PI Interview #2: Six Questions for Angela Beesley (long post)

by Jeff De Cagna on July 18, 2006

In the course of collecting information for my recent post on Wikipedia, I learned of the extraordinary contributions of Angela Beesley. While her name will not be familiar to PI Blog readers, you should pay attention to what she has accomplished in just the last few years: more than 50,000 edits on Wikipedia articles since early 2003, a seat on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees (which she has recently resigned) and the status of a recognized leader in the global wiki community. Currently, Angela serves as vice president of community relations for Wikia Inc., a for-profit wiki company she co-founded with Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales in 2004.

Oh, and by the way, she turns 29 next month.

I recently reached out to Angela, who lives in the world’s greatest city, Sydney, Australia, so I could learn more about the passionate commitment to wikis and the open access to knowledge that makes Wikipedia work. She kindly consented to answer my six e-mail questions, and I hope you will read what she has to say very carefully. Associations must learn how to harness the time, attention and energy of its dedicated volunteer contributors and, as someone who definitely fits that description, Angela’s insights are incredibly valuable for us.

NOTE: When you reach the end of this post, I hope you will not only comment but also offer your rating. I am using a widget created on the MajikWidget site. It is a very cool blogger resource that I highly recommend to all of my colleagues out there.

1. How would describe the power and spirit of wikis to someone who is unfamiliar with them?

The power of wikis is that they enable collaboration. Many wikis are completely open to editing, so anyone can contribute their knowledge to the site with a very low barrier to entry. Wikis rely on the “wisdom of crowds” idea where the aggregated knowledge of everyone contributing is greater than the contribution of any individual. They also rely on the idea that there are potentially more good users than bad ones, so any vandalism and other problematic edits will be rectified over time by others on the wiki. This leads to continual improvement of an article over time. This does bring risks in that a particular article might not be up to standard at any one time, but the wiki ethos is that anyone can fix this and where these edits are reverted quickly, the risks are outweighed by the benefits of the wiki approach.

2. What led you to become so deeply involved in Wikipedia, i.e., what was the initial inspiration?

My initial inspiration for becoming involved with Wikipedia was the nature of the site in that it allowed anyone to become involved, and was very welcoming to anyone who wanted to do so. There was also the feeling of being part of a community of people working together towards building a useful resource.

When the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation behind Wikipedia, formulated it goal of aiming to provide a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet in their own language, it was this goal that encouraged me to continue working with Wikipedia.

3. What do you see as the driving forces of Wikipedia’s success to date, and what are your biggest concerns for the future?

One of the driving forces behind Wikipedia’s success is the way it remains open to editing and to its open source and wiki principles, but also continually develops ways of improving the accuracy and reliability of the content. The quality of the content, although it is often criticised, has contributed to its success since so many people are using the content and linking to it, which makes the site appear very high in search results pages, which leads it to becoming ever more popular. Another major reason for Wikipedia’s success is its “free content” policy. All of the content is released under a free license, meaning others have the freedom to use, modify, and distribute the content. This encourages volunteers to get involved with editing since the license guarantees the content will remain free and not made proprietary, so all contributors can be assured that they are working towards this goal of knowledge creation and not simply profiting someone else.

When Jimmy Wales and I founded Wikia in 2004, we tried to model the approach of Wikipedia in order to make this new project benefit from these same forces that drove Wikipedia’s success. For example, Wikia content is released under the same free license, the software is open source, and we have a policy that each wiki must remain openly editable, and that no wiki is owned by a particular person, but owned by the community as a whole.

My concerns for Wikipedia are that the wrong approaches could be taken to deal with the criticisms made of Wikipedia. A frequent suggestion is that we should lock down articles to prevent the quality deteriorating, especially when the media are focusing on inaccuracies in the articles. However, I believe there are ways to overcome these problems without removing the wiki nature of the project. Developments such as the policies about citing sources when adding new information is a way of giving readers the opportunity to double check the information.

4. What is your take on my suggestion that each Wikipedian contribution is a form of “microinnovation” that builds and sustains the huge global, game-changing innovation that is Wikipedia?

I wouldn’t say that every contribution is a micro-innovation, though Wikipedia, and wikis in general, do provide the opportunity for this. Many of the contributions involve removing vandalism, so are more restorative than innovative. There is a lot of innovation involved in ensuring the project progresses towards its goals, but I see that as something which happens more in the area of policy and guideline development, as well as the software development, and not so much in the area of content creation or maintenance. However, where there is dispute over articles, I think the approaches people take to dealing with these conflicts and arriving at an article that all sides of argument can accept could be seen as a micro-innovation because it does require the people mediating the dispute to come up with creative ways of solving the problem that is causing conflicts between editors.

5. What advice would you give to non-profit membership association leaders who are uncertain where to begin with social media in their organizations?

My bias is very much towards wikis over other types of social media, so I would always recommend they start with a wiki. Using a wiki internally for members of the association can be a good way to get people used to the technology and the principles behind this form of collaboration before moving onto the more risky stage of having a public wiki. I would certainly recommend wikis over blogs for groups like this since they present a collective voice rather than an individual member of the association broadcasting their own views in a blog. Shared editing on a wiki can enable the full membership to become involved.

6. How do you see social media/Web 2.0 evolving the next few years? What should we expect?

To start with, I think we’ll simply see a lot more companies and websites taking this “Web 2.0″ approach as they begin to understand the value of wider participation and collaboration. What I hope to see after that is for some of these technologies to start working with each other in more productive ways. Right now, they’re usually used as stand alone applications and there are few attempts at combining the approaches from different types of social media. However, there are a growing number of examples of “mashups” where people are finding innovative ways of combining different aspects of technologies and different types of content from unrelated sites. One example is Placeopedia which combines Wikipedia with Google maps. So, I expect that convergence of the technologies is something we will see more of over the next few years.

Rather than wrapping my context around this interview, I’m just going to let you react to it first. Post your comments here or send me an e-mail. If there is some critical mass, we’ll take Angela’s advice and set up a wiki! Don’t forget to provide your rating!

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