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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.