Here are two stories I had written for the Times of India. They made me come face to face with the human side of the great free digital reference book.
The first article is about the first Wiki meet held in Mumbai – Dated 2010.
Wiki editors first meet in Mumbai
A new mental disorder is quietly spreading across Mumbai and India. Called ‘editcountitis’, it affects the unseen workforce of volunteers that helps build the largest free encyclopedia in the world, Wikipedia. Symptoms include a craving to log in, edit articles and keep count of every edit. The more articles edited, the higher the count, the bigger the ego. That’s the joke circulating among members of Mumbai’s Wikipedia community, most of whom, however, assure you it’s quality that matters, not counts.
It is no secret that the heart and soul of Wikipedia are the voluntary contributors who do everything a newspaper sub-editor does. From checking facts and adding perspective to correcting typo-spello demons, this community’s selfless spirit of wanting to share has no monetary motivation. Last month, the city hosted its first Wiki meet in a coffee shop in Bandra where a motley group of professionals, students and retired employees gathered to talk about how they used and, in some cases, misused Wikipedia.
Among them was Utkarshraj Atmaram, a management student interning with a Fortune 500 company, who has edited over 35,000 articles since 2004 when he first started. One of the more popular articles he wrote was about Sardarji jokes. “One Sikh editor accused me of being a hateful racist, but most others commended me for writing what was then probably the only page on the internet which discussed this topic in an objective way,” he says. He created the article in 2007, when controversies surrounding Sardarji jokes were reported in the media: first a Matunga-based book seller was arrested for stocking the Santa-Banta Joke Book, and then Reliance Communications was charged by the Lucknow police with “insulting a religion or faith” for sending a Sardarji joke as its SMS joke of the day. Atmaram has made over 59,000 edits, of which nearly 5,500 have now been deleted, some of them for not being “notable” according to the Wikipedia guidelines.
Also present at the meet was space enthusiast Pradeep Mohandas, who started writing on Indian observatories when he noticed that there weren’t many articles on the subject. In his free time, Mohandas reads scientific journals. It’s a chore to read them, he admits, but one which he readily undertakes in order to arm himself to contribute to Wikipedia. The bane of user-generated content is that advertisers use it as a tool to reach out to Wikipedia’s large reader base. Wikipedia readers unwittingly fall prey to pushy salesmanship. But an army of good Samaritans tries its best to foul the intentions of the intruders by cleaning up the articles. It’s a dog-eat-dog situation and the Wiki community is kept on its toes to maintain the sanctity of the website. Mohandas, a resident of Chembur, makes sure Chembur is ‘clean’, on Wiki. “I have removed several commercial links from the Chembur Wikipedia article” to keep it objective. “This has to be done, as often as it is undone by uninvited advertisers who gatecrash the website and edit entries in favour of their clients,” he says.
Like in every community, rivalry is rampant here too, spewing forth in the form of edit wars which occur when “editors who disagree about some aspect of the content of a page repeatedly override each other’s contributions, rather than try to resolve the disagreement by discussion”. The most controversial edit wars on India-related topics have been on secessionist movements (Kashmir, Khalistan), religion-related violence (Hindutva “terrorism”), ethnic history (Indo-Aryan migration or origin of a particular caste), regional disputes (the Kaveri River water dispute and the Belgaum border dispute) and languages. Sometimes there’s a compromise—on the age-old question of whether the 1857 uprising should be called the Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence. For instance, the current consensus to title the article ‘The Indian Rebellion of 1857’.
Not all discussions on “serious” issues are necessarily solemn though. Smiles Atmaram, “The language arguments aren’t limited to standard discussions like the status of Hindi as a national language, but finer debates such as which regional languages should be used in an article on Rajinikanth: Tamil (the language of his films), Kannada (he was born in Bangalore) or Marathi (his mother tongue). If the warring editors reach an agreement, mandating use of all the three languages, another debate starts: which language will be mentioned first?” We hope this doesn’t lead to a new series of Rajinikanth-Wiki jokes.
The second article is from the WikiConference held in Mumbai. Dated 2011
Meet Wiki’s local heroes
Some of the remarkable editors of the site’s local language versions include a visually-challenged man and a 10-year-old kid.
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, visited Mumbai last month for the firstever Wikiconference in the country. The 45-year-old American entrepreneur was here to invite and encourage more people to edit Wikipedia in local languages.
“When we have more editors, we’ll ensure people have quality content to read in their mother tongue.” Wales said Wikipedia’s future lies in India. In fact, to support the growth of the free encyclopaedia in the country, the Wikimedia Foundation—the non-profit organization dedicated to the growth of multilingual Wiki-based content projects—is setting up its second office in the world in New Delhi.
Adding momentum to the movement in India are initiatives such as School Wiki, a project launched by the education department of the Kerala government to introduce Wiki editing to students. And then, there is an effort to encourage more contributions from women. “Only 13% of Wikipedia’s editors are female. We need more Indian women to write and edit articles,” says Bishakha Datta, member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
But Wales is most worried about Wiki projects in languages such as Hindi. “Although the language is spoken by over 280 million people, the Hindi Wikipedia only has 1,00,000 articles and less than 50 active contributors.”
One prolific Hindi editor is Delhi University assistant professor Aniruddha Kumar.
Kumar, who is visually challenged, has edited more than 8,000 articles in two years using text-to-speech software. When he first discovered the fledgling Hindi version, he couldn’t resist the urge to hit the sampadan (edit) tab and start correcting mistakes. After his first edit in 2009, he was encouraged with a “thank you” note from another Wikipedian. “I continued because I wanted to race,” he says.
For Hindi Diwas which is celebrated on September 14, the Hindi Wikipedia community had organised a race. “We had to reach the 40,000 article target and were running short by 1,000. There was no stopping me after that,” says Kumar who can go on six-hour editing sprees making changes which could be as ‘minor’ as adding a full stop or as ‘major’ as adding a paragraph. He likes to edit articles ranging from philosophy, Urdu literature, software to Jan Lok Pal Bill.
Another interesting Indian Wikipedian is 76-year-old Sengai Podhuvan who is the eighth most active contributor to the Tamil Wikipedia. Age is not a hindrance for Podhuvan who started contributing in July 2010 and has made 8,455 edits
since then. While he has contributed on topics such as indigenous games of India and Tamil literature, another interesting Wikipedian—10-yearold Achu Kulangara—likes to edit articles on sports.
Achu, who interestingly is one of the youngest Wikipedians in India, edits the Malayalam Wikipedia. “I contributed to the article on Asian Games by adding a section on the medal tallies,” says Achu. While Malayalam Wikipedia has 20,318 articles with 85 active editors, Telugu Wikipedia has 48,803 articles with 30 active editors. One of them is a homemaker who made editing her hobby after she learnt how to contribute to Wikipedia. T Sujatha has edited 7,496 articles in Telugu and is an active contributor to the Telugu Wiktionary, a web-based free content dictionary too. She also promotes the site by contributing ‘how-to’ articles to Tewiki Vartha, an e-magazine of Telugu Wiki projects.
Meanwhile, Kumar too, wants to write a ‘how-to’ article. He’s going to call it, “A blind man’s guide to editing Wikipedia”.