Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia, the world's largest free online encyclopedia. In its development, Wales created a community of volunteers who have published over 800,000 articles.
I spoke with Wales in St. Petersburg, Florida.
What was the origin of Wikipedia?
About two years before I founded Wikipedia I had founded another project called Nupedia. It was based upon the same concept as Wikipedia, which was that it was a freely licensed encyclopedia that was written by volunteers.
Unfortunately, we didn't use the wiki software and it was a very top down model, which ultimately wasn't very successful. It was difficult to manage and when all was said and done, it wasn't very much fun for the volunteers. We found the Wiki editing software and began using that, which turned out to be quite a success.
Where did you first learn about the wiki software?
An employee of mine showed me a wiki he was working on. He mentioned that he knew we were having problems getting people involved in Nupedia and that it was a lot of trouble and a lot work for people. He suggested we give the wiki approach to open collaboration a try.
As wikis expand to more and more usages, where do you see the key limitations?
There are a few things that are going on within the wiki world. One of those is that people are really looking at making wiki editing easier. Part of the design philosophy of wikis is that the editing should be easier. This is in comparison to an HTML page. It isn't as easy as it should be, which is why we are starting to see services such as Wikiwig from SocialText. I also see people trying to expand into structured data and possibly into applications, rather than simple preformed text.
With its increasing ease of use, do you see wikis expanding their consumer appeal?
The mass market is clearly interested, as you can see from the large number of wikis that are popping up on a daily basis. Large consumer sites such as Wikipedia, Wikicities and others can definitely do a better job with the user experience.
With each new approach to consumer content, how does a company leverage this technology into a sustainable business model?
There are several companies within the space and basically there are two distinct models. One is the corporate enterprise wikis like SocialText and JotSpot. They are providing the software, consulting and support to corporations. There are then the consumer approaches, along the lines of Wikipedia and Wikicities. Wikipedia is funded by donations and Wikicities is supported by advertising.
You have a core group of submitters for Wikipedia, what will it take to grow this group?
That is an unknown at this point. For Wikipedia it is really important that we bring in all kinds of smart people, not just smart people that know how to edit wikis. It is important for improving our listings within areas such as fine arts, sciences, etc. I think that is one of the main ways to grow this group. There is a concern that if editing the site is made easier, whether it will bring unqualified people to the site. Personally, that is not a concern of mine.
Wikipedia is very well known for its involved core members, who refresh a page within minutes if it has been vandalized. What did you build into the site and the culture to attract this type of community?
Mostly it is the social structure and community that is available on the site. People are trusted, and can get involved. It is a pretty geeky hobby to write an encyclopedia for fun. I like to think that means that we are a pretty smart goup of people.
With Nupedia, we had gathered a large group of talented individuals who were simply frustrated by the software. When we started the Wiki, we were starting off with a large number of people, which was a tremendous advantage.
The adoption of the wiki software allowed you to scale your efforts.
It really unleashed the power of our volunteers.
The foundation serves as a legal vehicle for owning the Web sites and all the associated servers. The focus of the foundation is to offer freely available educational and research resources. There is a significant overlap in the different communities as well as quite a bit of cross-linking, which helps to promote the different site.
Craigslist has also integrated links back to Wikipedia throughout its site.
Absolutely, I know Craig and have talked to him a number of times. In this case they were excited about what we offered and put up those links on their own. We get a lot of support from people who simply like the idea of Wikipedia. People are on board with the world needing a free encyclopedia and have done a phenomenal job in supporting it.
Is quality an issue on Wikipedia?
There is a constant ongoing discussion within the Wikipedia community looking at every aspect of the content to try and figure out where we can do a better job. We are always exploring issues around quality control. This includes making all the content better and more applicable to our audience. We are currently looking at adding the ability to flag certain articles as being "good enough" in some sense. This could mean that the content is good enough to go to print or whatever we decide.
How do you focus on the underlying drivers of the site?
Our goal is to create a high-quality encyclopedia, and the way we do this is with a crazy, wide-open wiki. When we make decisions within the core community, it is on that basis. The key question we ask ourselves when we are looking at making any changes is to determine whether it helps the encyclopedia or not.
Yet because it is much more dynamic than other print encyclopedias, it must be more accurate in some areas.
That is absolutely true. There are quite a few good examples of that. There is a small scandal going on in Germany. One of the questions on the German version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire was wrong. The show had referenced an answer on the German version of Brittanica, which was wrong. It was wrong on Wikipedia as well, but we were able to update it immediately.
How is the site managed? Who makes decisions about new features and capabilities?
The site is managed on a day-to-day basis by our volunteers. Almost all changes flow from the volunteers.
What is the most interesting article that you have seen on the site?
Everybody loves the Heavy Metal umlaut article. It covers the history of how heavy metal bands use umlauts in their names, sometimes quite incorrectly and inappropriately. It is really fantastic article. My guess is that it started out pretty much as a joke, but turned out to be a really good article.
Which type of articles receive the most traffic?
Current events articles receive quite a bit of traffic. They tend to spike with the overall news cycle. So if there is something big going on in the general media, it tends to spike on our site as well. The perennial top areas are those relating to adult matters.
Did the overall interest in current events lead you to launch Wikinews?
Seeing that high level of interest was the main thing that inspired us start Wikinews. Having seen the great job that Wikipedia does with current news events, we felt that should be expanded into its own area.
Is that how you have decided to launch Wikiquotes, Wikibooks and others?
They are all a bit different. Wikiquotes was launched because we noticed that people were putting too many quotes into our articles. It made a lot of sense to separate them out into their separate sites. Typically, it has been social pressure within the community that lead us to launch a new area.
Are you rewarded financially for your efforts?
I am simply a volunteer like everyone else on the site.
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