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Jimmy Wales - The freethinker

  • January 2017

The freethinker

Jimmy Wales, Co-founder Wikipedia

“Wikipedia is subversive in an interesting way. I mean that in a good sense of subversive – subverting tyranny.”

Creative, bright, willful – Jimmy Wales shows many of the traits of the archetype challenger personality. He doesn’t blend into systems so much as revolutionize them. When he launched Wikipedia, the world’s first collaborative encyclopedia, others said it couldn’t be done. But rather than listen to conventional wisdom, he shocked the world (and possibly himself), and proved them decisively wrong by creating the world’s largest encyclopedia. A decade after its founding, Wales’ Wikipedia has revolutionized and democratized the collection and dissemination of information worldwide. It used to be the victors who wrote history; now everyone can participate. And participate they do: Wikipedia has more than 17 million articles in 270 languages read by an audience of 365 million and growing. Characteristically self-effacing and unassuming, Wales might easily be another face in the crowd were it not for his celebrity status as one of the Internet’s great innovators. Despite homes in Florida and England, this relentless optimist spends as much as 250 days traveling around the world with his “home office” – a small rucksack, containing his laptop, cell phone, and a change of clothes – evangelizing his oft-stated goal: providing everyone in the world with free access to an encyclopedia in their own language. And he is not beyond blocking the English language pages of the encyclopedia in protest at two items of draft legislation in the US concerning Internet piracy. We caught up with “Jimbo” and his equally peripatetic keyboard at his favorite pub in London – his home office of the moment – where he generously took the time to chat with us, even though he was rushing between appointments.

The Focus: How can the idea of Wikipedia be best captured? Is it a social experiment, a grand oeuvre as the biggest encyclopedia, or is it a humanitarian achievement?

Jimmy Wales: Wikipedia is primarily an encyclopedia, and secondarily a social experiment. The social experiment is by design of the needs of the encyclopedia. If it were the other way around, where there were no ultimate purposes to help us define the social rules, we could veer off into all kinds of things. And yes, it is humanitarian, in the sense that we are trying to give free knowledge to everyone. But it is through the mode of being an encyclopedia. That’s our core.

The Focus: How did Wikipedia get started? Was it more the ambition of a digerati, or was it more from your hunger for knowledge and information that you started to think about the whole project?

Wales: Well, I think those are the same thing. Certainly, when we look at the early days of the project, because we use free licensing, which is an idea that comes from the Open Source software world, we had a lot of early attention from that community. Very early on, they understood what we were trying to accomplish and how we might be able to do that on the Internet. So in the early days it wasn’t the Twitter generation; it was really a bunch of geeky programmers.

The Focus: Was disrupting the status quo always your intention for Wikipedia?

Wales: Well, disrupting the status quo is lots of fun, but it was never a primary goal. I didn’t set out saying: “What can I do to disrupt the status quo?” Instead, I thought: “Wow, an encyclopedia that could bring people together” – and ideas like that. But Wikipedia has definitely altered the status quo. For example, my daughter is about the same age as Wikipedia. By the time she could read, Wikipedia was already the dominant encyclopedia. For this generation, Wikipedia is part of the landscape; it has always been there. They use it all the time for all kinds of things. It’s an integral part of their lives – often for schoolwork, but also for fun: reading about rock ’n’ roll bands, sports, TV shows – whatever pop culture they’re interested in. I don’t have any objection to that. That is part of becoming skilled at thinking, reasoning, reading, and understanding. So then when they hear a question about a politician or a new policy or something like this, their instinct will be: “Oh, I don’t know much about that, but I know how to find out.” I think that is incredibly valuable.

The Focus: What is the most striking thing that one has to keep in mind to understand the idea of Wikipedia?

Wales: I would say it is the incredible good will that people have. The number of people who are troublemakers, or who want to disrupt things, or who want to really argue for a certain political or religious agenda, is actually quite small. There is a very large number of people who believe that neutrality is important, that being kind to others is important, and who want to do something productive and useful with their time. It is pretty striking, because too often we forget that. We are able to remember that in day-to-day life. When you meet people you basically assume they are not criminals. Yet online there was – and to a lesser extent today – a culture of fear and the idea that there are all these crazy people out there. It turns out this wasn’t really true. That doesn’t mean one should be naive. There are always bad people who want to disrupt things and cause trouble. But on the whole, we find that most people are ethical and want to cooperate.
The other thing that’s easy to lose sight of is just how global Wikipedia is. Normally, I think this applies even more so to English-speaking communities, because English-speaking people tend to very English-centric. But it’s astonishing when you realize there are Wikipedia communities in every corner of the world, working in their own language. These can be a very large and important language like English or German, or a fairly obscure language like Welsh.

The Focus: When it comes to Wikipedia’s content, how do you balance open collaboration with the need for the sort of quality and consistency that characterizes traditional publishing?

Wales: It’s true that we are not organized in a top-down sort of editorial control model like a traditional encyclopedia. Most people are aware of that because they have heard that “something crazy is going on at Wikipedia”. At the same time though, people make the mistake of thinking it is completely random people and complete anarchy, and somehow it has just magically turned into this. If you read Wikipedia and you see this, although it has problems here and there, it is actually quite good and is perhaps surprisingly useful – and you begin to wonder how that happened.
If you imagine that it happened through random interactions of people, in the sort of way that market prices are set, you’ve missed something important, which is that there is a community with a social structure. It is a very consciously designed community. Not by me – I play a part in it – but designed in the sense that the community has been very thoughtful and reflective about thinking about policy.
What you need in healthy online communities is similar to what you need from good municipal government. Society needs certain institutions and checks and balances. There are police, but there’s also a judge and jury. Different societies have evolved different rules, but in the main, we have a pretty good idea what the elements are that you need to get a sense of justice, a sense of possibility of change in a healthy way. We have a lot of those elements in the Wikipedia community, where the rules are open to change but they’re not random. We have administrators that can block people from editing, but they are subject to review as to whether they did it in the right way, according to the rules.

The Focus: Are the rules getting more and more complex in the meantime?

Wales: Yes, they are definitely getting more and more complex. We have had evolution over the years, and there is a concern today as to whether we have evolved too many rules and regulations. But we’re conscious of this. Since the early days, we’ve tried to keep rules to a minimum, and employed them only when necessary. Consequently, people are still able to come forth with entrepreneurial concepts and fresh ideas. They can be heard – and make change.

The Focus: How do you orchestrate the development of these rules when you don’t have an elected governing body?

Wales: We don’t have a parliament, but we do have a group of administrators who can change rules using a clear set of procedures. But not all Wikipedia communities developed in the same manner. In the early days of German Wikipedia, for example, decisions on whether or not to ban someone for misbehavior were decided by popular vote. That’s very different from the experience of English Wikipedia, where I was originally the only person who could ban someone. That was just the way we did it. But that got to be too exhausting and difficult a job for me. So I appointed an arbitration committee, and this committee is now elected and appointed, and it resembles a court structure. Internationally, there are still differences amongst the different communities, just as there are differences between German law, English law, and American law. But those differences tend to be minor. Broad liberal democracies have a shared set of principles about these kinds of thing.

The Focus: Do you sometimes feel tempted to have more of a top-down expertise?

Wales: There are a lot of reasons why giving experts top-down control is a bad idea – not least of which is bias. Experts in a particular field sometimes have a certain view that is not widely shared. They often prefer to exclude criticism of their view, because they feel their critics aren’t expert enough to comment as such, and yet this criticism is usually relevant and important.

The Focus: Given that Wikipedia’s audience is so global in nature, how is it that so many of its contributors share such a similar demographic?

Wales: It’s a great community, but we’d like to broaden it. One of the things that we know is that the community is too tech-oriented, too male. They tend to be over 85 percent male; average age 26, college educated, and double the percentage of PhDs compared to the general public. They’re very geeky, very smart people, and yet very different personality-wise from bloggers who want to put forward a view.
You can see the results of this overly narrow demographic when you look at the quality of Wikipedia entries across different topics. You see really strong evidence of systemic bias. We just won’t cover certain things that the 26-year-old tech male is not interested in, such as child rearing or high fashion. It’s not intentional; people simply write about what they know about. Wikipedia is making a concentrated and global effort to attract an enlarged and more broadly demographic contributorship.

The Focus: What’s next for the Internet? Will Wikipedia-style collaboration be at the heart of it?

Wales: I think that technology is going to play a big role in broadening the types of collaboration that are possible, such as with filmmaking or animation. Right now the technology is not really there, but I think that those kinds of things will become more possible. You will get more and more people who are trained in how to do it.

The Focus: You founded Wikipedia more than a decade ago. Given the passage of time, have some of your original beliefs about Wikipedia changed?

Wales: Some beliefs do change with time. For me, the big one was the idea that most people are basically decent and good and do not cause trouble. That was something that I discovered, although in a sense I believed it all along. In my day-to-day life, I think that people are basically nice and trustworthy, but online you worry about security and who’s going to break in and mess things up. Realizing that it’s really just human beings out there on the Internet and they are not all crazy and out to cause trouble – that’s something that the Wikipedia experience has changed for me, and for others as well.

The Focus: Do you have an ambition of making Wikipedia more of a social instrument to enhance free access to knowledge around the world?

Wales: The goal for Wikipedia is unchanged: a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in his or her own language. And so our attention is necessarily turning more and more to the developing world. We have accomplished our goal to a very large extent in English, German, French, and a whole host of European languages, as well as Chinese and Japanese. They are all large projects. But when we look at a country like India, for example, there are over 20 languages and the largest one, Hindi, has only about 60,000 to 70,000 articles. It is quite small compared to 280 million people speaking Hindi. It should be much larger, but there are a lot of barriers, like access to computers and broadband, low literacy rates, and things like that. And India is way ahead of Africa, where we have very few entries in very few languages.

The Focus: Bringing Wikipedia to such a large, diverse, and poor continent seems a rather daunting task.

Wales: A friend of mine is CEO of an African Internet company. He was just telling me that in the nine countries where he is operating, the number of people on the Internet has doubled in the last year. They recently dropped a new cable into Nigeria from Europe that overnight increased the bandwidth to Nigeria by a factor of ten. This has led to incredible drops in the price of access to very high bandwidth for many Africans. Hundreds of millions of people are going to come online in the next ten years. There are loads of languages in Africa that are spoken by 30 million, 40 million, 50 million people. Once those people are able to read and have access to the Internet, they will want information. Once there are more readers, potential contributors – such as intellectuals or those in the diaspora – will be more inspired to contribute. No one wants to write if no one will read it.

The Focus: How do you see the less democratic societies developing and making use of, or blocking, Wikipedia? What kind of role can you play in these societies in order to help them develop?

Wales: I think one of the interesting things about Wikipedia is that we are subversive in an interesting way. I mean that in a good sense of subversive – subverting tyranny. We are not a place for people to come and rant against the government and things like that; we are not like a blogging platform. In many ways, we are a tougher challenge for the authorities, because it is difficult to justify blocking Wikipedia – and yet they do, often completely. But we’ve always taken a very firm stance against censorship. It’s a human rights issue and it’s important for us to take a strong stand.
When you think about it, Wikipedia’s role is really quite interesting. On the one hand, we’re essentially apolitical because we aren’t in the business of taking sides. And yet, one of the most important things that people can learn from Wikipedia – that does engage them politically – is to begin to learn about western democracies, learn some of the ideas of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. These are deeply subversive writers, even if they’ve been dead a long time. You get people reading about these ideas – and also, of course, the Internet in general is good for this purpose as people begin to look around in some place like Egypt.

The Focus: The impact of Facebook and Twitter, while significant, feels somehow ephemeral. How is Wikipedia different?

Wales: Despite its evolving nature and digital format, Wikipedia is different because it represents a foundation of knowledge. The so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions are great in the sense that people are announcing that they are all going to converge on the square at the same time. They are communicating, and they are banding together. But knowledge is deeper than that. For several years now, young people have had access to other ideas from other parts of the world. They have access to BBC news. They have access to Wikipedia. And they begin to look and say: “Why have we had the same president for all these years and a clearly corrupt system? We don’t have to live this way.” Change isn’t easy, but with the free dissemination of knowledge and information, there’s at least the possibility for real and significant change. Knowledge is closely linked to freedom, which is what makes Wikipedia such a powerful force for change.

Talking with Jimmy Wales in London were Ulrike Mertens, Magnus Graf Lambsdorff and Dom Loehnis (from left) from Egon Zehnder.

Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Donlan Wales was born in 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama. His father was a grocery store manager, and his mother and grandmother ran a very small Montessori school, which he attended. As a child, Wales was given a set of encyclopedias, which he enjoyed reading as well as updating with stickered pages supplied by the encyclopedia company. He also spent a lot of time programming computers. Wales earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in finance from Auburn University (Alabama), and pursued a PhD in finance from Indiana University, before scrapping it “out of boredom”. Instead, Wales traded futures and options and used the money to start several website businesses, including Nupedia, which was intended to be a free Internet encyclopedia with peer-reviewed articles, but which Wales found to be an impossibly slow way to create an encyclopedia. Wales and a business partner decided to switch to a collaborative form of writing and editing by employing open-source “wiki” (Hawaiian for “quick”) programming. Wikipedia was launched on 15 January 2001. Ten years later, there are more than 17 million articles, thus proving that large-scale collaboration without a traditional hierarchy can work when tapping global and anonymous talent. Wales serves on the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit charitable organization he helped establish to operate Wikipedia. In 2004, he co-founded Wikia, a for-profit wiki-hosting service. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the world’s most influential people.

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