Wikipedia Is Trying to Transcend

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.

Wikipedia has 323 language editions, and at times, there are huge differences between them. For instance, Jasenovac was a concentration and extermination camp during World War II, which is described in detail on English Wiki. Hebrew Wiki, and other language versions. But according to Croatian Wiki, Jasenovac was merely a labor camp. Spanish Wikipedia refers to Catalonia as a Spanish autonomous community, whereas Catalan language Wikipedia declares Catalonia to be its own country. Until relatively recently, Cebuano Wikipedia said that the mayor of San Francisco was Dianne Feinstein. (Feinstein has not been mayor since 1988; Cebuano is a language spoken in the southern Philippines.)

Why are there such differences? Each language version of Wiki has historically been its own project, operating largely independently with the content managed by its own community of volunteer editors. In other words, there is not a singular Wiki—there are 323 separate Wikipedias. But at a conference in August, Wikipedia leaders presented a new initiative that could theoretically unify the information presented by all of the other Wikipedias, a proposed language-independent encyclopedia that has been generating buzz and prompting a lot of questions within the free content movement.

“Functions are a type of knowledge, and therefore it’s our job to allow everyone to share in this knowledge,” Denny Vrandečić said while introducing Wikifunctions during Wikimania, the user conference for Wikipedia and the other free knowledge projects hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, which this year had more than 4,000 registered virtual attendees. Wikifunctions is the first new Wikimedia project to be launched since 2012, and although the site itself is not expected to be available until 2022, development has already kicked into high gear.

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Why are there such differences?