We contacted Wikipedia mainman Jimmy Wales for The RU Sirius Show interview via Skype. I began my introduction: "According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales was born to a Parisian whore named 'Babette' during the French Revolution..." The line went dead. "Oh Christ," I thought. "Jimmy Wales doesn't have a sense of humor. He's just hung up. It took me six months to arrange this interview and now I don't have a show for this week." But it turned out to just be one of those Skype hiccups. When contact was re-established, Wales said, "The internet really sucks.' He does have a sense of humor!
This is how I introduced him on the show:
"According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales was born to a Parisian whore named 'Babette' during the French Revolution... Oh no, wait. That's the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact, Jimmie Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and remains the man in charge of what is essentially an Open Source encyclopedia. The official titles are President of Wiki, Incorporated and Board Member and Chairman of Wiki Media Foundation."
Later in the conversation, Wales corrected me, saying, "I am no longer the chairman of the Wiki Media foundation, I am now the Chair Emeritus. I'm still a board member, but I've stepped aside and now Florence Devouard is the chair. So now I'm one of seven board members. I'm still very active and have a special role within the English Wikipedia, but in general it's important that people begin to think of us as a bigger organization that's not really focused on me as a single person doing things."
Diana Brown joined me in interviewing Jimmy Wales.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: No good deed goes unpunished. Do the number and intensity of controversies that have arisen around Wikipedia surprise you?
JIMMY WALES: There are a few controversies here and there. Most I would call well-manufactured controversies. But you know, whenever anything gets popular, I guess people pay attention.
RU: So are there any critiques or complaints that you've found particularly compelling?
JW: A lot of the complaints have some basis in fact. Since Wikipedia is a live work in progress, at any time, if someone complains that they found a particular error at a particular moment, there's not much that we can say to that. Yeah, there are errors in Wikipedia. But I think those kinds of criticisms sort of miss the point of what it is we're trying to accomplish here.
RU: And what you're trying to accomplish, as you've stated before, is to make all human knowledge available to all human beings. Do you still feel that same sense of idealism as when you made that statement? And how's it going with that?
JW: We're doing pretty well. The big picture goal has always been to have a free encyclopedia in all languages. We're doing pretty well if you're looking at English, German, French, Japanese, Dutch — some of the major languages where there are a lot of articles. But there's still a lot of work left to do in a lot of the languages of the developing world. In the last year, we've seen a lot of activity in the Indian languages, but none of the developing countries are even up to 100,000 articles yet. The largest is closing in on 20,000 articles. So, you know — pretty good, but there's still a lot of work to do.
RU: When you look at Wikipedia, there's everything — really arcane scientific material and historical material, and there are biographies of people's favorite rock and roll bands and stuff like that. What do you follow there personally? What do you find most compelling?
JW: Well, I'm really deeply involved in the community. So I end up spending a lot of my time working on the social processes and policies to try to help generate good quality articles. So that's what I spent most of my time following — the meta-discussion within Wikipedia of how we can make things better.
RU: Do you have sort of a micro-collective, a smaller group of people who you lean on in terms of understanding this process and making decisions about it?
JW: Oh yeah, definitely. The core community is several hundred to several thousand people, depending on how you measure it. And those are the people who are really making decisions. When people talk about Wikipedia, it seems they think that it's ten million people, each adding one sentence each. That's not really the way it works. It's really about the core volunteers maintaining and monitoring everything.
RU: It seems that you're very reliant upon people who want to maintain the quality of certain areas. If certain people started falling away, could that turn problematic?
JW: I don't think so. [Laughs] That's not something I worry about!
RU: Other people will come in to replace them?
JW: Yeah. I mean, if anything, we have the problem of too many volunteers (not that there can ever be too many) — but it gets really hard to communicate the values and the mores to newcomers in a reasonable period of time. Managing the organization or self-organization of all the different activities can be difficult.
RU: When I see stuff from people who really just hate Wikipedia, it's usually either someone with a really strong ideological agenda; or someone with ego problems who doesn't like the specific entry about them. It seems like they're sort of blaming the radio waves for something they don't like on the radio, and they don't get that. Can the idea of the open channel simply not be explained to some people?
JW: I think that's definitely right. I think that there are people whose view of the world is so fixed that they're unable to accept alternatives — or that alternatives should be discussed. Such people are very difficult. Fortunately, they're very rare. It's really pretty hard to find someone who truly hates Wikipedia. I mean, that's a pretty small number of people. Certainly people have criticisms, or think we could do this or that better, and that's perfectly fine. It's pretty hard to hate the project itself. It's a pretty benign thing we're trying to do here.
RU: What about the people at Encyclopedia Britannica. [Laughter] Do they feel threatened?
JW: You know, it's funny. We have good relations with people at Brockhaus which is the German equivalent of the "Britannica" — in other words, a traditional, mainstream, old-fashioned encyclopedia. I won't say we're best of friends or anything, but we've had meetings with them and they seemed OK. "Britannica" — we've never had any meetings with them. They pretty much try to pretend we don't exist most of the time, except occasionally they lash out in the press.
RU: Well, you did say, at some point, something pretty provocative about them. I think you, more or less, said you were going to wipe them out in about five years!
JW: You know, I wrote that...
RU: ...you were thinking of Khrushchev at the time?
JW: It's getting close to five years ago now, and I have to confess, I wrote that on Slashdot. I was kind of pandering to the crowd. It seemed like a fun sort of thing to say, and it's sort of come back to haunt me because "Britannica" is hardly gone.
RU: So you were getting all the Open Source people all wound up.
JW: Yeah, exactly.
RU: Have you been interested in the open source movement for a long time? Are you a fan of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation?
JW: Oh yeah. We really owe Richard a debt of gratitude for all that.
RU: Before you were doing Wikipedia, you were involved in a project called Nupedia, which was more of an expert-based system. And speaking of UFOs appearing over Chicago, we had Joe Firmage on our show a little while ago. He's creating something called the Digital Universe. And he also promises to organize the sum total of human knowledge and make it available to everybody. It's a collaborative effort, but it's limited to academic specialists. It seems almost a step back to Nupedia. Are you following this at all, and what do you think about that?
JW: I'm following, yeah. You know, I don't know very much about what they're doing over at Digital Universe. I actually met Joe back when he had hired Larry Sanger to work for him. I went and visited them and — you know, it's sort of big plans, I just haven't seen very much come out of it yet.
RU: You have a history with Ayn Rand's Objectivism. And then, thinking in terms of my friend Jaron Lanier's recent articles about Wikipedia — you may be the first objectivist (or person even vaguely associated with objectivism), to also be accused of Maoism.
JW: [Laughs] I did think that was quite amusing. I said, "Well, I must be doing something right if I get called such wildly different things. I'm somehow mysterious, even though I'm pretty simple, actually."
That essay was a good example of a critique that had some very interesting and good points. I mean, you could certainly say some of the specific practical problems he identified are things that we have to deal with and struggle with. At the same time, his sort of view of the ideology of us — of our group — as being, Maoists or collective intelligence people, or something like that, was really wide of the mark.
RU: He does raise an interesting point about the wisdom of crowds. The first time I heard that phrase used by a friend in a positive way was about a year ago on my NeoFiles program. We were talking to Jon Lebkowsky, and he was very positive about this idea of the wisdom of crowds. I have to admit; it almost knocked me right over, because in my personal experience, crowds were always the people going to the pep rallies, or the Nuremburg rallies... or whatever. People I associated with were trying to get away from crowds and think for themselves. What do you think about the idea of the wisdom of crowds?
JW: In general, I'm pretty skeptical of the idea. And I'm very skeptical of it being applied to Wikipedia in particular. But I think you can pick out elements of good sense from ideas in that general neighborhood — like the idea that given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. That's kind of a wisdom of crowds idea. It says that lots of different people have lots of different contexts and information. And if they can come together in a way that productively aggregates or shares that information, you can end up with a pretty high quality of work that will be far better than what an individual or a small team could produce. But I think, when a lot of people talk about the wisdom of crowds, they're thinking of some kind of mystical collective intelligence. And they're thinking in terms of some sort of trust that somehow the averaging out of lots of ideas will end up being correct. And I'm a lot more skeptical about that.
If you've ever seen the film 12 Angry Men; it's the story of a jury that's trying to decide in a murder case. And there's one guy who disagrees with everyone else. He thinks that the evidence does not prove that the defendant is guilty. He argues for two hours, and one by one he slowly convinces people that there are holes in the evidence. And in the end, they acquit. Well, that's what happens sometimes in a really great Wikipedia debate. You may have eleven people on one side and one on the other. But if that one person is reasonable and thoughtful and deals with the criticisms one-by-one, people will actually change their minds and we end up with a strong product. That can't really be described as the wisdom of crowds, in the way most people use it. So, I'm a little skeptical of that rhetoric.
RU: In the Wikipedia editing process, it's not like a big throng. It's actually one individual after another.
JW: And typically, most of the articles will have a pretty small number of authors and they'll have a fairly small number of people in discussion on the Talk page. So it isn't about hundreds of people writing most of the articles. Now there are, of course, anomalous articles that are very heavily edited by large numbers of people. Those are interesting too, but they're not typical.
RU: I want to come back to your history with Objectivism. And you can tell me whether you're still an Objectivist or not — but it seems to me that the Open Source movement is perfectly left libertarian idea — the ideas is voluntary collaboration. Do you feel there's any contradiction there? Or was there a process of conversion from looking at the world from an Objectivist perspective to looking at the world from an Open Source perspective?
JW: No, not for me personally. I'm still very much an objectivist to the core. I think that a lot of the tension people imagine really comes from their not having a deep understanding of some of these ideas. I think I do a better job — than a lot of people who self-identify as Objectivists — of not pushing my point of view on other people. And I find ways to collaborate with people, even if we don't agree on everything. And I think that's a big part of what works in Open Source software. I mean, you have people using these license tools for wildly different motives, from people who do it for very ideological reasons — say left libertarian kinds of motives — to people who do it because it makes good business sense. And that's fine. We're working together on something that isn't t necessarily ideological.
RU: In July of last year, the New York Times reported a change in the anyone-can-edit policy. You said that they had gotten the news precisely upside down. Did you have a change in policy at all?
JW: Basically what they were reporting on was the introduction of a new feature called semi-protection of articles. What was ironic about their coverage was that they made it seem like — for the first time, we were locking down some articles. In fact, we've always locked down articles, and we were actually moving away from locking down articles towards only partly locking them down. So it was a subtle story that involved a software change that they completely missed. Typical. I spend a lot trying to get the media to correct stories.
DIANA BROWN: Have you been sued for content by anyone who didn't like an article about them?
JW: No, we haven't. We've had a couple of little things in Germany, based on German privacy law. But even in Germany, they've never managed to sue the right people. But in terms in the U.S., so far, knock on wood; we haven't been sued at all. It's a little bit shocking to me. We try really hard to deal with customer service complaints. We don't allow libel. We're not a wide-open free speech forum that allows people to post whatever. We're happy to delete rants and things like that as necessary. I think that's part of the reason why we haven't been sued. Nonetheless, this being the U.S., it's a little bit shocking we haven't been sued. It's the national sport — suing people.
RU: Do you have any other plans to expand Wikipedia from what it is now? For instance, Google has plans to conquer the world. Do you have projects that are pushing out beyond Wikipedia?
JW: Well, I am also the chair of Wikia, which is another organization. It's my other company. And at Wikia, we are pushing forward in lots of different ways simultaneously. We're pouring a lot of investment into improving the wiki software so that more people can edit. We've now got some 2500 Wiki communities. And then we just recently announced our new search engine project. That's what I'm spending most of my personal time and what I'm really most excited about. We're basically trying to apply the Open Source and transparent ideals of Wikipedia to a search project. We've got lots of developers. We're going to have a search engine where we publish all the algorithms and make everything completely open and transparent and also completely controlled by the community. It's a big idea — a fun idea. I'm not sure if we're actually going to figure out how to do it but at least it's going to be fun to try.
RU: I think you'll do it. It's interesting that I mentioned Google in the last question. Now we can predict Google will be dead in five years.
JW: In five years! [Laughs]
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