Wikipedia pioneer was swept up by the idea of free information
Timo Jyrinki is an administrator on the popular Internet encyclopaedia
Click for Wikipedia Finland
Click for Wikipedia
By Marko Hämäläinen
Sitting at the keyboard, with a coffee cup nestling comfortably in one hand, Timo Jyrinki types the word näköaisti into the Search box on the Finnish Wikipedia site and clicks "Siirry" ("Go").
A short entry on the subject of visual perception appears on the screen, in Finnish. A picture of the anatomy of the human eye complements the rather terse text.
"Huh, pretty thin on the ground, this entry. I suppose at some stage I could add a bit more information to the article, as I've been reading quite a bit about the other human senses", says Jyrinki, and he clicks over to the same page in English.
A much more detailed article is to be found here.
Jyrinki is one of the Finnish pioneers of the web-based free-content encyclopaedia known as Wikipedia.
A "wiki" is the name given to a website that allows users to add, remove, or otherwise edit and change available content. Wikipedia was launched in English in 2001, and now exists in more than 200 language versions. Finnish joined the list in 2002.
These days the Finnish-language Wikipedia (fi.wikipedia.org) has tens of thousands of regular users, but just three years ago the pages were the province of a handful of local netizens with a leaning for the technical and a lot of time on their hands. Their volunteer work got the necessary technology up to speed and saw to the publication of the first articles.
In the early days it was all pretty modest and primitive: a few odd pages, some dates, and the thrilling information that Helsinki was the Finnish capital.
"It must have looked ridiculous. The writers were pretty geeky, and all the early articles had a technical bent. Things really only took off properly in 2004, when we broke through the barrier of ten thousand separate articles", recalls Jyrinki.
Timo Jyrinki got interested in coding already at the age of seven. Ever since, he has been more or less attached to the keyboard.
At the time of this interview, too, there are a pair of computers whirring away in the living room of his apartment in a Helsinki suburb. When Jyrinki is asked about his background, he almost automatically punches up his home page. If the question is about where he works, up come the pages for an IT firm called Nomovok, specialising in Open Source solutions.
Is the graduate engineer working at his PC a total nerd, a sworn defender of all things technical?
Jyrinki grins broadly.
"No, no, I'm interested in more human-related stuff as well. When I began my studies, I resolved I wouldn't go near the IT department. Otherwise life would have been too much of the same thing", says Jyrinki, whose M.Sc. is in communications engineering, with a major in cognitive technology.
What drew Jyrinki to Wikipedia was the free-content aspect. Anyone can go and edit or add information on the pages, for instance updating the article written about a sportsman with news of his latest medal or personal best performance.
An American non-profit foundation runs things in the background, and funding comes from donations and other sources.
"It makes sense to do work voluntarily for Wikipedia, as the information is not going to vanish. Even if the Wikipedia Foundation were to go under, someone else could take the material on the pages and continue to operate the system."
Jyrinki then turns back to the computer and makes a few keystrokes, accessing the Finnish home page of Wikipedia. "There are currently 73,439 articles in Finnish", he says with a smile.
"People who come to write here are the kind that really love information. As for me, I'm no great expert on anything in that way - I concentrate more on the technical side of Wikipedia."
The vast majority of the hundreds, even thousands, of Finnish Wikipedia writers are sincere about what they do and they know their stuff when they write or edit an article, but in a large group like this there will always be the odd bad-apple vandal lurking.
If push comes to shove, the Wikipedia administrators or "sysops" - there are now nearly forty of them on the Finnish side and nearly 1,000 on the English-language pages - have the task of protecting or deleting pages, or of denying access to troublemakers by blocking their IP addresses or user accounts, usually for a probation period.
"There are some people out there who actually develop programs and scripts that can flood multiple articles and corrupt the information in them. Then we have to come up with an antidote program that will restore the articles to what they were before the interruption."
There has been at least one case where a Finnish Wikipedia article was tampered with from no less a place than Parliament itself.
When the encyclopaedia noted, following widespread press coverage, that MP Jari Vilén's master's thesis was to a large extent plagiarised from other sources, someone went in and removed the offending paragraph.
A trace of the IP address used in the deleting action showed a computer located somewhere in the Parliament House, says Jyrinki with some amusement. The incident prompted a good deal of online discussion at the time, in April 2005.
In the case of sensitive or polemical subjects, differences of view that exist between various writer-camps can sometimes lead to "edit wars", in which two or more contributors go at it hammer and tongs, repeatedly reverting one another's edits to a contentious article or part of an article.
"Religion and politics are certainly the topics that generate the most heat and disputes. Now and then, the greatest merit is the way in which an article on a volatile subject can gradually get modified to the point where all sides can find a consensus. But for the most part there is a good atmosphere in the Finnish Wikipedia."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.8.2006
Wikipedia in Finnish
Wikipedia in English
Wikipedia: "Edit War"
MARKO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat