Meet Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

He has a Wikipedia entry about himself. But that shouldn’t be surprising — he’s the co-founder and current “de facto leader” of the Wikimedia Foundation. Born in Huntsville, Ala., Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales is a captain of the Internet industry. His youthful ambitions to earn his first million before the age of 40 led him to a short-lived career trading options in Chicago after graduating with a master’s degree in finance from the University of Alabama. He soon moved onto other endeavors that would form the foundation for his Web domination.

His first project, which he called a “guy-oriented search engine,” is widely reported in the press as an unsuccessful portal for pornography. Nonetheless, this Web site became the financial yolk for Nupedia, the predecessor of Wikipedia.

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, while visiting Yale, he took the time to speak with scene about alleged break-ups, new start-ups, and Wikipedia slip-ups.

1 – Source: Wikipedia.org

Q How does it feel to be speaking at Yale, which as a university has done a lot for the development of knowledge over the years, but that is also promoting knowledge to an exclusive community?

A I think it’s great. I’m interested to see how the audience is. I’m assuming that basically everyone uses Wikipedia everyday, and I think people will have a lot of the usual questions on reliability and all those things.

Q At the recent annual Wikimania conference, you expressed concern that Wikipedia contributors were mainly a homogenized group of “male computer geeks.”

A A majority, yes.

QWhat is Wikipedia doing to try to get a more diverse group of contributors?

A We’re very global; there are people all over the world editing Wikipedia, mostly in their own home language. But there’s a certain geek culture that transcends national cultures; there’s a homogeneity in that. The main thing we’re doing is the useability project. We have a $950,000 grant from the Stanton Foundation that’s specifically targeted at finding the points in the software that are off-putting to people that aren’t computer geeks. There are lots of people that are geeks, but not computer geeks. I always give the example of a stay-at-home mom with a master’s degree. So, this is a very educated person, someone who is already on the Internet and sharing information, but probably not participating in Wikipedia, because she’s not a computer geek.

Q Would you consider yourself to be a geek?

AI am a geek, but not a very good Wiki editor, so I’m sympathetic to [their] plight. I don’t really understand how templates work on Wikipedia, so I never edit anything very advanced because I know I’m gonna break like 40,000 pages.

Q You’ve come up with a new “flagged revision” policy that pages on living persons need to be OKed by a volunteer editor before appearing on the Web site.

AYou’ve clearly been reading the New York Times, which is a mistake. The policy has been widely misreported. We’ve been struggling to get it straightened out. It’s a very curious thing to watch happen. If a page has had a lot of extensive vandalism, editors temporarily lock the page. It’s effective but not something we want to happen. We don’t like locking things. When you lock a page, you’re stopping the one annoying vandal but you’re also stopping the 20 people who want to contribute in a positive way. Our new policy is that we will unlock them, so that new editors will be able to edit these pages with the proviso that a more senior editor in the community will review the edits. We feel that this is opening up Wikipedia.

Q Do you think it would ever be possible to have a Wikipedia with no barriers?

ANo. When people think about security, they think about it as a binary model of locked and unlocked. That model doesn’t work very well, and isn’t necessary anymore. The best way to deal with problems is by increasing the cost of doing something bad and decreasing the cost of doing something good. It’s an interesting balancing act. What you would like to have is some sort of magical tool to have some sort of a priori knowledge of who has good intentions and who doesn’t. And there isn’t a magic tool for that. What we want to have is ways for the community to say, ”Dude, you’re annoying, knock it off.”

Q Do you have any favorite Wikipedia pages?

A: I really like the entry “Heavy Metal Umlauts,” which is about the practice of heavy metal bands of putting umlauts in their names, often in strange and incorrect places. The classic of this is Spinal Tap, where the umlaut is on the “n.” For a long time, there was this edit war trying to figure out how to represent that on the page, but it turns out that there is a unicode character in the native language of Guatemala that has an umlaut over the n.

Q What are the top five Web sites that you visit?

A Facebook, Wikipedia, Wikia, Twitter — I’m ashamed to say — and BBC. I get all my news from BBC.

Q Any favorite celebrities you’ve been able to meet?

A: Well, I just met Alan Dershowitz. Well … celebrities. I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet famous people. Rachel Ray. She was awesome. I was afraid she was going to be a horrible person, but she ended up being super nice. I met her at a Time Magazine thing; I was being honored with a bunch of other people. When I met her, I told her that my mother was more excited [about] me meeting her than me being honored, she said “Do you have a cell phone?” and I said, “Yeah.” So, she actually called my mom, right on the spot. My mom almost died. I haven’t had to buy her a Christmas present ever since.

Q Who are you hoping to meet whom you haven’t yet met?

ATim Berners-Lee. The inventor of the World Wide Web.

Q What do you think of students spending upwards of three hours a day on Wikipedia?

AI think it’s pretty awesome. They could be spending their time doing something totally invaluable, like watching “I Love Lucy,” but instead they’re being productive.

Q Have you ever played Jesus Chase on Wikipedia? It’s a game where you race someone, starting on a random article, and you try to get to the Christ article by clicking on links within pages.

AI haven’t but it sounds interesting. I know something similar. Have you heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? It’s great. You start on a random article and you try to find the shortest path to Kevin Bacon, and you try to do it in six clicks. It turns out you generally can’t. I’ve tried it a couple times.

Q There are some negative criticisms on your Wikipedia page. Do you think it’s important to feature criticism of yourself on your Wikipedia entry?

AI’m fine with my page having criticism. I’m kind of even OK with errors if they’re well sourced because that upholds the general values of Wikipedia. I’m just unhappy with random crap that people put up that isn’t cited.

Q One of the criticisms featured on your page is a comment made by your ex-wife that was published in W magazine. It essentially said that you’re an anti-altruist. How do you explain that? It seems counter-intuitive, because Wikipedia is all about free knowledge for all, which seems like an altruistic pursuit.

AAll I have to say is that W is a fashion magazine and I’m not sure if it’s a credible one at that. It’s of borderline reliability.

Q Are you saying that W misquoted your ex-wife?

AI have no idea what my ex-wife said.

Correction: October 13, 2009

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Comments

  • thekohser

    I’m sure that Condé Nast will be delighted to learn that it operates a magazine with unsure credibility and borderline reliability.

    Jimbo’s become a caricature of himself.

    Anything he purports about his projects is supposed to be absorbed by all as Truth. Anything a critic purports about him or his projects is belittled as “trolling” or the work of an “idiot”.

  • Resho Khet

    thekohser, you do realize your statement there is self-defeating, right? :)

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding “It essentially said that you’re an anti-altruist. How do you explain that? It seems counter-intuitive, because Wikipedia is all about free knowledge for all, which seems like an altruistic pursuit.”

    This seeming paradox can be resolved by digging into the very early history of Wikipedia. It was originally going to be an advertising-supported site, and only became a non-profit when it appeared it would never amount to anything (really!). My column below examines these issues:

    “Wikipedia isn’t about human potential, whatever Jimmy Wales says”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/sep/25/wikipedia.internet

  • thekohser

    Whatever. I’d gladly have my public reputation over Jimbo’s. Have you seen his new calling card?

  • E

    Would have liked to see his thoughts on the recent studies that show the overwhelming dominance of male editors.

  • wtrope

    The inventor of the World Wide Web is spelled “Tim Berners-Lee”, not “Tim Burners Lee”. Maybe the transcriber of this interview should have consulted Wikipedia ;-)