redistribute it, modify it, and redistribute modified versions, commercially or non-commercially.
“High quality” means Britannica or better quality. Contrary to what some might suppose, Wikipedia is not intentionally or primarily an anarchy, despite our radical production methods. Wikipedia is a community, and a community, which is at the core, committed to _getting it right_. While many criticisms of Wikipedia’s current quality may be valid, others are clearly absurd (“public toilet” or “anti-elitist” in particular are not serious objections).
“Every single person on the planet” means exactly that — and so implies that we are involved in something that reaches beyond just wealthy western nations with broadband Internet access, but rather an effort that reaches languages used primarily by people who have no decent access to knowledge at all currently.
So, how are we doing? What are the odds of this goal being accomplished in the next 20 years?
First, it can be argued that although much work remains to be done in many areas, if you speak English, German, French, or Japanese, and have broadband Internet access, you have your encyclopedia. Each of those 4 languages has more than 100,000 articles and provides a reasonably comprehensive resource. Several other languages will pass the 100,000 threshold soon enough, and in 5 years time, all of these and many more will be larger than 250,000 articles.
Second, clearly there is a lot of work to be done in finding ways to actually distribute the work we have done already into areas where people can use it. Many people would be able to make positive use of English, French, or Spanish Wikipedia (for example) if only they had access to it.
Third, while it is important to provide our work in important global or “colonial” languages, we also think it is extremely important to provide our work in languages that people speak natively, at home. (Swahili, Hindi, etc.)
I will define a reasonable degree of success as follows, while recognizing that it does leave out a handful of people around the world who only speak rare languages: this problem will be solved when Wikipedia versions with at least 250,000 articles exists in every language which has at least 1,000,000 speakers and significant efforts exist for even very small languages. There are many local languages which are spoken by people who also speak a more common international language — both facts are relevant.
I predict this will be completed in 15 years. With a 250,000-article cutoff, English and German are both past the threshold. Japanese and French will be there in a year. Several other languages will be there in two years.
The encyclopedia will be free.