Viewed by more than 500m people a month, Wikipedia has revolutionised the way we find information. We talk to its founder, Jimmy Wales, about egos, advertising and snoopers.
It’s ironic that when we’re looking for a biography of Jimmy Wales, creator of the world’s biggest online encyclopedia, our first instinct is to type his name into Wikipedia.
His page tells us that, as a child, he was a “keen reader with an acute intellectual curiosity”; that he studied finance to PhD level, but dropped out before writing his doctoral dissertation; and that a job speculating on interest-rate and foreign-currency fluctuations provided him with the capital to start his own online ventures. Eventually, this led to his most famous business, Wikipedia, in 2001.
The articles on Wikipedia – and there are 22m of them in 285 languages – aren’t always accurate or reliable. This is, afterall, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". But, viewed by more than 500m people a month, it has become the go-to website for anybody wanting to find out about anything.
The site is written by millions of unpaid contributors adding their gems of knowledge, and an army of around 85,000 regular editors improving and disproving entries – the majority of whom, says Wales, are geeky, educated males in their mid-twenties. Wikipedia is a not-for-profit organisation that relies on donations for funding (it drummed up $46m this year), and has always resisted the commercial call. And that’s not about to change: “Wikipedia has a very special culture: it’s where people come to learn and share”, says Wales.“Advertising on the site would completely change people’s perceptions of what it’s all about.”
That doesn’t mean that Wales is opposed to making money. Three years after setting up Wikipedia, he launched Wikia, a network of collaboratively published video game, entertainment and lifestyle content. Wales describes it as “the universe of entertainment fandom – for the fans, by the fans”. And this time round, there’s advertising plastered on the site. Although Wales won’t comment on turnover figures, this is no sideline hobby: piggy-backing on the reputation of Wikipedia, Wikia now draws more than 75m visitors a months and is the fastest growing entertainment site in the US.
Wales comes from a family of entrepreneurs: his father ran a grocery store; his mother and grandmother operated a small private school; and his uncle had a music store and a computer shop. “In our family, it was ‘normal’ to do your own thing”, he says. One of his first businesses was an online food-ordering service in downtown Chicago. It was a flop.
“Restaurant owners hadn’t heard of the internet. They looked at me like I was from Mars when I tried to explain the business model!” The experience taught Wales an important lesson: “Don’t be afraid to try and fail. You shouldn’t tie your ego to one business.”
Having married Kate Garvey (Tony Blair's former diary secretary and now a director at Freud communications) last year, Wales now spends his time between Britain and the States. He applauds the entrepreneurial spirit on this side of the pond but worries that the government is stifling the start-up culture, the most pressing example being the proposed “snooper's charter”. This will give the police and security services sweeping powers to monitor internet and phone use in Britain. “It would place an impossible burden on start-ups,” says Wales. “If it passes, it will be hard to recommend that any web start-ups stay in the UK. Given that respected technologists say that the whole plan is technologically incompetent nonsense, is it worth killing the start-up culture of the UK for it?”
Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and was the headline speaker at Accelerate 2013, held in Liverpool on 27 June.
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