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Global villages convene in wiki town halls

Wikicities relies on the same formula of user collaboration that has made its predecessor, Wikipedia, so successful.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Donations keep Jimmy Wales' free Wikipedia online encyclopedia going. But with Wikicities, a new collaborative community, Wales is accepting ads.

The ads are not necessarily for profit, but rather a way to fund what has become a mission of free information for all.

"That means finding ways of getting our content distributed," Wales said, adding, "What do we need to keep going and survive? And what do we need to accomplish our goals?"

Wales' Wikipedia has become an online phenomenon, attracting millions of visitors a month. Its appeal is not just as a free online encyclopedia. Anyone can write an article, and anyone can edit anything that has been posted.

Thousands of people have participated, and the site has more than a million articles but no advertising. In a recent fundraising effort, Wikipedia raised $95,000 in two weeks when it had hoped to raised $75,000 in three weeks, reflecting the loyalty of its users. (According to the site, "The name was based on the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, meaning "quick' or "super-fast.' ")

Wikicities, which has been online since November, allows the same flexibility to post and edit. Community themes must be approved by Wales and his colleagues. Among the rules, communities need enough appeal to attract an audience as well as editors to help maintain it.

As of last week, 193 communities were online, including topics as diverse as the American Federation of Musicians, the military and Ashlee Simpson. Cities in the name does not mean the site focuses on geographic locales, though a few real cities such as Baltimore and San Diego are represented.

"The truth of it is . . . Wikicommunity might have been better," Wales said of the name, which reflects the popularity of the Geocities sites. "It's the idea of each topic area is a city unto itself."

Wales, of St. Petersburg, doesn't expect any backlash about the ads, which come from Google's AdSense program. Those who object, he says, just won't visit the site. So far, the amount of money generated has been "so low as to be unimportant," Wales said.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, agrees, saying bills have to be paid at such sites, too.

The Wiki sites are not the only ones where people can post. Web logs, or blogs, have been growing in popularity and influence as people post everything from diary-type personal journals to news and political opinion. Newsgroups have been around for years, allowing people to share thoughts on topics of common interest. And sites such as About.com offer expert commentary on various topics.

Rainie attributes the rise of such online communities to a number of factors. People feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available. The credibility of major institutions, including medicine, the judicial system and the media, is increasingly being questioned. And word of mouth systems are gaining popularity.

"People working together to decide things is one way to create new ways of credibility systems," Rainie said. And "any help (people) can get in sorting out the relevant stuff from the irrelevant stuff is appreciated."

Rainie and Wales agree that some traditional online forums, such as newsgroups, can break down when spam and insult-generating flames disrupt the discussion. Some sites let visitors vote on postings, so the best get recognized and the irrelevant is marginalized.

"What's really special about the best wikis, the community can assert itself," Rainie said.

Wales says wikis go beyond those in other ways. For example, blogs are personal and can be edited only by the blog owner. Wikis are open to all.

"The social tools and models are evolving on the Internet," Wales said.

He doesn't know yet what other wikis might be developed, but the wikis are here to stay.

"It's sort of a new era on the Internet of people doing this sort of thing," Wales said. "We don't know yet what the limitations are."

Information from Times files was used in this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at or 727 771-4328 or gussow@sptimes.com

ON THE WEB

Wikipedia: www.wikipedia.org

Wikicities: www.wikicities.com

Pew Internet & American Life Project: www.pewinternet.org

[Last modified April 2, 2005, 09:28:02]

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