Jimmy Wales on Wikipedia, Larry Sanger on Jimmy Wales

“Vandalism is a very minor problem,” insists Wales.

In tomorrow's issue of New Statesman (it's good, you should buy it . . . every week) I've written a profile of one of the most influential men around – but a man whose face you may not recognise.

When I met Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales on 13 January, two days before the website marked its tenth anniversary, we spoke about a range of subjects. Here are a few extracts from the piece:

On Wikipedia and the "big society"

Perhaps Wikipedia is an example of what the Prime Minister, David Cameron, calls the "big society". "It is, yeah, of course it is," Wales says. "We shouldn't replace the NHS with a wiki. But thinking about community participation and involvement, a spirit of volunteerism, a spirit of helping out, a spirit of self-reliance, rather than imagining that the government and taxes should solve all things – then fine."

On managing malicious edits

Wales maintains that vandalism – the deliberate insertion of erroneous content – is "a very minor problem". In most cases, for most subjects, malicious edits are rare and are corrected quickly. Only for contentious pages – such as the one on the former US president George W Bush, where it takes just "37 seconds before someone edits it with a curse word" – is it necessary to pre-moderate changes made by the public.

On not voting

"No, I don't vote. I have in the past, but . . ." He pauses again, and then says: "It's a rather odd reason why I don't. In Florida, in order to vote, you have to register with your actual address, and for security reasons, for the safety of my family – because there are many, many lunatics – I can't register to vote with my real address. If I could register to vote with a fake address I could vote, but apparently that's a felony." He concedes that "it sounds slightly paranoid. But," he says, "it's not paranoid."

I also spoke to Larry Sanger, the other man credited with getting Wikipedia off the ground. The conversation confirms the uncomfortable relationship between the two:

Sanger has no doubts about his own contribution to Wikipedia. "It was basically my full-time job," he tells me on the phone from Ohio. "This is going to sound like an exaggeration, given the way Jimmy Wales talks about the history of Wikipedia, [but] I never had much of a relationship with Jimmy Wales while we were working on Wikipedia, because Jimmy Wales didn't work very much on Wikipedia in the first year."

This notwithstanding, does he not miss that excitement of co-operation, the development of a working friendship, even, during those early start-up days? "We were never friends," he says flatly. Are they still in touch? He laughs. "No!"

Read the full piece in the issue, plus there's an edited transcript of the full interview here.

UPDATE: Wikipedia's benevolent dictator is now online.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era