What is Jimmy Wales' vision for TPO
20 years of Wikipedia: Interview with encyclopedia co-founder Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales is the face of Wikipedia. He co-founded the online encyclopedia in 2001, headed the Wikimedia Foundation, the foundation behind Wikipedia, until 2006, and has a seat on the foundation's board of trustees to this day. He c’t answered questions about the origins of the platform, his role in the project and the future of Wikipedia.
c’t: In 2001 you made some money as a stock market trader and founded your first start-up: Bomis.com. How did you come up with the idea of starting an online encyclopedia?
Jimmy Wales: I came into contact with the free software movement at that time. And I thought to myself: You could actually use this type of collaboration for anything. Writing an encyclopedia seemed like an obvious first choice to me.
c’t: Was there a special need for an online encyclopedia or was it just a matter of experimenting with the new form of collaboration?
Wales: Both were the case. It was pretty obvious at the time that an encyclopedia was needed on the internet. There have been millions of websites with specific knowledge, but often you are only looking for a short version. There was a need for an overview of established knowledge.
c’t: In addition to the technical basis for Wikipedia, the decision to make the encyclopedia a non-profit project is also decisive for the character of Wikipedia. How did that happen?
Wales: Wikipedia is in many ways a child of the dot-com crash. It was not clear at the time whether any viable business model or investors could be found to further develop the project. Many of the volunteers were very much in favor of us developing Wikipedia as a non-profit organization. It immediately made sense to me: an encyclopedia is like an institution like a library or a school. The decision turned out to be very good for us. For one thing, we are still here today. On the other hand, a free and ad-free Wikipedia is what comes closest to our original vision.
c’t: Would advertising funding have changed the character of Wikipedia?
Wales: Possibly. How you make your money has a huge impact on organizations - be it a company or a non-profit organization. The incentives for tackling certain problems are shifting. People only donate to Wikipedia if they feel the project is having a meaningful impact on their lives. If we had used strategies like clickbait headlines or purposefully provocative content, this would not be the case.
c’t: There have been a lot of commercial challengers. Did any of these bother you?
Wales: Not really. We were very successful very early on. I've looked at a few projects that have been labeled in the press as possible Wikipedia killers. I noticed very quickly that they didn't have the potential of Wikipedia. For example, Microsoft Encarta allowed users to change posts at some point. I thought: This is definitely an interesting change of course. So I signed up and tried it out. However, when I sent out a change, I got feedback that within a week someone would look at my change and decide if my work would be accepted. It was clear to me: This is no competition for Wikipedia. It won't be really fun for anyone to wait a whole week for a change.
But since we never had commercial ambitions at Wikipedia, we were able to approach the work relatively relaxed. We were just a couple of geeks having fun. If people like it - great. Hadn't we liked it, we would still have had fun.
c’t: Many of the geeks who enjoyed Wikipedia came from Germany.
Wales: We had a strong community in Germany right from the start. A lot of people developed a real passion for the project. Not just when writing articles, but also with the developers who advanced our software. The German community also helped us structurally. A German Wikipedian once told me a joke: What do you call two Germans? A club. What do you call three Germans? A club with problems. (laughs) So the community in Germany really wanted to create an organization. And what was created here at the time became a model for all local clubs that have been founded around the world since then.
c’t: You once compared your role in the Wikipedia community with the Queen of England. Is it still like that?
Wales: I think it's still like this: I have a certain role in the community - but I don't really have any power. I try to remind people of the values on which Wikipedia is based. When there is a dispute in the community, I try not to get involved too much. But sometimes I do speak up.
Recently, for example, there was an example. There were two candidates for political office in the United States. We had an article on the incumbent but not on her challenger. I asked why that is. It turned out: there was no targeted decision against the challenger. The fact that her article was deleted was the result of a series of decisions, for example about the relevance criteria of Wikipedia. It looked like a bug to me. It should be the goal of an encyclopedia that voters can find out about the candidate of one of the major parties for an important political office. But my role is not to make the decision or to change the rules - I just made people aware of it.
c’t: For many people who want to get involved in Wikipedia for the first time, it is frustrating that they cannot understand the decisions. How would you describe the decision-making process?
Wales: (laughs) Even for people who have been involved in Wikipedia for a long time, it can be frustrating at times. It's a very complex process, with many traditions. Sometimes the rules are written down, sometimes not. Much of it works on a social level. Some people have earned a high status with their work, which makes it easier for them to enforce certain decisions than others who are new - especially if they are quick-tempered.
c’t: One of the top goals of the Wikimedia Foundation was to make Wikipedia big in developing countries as well. But a success like the one back then in Germany is not yet available. Why is this so?
Wales: There are a number of reasons. Wherever there are problems with funding education and generally available Internet access, Wikipedia has a harder time. My opinion is that we as Wikimedia should invest more money in these countries. Of course, some of the pilot projects will fail. But in my eyes this is extremely important to Wikipedia's mission.
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