Understanding Jimmy Wales, but not free knowledge


At the end of December, I was invited to an Esperanto convention that took place in my relative vicinity. Some 30-40 people (of 110 participants) came to my two lectures on the history of encyclopedias and Wikipedia. Essentially I presented what I show to German school teachers, with a special focus on free knowledge, free licenses and the benefits of that for everybody. People had smart questions and the tendency to go into detail; many have a website or edit an Esperanto newspaper and want to know how to use Wikimedia Commons, whether they are allowed to use free content commercially etc.

But the two sessions were also very useful for me because I learned once more about what people already know about Wikipedia and what are the usual wrong conceptions. Explaining/understanding free knowledge is very challenging, and it really needs the large approach I provide at a slow pace, with examples and simplifications.

The sessions were part of the ‘International Winter University’ of the convention, organized by astronomy professor Amri Wandel of Tel Aviv. At the end of the second lecture, I examined those listeners who were eager to obtain study points. Most of the content did reach the audience, and it is obviously easy to follow on practical things and pure facts, like that Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales.

An abstract concept such as free knowledge is a different thing: for about half of the examinees had severe difficulties picking the right multiple choice answer. And as a matter of fact, doesn’t the expression ‘free knowledge’ sound like ‘free access for everybody’, ‘sharing knowledge freely in an open way’? I always emphasise – and maybe I should even more – that our ‘free knowledge/content/culture’ is a very specific concept, that the word ‘free’ should be in quotation marks with a clear, short definition.

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