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 do you do?
Jimmy Wales: I get on e-mail and talk to people. Well it’s really exciting to bring lots and lots of people together all over the world to create knowledge, share it freely with everybody. There’s a real sense in all of my projects that we’re doing something important. And you see that inspiration in a lot of the people who I work with. And so that brings a lot of fun and joy to the work. Gee, the struggle. I don’t know. I don’t struggle much. I Just have a lot of fun. Obviously there’s a lot of work to do, and dealing with lots and lots of things going on all the time is a constant struggle. But in general, it’s all fun. So I don’t really perceive it as work even.
So the main catalyst or the origin of the idea for Wikipedia came from watching the growth of the free software movement – open source software, as most people know it. So all together all over the web, people were coming together – programming – and building the new Linux and Apache, ________, Pearl, _______. All this software is really the software the runs the Internet. And it’s all freely licensed, and it’s all written for the most part by volunteers all over the world. And seeing that new mode of protection caused me to believe that gee, you know, this shouldn’t stop with just programming. We could build all kinds of other things.
So the encyclopedia was the first project. And now the rest of the library, and search engine, and everything else – trying to really push that whole idea forward. The Wikimedia Foundation, of course, is the non-profit organization that I founded. It runs Wikipedia and Wiktionary and all the other non-profit sites.
My main focus for where I think we’ll go in the future is focused on the languages of the developing world. So right now we’re really, really strong in all the languages of Europe. We’re strong in Japanese and Chinese. But we’re not so strong in the languages of Africa, the languages of India. But those are all coming, and that’s really an increasing focus of my interest and my work, is to try to see what I can do to help promote and get things going, and get some excitement going in that part of the world.
One of the impacts here is that we have a much higher degree of informal learning than we used to have. That’s not to say that formal learning is declining. It’s just to say that after people are finished their formal education, they have such a greater opportunity for informal education.
Thirty-five years ago, you might read a newspaper story about, I don’t know, Albania. And you might think, “Hmm. Albania. I barely know anything about it, and I don’t know the history. I should go to the library and look that up.” But frankly nobody ever much went to the library to look things up. It’s quite a journey. You have to put aside a lot of your energy to go and do something like that. Whereas now, when somebody wonders about Albania, they just type “Albania” into a search engine and, typically with the Wikipedia article, they get a nice, basic history and background, and they can really dig very deep if they want to; follow the sources and you can really learn a lot. All that kind of learning really helps people to become better citizens, better decision makers in their own lives.
Sometimes it’s political, but sometimes it’s personal decisions that people might make that they can make with a lot more knowledge than they had in the past, simply because it’s so easy to informally get the basic information that you need. None whatsoever. Obviously that’s not to say that the state of the information on the Internet is perfect. It certainly isn’t. There’s a lot of problems. You know reliability, accuracy.
I think people have a lot to learn in terms of figuring out what does make a good source, and how do you know when something is reliable or not. But overall, this instant access to information is almost completely a good thing. I don’t think there’s ever any case – outside of science fiction examples – where you can say people are better off not knowing about the world.
I think there’s a lot of steps that we can take in the Internet community to try to help and ensure the accuracy of the information on the Internet. In community projects like at Wikipedia, or the various projects Wikia sites, the communities tend to have a very conservative and old-fashioned view of what information quality looks like, which sometimes surprises people. They sort of assume it’s going to be some crazy “MySpace” of information or something. But realistically, a lot of the scholarly standards that you would hope for are exactly what the community settles on. So things like comparing what’s written in an article to what the sources say, and judging the sources by their quality.
Is it a book published by Harvard University Press? Or is it a tabloid magazine? Or is it some random, crazy web page? People really do have a pretty good idea of how to assess the quality of information. And communities are really coming together to think about these things and to start to build better and better quality information resources. So yeah, there’s a lot of work to do.
Recorded On: Aug 10, 2007