Wikipedia to take over the world?

In February 2004 I discovered Wikipedia. Within a few months I realised that Wikipedia was going to be "the next big thing".

About a year ago I tried to convince a number of Christian leaders in Sydney - including those involved in the media - that funding needed to be set aside for a full-time writer to write Christian articles on Wikipedia. I had already contributed a lot already, and had begun some very important articles, especially on the Charismatic movement. Of course, I was also arguing that I would be that particular writer.

It was my assertion 12 months ago that, within 5 years, Wikipedia would be the "centre" of the internet. I plucked facts and figures from Alexa.com to show the exponential growth that Wikipedia was experiencing as evidence.

It was hard to convince people. No one saw the real potential there. Despite the fact that between 10-20 of my articles were finding themselves on the first page of Google searches even back then did not convince people. One person even chided me for spending too much time on the computer and that money spent on such a project would not be "good stewardship".

The Gospel can be found in Wikipedia, as can very complex explanations of biblical theology. It is the starting point for many people in their research into different topics. Christian articles were, and still are, quite undeveloped compared to the scientific/technology based articles that can be found there.

Now it appears as though many people now see Wikipedia as being "The next Google". The argument goes that the 'net was initially controlled by Microsoft, but has lost to Google's increasing influence. Now it appears as though even Google is threatened, with people now turning to Wikipedia to find information rather than typing it into a Google search.

Moreover, since the time I spent 12 months ago trying to convince people, Wikipedia has probably grown 3-4 times its original size. It is now one the top 40 websites, and is increasingly used by journalists and other parts of the media to check facts.

And yet the Christian articles are still relatively undeveloped. This is one of the reasons why I see myself as a "Cassandra" - I can "see" the future but can't convince anyone in the present time.

If you want to look at my Wikipedia contributions, click on my user page.

From the Department of Frustration

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.


Craig Schwarze said...

I certainly agree regarding the importance of Wikipedia. However, its strength comes from the diversity of content. Having a full-time writer for a particular area would somewhat defeat that purpose. There is also the "neutrality" issue to be negotiated.

Having said that, I admire the entrepeneurial aspect of your proposal. A better way forward would be for you to campaign for theologians to become "wiki-aware" so they start to make contributions themselves...

One Salient Oversight said...

Here's a Salient part of my proposal:

Questions about Christian Wikipedia ministry

Q. Why not just set up your own web page and make contributions to it?
A1. There is no guarantee that Christians or non-Christians will view the pages unless the web site becomes very popular.
A2. There are already plenty of Christian web sites out there that contain good information (and many more that contain poor information).
A3. There would be no collaborative process that would ensure a detailed and unbiased article.

Q. Why not have your own website that you can use for external links in Wikipedia about Christian articles?
A. That would be good and is entirely possible. However, any Wikipedia contributor could erase those links if he or she felt that it compromises the neutral bias of the article. Any linked website must contain information that is presented in a fair manner, but there is no necessity for that information to be unbiased.

Q. What is all this about Neutral Bias? Surely it is unattainable?
A. That is true. Essentially contributors to Wikipedia write articles that are as unbiased as possible, but will always contain some form of bias. The good thing is that another contributor can come along and remove that bias if necessary. In a sense, what is happening is not about neutral bias, but just about neutrality itself – the article will reflect a compromise between contributors.

Q. But what if one or many contributors deliberately “fix it” so that only one biased viewpoint is considered? An example might be a bunch of Atheists who gang up together to modify the Wikipedia article about God in order to insult and denigrate the Christian religion.
A. If contributors cannot agree on any changes, you have to realise that no one side can “win” by sheer numbers alone. The majority will modify the text while the minority revert that text back to what it was... then the majority will revert their changes, and an “edit war” ensues. The problem with an edit war is that no side can win – it is a stalemate. What needs to happen is mediation and arbitration – other members of the community can come in (including administrators) and try to work out the best solution. Even if a majority of contributors want something that is unreasonable, adminstrators can order them to “cease and desist”. Those that don't can end up having their IP address banned temporarily or permanently.

Q. How do contributors discuss their changes and argue with one another?
A. Each article has a discussion page where contributors discuss things. The discussion is open for all to see. There are rarely any email exchanges between contributors.

Q. Won't any attempt at a neutral bias remove the ability to proclaim God's truth?
A. Not at all. God's truth presented in an entirely neutral way is still God's truth. Moreover, because Wikipedia articles will attempt ot present both points of view on any given issue, proponents of one point of view can actually articulate their arguments quite well.

Q. What is the point of contributing anyway? Wikipedia might be popular now, but what about in 10-20 years? All that work might go down the drain if something better comes along, including another Wikipedia-type project that might compete with it.
A. This is very unlikely given the nature of the copyright that covers the articles. Basically, all Wikipedia articles are public domain, and anyone is free to copy and publish them. They are also free to modify them, so long as they make those changes available for everyone to view. What this means in practice is that even if Wikipedia should go bankrupt, the articles themselves will be available on the internet for people to view and modify – someone else will take up what Wikipedia sought to do. What must also be remembered is that all Wikipedia articles are continually being worked on. It is therefore entirely possible that all the articles currently in Wikipedia will still be modified and worked on in 10-20 years... and even beyond.

Q. What about the quality of the articles? Surely a theologian or biblical scholar could come up with a superior article than anything written on Wikipedia by part-time amateurs?
A1. There is no doubt that a theologian or scholar could write an article superior to anything on Wikipedia. But when he writes that article we have to remember that it is copyrighted as his work, which means that it is unlikely to have as much “reach” throughout the internet world as a public domain article. If any person should copy his article and paste it on their website, then it is entirely possible that legal action could be taken to remove it. A public domain article, however, can be copied and pasted to many websites and be totally legal. It is the copyright, and not the quality of the article, that counts in this area.
A2. Any professional theologian or biblical scholar would easily be able to produce an article that is of a quality beyond that of a mere amateur. It is, however, the assertion of most Wikipedia contributors that the collaborative work of multiple amateurs can eventually produce an article that is superior to one created by a single professional.
A3. Professional scholars and researchers are already contributing to Wikipedia articles in other areas, such as science, history and philosophy. These professionals are very welcome, and their work helps other contributors enormously. The same could be said about theologians and biblical scholars who are welcome to write and edit Wikipedia articles the same as anyone.

Q. Wikipedia articles are created by part-time amateurs. Why then are you asserting that a full-time Christian writer is necessary to write Christian articles for Wikipedia?
A1. Wikipedia has been around for a number of years. The articles that are the most detailed, mature and contain first-class prose are articles written by the earliest Wikipedians and have been edited and finely tuned for years. These early contributors were (and probably still are) influenced by the open-source software movement. This means that articles based upon science, technology, software and political philosophy have the most going for them. Articles about the Christian church and the Christian faith are generally poor quality and too brief to be useful. A lot of catch-up needs to be done to ensure that Christian articles at least match those in other fields. A full-time writer would help redress that problem.
A2. As Wikipedia becomes more popular in the next 5-10 years, more and more Christians will discover the site and begin to contribute to it. There is enough evidence that shows that Christians are generally under-represented in Wikipedia. As a result, many Christians will begin to edit and submit articles and require guidance from a Christian who is both knowledgeable in the subject area, and experienced in the Wikipedia community. The full-time writer would therefore help newcomers to understand how Wikipedia works properly, as well as help them to write better articles.
A3. Most people who contribute to Wikipedia add little snippets of information often, but create entirely new articles only rarely. The reason is because of the amount of work required to create that first article is much greater than simply adding things “here and there”. A full-time writer can devote himself to the creation of articles that meet a competent standard, and then rely heavily upon the work of others to make them much better. A full-time writer therefore helps the collaborative process to occur.
A4. By containing huge amounts of Christian information, the message of the gospel will be found in Wikipedia. Anyone who is searching for the message of the Gospel at Wikipedia will be able to find it there. It is therefore imperative that articles which contain the gospel message are written in an informative and easy-to-read style. This will be used by God to call people to repentance and faith. It is likely that people will come to faith partly by hearing the gospel call while reading Wikipedia. A full-time writer is needed to ensure that this happens.
A5. Christians need to understand their own faith better. By going to Wikipedia, Christians will be able to (eventually) access a wealth of information about their faith. This will help them to make better informed decisions about their Christian life. It is enitrely possible that Christians will be able to be trained to serve God better, and understand the Bible better, through their research at Wikipedia. A full-time writer is needed to ensure that this happens.
A6. Wikipedia itself employs full-time staff to act as administrators and to ensure that the servers and data is kept in working condition. The founder of Wikipedia is himself a mildly successful internet entrepreneur, and funnels profit from his other enterprises to keep Wikipedia running – including the employment of a number of people do to these things.
A7. The free-software movement acts as a precedent in this area. While the software is designed by tens of thousands of volunteers, there are also thousands of software programmers around the world who are employed by IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems and others to write free and open-source software. These companies do so not because they are altruistic, but because this software helps them be competitive in their area of business.

Q. Can you guarantee any financial return for your full-time writing work?
A. Yes and no. There is no doubt that public domain Christian information will reduce the need for Christians to purchase theological books and material they require for them to understand the Christian faith better. So in this sense, there will be a saving of money from millions of Christians who will no longer have to spend their economic resources in this area – money that could be spent in other areas. What will this amount of money be? I am not in a position to know. Unfortunately, there can be no direct financial return for those who fund my work – it is impossible for this to be achieved (unless my profile as a Wikipedia contributor makes me famous and in demand as an international speaker – but this is unlikely!). In a nutshell, this means that the money spent by the financial contributors will be more than made up by the savings experienced by Christians world-wide.

Q. Why can't Christians just buy the necessary theological books and use them?
A. That's great if you can afford it. Those who can't afford it are stuck in ignorance. Moreover, books are static while the Wikipedia articles are dynamic – they are constantly updated and contain much recent information about the subject, including any controversies. Books do not have this advantage.

Q. Won't Wikipedia destroy the potential written and copyrighted works of Christian writers in the future?
A. Probably not – in fact in might even make them more money! There will definitely be some authors who will not be able to publish a certain book because the information is already there on Wikipedia. However Wikipedia does not (should not) pretend to argue or persuade people in any course of action – something that writers can easily do. Wikipedia is not about destroying copyrighted knowledge – it simply adds public domain knowledge to the knowledge that is already accessible by people. Christian writers will be able to use the knowledge gained by Wikipedia to write better books – and their readers will be similarly better informed.

Q. Wikipedia is all very well for the English speaking world, but how can Christians from non-English speaking countries benefit from these Christian articles written in English?
A. Wikipedia started in the English language but there are many people who are involved in translating English articles into their own native language. Most of the world's major languages are represented in Wikipedia, which means that many articles are multi-lingual. For the Christian articles, the same can be said – there is a potential for all the Christian articles to be translated into Russian, French, Spanish, Turkish, and so on. This means that the work of God through these articles can spread beyond the Englihs language.

Q. How many Christian articles are needed on Wikipedia?
A. The sky is the limit. There are nearly 400,000 English articles in Wikipedia at the moment, and the amount of articles increases every second. What is the potential for Christian articles? Think of every single article in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker); every single article in The New Bible Dictionary; every Greek word mentioned in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; every Hebrew word used in the Old Testament; a detailed commentary on each book of the Bible; a detailed commentary on each verse in the Bible. The potential is there for well over one million detailed Christian articles on Wikipedia – plus an additional million for every language represented on Wikipedia. This may seem unreachable now... but think of the world in the future where Wikipedia (or its future equivalent) is run on technology only dreamed of now, and reaching into the computers of billions of people around the world.

Q. Are there any other collaborative projects that could help the Christian church?
A. There are a number of projects that I have been thinking up as well:
A Public Domain English Bible – whereby a Wiki is set up for Christians to write their own public domain Bible. This would require Christian pastors who know Greek and Hebrew working 1-2 hours per week (or even less if need be) to translate the Bible into English. The advantage of a Public Domain English translation is that it would cost less for people to buy at bookshops, as well as be easily downloadable on the internet. People would have the freedom to photocopy entire books of the Bible for people to read if necessary. Greek and Hebrew students could hone their skills by contributing to the translation process.
A Public Domain Study Bible – set up in conjection with the above, creating the equivalent of an NIV study Bible with notes.
Public Domain Hymns and Christian Songs – where Christian song writers can work together to produce public domain music and lyrics. Churches would not have to pay money to sing copyrighted songs.
Collaborative Christian book writing – where a number of Christians get together online to write Christian books. This information would be copyrighted, with some rights reserved, but would allow free copying and reproduction. Imagine ten Christian pastors writing a book on preaching – working part-time for 12-18 months and producing a work of high quality that is freely available for anyone to copy and produce.

Craig Schwarze said...

Generally well argued, though I dont know that you covered the "Neutral bias" issue adequately.

You would really have to demonstrate a more concrete return, I think, before a church would consider investing money in you.

Given that wiki is a global resource, you may well do better approaching an American church than an Australian church. They are richer (and Americans tend to be more generous as well).

But you really need to demonstrate a more concrete ROI...

One Salient Oversight said...

How would I be able to work out an ROI? I would have to make certain assumptions about people's buying habits and then project how much can be saved based on...?

The only thing that comes close to a comparison is open source software. The problem, as I argue, is that there will be no direct return that can be measured.

I spoke to a friend about this issue before I went down to Sydney. He essentially told me that, given the nature of my proposed project, it would be very difficult to convince individual churches. It's far easier to have Bill and Geraldine planting churches in Upper Hungoria get money than my project. Nevertheless I think the ramifications are huge - especially as Wikipedia becomes more and more influential.

Please check some of the articles I have written. Even though they're NPOV (or at least trying to be) they should contain much that can build up the body of Christ.

Oh... and Dom thought it was an interesting proposal.

Craig Schwarze said...

I have no idea how you would demonstrate a concrete ROI - I think it would be very difficult.

Most of the people who contribute to Open Source Software do it out of altruism - I'm not aware of many who are sponsored for it.

Your only real hope is to find a wealthy Christian benefactor and convince him. I cannot see a church or denomination putting money into such a project...

One Salient Oversight said...

Most of the people who contribute to Open Source Software do it out of altruism - I'm not aware of many who are sponsored for it.

IBM, Sun Microsystems and a whole heap of others employ open source coders. Most Linux-related coding these days is done by paid professionals. The "volunteers" are still out there but they are working on smaller projects.

Linus Torvalds - the guy who made Linux and is the best known free software advocate, is paid megabucks these days.

I'm not saying this to defend my position - but to point out that thigns change as open source projects get bigger (including Wikipedia).

Eventually Wikipedia will need full time administrators to cope with the changes going on. They already have fairly decent corporate sponsorship.

I do remember thinking about getting a benefactor 12 months ago. I started to think of people like Cliff Richard or Peter Garrett...

Craig Schwarze said...

I didn't know about the Open Source professionals...

I honestly can't see a denomination sponsoring you, but I do think it might be possible to get a rich patron. May do some research on rich Christians you can approach...