Wikipedia at 10: ‘It’s what the web is for’
Matt Warman talks to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales about a decade of the world’s first free encyclopaedia
When Wikipedia first appeared online, ten years ago today, its founder Jimmy Wales had high hopes for the free encyclopaedia.
“I thought one day we might make it into the top 50 websites in the world,” says the 44-year-old American. He describes himself now as a “pathological optimist” and he needed to be. Back then, the entry for “physics” said simply “Physics is a very broad subject”.
Today that one entry runs to more than 6,000 words linking to scores of other pages. Wikipedia itself is the world’s fifth most-visited website, with 17 million articles in 270 languages, used by 400 million people every month.
Wales’s project, however, has always been more than a simple rival to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Wikipedia is not only free to use; its existence is a philosophical statement. “We’re talking free as in speech, not free as in beer,” he says. “All of the work, all of the software is freely licensed – you can distribute it commercially or non-commercially as you wish.”
So Wales’s hope was not simply to tell people about things; just as Google’s vaulting ambition was captured in their motto “don’t be evil”, so Wikipedia is, as Wales puts it, “what the internet is for”.
“We’re a charity,” he explains, “whose mission is a humanitarian project to bring knowledge to everyone – the internet should be a tool for communication of really thoughtful matter.”
Wales has not always been a philosopher, however. A former futures trader in Chicago, he made what has been described as “enough money to support himself and his [now ex-]wife for the rest of their lives” in around five years, before founding what he’s described as “a guy-oriented search engine”. After that failed, however, his next ambition was to organise an online encyclopaedia.
That first attempt was not Wikipedia, however: ‘Nupedia’ too, as Wales now says bluntly, “failed”. “I wanted to create a free encyclopaedia and hired a PhD in philosophy to get it going.
"The first couple of years were spent basically talking about it rather than doing it.” It was only when the concept of the “Wiki” was introduced to Wales was he able to get it off the ground.
Pioneered by software engineers to quickly develop new programmes, the wiki involves large-scale collaboration, usually without a traditional hierarchy. Thanks to the generosity of others, “we were able to have an awful lot of activity very quickly,” says Wales.
The site’s subsequent, rapid growth has not been without controversy. When the journal Nature compared Wikipedia to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it found that some of Wales’s contributors had produced better entries.
Expert reviewers looked at 50 articles, and found that Britannica had, on average just one less error in each. For some, Wikipedia was judged to be better.
Wales says he’s not interested in point-scoring. But he goes on: “For most people what was astonishing about that study was that there were three errors in each Britannica article. That’s not a criticism of Britannica because it’s really hard to do this work.”
He concedes, therefore, that “we should always expect there will be errors in Wikipedia. We just want to minimise them. I think what was really telling was that Britannica got quite outraged and sent out a 20-page memo denouncing the study; the wikipedians came to me and said, ‘Can we find out the list of errors – we want to fix them.’ That comes out of being non-commercial.”
Indeed, Wikipedia’s “non-commercial” status, which initially meant Wales simply paid the site’s web server bills himself, now means that for at least two months of every year it’s begging for donations, on a model similar to that which funds American public radio.
At the first attempt, in 2004, Wikipedia sought to raise $20,000 in a month, and actually raised $30,000 in about three weeks. The most recent, two-month long appeal raised $16m from 500,000 people – although on the social network Twitter millions asked Wales to take down the picture on the site used to ask for donations.
“There were 9 million people asking me to stop staring at them”, says Wales. Perhaps most intriguingly, it was the banner adverts with Wales’s face that were clearly shown to raise the most money.
“If we were dependent on the philanthropic foundations, we’d really be dependent on the fickle moods of a few organisations. Whereas here it’s the general public and that’s powerful,” he says.
The money in part funds Wales’s work as chief evangelist, keen to get a more diverse community contributing to the site and to establish it further in the developing world.
Despite stories about a declining number of people editing the site, Wales says that the total involved in English Wikipedia has now stabilised.
“There were stories about how we’d lost 49,000 editors overnight that were simply wrong,” says Wales.
“I joked that I’d found them in my refrigerator.” He says that they’re seeing significant growth in Indian and Russian language contributors.
Still, there are gaps in Wikipedia – Wales says that many of these are simply articles that people haven’t got around to yet, and is himself actively tidying up and adding to articles on the English peerage.
He says his sometimes “boisterous” community of editors and contributors, despite reports to the countrary, is usually not too rancorous. What the site needs, however, is experts.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done but it does tend to be on narrower topics,” says Wales. When I suggest that universities who once paid enormous subscriptions to references sources might simply make donations to keep Wikipedia going, he asks instead for a different kind of payment:
“What we really want from academic institutions is the support in the form of good editors,” he says.
“We want university professors to think of Wikipedia as a part of their general mission in society. And I think most of the really great academics think their job is pushing the forefront of research, teaching students and also to some extent being a public intellectual – helping society, putting forward ideas that are valid and thoughtful. If you want to do that, Wikipedia is a great platform for it, for being a part of society.”
It’s a typical response. “A lot of people thought when we started Wikipedia that the way to be successful online is to have lots of really great content and put it behind a walled garden and everybody will flock to you. Frankly it just doesn’t work that way.”
Wales asserts that his method “already has changed the nature of the web substantially”. Perhaps persuading academics to give away their expertise is simply the next step; that physics entry might get longer still.