The following is a conversation between Katherine Maher, CEO & Executive Director of Wikimedia Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: When I first heard of the Wikimedia Foundation, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. So, I did what I frequently do when I want to learn more about something, I went to Wikipedia to find out.
And another way to have found out would have been to speak with Katherine Maher, the chief executive officer and executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which we will do right now.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Katherine!
Katherine: It’s so great to be here with you, Denver.
Denver: Let me start with that question that’s probably on a lot of listeners’ minds. What’s the relationship between Wikipedia and Wikimedia?
Katherine: So the Wikimedia Foundation is what we think of as a parent organization of Wikipedia. That means that we are responsible for operating the websites. We work with the global communities and volunteers to make Wikipedia possible, in order to support the growth of those websites and the growth of that global community. And you may know us as the folks who asked you to contribute a few dollars every year in order to keep Wikipedia going. So, we are really the operational backbone of Wikipedia, and the volunteers are the folks who make the site possible with all that great content you see.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, I am a fundraiser, so I do know that about you, that is for sure. Katherine, speak of the unique and distinct role that Wikipedia plays in the whole information ecosystem out there.
Katherine: I think Wikipedia is remarkably unusual in many ways, not just because it is volunteers who write encyclopedia articles, but also because we are one of the few sites on the internet that provides general purpose knowledge. And we’re one of the few resources for information on the web that has remained really trusted over the course of these past few years, in which there has been a wide public conversation around sources of information and trust and compliance in the media and the like.
We can stand alone in that way, I think, partially because of what it is. It’s an encyclopedia; it’s not a news organization; partially because it’s a nonprofit organization, and that has different business models associated with it, and partially because it’s a volunteer project, it really is very accountable and transparent to the public who uses it around where we come from and what we’re trying to do.
Denver: It’s a little hard for me to believe, but Wikipedia is 20 years old now. Talk a little bit about the evolution of what it was conceived to be originally, and now, in your mind, what it’s become two decades later?
Katherine: It is a happy accident, and I think we’re all happier for it. The original conception of Wikipedia was to create an encyclopedia for the internet. That was always the intention. The idea of a volunteer, crowd-sourced encyclopedia was something that we backed our way into. Jimmy Wales, our founder, used what is known as a Wiki software as a way for contributors to create a holding pen for their thoughts, where they could work on articles, and that really became the place where it grew in popularity, sort of exploded in terms of the number of articles. And Jimmy said, “OK. I guess we’re a Wiki now, which is software for fast collaborative editing online.” Wikipedia grew out of that. That’s where Wikipedia comes from.
And today, I think we’re so much more than an encyclopedia for the web, and some of the things that are true in the beginning are still true today. Wikipedia is free. Wikipedia is available for everyone without any restrictions. And yet, today it’s much more than an encyclopedia. It is not just Wikipedia, but Wikipedia Commons, which is a rich repository of images from around the world, and video files and audio files…. Wikidata, which is a project of collected information in the form of structured data about the world…. Wiktionary, which is an online dictionary.
And all of these sites together create this Wikimedia ecosystem of knowledge, which is now not used just by readers, but it’s also used by all sorts of different internet platforms, research institutions, academic institutions and the like to understand how knowledge is constructed in real-time, and then served to you perhaps by your voice assistant or your online internet search in a way that goes well beyond that article page that you might read or pull up on your phone number.
By 2030, we want to become the essential support system of free knowledge. And of course, anyone who shares our mission can join us. And so that’s really about how do we knit together that knowledge ecosystem with any institution or individual who shares an ambition for knowledge to be free for the world.
Denver: That’s a remarkable footprint in just 20 years. After your 15th birthday, now that would have been back in 2016, you took a pause to really think deeply of where you wanted to be as an organization in 2030. So, Katherine, you were thinking as far ahead 15 years as the actual time that the organization had been in existence, and you embarked upon I think it was called a movement strategy, which was really the antithesis of top/ down. Tell us how you approach that, Katherine, and what you did.
Katherine: That’s right. So at our 15-year birthday, it felt like a good opportunity to say, “We’ve come a really long way, and where do we want to be by the end of 2030, about 30 years after our founding? And how should we get there together as a global community of contributors?”
Wikipedia is really made up by the people who volunteer for it, and it felt like our future direction should be made up by those folks as well, that they should not just have some say in where we go and what we do, but really that that should come from them. Now, our global volunteer community is about a quarter of a million people on a monthly basis. And we recognize that there are also lots of other people who don’t use Wikipedia yet or are not yet contributors. Particularly true if you go to places like South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.
So we brought in our global contributor community and asked them a series of questions and engaged them in discussions and salons around what the future of free knowledge should look like. But we also went to people who were not yet contributors to Wikipedia, and we said, “What do you think your knowledge needs are going to be?” And then we went out and we interviewed and researched with experts around folks in technology, the educational space, the cultural spaces around where they thought the future of knowledge was going. Pull all this information together for them to get back to the community, and then we all worked together to synthesize it and pull out key themes.
And then from there, really distill that down into what became our strategic direction, which is by 2030, we want to become the essential support system of free knowledge. And of course, anyone who shares our mission can join us. And so that’s really about how do we knit together that knowledge ecosystem with any institution or individual who shares an ambition for knowledge to be free for the world.
Denver: I know you have some experience with other nonprofit organizations, and I also know that Wikipedia is really a unique organization with the user at the center. But I wondered if you thought some variation of the strategy you use would benefit other nonprofit organizations. So instead of the strategy being driven by the board, or the staff, or the donors, have it actually driven by the users or the beneficiaries. What do you think about that?
Katherine: Absolutely. I think one of the exciting things about the way that we did it was… it took a little while. It took about seven months to pull together, and it did require some desk research. But it allowed us to interrogate our own assumptions about what we were here to do.
Being an encyclopedia is great, and it’s core to what we do, but we wondered: Is an encyclopedia actually the thing that’s going to be most useful for folks in the world? I think that that sort of question is the sort of thing that every nonprofit organization should take the opportunity to ask. Are the services that we offer, is the mission that we hold… is it still of value to our stakeholders? Is it of value to the people that we seek to serve and yet perhaps don’t seem to be able to reach? Is our theory of change relevant? Or do we need to explore that differently? And how do we go beyond those who are already in the conversation to really think about those who perhaps have some stake in the conversation then, yet are not there because of structural exclusion or because of access to time and resources?
These are the sorts of things that I think are very powerful in building not just a strategy that has resonance over the long run with multiple stakeholders, but by the time you’re done actually pulling all those folks together, there’s a lot more buy-in as to what it is that we were trying to do. And we found that people were able to interpret the strategic direction in their own ways as was appropriate to the work that they felt was most necessary for their communities. So it wasn’t just that we got to a better outcome. We also got to an outcome that everybody knew and deeply understood by the time it was done… and were already moving towards in their own individual contributions and work.
Denver: That’s so interesting. I also thought it was interesting that you had 15 years because I don’t know anybody, it seems like, that has long-range vision beyond two or three years. And essentially, what they do is they take whatever’s happening today, and they extrapolate it for two or three years. But when you get out 15 years, you have to almost get into a completely different space and start working backwards. It’s a different world then.
Katherine: That was really intentional. I wanted to be able to step out of our own role as an individual. So all of us have some sort of identification with the role that we play, with myself as executive director, a volunteer, as a contributor, a staff member, as a program officer. And when we think 15 years out, we’re able to say, “Well, maybe I won’t be around in 15 years. Maybe there’s a different shape that this organization might take, even though the mission might stay the same, or our intention as an institution might stay the same. And so, if I’m not here, maybe I can let go of some of my own incentives for how I want the place to be, and really just think about what’s going to be best for the mission.”
So, I wanted us to stretch hard outside of our frameworks of what we wanted for our own personal intentions, what we wanted over the next three years for our professional goals, for example, and put ourselves in the shoes of the institution that we wanted to see in the future. I also thought it was really important for people to say, “Well, maybe the constraints that we have today are not going to be the constraints of tomorrow.
As we started doing this work, we looked at demographics for the future, and we said, “Well, where are the greatest number of people going to be? And are we serving them appropriately?” And we found that by year 2100, 42% of the population will be African, which means that right now, we don’t serve the African population well. And so, we want to be in a place where we’re serving the African population well with African languages and African contributors and African staff. We need to really make changes in the next 10 years; the next 15 years are an opportunity for us to start moving in that direction. But if we were only looking five years out and extending our model, we wouldn’t have necessarily seen that.
Denver: That’s exactly right. So the real key there is relevance. How can we be relevant by looking far ahead? And often, the mission doesn’t change, but the relevance changes as you begin to make those pivots. How does information get posted on a Wiki page about a topic? What’s the process that it goes through?
Katherine: Basically, the simplest answer to this is anyone can edit a Wiki page. At the top of every Wikipedia article, there are a set of tabs or buttons that you can click on. And one of them is the article page, which you’re already reading. One of them is the talk page, which lets you know what people are saying about the article in question. And another one is edit. And if you click edit, you’re automatically taken into an editing interface in which you can contribute directly to that article. You can add a citation, you can correct grammar or punctuation. You can write a sentence.
Now, that is generally true for all Wikipedia articles. Of course, like any form of volunteering, the more you contribute, the more you become aware of the nuance, the policies, the sophistication of the process. And so, for more complex articles, more perhaps controversial articles, there are different policies in place in order to protect the integrity of that information, the quality of that information. And so, if people are interested in learning how to edit Wikipedia, we encourage them to do a little bit of research, understand the core policies of Wikipedia as a neutral encyclopedia, a verifiable encyclopedia that relies on citations, for example, as they go about learning how to contribute.
Denver: I read Wikipedia all the time, and the question I always ask myself is: How do you arrive at some kind of a consensus around an issue? And particularly these days when society is just so fragmented?
Katherine: I think this is a great question. And I liked that you asked the question of consensus because very often, I think people go: How does Wikipedia stay true? And I think that’s not exactly what we’re trying to do here. What we’re trying to do is to take verifiable facts or verifiable information from already trusted sources. And we’re trying to assemble them together in a way that gives you general context about an issue, whether that is about the latest in scientific discoveries, about whatever.
So, coming to consensus on Wikimedia is a process that brings people together through differing opinions and viewpoints and perspectives, or merely pieces of information, and asks them to work together on what we know as a talk page to iron out the trickiest bits of any given statement.
So very often, the information on Wikipedia is uncontroversial. We’re talking about the average weight of a sparrow or the velocity of a plane in flight, things that there’s good data and good evidence for. But when it comes to things like navigating the subtleties or nuances of history or politics or current events, that’s where controversy can seep in.
And this is where Wikimedians work very hard to focus on the core principles of Wikipedia, which includes” all information must be cited back to a reliable source. So reliable sources are sources that are respected in their field, that have their own process of peer or editorial review. Those citations, particularly when around a controversial assertion, have to have multiple citations. And that’s where you see things like on world leaders’ biography pages, assertions that may have 2, 4, even 10 citations at any given point in time. The use of multiple citations helps indicate that even when a statement is controversial, that it is well-supported by available sources.
Now, for other areas of negotiation, such as: What is the land border between countries? … where you may very well have multiple claims to an issue, Wikipedians don’t purport to take sides. What they often will do is describe a controversy by describing both perspectives on the controversy and giving all the available information to best enable a reader to make up their own mind about what the nature of the circumstance might be.
So, controversy is something that Wikipedians like to negotiate, often comes up, and very frequently, if the controversy is not just between Wikipedia editors, but exists in the world as a whole, what they’ll do is they’ll present that controversy for the reader to be able to have all the information they need to understand it as fully as they can.
The last thing that I’ll add on the topic of controversy is that sometimes there are issues that are just a little unsettled, and perhaps we don’t yet have the fullest picture of how they should be understood. At a point like that, what Wikipedians might say is, “This just seems like it’s a fast-moving situation. We’re going to continue to discuss and watch this issue until we provide a fuller accounting of what that might be.” So, in a breaking news event, for example, when information may be in flux or still under development, what Wikipedians will often do is they will hold off on presenting through the latest information until there are enough sources to be able to say with good confidence that this is the latest and most accurate version of events.
Denver: There seems like there’s some good lessons and good tips there for civil discourse in the broader society that we could all put into some kind of practice. I did know, Katherine, though, that Wikipedia recently launched its first global code of conduct. Tell us about that.
Katherine: Absolutely. So the global code of conduct that Wikipedia launched earlier this year is a real milestone for the Wikimedia communities and projects. What it does is it lays out the expectations that we have for participation in the Wikipedia site.
Earlier this year, the Wikipedia Community launched its first-ever universal code of conduct. And what this code of conduct is, it’s meant to be an expectation of how to behave on the Wikipedia sites. This lays out our expectations for standard user behavior, in terms of how people participate, the level of civility and respect that is asked of them, as well as behaviors that are not tolerated — incidences of harassment or other forms of behavior that would make other participants feel uncomfortable.
The idea behind this code of conduct is that it is easier to participate meaningfully in a group of people when you know what is expected of you. It also gives you the recourse should something go wrong. The research indicates that if you participate in a group, and something goes wrong; perhaps you feel uncomfortable. Or you have been harassed or verbally intimidated by another individual, and you don’t know where to go or what to do to resolve the situation; you’re less likely to continue participating in this group.
What this code of conduct does is not only raise the floor for what kinds of behavior we’re looking for by laying out the aspects of respect and civility that should be part of the discussion at Wikipedia, it also says, “Here’s what you can do if something doesn’t rise to that standard. Here’s the recourse, and here’s how you’re going to be supported.”
This is not just about how the Wikimedia Foundation enforces the code of conduct, but the entire idea behind it was that we worked with the community to develop it so that the community members themselves feel active agency in ensuring that this code of conduct lives up to their expectations, and that they feel well-prepared to be able to maintain that level of integrity that is described within that code of conduct.
Denver: And that approach is so aligned with your overall culture in terms of giving those people that kind of agency.
I think of Wikipedia as a nonprofit organization because that’s my frame of reference. Most people think of it as an educational or knowledge source, but in some ways, at its heart, you’re a technology organization. Share with us a bit about the work of the engineers on your team that makes all this information possible to so many people and in so many different languages.
Katherine: I’m delighted, Denver, that you’re asking that question. More than half of our employees at the Wikimedia Foundation work on technology in some form or another. They are software engineers or product managers or designers or user researchers. And often, this is sort of the invisible piece of the work of Wikimedia.
Most people see Wikimedia or Wikipedia, and they see the website as an encyclopedia. And often, it doesn’t seem like it changes that much perhaps to the casual reader, but it has changed a lot under the hood in 20 years. And today, we support more than 300 languages across the globe, which includes difficult software engineering challenges like how to edit in a right-to-left language, which is Hebrew or Arabic, for example. The questions of how to best support a sprawling encyclopedia with 55 million articles that often requires what we now think of as machine learning just across the globe, as well as ways to ensure that the websites remain fast.
In addition to supporting all these different languages, the engineering team works on issues such as: How do the websites remain fast and secure? How do we ensure that we’re available on every possible type of device? Not just these desktops that we started out on, or the laptops of today, but also mobile phones… increasingly, tools such as voice assistance and any number of potential interfaces or experiences that we might see developed in the future.
There’s also this question within the projects of How do they evolve so that community members can maintain them at the scale that they’ve grown to?– 55 million articles in 300 different languages means that it is impossible for an individual editor to keep an eye on all things going on all the time. So that’s where the experience of our software engineers and concepts such as machine learning come in, which is essentially the use of artificial intelligence to keep an eye on all the Wikipedia projects for how they’re evolving, where vandalism might occur, what might need attention in order for Wikipedia to stay as accurate and up-to-date as possible.
Denver: My head is spinning. We take this technology for granted, and we only notice it when it goes wrong, but there is so much to it. It’s just amazing.
The World Health Organization has collaborated with you guys in an effort to get accurate information in the hands of citizens around the world. Tell us a little bit about that partnership.
Katherine: Absolutely. At the very beginning of the global pandemic in 2020, we were aware that Wikipedia would be widely used by people around the world, seeking information about the pandemic and information that would directly affect their health in some circumstances. Wikipedia is widely used, not just by civilians, but by doctors as well. There have been studies that say it’s one of the most widely consulted sources for the medical profession.
For listeners who were a little nervous about that, please don’t worry. Often… I have doctors in my family, and what they’ll tell you is that they’ll just look something up to refresh their memory, but then, of course, they will go to the medical text. So what Wikipedia often is is a resource, sometimes a first-stop resource. And often in countries with less bandwidth or lower-income countries where resources are less easily available, it actually is a pretty vital resource for those in the medical profession.
In the mid-2010s, we saw how Wikipedia was being very widely used, for example, in response to the West African Ebola epidemic. And our medical editors organized themselves at that point in time in order to be able to ensure that the Ebola articles we had were the most up-to-date, most accurate information possible. That included being able to work directly with health institutions to get the best data that was available, as well as translating those articles on Ebola into a variety of West African languages so they were available to the speakers of those languages in communities most directly affected.
What we saw in this coronavirus pandemic was that in many ways, the work that the medical community had done coming together around the Ebola epidemic was a dry run for the coronavirus pandemic. A group of community members known as Wiki Project Med, who are often medical doctors, researchers, clinicians, practitioners come together to ensure that all of the articles about not just the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 disease are up-to-date, but also articles about neurology in general, epidemiology in general. And one of the resources that was the most beneficial was this partnership with the WHO.
Very early on in the pandemic, we already had a relationship with the WHO, talking about how we might be able to better use their general medical data. We continued this conversation to work with the WHO to not only get access to their latest and most up-to-date information about the pandemic, about the novel coronavirus itself, but also asking them to open license images of meta public health information…. So how to wash one’s hands, what a two-meter distance would look like to stand apart, the virus imaging itself, in order to be able to introduce that into those articles.
So today, if you look across Wikipedia’s many thousands of articles about the coronavirus pandemic, many, many of those articles are illustrated by images and data from the WHO, which really helped put the pandemic in perspective, not just relying on the information available from the national disease centers of any particular state or country, but looking at this from a truly global perspective, which is appropriate, of course, for Wikimedia’s global footprint.
Denver: Absolutely. Context, nothing like it. What’s the user engagement been like during the pandemic at Wikipedia? Has it been up, down, or pretty much the same?
Katherine: Oh my goodness. User engagement during the pandemic has been tremendously high. We have seen a really big spike in readership of Wikipedia, especially in those first few months of sheltering-in-place. We also saw an increase in contributorship to Wikipedia, which I have to confess, I wasn’t necessarily expecting.
I think at the beginning of the pandemic, we were mostly concerned about the health and well-being of the global community and the readers themselves. But what we found was that with people stuck inside and oftentimes really struggling to have access to the information that they needed to do their jobs, or to be able to be successful at schools, we found tremendous engagement with Wikipedia as a whole. And then of course, across the Wikipedia’s COVID articles, more than half a billion views to all of those different articles as people have sought to understand what’s happening in the world right now,
Denver: Katherine, you’ve announced that you’ll be stepping down as the CEO of Wikimedia in mid-April to pursue other interests, but during your tenure, you have made some great progress on a number of issues of vital importance. I just want to review a couple of those with you, starting with editor diversity. We talked a little bit before about how many of the editors are white men from Europe and from North America. And I know one of your top priorities was to try to get a broader contribution from around the globe and from women. Tell us some of the progress you’ve been able to make on that front.
Katherine: Yes. So the issue of gender balance or gender diversity on Wikipedia has been one that has been dogging the projects for some time now. As you rightly note, the contributorship of women is much less than that of men. And this is an issue that we at the Wikimedia Foundation have pursued passionately over the course of the last decade or so.
I’m really proud that under my tenure, we’ve seen an increase in the representation of women from, unfortunately, just around 11%… to our latest data which shows about 15%. Now, that is not an enormous increase, but it does represent a nearly doubling of the existing numbers. And so, we’re hopeful that that trend continues.
The way that we’ve gone about this is by pursuing a number of different approaches. One, of course, is the universal code of conduct that we just launched in order to make sure that Wikimedia projects are friendly spaces. Another is really investing in the communities where we see active participation by women. And so, that includes projects such as art and feminism or Wiki Women in Red that are really focused on gender diversity and representation. But also looking at places where women thrive and succeed in the Wikimedia projects such as movement organizing and advocacy, and collaboration and partnerships with other institutions.
And finally, one of the things that’s not yet in the wild so to speak, but it’s coming and we’re really excited about are making subtle changes to the experience at Wikipedia. So that when you first become an editor, you have the opportunity to explore areas of interest to yourself, connect to other editors, and learn from experts and mentors. We found that in our research, everyone benefits from this, but women in particular really appreciate these changes.
Denver: Fantastic. Another key initiative that you have launched or enhanced under your tenure was to increase global reach and readership. In fact, you wanted to start a global movement. Tell us the progress you’ve been able to make on that.
Katherine: Absolutely. So it’s not just that gender diversity matters; it’s all forms of diversity that matter. And one of the things that we’ve seen with Wikimedia is that particularly areas in the so-called Global South, or countries that have historically been colonized or otherwise excluded from the conversations in terms of how we write and think about history and power in the world, have not always been well-represented on Wikipedia. This means that we have not necessarily had many editors from places such as Sub-Saharan Africa, and we’ve not necessarily had as many readers as you would expect from Asia, from Latin America, from Africa as a whole.
And so, what we have focused on is really understanding the needs of those readers, understanding how to make sure that Wikipedia is relevant to them, not just in terms of the content, which is, of course, really important, but also the experience of Wikipedia. The majority of the world now accesses the internet first through mobile phone. And when I started in this role, we weren’t as mobile-native or mobile-friendly as we’d want to be, either for editors or readers. This has been a real focus of ours… is experimenting with not just our mobile experience, but new form factors that are perhaps more visual in nature, that are friendlier to shorter-form interactions for people who are looking up quick facts. And we found that these sorts of experiments are well-received and well-appreciated.
We’ve set up an entire team that we call our Enuka team, which is focused on new readers. The team is based between Kenya and India, and is made up of folks who come from these regions, who know the needs of readers and editors really well, as being of these communities themselves, and have a lot of autonomy in really thinking about the future. I think that this is exactly the type of approach that we want is to put the future of Wikipedia in the hands of the people who represent the future.
At a time in which the discussion around information and the value of information and the value of education is so much a part of the public discourse, what Wikipedia offers is a way for anyone who cares about the integrity of knowledge, both as an aspect of research and discovery for humanity, but also as the underpinning of societies that are free and pluralistic and inclusive, that Wikipedia is a space where people can come and bring those values and bring that commitment together to actually invest in those beliefs.
Denver: And finally, Katherine, there was the issue of rebuilding trust because would I be right to say that the level of trust was not what it should have been between the foundation and the community when you became CEO?
Katherine: I think that’s very right, Denver. The relationship between the Wikimedia community and Wikimedia Foundation has always been an interesting one. We’re very unusual in that the foundation actually postdates the community. Wikipedia was founded in 2001. The foundation came along around three years later. And so, unlike many communities or websites, where website comes along first, or the nonprofit comes along first, and a volunteer community or contributor community builds around them, the foundation was really created to support and serve the community, but also to support and serve readers and donors. And sometimes, we have found ourselves in tension about how we negotiate this complex stakeholder relationship and how we prioritize the needs of the community, while also acknowledging that needs of readers are important, too. It’s part of our global mission to serve as many people around the world as we possibly can.
A big piece of my tenure was really focused on how do we bring the community more into decision-making, into strategic planning, into the visibility that is necessary so that they understand the foundation’s goals and intentions, but that we also understand what their expectations are of us so that we can best serve and meet those needs. This ranges from everything from our movement strategy process– which was designed to really understand the strategic goal– to an initiative underway right now around movement governance that is meant to bring the foundation into closer dialogue with the communities by bringing representatives of our diverse global communities into our governance process, in relationship to the foundation, but also in a way that’s more representative of the global reach of the communities right now.
So, what does it take to rebuild trust? Well, from my perspective, it took a tremendous amount of time on the road and online and talking to people. I had the opportunity to spend many long days and long nights with our Wikimedia communities, both in the best possible way, in whiteboarding sessions, but also in long sessions over tea and sometimes over drinks, talking about our hopes and our aspirations for the future, spending many long days and long nights together with Wikipedians hoping to understand what connects the Wikipedian in Estonia to Wikipedians in Ecuador… in a way that helps us unite around this global idea. If I may, I think one thing that is truly remarkable about Wikipedia is that most people see it as an encyclopedia, a reference source site on the internet, but what I have seen in our global movement is that it is so much more than that.
At a time in which the discussion around information and the value of information and the value of education is so much a part of the public discourse, what Wikipedia offers is a way for anyone who cares about the integrity of knowledge, both as an aspect of research and discovery for humanity, but also as the underpinning of societies that are free and pluralistic and inclusive, that Wikipedia is a space where people can come and bring those values and bring that commitment together to actually invest in those beliefs. And that can be through volunteering. It can be through advocacy. It can be through partnership. And so, being much more than a community, but a global movement on behalf of free knowledge, and how it truly can underpin human flourishing in every part of the globe.
It is remarkable to see that it is such a universal value. No matter where you go, you will find people who believe in the importance of knowledge and education to uplift themselves, their communities, and their cultures. It’s really a thing that unites us all.
Denver: And what’s happened in this world over the last two decades, you can see why Wikipedia has become more and more important.
I have to ask you this. What are some of your favorite topics, favorite pages on Wikipedia?
Katherine: So, my favorite page on Wikipedia is actually not the best article. It is an article on what is known as the overview effect. So the overview effect is an experience that astronauts describe having when they go into space. And so, at this point in history, we’ve now had astronauts of so many different countries around the world up in space, at the International Space Station among other places. And the overview effect is what they described feeling as they look back at Earth in that vast inky darkness, and seeing how very tiny and fragile it actually is, but also how very little divides us on the globe.
The borders and boundaries that seem so indelible as we sit and listen today are actually not visible from space, and the whole act of space exploration is truly one of international cooperation at this point in time. I view that as something that is an uplifting reminder that there is more that connects us than divides us, and that we can do truly great things when we cooperate together. It is perhaps an example of what I think of Wikipedia as being.
What I also like about this article is it’s not a very good article and yet, it still manages to give all the information you need to be inspired. And I think that that speaks to the power of Wikipedia. It doesn’t have to be perfect to still have meaning.
Denver: And just listening to you, I would guess that if there was ever an opportunity to go up in space, we could count you to be on board?
Katherine: I don’t know. How about this? I think I would love to go to space, but then I’d love to come back to the ground because there’s so much work for us to do here. I’m not going to Mars anytime soon. How about that?
Throughout history, whenever the production of knowledge or the retention of knowledge has been challenged, we have seen that challenge met with a commensurate response from individuals and societies and communities that have worked to safeguard knowledge at any time in human history, whether it be war, conflict, famine, cataclysmic, natural disaster. There is always someone who runs to grab the scrolls, grab the books in the library, protect them from burning, hide them in the basement in order to ensure that knowledge is safeguarded and transferred.
Denver: Maybe you have to check out a few more articles first to see how safe it is, I guess.
Finally, Katherine, do you have any thoughts on how knowledge is going to change in the decade ahead?
Katherine: What a great question! How will knowledge change in the decade ahead? I think that one of the things that we’ve seen as a trend is this increasing access to knowledge in your pocket or knowledge on demand, which has created a lot of anxieties for some folks who have thought that perhaps we’re not truly learning as deeply as we used to in the old days when we had to memorize the multiplication tables.
I tend to take a very different view on this, which is to say that it is a blessing for us to not have to have that same requirement of rote memorization and, instead, the ability to let our curiosity fully wander. The production of knowledge is tremendously expensive. It is an effort that has historically required great investments of nations and people, in order to be able to explore and understand everything from the level of our genome to outer space. I hope that that investment continues in the decades ahead. I am not always confident that it does in the areas of the humanities, for example, in the social sciences as we think about the pressing issues of climate change.
And so, my greatest hope is that we find space for the value of international cooperation on knowledge that we see in the response to the coronavirus pandemic… the importance of investing in research and research institutions, and the impartiality of knowledge as a public good; that we see the value of institutions that produce and publicly communicate knowledge as something that helps safeguard us and safeguards our communities so that we can go about our day-to-day work and support our families.
So I’m a bit torn, I think, on the future of knowledge. On the one hand, I think we have a great case study for why it is so valuable and important. On the other hand, I do see a rising tide of authoritarianism and polarization that causes me great concern as to how the production of knowledge continues. But perhaps an optimistic note is that throughout history, whenever the production of knowledge or the retention of knowledge has been challenged, we have seen that challenge met with a commensurate response from individuals and societies and communities that have worked to safeguard knowledge at any time in human history, whether it be war, conflict, famine, cataclysmic, natural disaster. There is always someone who runs to grab the scrolls, grab the books in the library, protect them from burning, hide them in the basement in order to ensure that knowledge is safeguarded and transferred.
And so from this sort of apocryphal dark ages to the future, I really do believe that the future of knowledge is safe as long as we continue to value it. And certainly, Wikipedia’s popularity every single day seems like an indication that the world values knowledge.
Denver: Absolutely. And when I hear you say, “on one hand, and then on the other hand,” I feel like I’m in a Wikipedia editor discussion, but that just shows what great balance you have. I saw the overview effect there.
If anyone listening wants to help support the Wikimedia Foundation or get involved in some fashion, where do they need to go, and what do they need to do?
Katherine: Great. Well, if you want to get involved with Wikipedia, the first thing you can do is read Wikipedia. The second thing that you can do is contribute to Wikipedia, which is going to that edit button, or you can donate to Wikipedia, which is donate.wikimedia.org.
If you have any questions about how to do any of these things, you can go to wikimediafoundation.org. And on that site, you’ll find all the information you need about our global community, its representation in your neck of the woods, how to potentially get involved in any of those different ways as a reader, as an editor, or as a donor. And we really think of all of those as being part of our knowledge community around the globe.
Denver: Well, thanks, Katherine, for being here today. It was an absolute delight to have you on the program, and all the best in your next chapter.
Katherine: Thanks so much, Denver.
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