Jimmy Wales, founder of the free-content encyclopedia, spoke to a Georgetown University audience Monday about his site’s experience with online vandalism, as well as his vision for a civil online community.
The event, called “The Need for Civil Digital Discourse,” included a presentation from Wales and Andrea Weckerle, the founder of CiviliNation, which is a nonprofit focused on upholding the freedom of speech while advocating responsible cyberspace communication.
As the Internet grows ever ubiquitous, sites geared toward just about anything pop up, as Weckerle pointed out.
“In the US there are more than 1,000 hate groups online,” she said.
Weckerle noted “revenge” sites like revengelady.com and thepayback.com, which allows aggrieved parties to tell someone off anonymously. But, Weckerle continued, because conflict is a part of life, the path to civil digital discourse will focus more on ways to hold users accountable and teach responsible web use.
“We’re more interconnected than ever before,” Wales said, adding there are both pros and cons to this situation.
For Wales, carrying out Wikipedia’s user-driven mission came down to “How do we get people to get along well enough to get some work done.” He said Wikipedia is no stranger to vandalism, but it hasn’t been the site’s greatest hurdle. According to Wales, those who are part of the wiki community will reverse vandalism and “respond very, very quickly.”
“Everyone agrees, vandalism is just stupid,” he said.
Asked about his stance on anonymous Wikipedia editors, Wales said in the case of “not-logged-in editors,” “most are perfectly nice,” and will simply fix a typo on a wiki entry. By banning that type of editing, Wales said his site would miss out on contributors.
Besides vandalism, Wales said his site has also seen its fair share of “trolling,” which is when users leave negative comments or posts.
“We see this kind of trolling behavior all the time and I think we’ve dealt with it quite successfully,” he said.
One Wikipedia solution has been to block repeated abusers from editing.
“We’ve put in software tools so that speech can be healthy and move us forward,” Wales said.
As far as online etiquette, Wales said his rule of thumb is “what kind of behavior would you have in your home.” Both Weckerle and Wales said a key in achieving ideal digital discourse is the educating the bystander. Weckerle said bystanders have several choices when the encounter trolling or cyberbullying. The far ends of the spectrum would be to ignore it completely, or to counter attack – neither of which she recommended. Instead, she said bystanders could elect to send the victim or attacker a private message, which, has worked to settle disputes.
But before online interaction reaches that point, Weckerle listed preventative measures people could take to minimize their risk of being targeted. As New York Congressman Anthony Weiner recently demonstrated, “think before you send” is a good rule to bear in mind. Also, Weckerle pointed out “there really is such a thing as too much information,” as future employers will probably see those embarrassing Facebook posts and photos.
These facets of conflict resolution, Wales said, have been “instrumental” in making Wikipedia what it is today. According to Wales, every month 408 million people use Wikipedia – a site with 16 million entries in more than 200 different languages. But the “world’s most collaborative experiment” hasn’t grown via technology, but “through social norms,” he said.
As the Internet becomes a more widely-used tool, Wales said it’s important people are safe when exercising their freedom of speech, so everyone can benefit from the web. He mentioned recent uprisings in Libya and Egypt, saying knowledge of the world fueled these revolutions.
“What’s deeper is these are revolutions of ideas,” he said.
Although it contributed, “Twitter didn’t invent the populous uprising,” Wales noted. Instead, Twitter, Facebook and the Internet in general have kept people informed and connected.
“I hope people are using these tools, increasingly, to become educated,” he said.