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Edited transcript | Jimmy Wales | Wikipedia | January 2011

This interview took place on 13 January 2011, mainly on the 14.30 from Bristol Temple Meads station to London Paddington.

Jon Bernstein: Wikipedia is more than an encyclopaedia, it covers events, such as the Arizona shooting, in real-time. Is that something you embrace or does it take away from the single-minded mission?

Jimmy Wales: We do embrace it and I don't think it's necessarily un-encyclopaedic due to the fact that it's faster. We mostly want to get it right, eventually. But we'd rather get it right all along, so we're looking at the example of when Michael Jackson died. It was first reported on TMZ, a gossip blog. We weren't sure what to do with that and all over the world people were debating "Do we run this or not? You know it's TMZ, it's not necessarily reliable..." And what lots of people chose to do was to run the story but attribute it to TMZ as a rumour. And Wikipedia as a community had the same sort of dialogue and discussion, and made a decision not to run it because we didn't feel like TMZ was a reliable source and all of the other sources were simply quoting TMZ. And so we didn't report it all that quickly. We reported it only after it had been confirmed by reliable sources. Which is good, that's the right way.

JB: Because you have this policy of only being able to reference reliable sources, it means that you can't take in first-hand, eye -witness directly to the site.

JW: Yeah, I mean we wouldn't be interested...

JB: Is that a shame? Isn't it part of the story? Usually you can have someone who can say, "I'm not the Times but guess what, here's my video or here are my pictures."

JW: I think that's really great for a lot of things but on Wikipedia, you open a whole can of worms. You get people posting information saying, "I know it's true because I saw it myself", but they'll be lying, so it's not something we're really interested in.

JB: Can we go back to something that happened in 2008 in the UK? There was a group of ISPs, directed by the Internet Watch Foundation, which brought access to a site that showed the Scorpions album cover. I guess you found that troubling at the time. Do you think this could happen again or do you think we have become a bit more sophisticated and grown up in our attitudes towards censorship, especially on the web?

JW: Well, I mean it could happen again in general. I think that in this case the IWF realised they were behaving foolishly and backed off very quickly. Because the image in question is not illegal and it's never been judged to be illegal in any jurisdiction. [The record company] didn't want to sell it in the US because they were afraid people would get upset. But from a legal perspective there was never a problem.

JB: You talked about legality. Is that the sort of information that you use? Is that the basis for your judgement calls?

JW: No, not at all, we're much more strict than that. Generally it's not a very useful tool for us. Once in a while people say, "Why can't I put it up, there's nothing illegal about it?" but that's stupid.

JB: Would I find the Danish newspaper cartoons of Muhammed on Wikipedia?

JW: You would. Not in all language versions, that's up to the local community. The reason for having the pictures is that it's really hard to understand [the story] without taking a look. It's very different from someone that's posting brand-new offensive images just created.

JB: So in the context of explaining the story, that's why you have them published.

JW: Yeah, exactly.

JB: Let's talk about the "neutral point of view". I'm very interested in this because I think it's a fine ideal, it's just that it's maybe impractical. Take Israel/Palestine, where the language is such that it's loaded. You get to a point where there's going to be an inherent bias in anything that you write.

JW: Well, I think the key is there's at one level asking for perfection -- you're not going to get it. There's no method, there's no way. At the same time, we can't just throw up our hands and say, "Who cares?" because in fact we can go a long way towards objectivity, neutrality, freedom from bias and it's hard to get as good as you can but it's not hard to do a pretty decent job. I think most people actually understand the concept quite well. Most people agree with the concept. So even if they may have a certain strong view themselves they are fully prepared to understand that Wikipedia can't simply portray their view. And in fact one of the great things about language is that when certain words or certain phrases or certain ways of speaking are inherently biased, it's not difficult to "go meta" as we say and talk about the language itself in a way that illustrates the issues.

JB: I gather you had a conversation with Tony Blair about this very issue recently.

JW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We were really just talking about it because Tony's working on inter-faith dialogue. Getting people together from different faiths to have dialogue is quite difficult, obviously. But I do think that there is great hope for progress in this area if we make a sincere effort to understand each other and work together collaboratively to find ways to present issues that even people who disagree about the issue, to point to it and say "You know, we don't agree about this issue but what we've written down here together... we've tried really hard to address it. If you read this you will know what we're arguing about. We both think that it's a step forward."

JB: WikiLeaks. Is it just the name that you don't like, or is there more to it than that?

JW: Well it is disturbing that people may confuse us, because we are very, very different, of course. I guess what I say is that it is very possible in a free society that people have avenues to come forward with information and I just echo the concerns of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders that they should be careful, and be thoughtful about what they're doing.

JB: Do you vote?

JW: I don't vote. I have in the past but - it's a rather odd reason why I don't. In Florida in order to vote you have to register with your real, 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 that's apparently a felony.

It's a public record. It's very odd. It sounds slightly paranoid but it's not slightly paranoid. People have dug up my tax records and things like this. I think it's probably true for anybody who's in the public eye. One of the interesting things that happens today is that everyone is in the public in a different way than they were in the past. I think questions about personal privacy are really important and a lot of them are new. In the past if something like your address where you were registered to vote -- there was always a public record, there was a public record down at the courthouse, in dusty books, and if you really wanted to get at it you could, but it was non-trivial to do that. But now public records often means posting them online, and if it implicates personal privacy -- in theory it's a public record so if you have a legitimate reason to know you could find out -- it doesn't make sense to me to make a lot of those things casually available.

JB: Is there anything that you regret?

Yes, of course, I'm a human being. But nothing major. Life is long and complicated. We make decisions, and some of them we could have made better than others, and well, you move on.

JB: Do you believe in God?

JW: No. That was easy. It's just not part of my life. I'm not a religious person.

JB: Is there a plan?

JW: Trust me, it's a military operation [laughs]. In reference to the previous question, no.

JB: What's your personal take on the Tea Party movement in the States?

JW: I'm intrigued and interested. I think one of the things is it's not centralised, so there are many different voices under a large umbrella. Some of them are crazy. But the central thrust, which is interesting to me, is in terms of the dynamics of the Republican Party, which has always been this umbrella -- as all parties are, in the US especially. It's been this umbrella between the sort of fiscal conservatives and the people into free-market economics and libertarians' values, and the religious right.

What's interesting is that for quite some time the religious right has been on the ascendancy to the point that in my view they lost the centre because of it. There are lost of centre-right people who say, "I think the government should balance the budget, have fairly libertarian values" and they were comfortable being in an alliance with the religious right until that became more and more the dominant element in the party -- which was brought about by grassroots old-school politicking by religious groups who wanted to take over the party; and did so in the old fashioned way. This is a counterbalancing movement to that in some extent because this is not a religious-right movement.

JB: A welcome counterbalance, you would say?

JW: Oh I would absolutely say a welcome counterbalance. I suspect many people who consider themselves Tea Party people would be astonished to hear me say it doesn't seem like a movement of the religious right, because some of them are. But in my view the essential issues that have been on the table haven't been the traditional religious right issues -- gay marriage, abortion, those kinds of things -- they've been more issues about fiscal policy and economics and things like this. It's interesting to see where it's going to go, where it ends up.

JB: Is the Tea Party movement Sarah Palin?

JW: This is exactly what I mean by being hijacked by lunatics. It's not nice but I don't think Sarah Palin's gonna do anything.

I'm not sure it's going to come to anything, in terms of transforming, bringing the Republican party back to the centre-right position. It's quite intriguing. The left went through a similar sort of transformation, where it had gotten pretty far left, where it was nominating clearly unelectable candidates, like Dukakis. And then Clinton came in, and reached out to the centre with a fairly centrist view that managed to rebuild the umbrella. The only way to win is to have an umbrella to keep loads of people comfortable in a centrist position.

Now here in the UK, the same questions are now there with respect to the Labour Party. With Ed Miliband winning with the union vote, does that take the party to a position where they've potentially lost the centre? I don't think anybody knows the answer to that yet but it's a legitimate question to ask.

JB: You think elections can only be won in the centre?

JW: It's really hard. In any majority rule system you have to get, in some sense, 51 percent of something in the end. And it's a good thing, one of the important things about democracy is even if my guy doesn't win, the one who does win is probably not an absolute lunatic. He's like me, my guy. It means that if you have a very strong view you're going to be slightly frustrated, because nothing ever moves as quickly as you want.

It is certainly a cause for complaint that somebody like Barack Obama comes in on a platform of change, I mean but honestly, change is really, really hard.

JB: What is your verdict of Obama?

JW: Don't really have one yet, certainly there are things I like, things I don't like. I think some people were disappointed because they imagined some sort of amazing revolution. The US government is a "ginormous" beast, so changing direction...

JB: You never thought that "change is coming to America''?

JW: There's always change, but I think people can get carried away with how quickly change can happen. It's probably a good thing. There's certainly something to be said for taking cautious steps, then if you make an error you can correct, rather than, um, end up going off the rails.

JB: Is Wikipedia an example of the "big society" in action?

JW: It is, yeah, of course it is. Yeah. I think we need to be cautious. I think there's a lot of great ideas in the "big society" concept [but 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 -- fine. But let's not carry that rhetoric too far, or it ends up being ridiculous.

JB: Your profile on Wikipedia describes you as, among other things, Wikipedia's benevolent dictator. In your view what characterises your role within Wikipedia?

JW: I always joke that I'm not a benevolent dictator. First of all, I'm not a dictator. Second of all, I'm not benevolent. That's a joke, I am actually quite benevolent. Within the constitutional framework of Wikipedia, it is modelled to some extent after a constitutional monarch, in that I have certain very limited powers that serve essentially as a safety valve or a way forward in the case of an impasse. I try to do as little as possible and do everything in as formalistic a way as possible. And it seems to work reasonably well.

Part of the reason for that is, in the early days, I was a benevolent dictator -- I was the only person with the power to ban people, for example. And there were a lot of concerns with me. Clearly, it doesn't scale -- I can't be the only person, otherwise the site's gonna be taken over by the worst sort of trolls and so on. But one person can't judge it all and I found it exhausting.

Then I said let's have an arbitration committee. But then the fear is, what if the arbitration committee becomes tyrannical. So I said I'll reserve the right to disband the arbitration committee, I'll appoint people to it, then we started having elections, and over time my role in that appointment process has become more and more formalistic. I certify the results of the election, I do some due diligence, ask a few questions.

Throwing things up to a vote where 50 per cent plus one carries the day is not the right approach for a lot of really deep constitutional issues. You can get yourself into a huge mess that way. But having systems, checks and balances -- which is all nothing new, it's all learned from how you get good governance. Well you need a whole lot of broad input, democratic input, so people's wishes are expressed and followed; but you also need things to slow things down a bit, to force reflection. And so this is what we've evolved over time. And I'm quite pleased with it.

JB: Are you fed up with seeing your face on lots of Wikipedia pages?

JW: Fortunately the fund-raiser is done now, so they've come down. I only reluctantly agreed to that. Staff approached me and asked to do that and I was like, "Really, it's a bit naff", to use a British word.

JB: What about putting advertising around the edges?

JW: That one's slightly different from saying, "Put it behind a paywall" and there the real question is, where does the money come from? There are several concerns. One is, what does it do to the perception of Wikipedia? Whatever problems there are with Wikipedia, people know it's written by this community of geeks online. And it's not paid for by Exxon. The other thing to is, what does it do to the Wikimedia Foundation, the DNA of that organisation? What, if instead of worrying "do we have good content?" in Elizabethan poetry, they start worrying "do we have good content in mortgage refinancing?" Because that's where the ad money is. I think it's important to understand everything we do depends on keeping the readers and the editors happy. And anything else in the world has absolutely no relevance to that whatsoever.

JB: Final question. Do you feel guilty about lazy journalists?

JW: I think they were always lazy, now they're just a little better informed [laughs].

No, actually I think often times journalists who are lazy and using Wikipedia get caught out; and there are lots more journalists who understand how to use Wikipedia correctly. [As a journalist] you go out to interview the head of a company, or a certain politician and you don't know much about them. So this way you can quickly get some background and, also, read the discussion pages to find out what are the things the public don't quite know.

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