Wikipedia's Quest

Interview With French Wikimedia Treasurer Delphine Ménard

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By Jesús Colina

ROME, DEC. 1, 2009 ( Wikipedia aims to make information free, and the Church aims to proclaim the truth. Though their perspectives are different, there is room for cooperation.

This is the conclusion that can be drawn from Delphine Ménard, the Wikimedia treasurer in France. (Wikimedia is the foundation that creates Wikipedia, the online, user-created encyclopedia that has become the fifth most frequently visited Web site on the Internet).

Ménard was asked to participate in a Nov. 12-15 conference at the Vatican, organized by the European bishops’ communications commission, to consider the Church and information technology. ZENIT spoke with her about her impressions of the meeting and the distinct — but sometimes complementary — missions of the Church and Wikipedia.

ZENIT: What was your experience of the Vatican meeting?

Ménard: The Church plays a very important role in history and society and Wikipedia tries to talk about history and society within an encyclopedic context. I find extremely positive the fact that the Church shows such an interest in what makes today’s Internet. It is important for each of us to live with our times, as information channels and collaboration practices change with the advent of new technologies and new communities. I found the conference to be extremely enlightening as to what challenges the Church might be facing in that context. The questions were always very challenging and most important, I met extremely interesting people, and had a lot of very enriching conversations about what it is like to live in today’s world and be on a mission.

ZENIT: Did you ask the bishops to be editors of Wikipedia?

Delphine Ménard: We asked how many people had edited Wikipedia already, and only about 10% of them had. I think that while the Wikipedia community always welcomes new editors, we are not trying to push anyone to edit who would not want to. What is important to us is quality feedback on Wikipedia’s content, and ideas about what works and what does not work. I think it would be great if all bishops started to edit Wikipedia, especially because they are all so knowledgeable about so many things. However, like all other editors, they would have to hold to the idea of a neutral point of view, which I believe is the hardest thing for any contributor, whatever their beliefs.

ZENIT: Why do you work with this project? How did you discovery Wikimedia? Is it a job?

Ménard: I discovered Wikipedia by chance and started editing in the French Wikipedia five years ago, just for fun. I got involved very quickly and in the beginning, edited Wikipedia in all of my free time. I then helped organize Wikimania, the first international Wikimedia conference in Frankfurt, Germany. This is where I started to get more and more involved in the organizational side of things.  I have been a volunteer member of the non-profit Wikimedia France since its beginning. I have worked three years for the Wikimedia Foundation — the American organization that hosts the Web site — as chapters coordinator, one and a half years as paid staff, one and a half years as volunteer, and since September 2008, I am only involved as a volunteer.

Wikipedia is the fifth most visited Web site in the world, and it is run and maintained by 100,000 volunteers throughout the world. There are only 40 staff worldwide working to help the volunteers in administrative, technical, fundraising and outreach programs. The reason I am still involved five years later is that I find Wikimedia’s mission extremely important. In a world overloaded with information and living on ephemeral business models, the idea of working toward making information a free resource for education, for as long as possible, is very compelling and ambitious. I think it’s an essential mission for the generations to come.

ZENIT: The Catholic Church announces one truth. At Wikipedia you try to give space to different «truths» or points of views. Is there a contradiction?

Ménard: Yes, I think there is a fundamental contradiction, and one we have to live with. Wikipedia really does not aim at presenting one truth, or even many truths, but rather aims at giving people as much solid information as they might need to form their own opinion, trying to achieve a «neutral presentation.»  I suppose that is something that we all have to take into account, and I imagine, as a Wikipedian close to the Church told me, that to present the Gospel in this context is probably a challenge for the Church, as it is a challenge for Wikipedia to make sure that readers have factual information to base their reflexion on.

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