Interview: Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia)

‘Jimbo’ is how Jimmy Wales is quite wellknown within the cyber community and there is an interesting story as to how he got this nickname. Years back, when Jimbo was kick-starting the community project (predescessor of Wikipedia), he was looking for a user name or a nickname, since most of the permutations involving his first name i.e., Jimmy were unavailable, he decided to settle on Jimbo, the one nickname that was not. And it has stuck with him ever since.

Over the past few years, there have been quite a few occasions that I got to interact with Jimbo, but due to some odd karmic coincidence, I never got around interviewing him for Dataquest. Thus, when one such opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it. And Jimbo too was kind enough to spare around an hour for a tete-a-tete.

When I called him at his San Francisco home, Jimbo was busy playing some a game on the computer with his daughter and seemed a wee bit unhappy at the onset on being gleaned away from the fun-thing. But as the interview progressed, he sort of warmed up; talking about different aspects of Wikipedia and how the future might pan out for the world’s leading collaborative encyclopedia project. Here is the interview of the Wikipedia man, as it was published in Dataquest.


The Power of Collaboration

You was what the Time magazine chose as the Person of the Year for 2006. The choice underlined the emergence of interactive Web or what is more popularly known as Web 2.0; a universe where millions of users communicate and collaborate seamlessly. Of the three instances of Web 2.0 services that were cited, Wikipedia was one of them (the others being YouTube and MySpace). In the intervening years, Wikipedia has only grown in strength, today it is one of the 4th most visited websites in the globe. Every month close to 280 mn people look up Wikipedia for information or to edit the pages.

Jimmy Wales co-founded Wikipedia in January 2001, as an online encyclopedia that could be edited by anyone. Over the last eight odd years, Wales has become an icon for Web 2.0 and has been recognized at various forums as a thinker and an activist. In 2007 the World Economic Forum recognized him as one of the Young Global Leaders that are having a positive impact on the society at large, while numerous other lists have pegged him as one of the most influential thought leaders or scientists.

But, there is no dearth of detractors to Wikipedia as well, with numerous people pointing out flaws in its liberal editing model, or the fact that the information is not really authenticated. Wales has also been targeted time and again for his personal traits, be it the person he is dating or the page he is deleting. Nonetheless, he continues to be a vociferous mascot for Wikipedia, touring across the globe and spreading the message. In an interaction with Dataquest, he speaks about what makes Wikipedia tick and how not only individuals but also enterprises could use it as one of the information sources. Excerpts:

Recently, Wikipedia successfully raised some $6 mn through contribution for running its operations and you also made a very personal appeal in that regards. What really necessitated the personal appeal? Has the downturn had an impact on fund raising?

Fund raising is not something unusual as we do it every year, where in funds are raised for the following year. As we follow a non-profit root, we are dependent on charity from the normal public to run our affairs, so that is pretty usual for us. As far as the personal appeal goes, I make it every year, so that is not something different either.

To be honest, I did not see any specific instance of economic conditions affecting our fund raising. Our users across the globe understand that we need money to survive and hence they donate in whichever way possible. I am very grateful to all those who did, be it slowdown or not.

It has been some eight years since you launched Wikipedia, and it has grown immensely in these years. What is the road ahead for Wikipedia?jwales

Though it has been eight years, I strongly feel that we are just at the beginning of community driven projects online, where thousands of new things evolve over time and we are going to see a lot more projects of this nature over the coming years. People across different fields are getting together to create things and this trend will only increase. So you just wait, there will be a lot more Wikipedia kind of projects in the years to come.

Wikipedia is renowned as an exhaustive source of information but is there a physical limit to the growth, ie, is it possible to get any and every information on Wikipedia?

Well, to start with, there are very different limits to what can go in Wikipedia. First and foremost lets remember that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which directly means that there are scores of things that Wikipedia is and is not. Also, we have a strong focus on good quality and that is not possible unless you have good references. Sadly good references are not in abundant quantity, so that puts a limit to what can be achieved or not.

Also the fact that Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world, so how do you ensure that various cultural and social norms get codified? Doesnt with great power come great responsibility?

Oh, absolutely. One of the things that our community has done over the years is that we have become very acutely aware of our responsibility to the readers across the globe, so we have got a very strong policy with respect to biographies, about the required sourcing and the way we handle different information. We have become extremely sensitized to the need since if you were to Google any name or topic you will most probably find a Wikipedia Link in the top 5, so we go an extra mile to ensure that the information is as clean as possible. We have a big team of voluntary editors who are constantly sifting through the articles.

Would you term the success of Wikipedia as the success of collectivism?

Certainly not. There is no real collectivism here as every entry in Wikipedia is done by a passioned individual. Who is writing something to share his knowledge. There is no kind of swarm intelligence at work here.

But the writers are essentially nameless, isnt it. So is there some sort of collective altruism that you have been able to tap into?

The most important thing, according to me, why Wikipedia has succeeded is that people find it to be fun to not only read but also write on various subjects. People dont ask, Gosh, why are all these people playing basketball for fun? Some people get paid a lot of money to do that. Similarly, they get a lot of value from the activity itself, you learn a lot and get to know a lot of people.

How do you stay ahead of the technology curve with Wikipedia?

We are a product of technology itself, making use of the Internet, et al, to reach out to millions of users across the world. Currently, Wikipedia uses MediaWiki, a custom-made, free and open sourcjwales03e wiki software platform written in PHP and built upon the MySQL database. MediaWiki is licensed under the GNU General Public License and used by all Wikimedia projects, as well as many other Wiki projects.

Even though our funding is limited, we have invested heavily into technology, going through different phases of development. The site currently runs on dedicated clusters of Linux servers with a few OpenSolaris machines. Our operations are largely based out of Florida, Amsterdam and Korea. We receive anything between 25,000 and 60,000 page requests per second, depending on time of day.

There are scores of Wikipedia users and editors here in India, what would you like to say to them?

We are really eager to have people from India, working in local languages, because I think that is an area where people can have an impact in their community, as even now there are so many people who are not comfortable with English. The other thing is that we would like to have more people from India working in Wikipedia to improve the content related to India, that is very important to us. For instance, it so happens that many times, there is very detailed coverage of local politicians in the US but we wont have that kind of details for Indian politicians. We would love to have articles on even the most trivial of things in India.

What do you think are the challenges for Wikipedia in India; largely as the language content in regional languages is still not significant from India?

India has really become quite active in the past year or two, with thousands of contributors and viewers using the website, with some of the languages growing by as much as 10% per month. The challenges are, of course, the slow pace of development of language computing. One of the major problems people have in India is the lack of input method in their local languages. There needs to be a greater movement on that front, and sadly thats beyond our ability to solve.

Yet, in places like India and Africa, there has been a mobile boom. So are you looking at ways to embrace the mobile in a much stronger way?

Yes, of course, that is one heartening trend and we are constantly working to ensure that Wikipedia is feasible and accessible on mobile devices. Unfortunately though, mobile is a great way to reach people as readers but it isnt really a great way to reach people as writers because of the sheer physical form factor restrictions, and that makes it tough for users to contribute through an average mobile device which isnt exactly hi-end. Thus mobiles will give us a good access to people in terms of readers, but sadly I still think that users will need to have access to computers and Internet to effectively contribute to Wikipedia. 

Wikipedia is renowned as an exhaustive source of information but is there a physical limit to the growth, i.e., is it possible to get any and every information on Wikipedia?

Well to start with there are very different limits to what can go in Wikipedia, first and foremost let’s remember that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which directly means that there are scores of things that Wikipedia is and is not. Also, we have a strong focus on good quality and that is not possible unless you have good references. Sadly good references are not in abundant quantity, so that puts a limit to what can be achieved or not.

Finally, individuals extensively use Wikipedia as a source of information. Do you think enterprises can also make use of Wikipedia some way or the other?

Of course they can, and I believe a lot many are already doing so in their individual ways. Wikipedia is a collaborative effort and companies can tap into it. Wikipedia is undoubtedly the most popular source of information in the world; and the thing that makes it stand out is quality. Our main focus is to make Wikipedia as good as possible, so that people can rely on it as much as possible. A lot of the companies have internal knowledge management systems and that can use the information and data that is collated on our website. A lot of companies are and can also look at creating wikis using our MediaWiki, which is a free, open-source, software platform. I believe a lot of media companies already use Wikipedia as a primary source of information, and so do a lot else. Knowledge can be utilized in a plethora of ways, both by individuals and companies alike.

One thought on “Interview: Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia)

  1. I would love to see journalists and bloggers take a short workshop training to learn the difference between the words “founder” and “co-founder”, so that they might correctly apply the label “co-founder” to Jimmy Wales, when referencing his roles with Bomis, Wikipedia, and Wikia. As for “founder”, I believe that he can rightly be labeled that as regards the Wikimedia Foundation.

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