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Photo: Geir Dokken
Photo: Geir Dokken

Meet Jimmy Wales – co-founder of Wikipedia

This article is about Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia. For an article about the Scottish painter, search for “James Wales” on Wikipedia.

Jimmy Wales speaks softly, but with authority. He’s responsible for developing one of the key information tools of our times. But there is no swagger about him. After all, despite the success of Wikipedia, its founder often has to defend it.

Jimmy Wales

Age: 49
Lives: London
Family: Married, 3 children
Occupation: Founder of Wikipedia, Chairman of the Board of The People’s Operator, board member of Wikia, Chairman of the Jimmy Wales Foundation.

Wales caught on to the opportunities of the internet quite early. In 1996, he launched a dot.com company called Bomis, which after several incarnations became most successful as a website focused on so-called “lad culture.” From here, he launched Nupedia, a web-based encyclopedia and the predecessor of Wikipedia.

Nupedia was written by experts and a seven-step editorial approval process meant that the rate of article publication was slow. Only 21 articles, in fact, were published in 2000, its first year online. Wales and Larry Sanger, Nupedia’s editor-in-chief, began working on Wikipedia as a side project toNupedia, with the goal of making an encyclopedia that could be edited by members of the public as opposed to a team of experts. The named was coined from the combination of the word encyclopedia and the term wiki, then it started to be used to describe websites that allowed content to be edited by multiple users.

On Monday, January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was launched. One month later, 1,000 articles had been published on the site. By August, 8,000 had been published. And it soon began to get attention, initially from specialist online media, and then in September that year the site was featured in the New York Times.Today, there are over 5 million articles on the English-language version of Wikipedia alone. There are 40 million articles across the different language versions. And they are being edited by thousands of people daily.  

It is the number of editors, however, that lies at the heart of the criticism directed against the site. With no overall editorial responsibility, many people simply do not trust the accuracy of the information contained on Wikipedia. British journalist Oliver Kamm even calls Wikipedia anti-intellectual. “It is unable to filter genuine scholarship from amateurish enthusiasm,” he says.

Wikipedia’s co founder, Larry Sanger, also leveled criticism at the site’s lack of respect for expertise before leaving the website. But Wales doesn’t agree with these views.

“We are very elitist,” he says. “The writers care about knowledge. But we’re not obsessed with titles. We recognize that a person with a doctorate is both knowledgeable and full of resources, but it doesn’t mean they’re right about everything.”

Others have criticized Wikipedia for being unbalanced and easy to manipulate, with reports of users editing other people’s articles when they don’t agree with the statements within them. In one of the most famous cases along these lines, climate researcher William Connolley was accused of abusing his Wikipedia user rights by editing articles that criticized his findings. 

“It’s not easy to get away with manipulating articles on Wikipedia,” Wales responds. “Some will try, but the Wikipedia community is on its guard against this. Everything on Wikipedia has to have reliable third-party sources. We invite everyone to be involved, so if someone thinks that something in an article is unbalanced, we ask for references to sources. We are happy to correct errors and we try not to cover up mistakes and criticism.”Photo: Geir Dokken

Time magazine wrote that peer production may be the most powerful industry model of the 21st century. It also named Wales as one of the most influential people on the planet. But the internet and tools like Wikipedia are also accused of having a detrimental impact on traditional journalism and traditional magazines and newspapers. Wales is not so convinced.

“Citizen journalism is important, but there’s no evidence it can replace traditional journalism,” he says. “Wikipedia is dependent on reliable sources and traditional publishing methods.”

He adds that innovations such as an app model where people can easily subscribe and pay for online content could be an answer for the struggling news­paper industry.

“We have started to see a number of newspapers and magazines beginning to be paid for by their readers,” he says. “We’ve been through a difficult change, but I’m optimistic.”

Unlike most traditional publishing outlets, Wiki­pedia is cheap to run, funded by donations and organ­ized as a non-profit organization. It currently has 250 employees. 

“The budget for next year is $70 million,” says Wales. “That means it only costs one penny per user per month to run Wikipedia. We try to be super-efficient.”

Photo: Geir Dokken

Wales is the founder of one of the biggest websites in the world – with 5.6 million page views per hour – a position from which he has opportunities to influence social change. He is particularly passionate about freedom of expression and has founded the Jimmy Wales Foundation to promote this.

He believes that the internet can be a powerful tool for creating awareness about freedom of expression and for supporting good causes through online activism, or clicktivism as it is sometimes called. 

“Clicktivism has been criticized for not leading to anything more than a click,” says Wales. “But click­tivism can engage people and lead to actions on the streets. You can organize things and meet people and break down geographical boundaries. You have the opportunity to put things on the global agenda and to put pressure on leaders.”

Despite the importance of his side projects and the already mighty size of Wikipedia, which is available in over 290 languages, Wales’s focus is still on developing his core project. “Wikipedia is big in all European languages and in Chinese and Japanese,” he says. “We’re big in a few other languages too, but there’s still a lot left to do. For example, there are some smaller languages in India and in Africa, where we still have a long way to go.”


Text: Inga Ragnhild Holst

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