By: Jan Mazotti and Annette Perez Issue: Vision Section: Business
An Interview with Jimmy Wales
Recently, ICOSA sat down with Jimmy Wales, founder of the nonprofit encyclopedia giant Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as Wikia, to discuss his strategic vision, entrepreneurship, and the importance of Wikis in modern life.
Wikipedia exists to give a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet in their own language—and it does. It is also a charity. Wikipedia is entering its 11th year and currently ranks the sixth most visited website on the Internet, with 365 million worldwide leaders. In fact, it is estimated that Wikipedia receives 2.7 billion monthly page views from the United States alone, but is growing as the Internet becomes more prevalent in developing countries. And while English accounts for only 22 percent of content, the English edition of Wikipedia has nearly 3X more articles than its closest competitors. As of January 2012, there were 283 different language editions of the free and collaborative encyclopedia, with nearly 100,000 active contributors.
They arguably have the largest collection of knowledge and information ever publicly assembled—an amazing feat considering that the expansion of information on the Internet is nearly unfathomable. While it might be difficult to understand the technical aspects of its growth, it is important to understand how this shift in organizational thinking is going to fundamentally change the way we learn and share information. It is expected that the Internet collectively produced 1.8 zetabytes of information in 2011, whether it be through Internet articles or text messages. A zetabyte is 1021 or one sextillion bytes. In fact, if all of that information were songs on an mp3 player, it would take 3.1 billion years to listen to all.
Furthermore, the organization is focused on creating a neutral point of view—a core policy considering its strong support by and for the community. “Obviously having a policy of neutrality and a community committed to neutrality doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Humans are humans, a group of people can share a set of biases without even noticing it,” contends Wales. “The open democratic process always allows someone to come in and thoughtfully challenge the group and include feedback in the article.”
When asked about how Wikipedia has played a role in expanding informal education, Wales smiled and excitedly said, “While the total amount of formal education is not declining the amount of informal education has absolutely exploded!” He used the example of traditional media to make his point. “Thirty years ago if you turned on the radio and heard that something was happening in Azerbaijan—you kinda knew where it was and you might know what was going on. But, you had to go to the library and look the information up to learn more, and no one had the time. Today, people will immediately check it on their phone.” he said.
Wikipedia has also become a “go to” resource for students, as well as a learning source. “People go to Wikipedia to find out about one topic and then get sucked into reading about other topics. For example, someone could end up reading about the King of Spain when the original search was about World War II. It’s a fabulous thing, especially for young students who just have that sheer joy of learning—of following their passion, following whatever is interesting at the moment,” Wales said proudly.
Early in its history, Wikipedia was not favored as a research resource by many in the education arena. However, the perception by educators is shifting quickly, in part because of its popularity with students. “To tell them not to is like saying don’t listen to rock and roll music. What we say is ‘yes you should be careful using Wikipedia as it can contain errors.’ We believe that in this era, we should be teaching students how to use Wikipedia, how to approach the Internet, and how to approach information and knowledge,” said Wales.
He went on, “Wikipedia may inspire you to go deeper—maybe start reading about space or physics—and want to study that topic. I think this accessibility makes us a well-rounded people and supports new innovation.” Innovation comes from cross-disciplinary understanding in science, business and technology. And, to be on the forefront of innovation, a person has got to dig deep and stay on the cutting edge. Wales contends, “To be on the forefront you don’t want to be repeating what the last four researchers did—you must bring in influences and ideas from other fields. By necessity, you can’t go really deep unless you are able to grasp the basic insights and be able to collaborate and reach out to people. Wiki’s are all about connection and collaboration. They really are the defining technology of bringing people together—very diverse people from all around the world—to build something.”
Although an entrepreneur, Wales says he knows he made the right decision by making Wikipedia a nonprofit organization. “Encyclopedic knowledge has a distinctly noncommercial role of information on the Internet,” he says. “It makes more sense to be a charity and to be in that framework.”
Because there is a growing market for wiki style pages for non-encyclopedic knowledge Jimmy Wales founded, Wikia, a 100-employee collaborative publishing platform that enables people to discover, create and share content on any topic globally. Wales says, “We’re building the rest of the library. It’s the kind of work that doesn’t belong in the encyclopedia or the dictionary.” Although relatively new, Wikia is ranked as about 50th in terms of popularity. This for-profit business is growing and currently has over 275,000 articles on topics such as video games, television shows, movies, food, and current events. Wikia provides value to those who want to share their expert knowledge with users who want to learn about a topic. “For example there is LOSTpedia, which is about the TV show LOST. There have been thousands of articles on this one TV show and has every detail you would ever want to know,” said Wales. With a vision for growth, Wikia will open its new sports vertical market, as the world approaches the Olympic Games in London later this year.
THOUGHTS ON CONSUMER-GENERATED MEDIA
When we think about social media we need to think far beyond a little bit of hype on Twitter and Facebook. “It’s really about connecting with your consumer—your most passionate fans—so they become evangelists. But, you can also learn things from them. You can actually modify what your making based on the feedback from these passionate users,” declares Wales. Coming back to the LOST example, Wales describes how the writers for the show took note of the fan feedback and how it became a huge collaboration between the fans and the creators, and how they worked to design something that appealed to people on a broad basis. “You’re not going to get this from Facebook comments,” said Wales.
In the new information economy where ideas are commodities, Wikipedia is an invaluable public good and it’s an ever expanding platform. Wikipedia is by far one of the most popular information sources in the world—and those that are part of the organizational team would not have it any other way. They are committed to the movement of free, Internet-based knowledge, believing that access to information empowers people to make rational decisions about their lives. They believe access to information is a basic human right. The team also strives to share information with every human being—no matter their race, color, creed, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. They want to provide the venue for all people to share their knowledge. Moreover, they believe that mass collaboration among a diverse set of contributors, combined with consensus building are powerful tools in creating accurate and unbiased content. Every day they strive to provide accurate, neutral, verifiable, comprehensive, and unbiased information so that every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
Going forward, Wikipedia hopes to have served over 1 billion people and increase the number of online articles to at least 50 million. They continue to encourage their avid readers to become contributors and hope that there will be a substantial increase in content generation from female and foreign sources. It is a big goal. But if there is anyone who can pull it off it is Jimmy Wales. And, although he spent his early career as a futures and options trader, he says, “I’m not particularly money motivated. It’s perfectly fine to be prosperous but for me it’s not the most interesting thing in the world. My job now is so interesting and amazing—I wouldn’t exchange it for all the money in the world. What motivates me is interestingness—doing something interesting!” And, what he is doing is certainly interesting.