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Jimmy Wales is Mr Wikipedia
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Jimmy Wales is Mr Wikipedia
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Jimmy Wales is Mr Wikipedia
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1 July 2007

Jimmy Wales is Mr Wikipedia

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Nic Hill

Kate Bezar on Jimmy Wales...

Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia which aims, in the wolds of its founder Jimmy Wales, “to be the sum of all human knowledge.” It is the 17th most popular website on the Internet. It has a huge community of people who feel a sense of ownership over it because, in a very real sense, they do. They write it, they edit it, they police it and they run it. Before Wikipedia and similar community-oriented websites were developed, newspapers, radio and television, were all top down.

Knowledge was given to us, the masses, by a select few. Now, we can write history. This is what the Chinese Government is scared of. This is what’s caused such controversy. Recently voted one of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’, Jimmy doesn’t seem to be at all phased by the responsibility this entails, he just sees it as an awesome opportunity to really, truly, impact civilisation as we know it…for the better.

He knew he was onto something that could potentially be big, really big, but had the guts not to shy away from that. Ladies and gents, I give you Mr. Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales.

This story originally ran in issue #12 of Dumbo Feather

KATE BEZAR: So tell me about tonight?

JIMMY WALES: Well everywhere I go I try to meet the Wikipedians.

Is it a bit like ‘all hail Jimmy Wales’?

No, no. People are fans but… a lot of times it’s more about meeting each other. What happens is that people have been talking for months about getting together and then I come and they finally do. When I’m there it just provides people with a focal point to get together. Like when I was in Russia it was only the second time they’d ever had a meet up so it was the first time most of them had met.

Was that one aspect of this whole adventure that you hadn’t expected?

Absolutely. When people say, are you surprised by the success of Wikipedia? and things like that, I’m like, ‘Kinda of, yes’. I’m very pleased obviously but

This story originally ran in issue #12 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #12 of Dumbo Feather

I thought it was a big idea and I knew it could be big.

The thing that surprised me and I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me, but I hadn’t really thought of travelling all over the world like I do. That part I didn’t anticipate. Everybody always says, with the internet now you don’t need to travel you can talk online, but it’s not true at all. If you’re going to lead a community or a group of people you have to get out and meet people in person, so I do. I go all over the world.

Is the strength of the community surprising?

No, because I came from an online community world where there were groups of people online. I always knew it would be a community-type thing so that’s not surprising. The travel’s surprising and the number of photo shoots I have to sit through – that never occurred to me either.

Well I guess there’s nothing else to photograph. There’s no product, no headquarters, no retail outlets as the ‘face’ of Wikipedia… a screen-grab maybe.

Yip, it’s me and my computer. A lot of photographers say, I really wracked my brain but I can’t think of anything else so, can you type on your computer please?

You said you knew it was a big idea, the idea is bigger than just Wikipedia itself isn’t it?

Yeah. I view Wikipedia as the first major success in the free culture movement. So now that that’s successful I’m trying to bring it into many other areas of Wikia where we’re trying to get communities to come and build all kinds of different things. Like we have sites that are very much like Wikipedia or an encyclopaedia, but a subject-specific encyclopaedia like a Muppets’ site which has 13,000 articles about The Muppets. So it’s this huge site. I mean Wikipedia has 300 articles about The Muppets which you would think would be enough. Then we have a whole new kind of site which we’re calling the magazine-style sites. We found these guys who were doing something called ‘Armchair GM’ (www.armchairgm.com) which was a sports’ site. They were using our software which they can because we release all our software under free licence. They’d modified it to make a website in more of a magazine-style format with a daily headline thing. So it’s a different style and different look-and-feel but underneath it’s the same software and people can collaborate on writing articles.

Access to information is a human right, period.
Jimmy Wales

More like ‘citizen journalism’?

Yeah, and so we’re launching those now and getting some good success out of them so that’s kinda fun.

For those people who don’t know what the free culture movement is about…

Free culture is really a term which was coined by Larry Lessig and in his book ‘Free Culture’ he describes it. From my point of view we have this commercial culture which is very much all about intellectual property, copyrights and protecting and monetising that in as many ways as possible. That works to a degree, it makes some successful things, but free culture is really more about the idea of people getting together and releasing things under licences that allow other people to build on their creativity. Larry launched an organisation called Creative Commons which I’m on the board of. Creative Commons creates licences that people can use for the sharing of their creative works freely.

And as you said, build on them, the idea being that one plus one is three, rather than a whole lot of ones floating around by themselves.

Yeah. This is a huge movement which really started with the free software movement and it’s been very successful in software. Apache and php and Pearl – the software that really runs the internet – is all collaboratively written under licences. It’s a mode of production which is very different from the proprietary software world where it’s all about copyrighting software and selling it. It’s just creative programmers sharing their work and there are business models that are growing up around it. One of my interests here is that Wikipedia is sustainable as a charity because the big picture vision is of a free encyclopaedia for everyone, but not every kind of work can be produced as a charity. With something like the Muppets’ wiki, maybe some of the contributors would like to contribute some money, but in terms of really hosting it and really making something big out of it, it’s not exactly a charity, it’s just something fun, it’s more pop culture. I’m interested in thinking about how we can make all this stuff sustainable. That’s the focus of my work.

Why does free culture and its philosophy personally excite you?

One of the old sayings in the free software movement is ‘free as in speech, not free as in beer’. Freedom of speech is a really important value to me. My belief is that

for healthy, open societies we need broad public participation.

We need safe spaces for people to have dialogue about important issues that we don’t really get right now from the mainstream media. The typical political debate programme on television is two talking heads screaming at each other and this very partisan culture of trying to win a fight. I think most people are tired of that. I think most people realise that the real solutions to our problems will involve getting people together who disagree on quite a few things and trying to figure out what it is that we agree on and moving forward in that way. I think this idea of broad public participation is important and free licensing is what really makes that possible. It makes possible for people to collaborate. If I start writing something online and I don’t have time to finish it, then it allows someone else to easily pick up and carry on with it in some other way. A lot of the debate around copyright has been poisoned by the idea of two really radicalised sides. On the one hand you’ve got Disney extending copyright terms forever to control whatever’s associated with their name – anything they’ve ever thought of they want to completely control. On the other side are kids stealing music or worse, the pirating of software or DVDs. But there’s a huge middle ground for those of us who have nothing to do with either of those things. We just want to produce stuff and we don’t really care if people want to reuse it because we’re not doing it for commercial motives. That’s really colourful.

Were you ever shy of having such a big idea? Were you ever scared of putting it out there in case people went, who do you think you are?

No, I’m a completely strange person so stuff like that doesn’t bother me at all. I think that’s a reason for part of my success. I’m not afraid of saying the most ridiculous things. Like, we’re going to put up a website and let anybody edit it and expect it to turn into an encyclopaedia. It’s completely daft. I admit it.

It’s a completely mad idea but you know, why not?

So fear of failure isn’t part of the equation?

No because like with Wikipedia I felt that it could be quite successful, but if it was just a small project that was going along I’d still be proud of it because it’s something that’s meaningful. Even if we didn’t get this big take-up, even if right now we had only 25 volunteers plugging away, it wouldn’t be as fun and I would have had to have some kind of a regular job, but it still would have been worth doing.

Is it important to you that you’re doing something ‘meaningful’? Were you prior to this?

I think so. I used to be a futures and options trader. One time I was in Israel and I did this interview through a translator because the guy interviewing me didn’t speak English. When the story was written it came out saying I used to be a futures and options trader but that I felt so guilty about that that I decided to launch a charity. And I was like, no, not at all. Being a trader was a really cool job and I think it’s a perfectly honourable profession. We were buying and selling things and we weren’t really hurting anybody. I felt that was meaningful. It’s that idea of free markets and trade and recognising that an important part of global prosperity is having a system where price discovery goes on and decisions are made that are more efficient than would be made otherwise.

Were you still trading when you started Wikipedia?

Yeah some, but I got really busy really quick. I found this a lot more interesting. This is more fun than that – I get to do something that’s a little surprising. I’m really lucky that I’ve been successful because I always joke, but I’m completely serious, that I couldn’t have a regular job, I’m not organised that way. Every day I get up and do different things. The idea of taking the bus to work and working nine to five every day would be quite difficult for me. I just wouldn’t show up some days because I’d find something else to do. Fortunately I’ve found a job where every day I get to get up and do whatever I think is most interesting, and that’s no problem.

So what are your plans for Wikipedia?

For me the main focus of my interest right now is figuring out how we can help the growth of Wikipedia in smaller languages – smaller for Wikipedia, not necessarily smaller [for the world]. To give you some indication, I was just in South Africa and South Africa has 11 official languages. English of course is a huge project because it’s a global language, Afrikaans has almost 7,000 articles, beyond that though, in the nine other non-European African official languages, almost nothing. The largest project we have is Zulu with 90 articles. So for me that’s a big challenge.

In terms of getting to the big goal of an encyclopaedia for everyone, where are you at? Are you half-way there?

No… not even close. People are always asking me, how will we know when we’re done or when we’ve been successful? So I’ve said, let’s get 250,000 articles in every language that’s spoken natively by at least a million people. Right now we have 250,000 articles in six languages only, but there are 347 languages that have at least a million speakers. A lot of those languages are going to be really hard to reach. Right now I think we have about 130 languages that have at least 1,000 articles… not 250,000, but they’re launched and they’re on their way. But still, only 130 out of 347 of the languages, so there are a lot that we’ve barely scratched the surface of. In part, the reason there are so many languages is Africa. Africa has a lot of languages, a lot of tribal languages, local languages, and a lot of those languages don’t have a written tradition so it’s going to be a really long time before we can reach those people. That doesn’t mean we’re useless until we’ve done that, that’s a goal, but further down that chain the goal is really tied up with cultural preservation. To reach people, French is important, English is important… In India there are languages like Hindi which is spoken by 280 million people – that’s an important language, but we only have about 2,000 articles in Hindi so that’s very small. Swahili is important. In Africa that’s about 60 million people I think and we have around 1,500 articles and that’s a growing project. So if you can get Swahili right, you’re covering a lot of people who also speak a local language, because that’s their regional language. The way I look at it right, we want to cover it. But for the ultimate goal

we want Wikipedia to be in your own language, not just a language you speak.

I was at an African university just last week and they were talking about how, for a lot of the students in this particular university, English is not their first language. They’re working in chemistry and some of the advanced, subtle concepts of chemistry are difficult for them because they’re struggling through a second layer, they’re reading a complicated subject in a language that’s their second language, so that’s a difficulty, there are barriers. We really want to try to help with that.

And you don’t want to do it through translation?

Well translation’s fine, but it has to come from the local community. That’s one of the things we struggle with. People are always asking if we could translate Wikipedia into more languages, but getting a precise translation is not all that interesting and a huge amount of effort. To do a real translation is a lot more work than just writing something in your own words based on a source. There’s really no reason to go to all that expense. People also like to ask about machine translation but it’s basically 100% useless at the moment, it’s really rubbish. The best quality machine translation is naturally between the most economically important languages. There’s a lot of money in translating Japanese to English and back, but even there it’s completely rubbish. You can just imagine what the quality is of translating from English to Urdu. There’s no money in it, nobody cares, and the amount of investment’s very small so it just doesn’t happen, it’s nonexistent. Japanese Wikipedia has over 250,000 different articles, they don’t really need translation tools because they can write it themselves. So machine translation doesn’t seem to offer any hope for us right now.

In order to get Wikipedia to these cultures, you obviously need the Internet, but I imagine the Internet access to some of these societies is pretty limited. Is greater Internet access part of the strategy?

It is, but you know Internet access isn’t something we can directly help with, we’re just not set up to do anything about that. It’s coming, it’s coming very quickly. It’s estimated that there are now around a billion people online and estimates say that in the next 5-10 years the next billion people will come online. Those people will come from China, India, South America, Africa… They’re not going to come from America, they’re not going to come from Australia because we’re all online already, more or less. That’s very interesting, to say, look we’re going to have a huge group of people joining the global conversation in a new way. That’s going to have a lot of impact on Wikipedia and the world in interesting ways.

How did you start telling people that this was the beginning of an encyclopaedia that they could write and edit?

A lot of typing. Very early on we got some attention from the free software community – there was a very techy, free software-oriented website called Slashdot who paid attention to us. That got more people coming in and then as we started creating good quality content people started linking to it more and more. It was very organic,

we didn't spend any money to promote it, it just came from the people, from everybody linking everywhere.

Was there a ‘tipping point’?

There was no point that we could point to as the tipping point. From the very beginning it kept doubling every three or four months.

So is it not so feasible to let it just grow organically in some of these other countries?

We do let it grow organically and we do see it happening. For example, in India right now there’s a huge amount of excitement. I was there about a month ago and we had a little event called Wikicamp and we had two or three hundred people there. There’s so much excitement amongst Wikpedians there because they finally have reached a point where they’ve got communities building, in some of the languages like Bengali and Kannada they’ve got between three and fifteen thousand articles in many of the languages. There are 23 languages in India. They’re growing at 10% a month so there’s a lot of excitement around that. It’s really hard when you have only 90 articles because usually there’s only one or two contributors, there’s not really a community yet. So my view on how to help that along is by getting press coverage, going there, reaching out to people – so anything I can help with is important.

That must be crucial to your ‘an encyclopaedia for every person’ goal, because they’re just the places that need an encyclopaedia most.

Exactly. It’s interesting because the benefit of Wikipedia for people who live in different cultures is actually very different. If you’re an English-speaker, one of the main benefits of Wikipedia is not to give you access to information, but to give you a concise summary of information. Our problem is we have way too much information. We can go on Google and get millions of hits, we can go to the library and there are thousands of books. Sometimes you need just a quick summary – that’s what an encyclopaedia is for. For some languages there’s almost no written tradition at all and this would be the first encyclopaedia in that language period and that’s kinda cool, but it’s a very different kind of need that they have. They don’t have information overload, they have a shortage of information. That’s another area where the free licencing comes in because it means that people are able to take work from different language Wikipedias, translate it or just use it as a source to build up resources in other languages. They don’t have to ask permission, they can just do it right – so it’s really fabulous.

So where to next?

I’m going to Mainland China later this year, it’ll be the first time I’ve been and that’ll be interesting. I’m going to try to go to Beijing to meet some government officials to see if I can get us unblocked in China.

Is Wikipedia blocked there?

Completely, in all languages, for well over a year now. That’s a problem, so I’ll go talk to people and see if I can do something about that.

Is there any opportunity for a partial unblocking? I imagine it’s just the stuff about China they would want to block.

What we say is that, they have the technology to filter. We would not approve, we would not cooperate with any censorship, period, that’s just not my thing. That’s become even more important now that a lot of the big internet companies have agreed to censorship, it’s even more important that I stand strong and don’t and say, access to information is a human right, period.

The distinction that we would make though is that they have the ability to filter certain key words that they’re uncomfortable with so they should be doing that and not blocking all of Wikipedia… You know, Falung Gong, Tiananmen Square, democracy – some of the things that upset them. We would like to encourage them to be a little bit more sophisticated about what they’re doing at a minimum, we’re not going to help them do it, but it would still be better if they weren’t blocking everything. Most of Wikipedia is really of no interest to the Chinese Government.

You’re trying to do something fundamentally ‘good’, right?

I think so.

Does it bother you then that people, particularly the press, tend to pick what you’re doing apart, rather than support it? Or is that just a recent thing?

No it’s ongoing, but it’s the kind of thing that as long as they spell the name right, I don’t really mind. I actually think in some ways it’s been beneficial to us to be controversial because it brings us to people’s attention.

And at least it gives you a chance to explain some of Wikipedia’s shortcomings.

That’s been our strategy from the very beginning. The most we ever try to say in praise of the quality of Wikipedia is that parts of it don’t suck too much. It’s kind of ok in parts. We don’t want to overstate the case because if you overstate the case then people really would take you apart. If people want to complain about this or that aspect of Wikipedia usually they can’t be any more harsh about it than we are internally. We are a very critical internal community and we’re always discussing what’s wrong and how to fix it. It’s a really big part of who we are that a lot of the articles will tell you right in the article, ‘This article doesn’t cite its sources’, or, ‘The neutrality of this article has been disputed.’ You don’t see that at CNN. You don’t see a little disclaimer saying ‘This isn’t a very good article’, ‘We’ve got some good stuff over here, but this one sort of sucks’. They like to pretend that everything is the same standard and that it’s all very high quality, but we try to be a little more upfront and say, we’re really proud of it as a whole, but parts of it aren’t so great and we’re working on it.

Is the search engine still on the cards?

Yes, yes. That’s what I spend a lot of my time personally working on. We’ve just hired an open source developer who’s going to be working on the project and he’s going to be the technical lead. We’re basically pulling together lots of different people from the open source community to help us with the project. We’re setting aside funding to buy all the servers we need. My role in the whole process is really about the community design, working on the social structure of how we’re going to have community participation in it because it’s kinda tricky. That’s what I do best I think, figure out how we get lots of diverse people involved in a way that’s positive and productive for people – it’s not guaranteed, you really have to think those things through. So that’s where we stand right now.

And is the idea that it’s a search engine that gives you results based on how other people rate that result?

Yes. We’re not exactly clear on all the details yet, but essentially the idea would be to have human judgement involved as an integral part of it. For me that’s an important part of it, but perhaps more important is the idea that all the software will be open source, everything will be published openly and available for other people to re-use. Right now we have a situation where search is not transparent, it’s completely opaque, it’s a black box, everybody’s very secretive about how they do things and I don’t think that’s desirable and I think it’s important for us as citizens of the world, as consumers, to say that we really prefer to use services that are upfront and clear about what they’re doing and why. That’s what I’m all about. It’s interesting because the quality of search results is what Google has really become dominant with, but if you look at the search results from Google, Yahoo and Ask they’re actually quite similar these days. There have been studies where if you show people the true results from Yahoo and Google, they’ll say that the Google results are better, then you show them the same search results but switch the branding and they’ll say the Google results are better even though they’re looking at the Yahoo results. That shows you that Google has a public image and a branding advantage, but their actual technological advantage is not so much any more. I think we can do that in the open source world and then, if Google wants to compete with me on brand, I’m happy to do that. That’ll be fine.

Do you have a name for it?

Wikia. So it’s the same. Eventually the site will be more of a general portal where we’ll have the search engine on the front page and the Wikia communities as a part of it. There’s one type of search which is the informational-type search where typically what people are looking for is something like Wikipedia, they’re trying to learn about something. There’s a lot more that people do on the internet than just search for information, like looking for humour, or entertainment, sports news, shopping, gossip whatever – actually Wikipedia’s quite good on gossip sometimes – so I think there’s still a need for a broad search engine.

And that excites you?

I think what’s really exciting is the idea of taking this important, fundamental thing on the Internet and making it free. If you really think through the economics of search and you think about making good quality search results a commodity where any organization with enough resources could download the software, customise it, and have their own search engine that’s high quality, right now that’s really hard to do. Right now what this means is that major organizations like the BBC, CNN, New York Times, with very popular websites cannot help you. If you go to their website for news, and you do a search for something else, they cannot help you because their search engines aren’t good enough and they only search internally, and even internally they’re not so great, so people leave and go to Google. So if we could make good quality search a commodity, then those organizations will launch their own search engines and this will dramatically change the power structure on the Internet.

It’ll shift power away from the search engines and back to the content providers.

If that happens, that’s cool.

So it’d potentially be the BBC search engine which would evolve through contributions by the BBC and their community?

Yeah, there could be customisations like that under a free licence and that’d be really cool.

That’d be so interesting. You’d be able to compare the BBC search engine’s results ranking to that of say an American media player like CNN’s. It’d be fascinating to see how culturally and geographically they’d differ. I guess if you felt like a member of a community of like-minded people, you’d use that search engine because you’re more likely to get the results you want.

If 10 years from now they’re saying to me, wow, you really changed the whole structure of the industry, you know that’d be really cool.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Nic Hill

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