Errors are human, says Wikipedia founder

As Wikipedia celebrates its eighth birthday on Thursday, founder Jimmy Wales says the open system is here to stay.

'Openness is the solution, not the problem'

The idea of Wikipedia — an encyclopedia that anyone can write — seemed unlikely eight years ago.

If anyone could write for the online encyclopedia, surely he or she could write anything — accurate or inaccurate.

Today the online encyclopedia has many detractors, with professionals such as journalists and academic researchers saying they don't trust the information it has in its 2.6 million articles, in English alone.

But as Wikipedia celebrates its eighth birthday on Thursday, founder Jimmy Wales says the open system is here to stay.

"Certainly we're not on any trajectory to eliminating the open system. I find that when we have problems, openness is the solution, not the problem," Wales said in an interview Thursday with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

Wales, speaking from Tampa, Fla., accepts that there are inaccuracies on Wikipedia, but  claims it's getting better all the time.

"Yes I do I think that being skeptical and careful about Wikipedia is very much warranted, but we don't need to go overboard with it. It's not that Wikipedia is really bad — it still has lots of errors — about as many as a traditional encyclopedia does in my estimate," he said.

When traditional encyclopedias have errors, those can't be corrected until the next printing, Wales said. Wikipedia errors can be corrected by the network of volunteers who edit and write for the online service.

"We have to accept that It's very likely that there will always be errors in everything — it's part of the human condition. And to really think what are the processes to make it as good as possible," he said.

It's remarkable how well the open system has worked, Wales said.

"I always try to avoid the rhetoric around wisdom of the crowd. Most Wikipedia entries are written by a small number of people — it's not always hundreds of people editing everything. It's a few really smart and dedicated people. It's also people who come in and write one thing, and [you] never hear from them again."

Looking for more control over content

Wikipedia is refining its processes to try to head off new postings that haven't been checked before they appear, Wales said. 

"I think we're just going to continue to see more tweak within the Wikipedia system so we have some new special  features coming out that allow the community a little bit better control over the work that's done by people who are not known to the community," he said.

"That's one of the biggest issues is something shows up and it's causing trouble before anybody notices it."

The public seems to have embraced the idea — internet users have made it the fourth most popular site online.

And Wikipedia has just wrapped up a massively successful fundraising campaign that brought in millions and will keep the site from having to rely on advertising for at least another six months.

Wales admits he has been surprised at the success of his idea — his initial goal eight years ago was to be among the top 100 websites.

And while English-language entries total 2.6 million pages, that's only 20 per cent of the total content.

Wales's ambition is to make Wikipedia available in every language.

"I sort of view it as — it's a public trust now. It's something that … we want to continue to be very thoughtful about the quality of Wikipedia."