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Wikipedia’s benevolent dictator

Jimmy Wales on neutrality, Tea Party “lunatics” and his plans for the next decade.

Jimmy Wales on neutrality, Tea Party “lunatics” and his plans for the next decade.

Jimmy Wales looks tired and mildly distracted, his eyes red and raw as he holds court before a small group of Wikipedians - those volunteer editors, writers and administrators who have helped turn a collaborative, not-for-profit, online encyclopaedia into a global phenomenon. We are backstage at the Victoria Rooms in Bristol, where Wales has just wowed an audience of 650 with a well-rehearsed speech on Wikipedia past, present and future.

Wales, dressed from head to toe in black, his beard closely cropped, is in the middle of a visit to the UK to raise funds, to thank volunteers from the British arm of the Wikimedia Foundation and to mark the tenth anniversary of the website. It is a hectic schedule.

He is a reluctant celebrity, yet for 50 days either side of Christmas he was arguably the most overexposed person on the planet. Wales was fronting a fundraising campaign in which, every time someone visited the website, his face appeared on screen. Given Wikipedia's popularity, Wales's plea and face were seen by more than half a billion people during that period. He grimaces when I bring up the subject, pointing out that he only agreed to do it after user-testing showed that it was the most effective way of meeting the $16m target (the site runs on a bud­get of just over $20m a year). "Really, it's a bit naff," he says.

The 44-year-old was born in Huntsville, Alabama; his father was a grocery store manager and his mother ran a small private schoolhouse. Before Wikipedia he had never travelled beyond the two countries that border his homeland, Mexico and Canada. A childhood thirst for knowledge was quenched instead by a subscription to World Book Encyclopaedia. Periodically, corrections would be issued on stickers designed to cover outdated passages, an early, if unsatisfactory, version of the perpetual edits that characterise Wikipedia.

Wales - twice married, twice separated and with a daughter from his second marriage - made money as a futures and options trader in Chicago before founding Bomis, a "guy-oriented search engine", in 1996. It was this debut as an internet entrepreneur that set him on the path to creating Wikipedia, now the fifth most popular website in the world.

Each month, the site hosts 410 million unique visitors who account for 14 billion page views across more than 250 languages. The entries are written and curated, in the main, by 80,000 active editors (those who make five or more contributions per month) and 11,000 "very active" editors (those who make over 100).

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."

Share the passion

It wasn't meant to be like this. What became Wikipedia started off as a run-of-the-mill dotcom start-up, with profit in mind. Called Nupedia, it was to be a peer-reviewed encyclopaedia, written and curated by experts. Only when its multi-tiered production and approval process proved too slow and cumbersome did the founders begin to use a wiki, a collaborative publishing tool that effects changes across the web in an instant. Even then, the wiki was just a means to speed up the process, not to replace the experts. In the event, the wiki became a hit and Nupedia withered away in 2003.

To understand why Wikipedia succeeded, it is worth tracking down those who give up evenings and weekends to edit and moderate the site for free. One such Wikipedian, identified by his username RodW, is an academic who chooses not to cover subjects that he teaches - to avoid a conflict of interest, among other reasons - and instead writes about his interests: his locality and its architecture. He estimates that since 2004 he has made 50,000 edits to the site. Why? "It's about sharing the passion," he says. Would he have done so, I ask, if there had been advertising around the edges of the site? "No," he says firmly. That, he says, would have left the project "tainted by commercialism. It changes the trust mechanisms."

RodW is not alone. When the idea of a model funded by advertising was floated in 2002, the Wikipedia Spain volunteers walked away in protest, labelling the project "WikiPAIDia".

Wales, who also runs a for-profit company called Wikia that hosts 3,000 wikis, predominantly about popular culture, understands why the advertising model doesn't work for Wiki­pedia. He talks of the damage adverts would do to the "DNA of the organisation", and wonders aloud: "What if, instead of worrying, 'Do we have good content in Elizabethan poetry?', [the editors] start worrying, 'Do we have good content in mortgage refinancing?' because that's where the ad money is?" This, in essence, is why Wales is not a billionaire.

The advertising controversy aside, the first few years of Wikipedia were characterised by non-stop growth: more readers, more editors, more pages, more languages. Only when approaching its fifth anniversary did the signs of growing pains emerge, best illustrated by two events that occurred in late 2005. First, Wales and the team were badly caught out when the veteran US journalist John Seigenthaler wrote a highly critical editorial in USA Today entitled "A false Wikipedia 'biography'". The biography in question was Seigenthaler's own, and it erroneously linked him to the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy. Furious, he branded Wikipedia "a flawed and irresponsible research tool". Wales was facing the biggest public relations disaster of his career, and while Wikipedia - a "provider", not a "publisher" of content - was protected in law from being sued, the story brought a torrent of criticism, raising questions about quality control and the ability to deal with vandalism.

Wales came out of the affair remarkably well. He implemented two policy changes: anonymous users were barred from creating articles, and any biographical article about a living person became subject to much stricter controls.

A shift from quantity to quality was implicit in both these moves, although 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.

If openness is Wikipedia's fault line, it is equally its biggest strength, and to focus on the inaccuracies is to miss the point. Better, says the social media author and commentator Clay Shirky, to treat every edit as provisional. "A Wikipedia article is a process, not a product, and as a result, it is never finished," Shirky wrote in his influential book Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together. "For a Wikipedia article to improve, the good edits simply have to outweigh the bad ones."

During the Seigenthaler affair Wales was "like the canary in the coal mine", says Andrew Lih, author of a 2009 chronicle of the site, The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopaedia. Lih argues that Wales offered moral leadership to contributors who were in danger of becoming "sociopaths sitting at the keyboard". As he says, "Jimmy provided that human contact."

That Wales has such influence on the project is one of the great paradoxes of Wikipedia. In effect, the day-to-day operations are run by an internationally diverse group of individuals, who rarely meet but who are accorded significant autonomy, and yet it continues to reflect Wales's will.
Another example is his belief, as an objecti­vist, in the importance of what he calls the "neutral point of view". He insists that all pages strive for neutrality, and that they represent alternative narratives which question the history, or the telling of the present. It is not about asking for perfection, he says, but "we can go a long way towards objectivity".

It's a topic he has even discussed with Tony Blair, whose foundation promotes interfaith dialogue. When I suggest that neutrality is impossible where language is loaded - think, for example, of the "barrier" separating Israel from the West Bank, and the media's attempts to find a neutral term for it - Wales argues that the beauty of Wikipedia is that it can "go meta". In other words, an article "can talk about the language itself in a way that illustrates the issue".

Lih likens Wales to a benevolent dictator. His role is that of someone who "can inspire the crowd to do great things" but also step in "when absolutely necessary". It works because he is essentially humble, says Lih. "If Jimmy had a little more bravado people would think: 'Who the hell does he think he is?'" For his part, Wales says he is more like a constitutional monarch. "I have certain, very delimited powers that serveessentially as a safety value, or a way forward in case of an impasse."

Ownership of an idea

The second major event in late 2005 did not reflect so well on Wikipedia's head of state. It was discovered that Wales had repeatedly edited his own biography page - a big no-no of Wikipedia etiquette. On several occasions, he deleted phrases that described the former employee Larry Sanger as co-founder of the site. Wales soon regretted making the intervention, telling the Times, "I wish I hadn't done it. It's in poor taste."

More than just a PR faux pas, the edits exposed the uncomfortable relationship between the two men. Even though Sanger was a mere employee, he was frequently referred to as co-founder, not only in early reports about the nascent site but in the company's own press releases, too. Furthermore, it was Sanger who took the experimental wiki live on 15 January 2001, inviting sceptical would-be contributors to "humour me". He was also the man who christened the site Wikipedia.

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!" A falling-out between colleagues is far from uncommon, and although it is unlikely to end up as an Aaron Sorkin-scripted screenplay, there are parallels between the Wales/Sanger spat and the dispute between the founder of Facebook, Marc Zuckerberg, and the Winklevoss twins.

It's about ownership of an idea. "I named it. I formulated the policy," Sanger insists. Unlike the profit-making Facebook, which has made Zuckerberg a twentysomething billionaire, this is not about money and the chances of it ending up in court, therefore, are slim. (That is to say, it is not directly about money: Wales's fame has put him on the lucrative international speaker circuit, reportedly earning a five-figure sum for each appearance.) No, this is a battle for a place in Wikipedia's history: a battle for status, for recognition, to set the record straight.

Hijacked by lunatics

In a valedictory message written in March 2002, when he formally resigned, Sanger noted that Wikipedia "still might succeed brilliantly". It is easy to discern doubt in those words, and I ask him directly whether, nine years later, he thinks it did "succeed brilliantly". Sanger pauses before replying. "It's succeeded, but not brilliantly. It's been a brilliant popular success, but whether it has met the goals or dreams that I had for it . . . no, I'm afraid not. It simply isn't as credible a resource as I think is possible for a collaborative community." Sanger believes that the notion of an encyclopaedia reviewed by experts was too easily jettisoned; he dismissively refers to the three stages of Wikipedia's governance as anarchy, mob rule and now something approaching a closed shop, where it has become increasingly difficult for new people to make changes. Does he still use the site? "Not so much any more," he says. Why? "Partly because it's just not as useful as it used to be. But I actually think it has more to do with the personal distaste with the whole scene."

Not that Wales seems concerned about the past: he has plans for the next ten years. This year, he will open Wikipedia's first operation outside the United States, in India and in the country's vernacular languages. He is also said to be keen to introduce a ratings system for the pages users read. Above all, he wants a greater variety of contributors. At present, 87 per cent of those who write Wikipedia are male ("not a good thing"). The average age is 26 and contributors are twice as likely as the general public to hold a PhD. "There is a certain intellectual, or geek, culture that transcends national boundaries," Wales says and there's sense that he's talking about his own tribe. He now wants to cast the net wider and will introduce an outreach programme and simplify the editing tools ("the technology should be invisible").

Wales the intellectual is constantly curious and talks knowledgeably about a range of subjects. A self-described libertarian, he says he is intrigued by the Tea Party movement in the US, describing it, despite appearances, as a "welcome counterbalance" to the religious right's attempts to hijack the Republican Party. When I mention Sarah Palin, seen as the unofficial leader of the Tea Party, he says: "This is exactly what I mean by being hijacked by lunatics."

Looking across the political divide, he is yet to pass judgement on Barack Obama, but expresses surprise that so many people were taken in by the rhetoric of change. "There's always change, but I think people can get carried away with how quickly change can happen."

Finally, I ask this very private public figure if he votes. His answer comes as a surprise. "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."

Jon Bernstein is deputy editor of the New Statesman

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