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26 January 2011

Jimmy Wales on Wikipedia, Larry Sanger on Jimmy Wales

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

By Jon Bernstein

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.”

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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.