The Independent, 6 January 2011

On January 16th, Wikipedia will celebrate its tenth birthday. And its users will celebrate in ad-free pages, because the annual Wiki fundraiser has been a record-breaker this year. The Wikimedia Foundation plastered its pages with pictures on co-founder, Jimmy Wales, staring moodily at the reader and asking for cash. Although it provoked ungenerous criticism from some parts of the blogosphere (mocked-up wiki pages with Wales’ face superimposed on woodland creatures, for a start), it worked. The banner ads sporting his face received three times more clicks than the ones without him, and they received higher average donations.

Operation JimboStare, as the campaign became known, raised over $16 million dollars in 50 days. Its donations are the perfect illustration of wiki’s strength – 500,000 donors in 140 countries gave an average of $22 each. The democratic nature of its financial arrangements is a mirror of the site’s administration – volunteers contributing what they know or can find out on every subject you can think of. Wikipedia is the 5th most-visited website in the world, but it only has about 45 people actually working for it. The other 100,000 editors are all doing it for nothing.

Plenty of people dislike wiki in principle – for its inaccuracies, its bias, or its occasional inability to cover in depth subjects that teenage boys won’t be interested in. In my experience, those people rarely visit the site, dismissing it entirely because they once found a ropey article. And as someone whose wiki entry – written by someone I have never met and whose name I don’t know – once compared me (favourably) to a Sesame Street episode, I could easily be among them. At least, I would be if I hadn’t been delighted – who doesn’t want to be like Sesame St? Idiots, is who.

But wiki’s critics have been slow to give them credit for trying to make the site better, and more accurate – introducing delays to any changes made on sensitive pages, using established editors to keep tabs on them. Of course, rogue elements get through: if you really wanted to make a false claim on an obscure topic, you might get away with it for months. But at least it could then be changed, which is something that can’t be done with a massive volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Wikipedia is an extraordinary testament to the best side of the internet – democratic and dedicated to sharing information. At no point in history have ordinary people had free access to an encyclopaedia on this scale; wiki currently has over 17 million articles, and 400 million people use the site every month.

Even if you need more detailed or better-sourced facts, wiki is a great starting point, since it’s crammed with links to original texts, references and other websites. So maybe for the next fundraiser, Jimmy Wales won’t be staring, he’ll be smiling.

The King’s Speech opens in the UK on Friday, and is hotly tipped to get a haul of Oscar nominations in a couple of weeks. It’s one of those rare films which is receiving critical and audience acclaim alike, and for good reason: it’s funny, touching, and beautifully shot. It tells the story of George VI, trying to overcome a debilitating stammer, as one of the first monarchs of the broadcast era. Colin Firth invests the king with a combination of duty and vulnerability which is irresistible.

But the reason it resonates with audiences is surely because it doesn’t offer any glib solutions to complicated problems. George VI still had a stammer when he died, as most stammerers do. There is no quick fix for many of the things we wish we could change about ourselves. What the movie has captured is the idea that we can never stop trying to overcome our demons, that there is no moment when we can say we are free of our past, and nor should there be.

The popularity of The King’s Speech is, in other words, the perfect rebuttal to the lazy idea that we all simply looking for an excuse for everything wrong with our lives, to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves. The king has no excuses, and no possibility of shirking public speaking, his greatest fear. So he faces up to it with dignity and courage, and tries his best. And surely audiences love it because that is how they want to see themselves.

Michael Thompson of Grimsby has just acquired a criminal record for flashing his lights at other drivers, warning them of a speed gun. He was found guilty of wilfully obstructing a police officer in the course of her duties. He offered a rather specious suggestion that he was trying to prevent other drivers braking dangerously, something they would of course not need to do if they weren’t already driving too fast.

And yet, I am puzzled by the ethical dilemma his case poses. Certainly, he was trying to help other drivers elude capture for breaking the law. But he was doing so by persuading them to drive within the law. They didn’t get caught on camera speeding, not because he distracted the policewoman or disabled the camera, but because he convinced them not to speed. How is this morally different from someone approaching a shoplifter and telling them to put the item back on the shelf because the fuzz are outside? Is it really obstructing a police officer if you stop a crime before they can apprehend the perpetrator?

Perhaps speeding is different because of the possibility of causing injury or death. But even then: wouldn’t we prefer a murder to be averted, rather than a murderer to be caught?