Your Majesties, your Royal Highnesses, distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, ladies and gentlemen, and fellow Wikimedians: thank you for this award, on behalf of the tens of thousands of people around the globe who contribute to Wikipedia. It is a great honor and privilege for us to be here in such distinguished company and in this beautiful building, and it is a great honor for our project to join the extraordinary company of past prize winners.
And in thinking about that past, I’d like to begin with a little history.
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, 28 October 1466 – 12 July 1536, known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, or simply Erasmus, was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian.
That is the first sentence of the Wikipedia article in English about Erasmus. The article goes on for 30 more pages to describe his life, work and legacy. It is illustrated by paintings and reproductions of manuscripts; there are footnotes and scholarly sources, and an extensive bibliography. And remarkably, you can also learn about Erasmus in 73 other languages, ranging from Indonesian to Italian, Arabic to Norwegian, Swahili to Dutch, and even Latin.
But none of these things are the most astonishing part about this encyclopedia article. The most astonishing part is that it was begun almost exactly fourteen years ago, on 29 November 2001, by one anonymous person. This person visited what was at the time a nearly-unknown website, wrote one sentence about “Erasmus of Rotterdam”, and then clicked “save” for the world to see. And then, over the course of the next fourteen years, over 1.700 different people would contribute to the article to make it what it is today. Some of the changes they made were small — formatting, making a sentence easier to read. Some changes were big: adding new paragraphs, researching sources, taking pictures of commemorative sculptures. These editors used the wiki technology to collaborate on writing the article, but they probably did not know each other’s real names, professions, or countries. But nonetheless Wikipedia’s editors formed a community and built an encyclopedia. They developed structures and guidelines, they argued over what should be in it, and they shared in one great passion: to make the encyclopedia as good as it possibly could be, and to build a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
What the story of this article also tells us is that, in addition to being the most accessed reference work in the world, Wikipedia is also a deeply scholarly work. Many libraries, archives and museums have understood this and have developed innovative programs that share their scholarly expertise and unique collections with Wikipedia. These institutions recognize that Wikipedia’s editors don’t just use their own knowledge to write articles; they are also skilled researchers.
But to be a good researcher, you must have access to research. Open access to scholarly research is crucial because so many Wikipedia editors and readers around the globe don’t have access to great libraries. I want to live in a world where my neighbor and I can both look at the same Wikipedia article, and both get access to the sources cited in it, even though I work for one of the world’s great universities and she does not. And, I want the Wikipedia editors who write that article — the editors in Bangladesh, in Argentina, in Amsterdam — to also have access to that research.
Libraries, museums and Wikipedia have a lot in common. We are all committed to preserving our cultural heritage and knowledge and sharing it widely. And for Wikipedia, this means sharing with the world.
When I look at a Wikipedia article, whether it is long or short, I don’t just see a useful summary of some topic of interest. I see the people behind it, our global community of passionate, quirky, scholarly people who believe that free information for everyone is worth working for. This is the community that we are accepting this award on behalf of, and the community that we are proud to be a part of. Thank you.
Almost fifteen years ago, a crazy idea was born. Bringing people from all over the world together to create an encyclopedia that anyone can read, edit or re-use at will, and all that without compensation. It seemed impossible. And yet, it worked.
For those who find it hard to grasp the sheer magnitude of that much collected knowledge, printing the English Wikipedia alone, without any images, would allow you to fill 110 meters of bookshelves in your library.
All of this is the work of tens of thousands of volunteers who have dedicated their time and effort to this amazing project. Of course, the days when you could get up in the morning and start an article about “Africa” or “ollekebolleke” are behind us. For many years now, many Wikipedians have been working from lists of “wanted articles” in a specific field. I myself like to help completing the set of articles for all members of the Dutch parliament in the past 200 years – as a start. We Wikipedians love lists.
In 2008, a group of Dutch Wikipedia editors used one of these lists to write about windmills. It seems we have over a thousand of them still standing in the whole country, and the mission of these mill-lovers was to write an article with a photo of every single one of them. And they did.
And as things go in Wikipedia, one project inspired another and a new list emerged. The next goal? Collecting photos of all the national heritage buildings in the Netherlands. As it turns out, the Netherlands has about 60,000 national monuments. To even have a chance of completing this new task within a reasonable time, the group needed new ideas. Fortunately, enthusiasm is contagious.
More people began to take an interest and a photo competition to get more photos was born: Wiki Loves Monuments. Again, enthusiasm proved contagious. Just a few years later, we were organising the competition in more than 50 countries. Since 2011, Wiki Loves Monuments is recognised as the world’s largest photography competition.
To accomplish that, we had to work the specifics and challenges each country presents with the necessary local dedication, love and expertise. For example, did you know that Germany has an estimated 750.000 monuments? That India on the other hand only protects a few thousand? That in some countries, publishing your own photos of national cultural heritage may require permission from the architect or a government?
The core concepts of Wiki Loves Monuments remained the same: ask people to contribute to Wikipedia in a fun way, while discovering more about heritage in your direct environment. Thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers across the world, Wiki Loves Monuments collected well over a million free images.
Collaboration through diversity of interests is a strength of Wikipedia – but at the same time a big challenge. I stand before you as the stereotypical average Wikipedian: a white male from Western Europe in his twenties, with a college degree. If you have met Wikipedians – and if you haven’t, I would encourage you to meet some later today – you will see that this of course is a simplification.
Nonetheless, the fact that our community is skewed, is the main challenge of Wikipedia today. Why don’t we have an article about the Congolese city of Baraka, which has more than 100,000 inhabitants, about ‘coconut soup’ or about ‘picking up’, a technique in knitting? By the way: I secretly hope that some of you will quickly fill those gaps – but maybe don’t pull out your phones right now.
It is obvious that to fulfill our mission, to bring together the sum of all knowledge, we need a more diverse community. With so much information still to add, we need the help of more people – in the hope and expectation that they can contribute knowledge that we can’t. We should make newcomers feel welcome, embrace their enthusiasm to contribute more, and make them want to become a Wikipedian.
Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That is the vision of the Wikimedia Foundation.
It is important that we say “share in” – because our movement depends on the generosity of people around the world to help reach this vision. Wikipedia editors, including the wonderful people in this room, have shared their free time to write and improve hundreds of thousands of articles. They help make Wikipedia the most comprehensive resource of the world’s knowledge, one with over 35 million articles across 291 languages.
However, we know that we still have far to go before we can reach every single person on the planet with free access to knowledge.
A few years ago, we started to think about how we could bring Wikipedia to more people around the world, in particular in non-Western regions. At the time, we knew that new users would not be accessing the internet and, therefore, Wikipedia from their desktop computers. It was just a matter of time to see new internet users coming online for the first time solely using their mobile phones.
Going mobile, however, was not enough to guarantee that people in emerging countries would be able to afford the expensive data charges to access Wikipedia. We quickly realized that if our intention was to enable the participation of new voices on Wikipedia, we also needed to remove the barrier of cost. This is how Wikipedia Zero came to life. From 2012, we have partnered with 72 mobile carriers in 64 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to provide free access to Wikipedia. Together, we have been able to bring Wikipedia to over 600 million people.
It is an honor to have the accomplishments of Wikipedia Zero and the Wikimedia movement celebrated here today. We are proud that students from a township in South Africa decided to write a letter to all their mobile operators asking them to join our program and provide free access to Wikipedia; that we received a “thank you email” from a Wikipedia editor in Ghana saying that Wikipedia Zero will allow more Ghanaians to edit Wikipedia; and that some of our partners in Asia decided to support our communities and their outreach efforts, not because we asked them to but because theywere impressed with our talented and passionate volunteer editors.
Imagine a world in which every single person freely share in the sum of all knowledge. We know we’re not there yet, but it is this vision that unifies us. This is what drives us forward.
On behalf of our movement, the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia Zero program, thank you for sharing this honor with us. It only encourages us to share more with the world. After all, Wikipedia is not finished; it’s barely just begun.