Thursday 23 May 2019

Who wants to be a billionaire? Not the Wikipedia founder

He created one of the most influential and popular websites in internet history — but as Jimmy Wales tells Donal Lynch, he now prefers to wallow in campaigns

Jimmy Wales. Illustration by Jon Berkeley
Jimmy Wales. Illustration by Jon Berkeley
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Jimmy Wales breaks off for a moment and stares, bleary-eyed, across the sunlit vista of Dublin's docklands. Something has caught his eye. On the other side of the Liffey to us there is a man and a woman straddling each other on a bike, the woman on the handlebars, rolling toward the 3Arena. They are ferociously wearing the faces off each other, oblivious to danger, while the man peddles furiously.

"That's very romantic," Wales smiles, shaking his head. "But they're probably headed for danger. I mean, someone has to be at the wheel, right?"

Perhaps. But wasn't that what they said about Wikipedia? One man's abiding passion - but unlikely to work in practice because surely, for accuracy's sake, someone has to be at the wheel?

And yet today it is probably a more important font of knowledge than any single news channel, text book or government tract. It is available in 285 languages (including Irish, natch) and only a tiny handful of web behemoths - Google, Facebook, YouTube - rank ahead of the online encyclopaedia in terms of popularity. There are 516 million unique users a month.

If it accepted ads - which it does not - it would, according to some estimates, be worth in the ballpark of €4bn. But suckling on the corporate teat would most likely cause some sort of revolt amongst the people who are really at the wheel - a diligent hive of 80,000 volunteers who monitor some 24 million entries and arbitrate the myriad editorial disputes.

The curious contradiction of Wikipedia is that the very quality that makes it such a pervasive global success story is the same quality that prevents it from becoming the corporate juggernaut that such success normally entails.

Wales himself is the embodiment of this contradiction. At his wedding in London two years ago - which was attended by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall - his wife's maid of honour teased him that she was marrying the only dotcom entrepreneur who didn't end up becoming a billionaire.

That said, he's not poor - corporations and foundations fork out up to €50k for him to deliver a speech and he is worth, by some estimates, about $1m (€800,000). But what he lacks in billions he makes up for in influence - TIME magazine has called him one of the 100 most influential figures in the world - mixing as easily with former US presidents and Nobel Prize winners as he does with Hollywood royalty and raising sums of €15-€20m in donations at a canter.

Still, the money question irritates him. He once rhetorically asked: "Can you imagine Howard Roark (the protagonist of Ayn Rand's Fountainhead) saying: 'I just want to make as much money as possible?'"

He takes up the point. "There's a whole set of historical factors that played into that," he explains of his personal and business decision to spurn a potential avalanche of corporate dollars. "I'm not personally opposed to people making money. It is not an ideological stance. It is a combination of aesthetics and historical circumstance.

"It was incredibly lucky that Wikipedia was a child of the dotcom crash. If we'd had access to investment capital, we would not have been able to devise all of the community mechanisms we have.

"If a problem had appeared on the site it would be organised like Facebook and YouTube which have moderators, although nobody quite knows what those moderators do. When we have a problem it is openly debated and moderated that way. It means we have a really strong community which is passionate about the site."

To understand the historical factors he's talking about, we have to go back to the birth of Wikipedia - and, perhaps, to the salad days of Jimmy Wales.

He grew up in Alabama where his father, a teacher, gave him an inadvertently Irish middle name - Donal. A studious, bright child and devotee of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, he went on to study finance at university to PhD level. At the age of 20 he married a woman called Pamela Green, who he had met while working at a grocery store. He moved to Chicago, where he worked as a futures trader and met his second wife, Christine Rohan. He moved with her to San Diego, where apparently inspired by the successful IPO of Netscape, he hoped to tap into the dotcom boom.

In 1996 he and two business partners founded Bomis, which Wales would describe as "a guy-oriented search engine". For which, do not read smut: in 2005, Wales objected to a Wiki-entry that said Bomis peddled porn. "The mature audience [NOT pornography] portion of the business is significantly less than 10pc of total revenues," he told the community.

Wales was interested in the idea of creating a free online encyclopaedia and used open source software that allowed him to collaborate with other users. An earlier idea called Nupedia had what Wales called a "traditional top-down structured academic way" of working - but it quickly gave way in January 2001 to Wikipedia, which Wales founded with his long-time friend and collaborator Larry Sanger. (Wales later disputed the role of Sanger, claiming he alone founded the site - but Wales' own Wikipedia page currently describes Sanger as the co-founder).

Like many brilliant geeks - think of Apple's Steve Wozniak - Wales sought to create something useful and concern himself with the business model later. At first Wikipedia operated on a shoestring. (In Hawaiian "wiki" means "fast", and technically refers to a website that can be edited by anybody).

After the dotcom crash, necessity became the mother of invention and instead of gaining a pile of money, he enlisted an army of volunteers. He wanted, he said then, to bring about a world in which "every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

It was this sort of stuff that won him a TED Talk in 2005; then Bono invited him to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Collective ownership, the Wikipedia model, would make the site more enduring - and advertising, Wales always maintained, would be anathema to the whole project.

"I have always been against ads in Wikipedia. It's not because I am inherently against ads, it's just not right for Wikipedia. One of the things that's deep in the DNA of The Foundation is that we care just as much about the next million users in Sub-Saharan Africa as we do about the next million users in California. And if you had ads that would shift.

"If the growth of the employees' salaries depended on ad growth, then you would start to have to care about whether the readers are appealing to the ad market. Even smaller European countries don't have nearly as developed an ad market as, say, Germany."

But of course while Wikipedia doesn't - as yet - have the grubby fingers of capitalism on it, there are still critics of the way it operates. Articles can tend to be dominated by those who either have an axe to grind - Wales calls acts of vandalism on Wiki-pages "sandboxing" - or those who wish to promote themselves. So many entries of prominent Irish figures seem to be written by those figures themselves, and the site has acknowledged that it shouldn't be used as a source for primary research.

There are also those who say that the system of footnotes and sourced articles will have to be reimagined if Wikipedia wants to gain more traction in the East.

For Wales, however, the most galling criticism relates to the persistent gender bias in the authorship of articles.

"The lack of gender of balance in the community might be the most troublesome thing about Wikipedia," he tells me. "And we have tried to change it with little effect. One of the core reasons - I have to be careful when I say this, because I don't want to say that women are not good at computers - but people like my father don't edit Wikipedia because he clicks on it and gets Wiki-markup language, which he finds offputting - so he clicks the back button.

"The people who are comfortable with this kind of language tend to be computer geeks, who in turn tend to be overwhelmingly male."

The solution, he says might be in tweaking how the site works. "We see weaknesses in the content that reflect what our community knows little about. So you have a 26-year-old single male who knows nothing about early childhood development. And then you have people who have a Masters in child psychology - but they're not participating in Wikipedia.

"That is a problem. We have to find inventive ways to invite those people in. We also have to make it so that if you're a geek, but not a computer geek, that the software is not getting in your way."

However Wales is less involved in the day-to-day nitty gritty and more of a figurehead. He has compared himself to the queen of England.

"With Wikipedia I mainly work with the community on editorial policy," he says. "I'm very involved in The People's Operator - a mobile phone company - where 10pc of the bill goes towards a cause of your choice and 25pc of the company's profits go to charity. We've just announced that we are going to do an IPO soon - in the next month or so."

Part activist, part campaigner, he travels the world giving talks on internet freedom and has spoken out on a range of controversial issues. He was appalled by the NSA revelations and thereafter Wikipedia began encrypting its entries. He has been a critic of Europe's so-called 'right to be forgotten', which he has variously called "a right to censor information you do not like" and "Google's right to edit history."

Jimbo, as he is known on Wikipedia, has also called access to free information "a human right" and has called Edward Snowden "a hero", saying "history will judge him very favourably".

Perhaps fittingly, given his role as web humanitarian, one of the issues he addresses at the One Young World conference is the spread of Ebola. Access to Wikipedia could save lives because one of the issues with the spread of the virus is lack of knowledge about how it spreads. "Wikipedia is the most viewed health resource in the world," he claims.

But if the developing world and information rights are two frontiers of the future for Wikipedia, then what are the others? What of the limits of the volunteer model?

That seems to bug Wales more than anything else. Perhaps a clue lies in what he had to say on crowdsourcing, an idea that's sometimes thought of in connection with Wikipedia - but which Wales abhors.

"It's a completely upside- down way of thinking about things. I remember one coming to me, saying: 'We want to put up security cameras, video snapshots, and let people click in if they see something they're interested in.'

"And I said: 'Who wants to do that? It sounds like the most boring job in the world.'

"What we need to do is help individuals do what they already want to do and make sure they get what they need - that's what Wikipedia is all about."



The advice I'd give to my younger self is... "I would usually say fail faster - do a lot of little experiments that may or may not work out. A lot of young entrepreneurs, they hesitate for a long time, trying to come up with the perfect business plan."

Of the funniest things that Wikipedia has taught me is that… "Men have no problem writing in an authoritative voice in an area they know nothing about. Women say 'Oh, I'm not enough of an expert in that' - but we'd never hear a man saying that."

The worst ideas I'm presented with… "Have often been to do with this phrase 'crowdsourcing'. You should be trying to help individuals do what they already want to do - rather than trying to trick them into doing some work for you."

My middle name is unusual in the states… "It appears Irish but in fact I was named after an uncle who was called Donald. In the south it's very common to be called 'junior' if you have the same name as an older relative - so they just took off the 'd' at the end."

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