Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Jimmy Wales Discusses Wikia Search

Against the back drop of a very friendly audience Jimmy Wales gave his first public talk this evening about his new search project. In fairness, given his work with wikipedia it would be difficult to image a non-friendly audience at any occasion, and when the topic is basically giving stuff of real value away for free then its unlikely there will be too many boos and groans. Jimmy wasn’t particularly controversial; he is on a quest to make search transparent, participatory and free. (Nice picture of someone's head - sorry).

The meeting at NYU was both a official class meeting and a hosted meeting of the FreeCulture society. Purely by chance, I found out about it by glancing at a copy of AM New York this morning as I came back from a breakfast meeting. This is the great thing about New York that these types of things go on all the time like no other place on earth. (I will have another post tomorrow about another meeting I attended earlier in the week).

Wales suggested that he was taken aback by the attention given by the media world on this initiative and he claims that he accidentally dropped the hint about it at the end of last year. I have some doubts about the story. As he explained the search ‘tool’ will become a legitimate competitor to the commercial providers particularly Google and Yahoo. He even suggested that some second tier search providers have approached him to offer assistance and support and he reasons that these companies recognize that a legitimate competitor to Google et al is good for all the non-major players. He didn’t directly state that an objective is to make basic search a commodity but this does seem to be the central objective of the initiative. Value-added services then would ride along or on top of basic search thereby providing unique business offerings.

With respect to the three core criteria he views as essential to the initiative all algorithms will be published, testable and researchable which supports his transparency goal. Establishing a participatory environment will be dependent on the relevancy and usefulness of the engine. As one student suggested, if the tool sucks then no-one will participate to which Wales noted that he is in the process of hiring the best researchers in search technology and is well aware that the first release has to be impressive. He also went on to say that they want to include the best elements of wikipedia participation coupled with the trusted network of key participants. Within wikipedia there is a core group of 1000-2000 contributors who are unlike gatekeepers and more like collaborators. Lastly, the search tool will be free which he defined by reciting the four freedoms of software. These are the ability to copy, modify, redistribute and redistribute with modifications.

Other than the fact that I was in a room full of under-graduates and feeling very old this was a very interesting discussion. Questions towards the end reflected concern over privacy issues and why Google and the other services are not ‘free’. I was curious about why the wikipedia model hasn’t yet transferred well to the world of educational publishing and journal publishing because so far those initiatives appear indifferent but I didn’t get the chance to ask.

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