It’s been 10 years since a small group of tech-savvy Kannadigas got together to create the first few article stubs on the Kannada
Wikipedia. Back then, rendering fonts was an issue, Unicode support issues plagued language input and, most of all, nobody knew that Wikipedia could be written in a regional language.
Within a year or two, a small but enthusiastic community formed around these articles, comprising young techies from Bangalore and a few enthusiastic Kannadigas settled overseas. Back then, one of the most prolific contributors to Kannada Wikipedia was a neurosurgeon from the U.S., recalls Hari Prasad Nadig, one of the earliest contributors to Wikipedia.
In 2003, he recalls he visited the Wikipedia site to find just one article, which, he then put up for voting to ‘wiki-fy’ it. Slowly, word got around that a small group was trying to create a Kannada version of the world’s largest encyclopaedia and people joined in, says Nadig. Soon, an ‘aralikatte’ (meaning a community arena in Kannada) was formed along the lines of the ‘village pump’ found in English Wikipedia circles. These became the sites of collaborative editing, with concepts such as ‘collaborations of the week’ where members of the community would work together to enrich articles around a certain theme. The earliest and most detailed articles were about Kannada litterateurs, and to this day, these articles attract worldwide traffic from those who read a book and wish to know more about the author they’ve read.
Ten years on, there’s certainly been a “slowdown” in the growth of this language Wikipedia. And the numbers show this: Compare any of the major language Wikipedias to Kannada, and it’s evident that it’s lagging behind on most fronts.
Take the statistics of the quarter ended October 2013, for instance (Wikipedia releases stats on use and contributions on a quarterly basis). Kannada Wikipedia had 13 lakh page views per month, way behind Wikis in the three neighbouring States — Telugu Wikipedia had 21 lakh, Malayalam had 36.8 lakh and Tamil had 63 lakh.
Other revealing metrics include the total number of articles: while Kannada has 15,696 articles, Tamil and Telugu have around 55,000 each, and Malayalam has 33,528 articles. The total number of editors in some of these languages is around 100, while Kannada has around 40 (a number that was in single digit till six months ago, editors say).
Further, critical voices from within the community say that subjective metrics — such as depth of each article and quality of the content — are also found lacking. So, what happened to the community spirit that early years of the Kannada Wikipedia saw? Why did the enthusiasm wane? There are differing opinions on this.
Old-timers such as Mr. Nadig say that things were “irreparably damaged” a few years ago, when Google took up a transliteration project in order to enrich the intelligence of its transliteration tool. “In order to make their tool more intelligent, it hired companies or manpower to put English content through the machine, and then manually make corrections on it. This, I believe, overwrote some of the old content, and before this process was brought to a stop, a lot of damage was done. Then, the community had to work hard to undo the damage; a lot of this remains broken till this day,” he says.
He adds that other language Wikipedias too faced this, but some communities were stronger and stopped this much earlier. Om Shivaprakash, an active Wikipedia editor, agrees. “It is true that till date a lot of these pages need corrections. And there wasn’t enough of a community to be able to do this.”
But, he contends, the problem was much larger.
“There just wasn’t enough interest around Wikipedia here, primarily because there wasn’t enough awareness about it. Wikipedias in Malayalam and Hindi, for instance, have a lot of active and dedicated editors …this was first led by the free and open source community that was very active around these languages,” he says. By contrast, he adds, the Kannada Wikipedia community is hardly well-defined, and being from different fields is a disconnected lot with involvement that is sporadic.
Addressing the problem
This lack of organisation is something that Mr. Shivaprakash says the Wikipedia community is now looking at actively addressing. Over the past two years, he has been involved in organising several “community-level activities”. These include workshops in schools and colleges, programmes for those interested in contributing and so on. A special project that has been taken up in recent months is Karnataka 1,000 — a project that aims at taking up 1,000 region-specific articles and getting people to contribute.
“Some of these activities have started having an impact. All of a sudden we are finding that there are many new pages, particularly from the districts. Of late we’ve seen pages from and about Belgaum pick up pace, and the entries are fairly detailed,” he says.
He refutes that there has been stagnation and feels that things are certainly moving along.
‘It’s looking up’
Harish M.G., editor and admin for the Kannada Wikipedia, agrees that things are looking up. “A few months ago, we had only five to six active editors; this number has grown. Technology-wise, there are no issues on the input front. In fact, very early on, software such as Baraha started supporting Unicode, so tech hurdles were fewer compared to other languages. What was lacking was enthusiasm, involvement and outreach — and we’re working on that.”
Suman, a lecturer in an engineering college and a contributor to the Marathi Wikipedia, says that the issue with the Kannada Wikipedia is that a lot of articles are too elementary and not referenced enough.
“Wikipedia has a lot of potential. It can actually aid the growth of regional languages on the Internet, and in some cases has already done so. It’s an important platform, one that provides a very democratic process for content creation. Abroad, colleges and educational institutions collaborate with Wikipedia to contribute to this repository of knowledge…it is that spirit that we also must inculcate here.”