Interview with Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales

Posted on April 2, 2009 · Posted in Out on a Limb

When Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia in 2001, many thought he was laying the foundation for disaster.  Some even felt the whole concept was borderline insane.

“A public encyclopedia that anyone can write and edit, even without being logged in?!  And this concoction will serve as the sum of all human knowledge! Madness!” the critics wailed.

Today, it’s hard to imagine life without Wikipedia, which has blossomed into the 7th most popular website in the world¹ and inspired the creation of some 2.8 million articles on the English version of the site alone.  Recently, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales was kind enough to feed my questions about the Wikimedia Foundation’s goals, likely future, and ballooning cultural relevance.  I also gave him an opportunity to respond to Wikipedia’s “professional troublemakers”–er critics.

How do you think Wikipedia will evolve as technology evolves?  Can you foresee, by say 2020, a way for Wikipedians to create editable, interactive videos about a topic?

I think we’ll see a lot of advances in video.  One of the things I like to point out is that Wikipedia is a social innovation, not a technical innovation.  All the tools necessary to create Wikipedia existed in 1995 when Ward Cunningham invented the wiki editing concept.  Webserver, web browser, database, wiki.

What technologies already exist today for collaborative video editing that no one has created the social structures to use?

Well, having said that, I will also say that words are far more fluid than video, and always will be.  If I don’t quite like what you have written, I can adjust it slightly until we are both satisfied.  But once a video has been shot, there is a very limited set of things that can be done about it.

British-American author Andrew Keen, the self-described antichrist of Silicon Valley, gets a kick out of regularly blasting Wikipedia. I watched your February 2008 debate with Keen, and I agreed with some of Keen’s points, but I found his fixation on the length of Wikipedia articles to be a bit odd.  He pointed out that the Harry Potter article is longer than the Hamlet article, and because Hamlet is more historically significant, this somehow represents a shortcoming in Wikipedia.  Do you find his logic lacking?

I don’t think the words “Andrew Keen” and “logic” generally belong in the same sentence.  No, I’m just teasing!

I actually agree with _some_ of Keen’s points, as would any thinking person. But the overall thrust of his argument is not compelling to me.

Regarding the question of the length of Wikipedia entries, I don’t find the argument compelling at all.  Wiki is not paper, and it isn’t as if we “cut” the Hamlet entry in order to make more room for “Harry Potter”.  And I rather suspect that Keen would agree with me when I say that I wouldn’t find it a very good idea to push the Potter fans to write about Hamlet.

Some criticisms about Wikipedia entries of various lengths is actually misplaced simply due to how we slice-and-dice the world.  It is likely that our entry on “China” is shorter than our entry on “Harry Potter” too.  But that’s more because we have a short overview article on “China” and then break out specific topics into separate articles.

What happens normally is that when one entry gets too long, people will naturally want to break it up.  I have been told that Britannica’s entry on “World War II” is more than 100 pages long.  (I haven’t checked.) Wikipedia’s entry is much shorter, but our overall coverage of World War II is much more in-depth than Britannica.  It’s just that in the medium of HTML on the web, it makes little sense to force the reader to download a 100 page document.  Better to give them 5-10 pages in a chunk, with lots of hyperlinks and timelines to help them navigate thousands of pages of detailed material.

When I was a student at Ohio State, I had Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger as a philosophy professor.  Sanger had a policy that if you used Wikipedia as a source on a paper, you would receive an automatic five point deduction. Do you think Wikipedia is reliable enough at this stage to pass as a source on an academic paper?

I would do the same thing if I were teaching a course at a university. I would also deduct 5 points for citing Britannica.  This is simply not the proper role for an encyclopedia, no matter how good, in the research process.  A high quality encyclopedia is a starting point, giving us broad background knowledge and helping us to firmly and correctly fill in gaps, not an original source.  The right thing to do is to quickly read the Wikipedia entry to get your bearings, and then go read the original sources.

Do you still dispute Sanger’s designation as Wikipedia’s co-founder?

I think the whole debate is silly.  Ironically, I think Larry is given too little credit for his role in the early days of Wikipedia as the “editor-in-chief” of the project (his actual title).  He was an employee working fully under my direction with no ownership interest of any kind.

Wikia.com, another of your projects, gives people an opportunity to create and develop their own special-interest wiki communities. The site now boasts over 800,000 articles and some 200,000 registered users.  Is Wikia’s growth on pace with your expectations?

Yes, although we’re much bigger than 800,000 articles and 200,000 registered users. :-)  We’ve been growing at a similar pace to Wikipedia, but being 3 years younger, we are 3 years smaller.  I think we’re just now beginning to enter the broader public consciousness, as Neilsen just named us as the 5th fastest growing community site.

Larry Sanger, now the Editor-and-Chief of Citizendium, takes jabs at Wikipedia on a Citizendium page titled Why Citizendium? He writes, “Wikipedia is full of serious problems. Many of the articles are written amateurishly. Too often they are mere disconnected grab-bags of factoids, not made coherent by any sort of narrative.”  Do you see any flaws in Citizendium’s model, and what do you think of Sanger’s decision to critique Wikipedia in what essentially is Citizendium’s sales pitch?

I think Larry’s right on that particular point, and this is a flaw of Wikipedia.  I don’t know if Citizendium (which I haven’t studied in depth) corrects for this or not.

One thing that happens at Wikipedia, particularly on controversial articles, is that the editors get really focused on sentence-by-sentence work on neutrality and factual accuracy.  That’s a great thing.  But what can get lost in the down-and-dirty search for those things is “flow” or what Larry once termed “Brilliant Prose”.

Usually, though, after a period of intense debate resulting in a neutral compromise version of an article that is unfortunately choppy in style, is that some thoughtful good writer who has no stake in the controversy will come in and work gently to make the article more readable.  Such people are the unsung heroes of the information revolution.

In 2007, Wikipedia decided to add no-follow tags to all of its external links. This drew the ire of some and sparked the creation of anti-Wikipedia wordpress plugins that automatically turn all the Wikipedia links on a person’s blog to nofollow.  Has the community’s decision to place no-follow tags around external links kept out spam, and do you think Wikipedia would ever decide to flip the switch back?

I was opposed to the change, and only reluctantly agreed to it after Matt Cutts of Google recommended it.  I am still not sure it is the right answer.  After all, Wikipedia prides itself on public service, and our external links are generally quite carefully vetted.

On the other hand, it is also true than when we were not using ‘nofollow’ we had a bigger problem with skeevy “SEO” experts doing everything they could to get Wikipedia links.  Even today, of course, a link in Wikipedia can drive a significant amount of traffic so we have to deal with inappropriate self-promotion.  But my vague sense is that the troubles have declined.

I don’t know of any pressure within the community to flip the switch back.

Apparently you sat at a long dinner table with Mahalo CEO Jason Calacanis at Wikimania in 2006, and during this dinner, Calacanis “begged you” (his words) to sell ads on Wikipedia.  He claimed that if you put a leaderboard up, Wikipedia would generate over $100 million a year.  He later offered a more modest revenue proposal, one that involved putting a search box on the Wikipedia.  He estimated this would make $6 million a year, which is ironic considering $6 million is what you raised last year via charitable donations.  Can you ever envision a scenario in which the Wikipedia community would agree to put ads on the site, especially in light of the fact that it met its $6 million donation goal last year?

Actually, I sat next to Jason, but I didn’t know who he was.  Afterwards, when he published his post about the dinner, I didn’t really remember him.  I regret saying so publicly, because this seems to have hurt Jason’s feelings. I was exhausted that evening, and the fault was entirely mine.

The thing is, lots and lots of people propose that Wikipedia should accept ads.  And it is not an unreasonable position.  I am opposed to it, but I am actually a moderate about it.

I think there is a set of circumstances in which the Wikipedia community would accept ads, but we are nowhere near it and I personally hope we never get there.  But, time will tell.

My view is that we should all – not just me, not just the board, not just the current community – but everyone who thinks of themselves as a citizen of the Internet, a citizen of the world – we should all think about Wikipedia as part of the infrastructure of the world, not a competitor in the Internet space, not just a website, but something deeper, cultural, and potentially of value to everyone.

As such, we should think about the long run – not the next quarter, not the next year, not the next 5 years.  What about 50 years?  What about 100 years?  What’s best for the world in the long run?

We desperately need to make sure that everyone on the planet has access to high quality information.  We are on a small and crowded planet that will get more crowded in this century.  We need to live together in peace and productivity.  We need to take individual rights seriously. We need to have political decisions that are rational and fact-based.

We need to have cultural and joy and art and love.

These are heavy responsibilities for us all.  And slapping a “leaderboard” on Wikipedia to bring in short-term revenue might not be the best plan.  (Or it might.  But we need to think like adults about it.)

Regarding your dinner with Calacanis, you wrote on your blog that “there were some very much more interesting people at the dinner.”   Have you and Calacanis patched things up, and do you admire, to some degree, Jason’s ability to get a rise out of people through what some call brilliant performance art?

I have come to admire Jason over time, and I very much regret and apologize for that blog post.

Jason and I are very different people.  He’s competitive, I’m collaborative.  He tries to get a rise out of people on a daily basis (and I hope he doesn’t take offense at that) and I try to be soothing and supportive.  But this means that when I throw someone “under the bus” (his phrase, not mine), it resonates deeply, whereas random statements by Jason don’t have as much impact.  So it’s really bad when I make a mistake like that.

Will it be harder or easier for you to reach a $6 million donation goal in 2009?

Since traffic is growing (according to Comscore) by 4% per month still, I think it will be easier to reach $6 million since we will be 66% larger in terms of reach by next fundraiser as compared to last fundraiser.

On the other hand, I suppose everyone is watching with nervousness about the financial crisis!

You’ve set a tone that Wikipedia has a much deeper responsibility to the world than to act, simply, as a giant encyclopedia.  In what ways do you think Wikipedia will permanently change the fabric of humanity?

Well, if we do our job right, we will be a positive change for the world.  Wikipedia will be a little bit dry, a little bit uncontroversial, but a place where people of all stripes turn for clear explanations and information that allows them to have more difficult debates in a rational and evidence-based manner.

Did you catch this CollegeHumor.com satire of Wikipedia?  Did you find it amusing?

Hilarious!

I’d like to see a roundtable discussion involving you, Andrew Keen, Jason Calacanis, Noam Chomsky, and Ron Paul.  55 minutes into the discussion, a thunderous gong would go off and a mystery guest would emerge and immediately inject himself into the conversation.  As odd as this sounds, I am 100% serious about one day setting this up. There’s no doubt a video of the event would serve as tremendous linkbait–quite an interesting collection of people. Would you participate in this roundtable discussion if your airfare was paid for?

Yes, gladly.  What an interesting set of characters.

You can follow Jimmy Wales on Twitter at @Jimmy_Wales and read his blog at blog.jimmywales.com.

Image credits: William Brawley
¹based on Quantcast numbers