Wikipedia - the "addictive" encyclopaedia

Those of you, who are familiar with the internet, will probably have come across the global interactive encyclopaedia called Wikipedia. It is written by volunteers and anyone with an internet connection can contribute to it. It all started five years ago and now there are almost 4 million articles in over 100 language versions, including a Czech one.

Wikipedia has been both praised and criticised for its openness. On the one hand it allows the content to be kept up-to-date but critics say it lacks authority. In today's Czech Science my guest is a young programmer, Petr Kadlec, who is one of the administrators of the Czech Wikipedia. I invited Petr to come in to Radio Prague to talk about the Czech Wikipedia and also show me how its entries are created. First of all I asked him when he first joined the Czech Wikipedia community.

"It's been two years, I think when one day I looked at the English Wikipedia and I saw a link to the Czech version. I looked there and I saw it was fine. I thought there is just one little mistake, so I corrected the typo. It started then and since then I've been editing more and more.

"A year ago I started to edit in more Wikipedias than just the Czech one. For example, if you write a Czech article and want to link it to the other language versions, you have to look at the other Wikipedias if there is a version of the article and you make a link on the other side, too. So then the Wikipedias are linked together. So nowadays, I have an account in maybe 20 Wikipedias, and sometimes I correct a typo in the German Wikipedia or in the Slovak Wikipedia. Of course, I don't speak so many languages, so I cannot correct mistakes in Hungarian, for example. But I think that the total number of edits [I have made] is about 5,000 in the Czech Wikipedia and a few hundred in the others."

RP: How large is the Czech community and how does the hierarchy work?

"Well, the Czech community is about a hundred active users, there are maybe 5,000 registered users but most of them have never made a single edit. They just register their name and never come back or make one edit and never come back. The new users just join by making their first edit and if they like it and come back, in the talk pages they talk with other users and when they are active long enough, they just get into the community - no one knows how it happens. You know, when you look at Wikipedia every day, you have a feeling that you are responsible for the quality of the articles. Then you meet some other users in real life and maybe make friendships."

RP: And how did you become an administrator?

"Maybe a month after I registered as a user I was just given the rights of an administrator, which is no big deal on Wikipedia. It's nothing like having to sign an agreement or anything like that. You just have some more rights than a normal user but nothing really important. It's just that you can clean up some mess that vandals make."

RP: Speaking of vandals, does it happen often that someone deliberately writes nonsense or tries to insert mistakes in the articles?

"Well, it happens very often that someone just tests that he really can edit an article - which you are not used to. You visit a webpage and there is a button 'Edit this page', you just click it and - yeah, there is a 'Save page' button. So he writes some QWERTY... nonsense and saves the page and then goes away and nothing more than that happens. This is easy. An administrator just deletes the page - it's plain simple. There are situations when someone tries to insert a mistake into the article in a misleading way but it luckily does not happen so often on the Czech Wikipedia."

RP: We are now sitting at a computer which is connected to the internet. Now, let's say I'd like to publish my own article, say, about Radio Prague. What do I do?

"Well, first you open the webpage of Wikipedia, which is if we are using the English version. If we use the Czech version it would be We could use the German version which starts with de. or we could use any other of about a hundred language versions.

"Now, the first thing you would like to do is to check if there already is an article on Radio Prague on Wikipedia. So you type in some search terms into the search box, probably Radio Prague. And you click 'Go'. You see, no page with the title exists. You can create this article. So you just click the red link 'Create this article'. And you see that on the English Wikipedia, anonymous users cannot create articles. So you have two possibilities. Either to create an account, which involves only two clicks and a few keystrokes, or use the Czech Wikipedia."

RP: Why don't we try the Czech version then?

"Well, we can. So we try the same but on the Czech Wikipedia."

RP: ... and the Czech name of Radio Prague is "Radio Praha"...

"So we try to write Radio Praha into the search box. [Petr is typing.] And you see the same thing. You can create this article by clicking the red link. And now an empty page with an empty edit box occurred and you can just write the text of what you want to say to the masses. You just write some important information about Radio Prague." [More typing.]

RP: OK. We have just written that Radio Prague is a Prague-based radio station which is part of Czech Radio. And what happens now?

"When you are finished writing your text, you click the button 'Show preview' which displays what the text will look like after you save it so you can check if you've made some mistakes, or maybe fix the graphic design of the page when you write some longer article. And after you are completely finished, you just write a summary which is useful for the history of the page so other editors can check what you have changed and maybe why you changed it. And after you describe your changes, you click 'Save page'. And after a while, there it is! This page is already on Wikipedia and in the exact instant anybody in the world can look at this page and read what you have written."

RP: And right now, is there somebody on the watch who can see that maybe we have written complete nonsense?

"Yes, of course. There are many users who are active at this moment because it's daytime and many of them are looking at the 'Recent changes' page - we can look there, too - which is a special page that lists all the changes made into Wikipedia a few moments ago. We see here that someone with our IP address has created a new article called 'Radio Praha'. If we were some other user we could check what this new article is about and probably mark it for deletion [laughs] or for some expansion. ...And - in the few moments we've been talking, someone HAS looked there and marked the page as 'very short, too short to stay there'. And if no one expands the article, then this page would be deleted after seven days."

RP: How many entries are there in the Czech Wikipedia?

"When we take a look at the mainpage, we see that now, with our article included, the Czech Wikipedia contains 30,355 articles, which is a lot less than the English version, which - when we take a look the English maingpage - contains 1,115,628 articles."

RP: And with only 10 million potential users of the Czech Wikipedia, what is the future? Does it have a future?

"Well, of course, I do think so, I wouldn't edit it otherwise. First I must say that there are more than 10 million, because it is a Czech Wikipedia for the Czech language, not for the Czech Republic. But of course, I don't think we would ever have as many articles as the English version. But when you just wait a bit, there would be more articles and even more articles and even more articles. Even today, the Czech Wikipedia is a useful resource. Of course, there is much information missing there but if the information is there it is probably quite good information because many people are working hard to keep the good information in and the nonsense out."

RP: Do you think that the secret of the growth of Wikipedia is that it is all voluntary and if it became fully professionalized that it would lose some of its momentum?

"Of course, the fact is that Wikipedia does not contain even advertisements. So when you write an article, you are doing your best and you know that no one makes directly money from it. Which does not mean no one makes money at all because there are many copies of Wikipedia that contain advertisements and there are people who make money from it and we are quite happy with it. Because the goal is to spread knowledge and if somebody likes to make money from it, that's OK. But I think that the real secret is that it is quite addictive. You just try to edit a few times and you learn it is nice when someone says, 'Hey, that's a good article, I searched for some information about something and I found that on Wikipedia and it was fine'. And this is the secret, I think, to spread the knowledge and to be able to do that without any special preparations. You don't have to have a university title or anything. You just sit down, edit, click 'Save' and there it is!"

Since the time this interview was recorded, Petr Kadlec has kindly expanded the Wikipedia article about Radio Prague: