Jimmy Wales invented and built Wikipedia, a free online, multilingual, open-source encyclopedia that is written and edited collaboratively by hundreds of thousands of participants around the world. Wikipedia has, in a few short years, radically democratized the act of information collection, and has generated an enormous trove of knowledge (Want to know about parapsychology? The climate in Zambia? The orangespotted trevally?) Wikipedia is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
Wikipedia is the modern successor to a 30-volume Encyclopedia Britannica. It relies on expert contributors and editors, drawn from the public—the millions that log onto Wikipedia daily to get their questions answered. Each “user”—the term for an online reader and contributor—has access to edit or comment on the content of any webpage, and their edits are overseen by experienced administrators elected from the community. Many Wikipedia entries, therefore, have multiple authors and have gone through anywhere from dozens to thousands of edits over time as users constantly refine the information or correct misinformation.
Wikipedia is accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, free of cost. The vision, according to Wales, has always been a free, high-quality encyclopedia for every person on the planet in their own language. At its foundation is also the belief that individual knowledge of the world, carefully and thoughtfully cultivated in open dialogue with knowledgeable and sincere peers is both more accurate and richer than that of unaccountable and often poorly qualified editorial boards.
According to its own Wikipedia entry: “Wikipedia is a multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopedia project. The name Wikipedia is a portmanteau (combination of words and their meanings) of the words wiki (a type of collaborative Web site) and encyclopedia…Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites, attracting at least 684 million visitors yearly by 2008. There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 250 languages. As of today, there are 2,500,828 articles in English; every day hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to enhance the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.”
Wikipedia represents a classic paradigm shift: Before it appeared, it wasn’t evident that there was a problem; now, we understand very clearly how profound the problem was.
For millennia, the relative minority of professionals and “expert amateurs” who were qualified to articulate the facts of the world did not have access to tools that enabled them to work together effectively at scale. They were restricted to inappropriately narrow publishing models that did not allow for sufficient dialogue to help them share and build knowledge or detect errors in a timely fashion. The quality of all intellectual work suffered as a result.
Correspondingly, there are weaknesses associated with the media in which knowledge traditionally has been disseminated. For one thing, there is the question of accessibility. Not everyone has access to or can afford a newspaper, much less a professionally written, edited, and published encyclopedia. These traditional media are democratic only up to a point; for many millions of people, understanding of and engagement with their world is limited by economics, geography, or other factors.
Consider, too, the problem of relevance. Knowledge in print, arguably, begins to lose urgency and topicality the moment after publication. It can take months or years to update, rewrite, and re-publish a printed encyclopedia to keep up with any one change—and by the time a new edition has arrived, even that revised material may already be out of date.
Open-source technology and online collaborative work—both central to Wikipedia—propose antidotes to this challenge. As Wales writes: “From Bangkok to Bogota, people can exchange ideas and share experiences. To the extent that we are thoughtful and reflective, we can learn from the best among us. To the extent that we are committed to reason and the non-initiation of force as fundamental organizing principles for a free world, we can come together to create values that would be impossible for people dedicated to eternal class or ethnic conflict.”
Wales advocates for the value of a universal encyclopedia which is accessible to all and which rationally puts forward the basic facts about various arguments and controversies in a way that newcomers to an issue can understand what the disagreement is about. Consumers of information are increasingly saying: Don’t tell us what to think and don’t feed us one side of the story; give us actual facts and we will think for ourselves to decide.
For Wales, Wikipedia can be summed up as a charitable humanitarian effort to create and distribute a free high-quality encyclopedia to every single person on the planet.
Wales has engineered the largest mass collaboration attempted yet through the Internet. The sheer scale of Wikipedia, founded only six years ago, is astounding: More than 280,000 current volunteers creating and editing more than 5.3 million encyclopedia entries in more than 100 languages. Wikipedia had 164,675,000 unique visitors in December 2006 alone, ranking sixth on the web and reflecting a 107 percent growth rate over last year.
Wales funded Wikipedia himself until mid-2003, when he set up the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation as the holding entity. The work he carries out for the foundation, now as chairman emeritus, has always been unpaid. He is also chair of Wikia Inc., a for-profit company he co-founded in 2004 with Angela Beesley. Wikia is a wiki farm—a collection of individual wikis on different subjects, all hosted on the same website. Neither of these roles explains Wales’s role as de facto leader of Wikipedia (especially English Wikipedia), which is a matter of community policy rather than top-down control.
Wikipedia represents virtually no leap in technology. All of the elements to create Wikipedia – including the idea of a “wiki” – existed six years before its founding. It is, rather, notable as a cultural, organizational, and managerial phenomenon. Indeed, the technology pundit Nick Carr, while critical of some aspects of Wikipedia, writes that its true importance may lie in what it means for the structure of organizations and the economics of content creation in the years ahead. Wales’s feat has been to manage one of the fastest-growing technology organizations in the world without managing it in any traditional sense. His Wikimedia Foundation has just fifteen employees; nearly all the work of producing the encyclopedia falls to a few thousand self-organizing volunteers, who are in constant communication with each other.
Wales has guided this activity by publicly articulating a cogent statement of mission, goals, and values—and then by confronting unpredicted events as they occur. Over time, for example, he has opened Wikipedia more and more to open editing. At one time, to resolve problematic disputes, the community could lock articles to prevent anyone from editing. But because experience proved that more openness was the key to quality rather than less, the “anyone can edit” mechanism was extended even further, with the introduction of “semi-protection” - meaning that rather than locking everyone out, only those with very new accounts are unable to edit entries which are in a controversial state. Such moves were always implemented with majority support in the community, and they have worked, allowing his legions of participant’s autonomy while creating standards that help to ensure Wikipedia becomes both a credible service and a sustainable organization.
Wales’s first encyclopedia was the World Book, which his parents bought him one evening in 1969 from a door-to-door salesman in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. At university he studied finance, and he began his career as research director at Chicago Options Associates, a futures and options trading firm.
The entrepreneurial path that led to Wikipedia emerged during this time. Wales created the early web portal Bomis, a site featuring user-generated webrings (a collection of websites on the Internet joined together in a circular structure). Wales focused on the bottom-up strategy of content creation and delivery, and it worked—creating hundreds of rings on cars, computers, sports, and other topics. His experience proved that given the right technology, large groups of self-interested individuals would unite to create something they could not produce alone.