Jimmy Wales is an American Internet entrepreneur known for his role in the creation of Wikipedia, a free, open-content encyclopedia launched in 2001. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, holding the board-appointed "community founder" seat. In 2004, he co-founded Wikia, a privately owned, free Web-hosting service, along with Angela Beesley.
Together with Larry Sanger and others, Wales helped lay the foundation for Wikipedia, which subsequently enjoyed rapid growth and popularity. As Wikipedia expanded and its public profile grew, Wales took on the role of the project's spokesman and promoter through speaking engagements and media appearances. Wales has been historically cited as the co-founder of Wikipedia but he disputes the "co-" designation, asserting that he is the sole founder of Wikipedia. Wales' work developing Wikipedia, which has become the world's largest encyclopedia, prompted Time magazine to name him in its 2006 list of the world's most influential people.
Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Wales attended a small private school, then a university preparation school, eventually attaining a bachelor's degree and master's degree in finance. During his graduate studies he taught at two universities.
Question: What impact does your work have in the world?
Jimmy Wales: I think there are different kinds of impact for different kinds of people and different kinds of societies. For most of us who live in the developed world, Europe, the U.S., Japan, anywhere that’s a developed part of the world, we actually are faced primarily with a problem of information overload. And the role of an encyclopedia in that is to basically summarize things for us. If I want to learn about Albania, I don’t want to go and read 500 web pages. I just want a quick summary of information. So that’s very valuable. It’s sort of a starting point for people to get a basic framework and then go beyond that. But for many parts of the world, when we see the growth of Wikipedia in languages like ____, which is one of the languages of India, in those languages frequently the problem is not an overload of information. It’s actually a shortage of information. There’s very little material available to people; not so many books published; not nearly as many books translated into most languages that we’d like to see.
So the Wikipedia articles can then be, in many cases, the first real easy source of information that’s available at all. So that’s pretty important. I think it’s important, too, that all of our work is freely licensed. So people can copy it, modify it, and re-distribute it commercially or non-commercially. We’re starting to see projects where people are taking Wikipedia content and putting it onto CDs, for example. Or printing it in book form and distributing it in places where there’s very poor Internet access, and very low levels of literacy and things like this. That’s really, really important. And it’ s important that people are able to do that without even asking us. They can just basically take the content and redistribute it because that’s the license we put it out under, because I think that’s going to have a really big impact in a lot of places in the world.
Question: What inspires you?
Jimmy Wales: What inspires me? Well what inspires me is that we have this amazing tool now that’s very quickly penetrating every place in the world where you can have point-to-point communication between individuals all over. It’s possible in limited ways to censor the Internet, but I’m very much an optimist about that. I don’t think the censorship can very much succeed in the long run. So the idea that we can have a real dialogue between people – not between governments or just between sort of important pundits, but ordinary people can talk about things in many different parts of the world – I think that’s really fascinating. It’s going to have some major and positive implications for peace in the long run. It’s no simple and easy process. It’s not like you just sort of turn on the Internet and all of a sudden everybody just has a reasonable conversation instead of going to war. It’s more subtle and complex than that; but I think it does begin to make it possible to see people as human beings rather than “the other”, and I think that’s going to be huge in the long run.
Recorded On: Aug 10, 2007