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Wikimania confab to focus on diversity and challenges

WASHINGTON--Over one thousand Wikimedia enthusiasts are to converge on Washington Thursday for the annual Wikimania event to collaborate, argue and discuss some of the most pressing issues facing what undoubtedly ranks as one of the most amazing achievements of the Internet.

Just as new media, such as The Huffington Post and YouTube, are challenging established giants, such as The New York Times and the U.S. television networks, Wikipedia has challenged the long-dominant Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In fact, it is fair to say that Wikipedia has trumped the venerable repository of English language knowledge. The Britannica announced in March that it would stop publishing its famous 32-volume printed edition.

This year's Wikimania will mark the eighth year that a core group of editors and contributors to Wikipedia come together to discuss their Internet trove of information.

The zeitgeist will no doubt revolve around how sensationally well Wikipedia has met the ridiculously lofty goals enunciated by co-founder Jimmy Wales after he launched the site in January 2001 as an offshoot of the more conventional expert-authored online encyclopedia, Nupedia.

The citizen-authored site — based on the concept of Wikis or collaborative authoring — quickly outgrew its mother site, and Wales realized its potential to become the biggest collection of human knowledge on the planet.

Now the online encyclopedia appears in 285 languages. It has 4 million articles in English, and more than 1 million in German, its second most popular language. It also has more than 1 million articles in French.

According to the site's information page, there are 85,000 active contributors, working on more than 21 million articles. All told the Wikipedia sites attract more than 22 million hits an hour.

The system is supported entirely by fundraising — with most coming from relatively small donations of 30 dollars or under.

That wealth of knowledge, which has its own built-in controls to prevent false information from being posted on the sites, compares to Britannica's one-time staff of 100 full-time editors and more than 4,400 contributors. And the Wiki contributors post immediate updates when something happens, while Britannica could only produce annual updates for its readers.

But the conference is about much more than self-congratulation, according to Catrin Schoneville, a spokesperson for the German delegation to the talks.

“One of our main topics is how to reach more female contributors — because worldwide it is below 12 percent,” she told dpa. “We will try to find out the reasons and offer a lot of workshops for special targets like women and elderly people.”

To this end, the keynote speakers will include not only Wales, but also Mary Gardiner, co-founder of the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing participation among women in open technology and culture.

Contributors will offer more than 100 presentations over the course of the three-day conference, discussing everything from the impact of the mobile and smartphone revolutions on Wikipedia's form and architecture, to the threats facing the site from online censorship.

Those may sound like serious subjects, but Schoneville is looking forward to them with the excitement one would usually associate with a vacation.

“If you would see me there you would know it's hard work — but if you work on something that you believe in, it's very rewarding,” she said.

“The atmosphere is awesome — it's just amazing for me to see all the people from all over the world spending time and working to make Wikipedia better and to support the idea of free knowledge.”

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