Jimmy Wales, the web's most interesting entrepreneur, is going after Google
The wisdom of one
Jimmy Wales... one of the most influential players in the new information economy.
By Nick Miller/www.theage.com.au
JIMMY Wales, the cofounder of the phenomenally successful online encyclopedia Wikipedia, has found himself the Dr Frankenstein to his own internet monster.
Wales, 40, is one of the most fascinating characters of the modern internet.
He's smart, philosophical, often deliberately contrary, with a penchant for red silk Mao jackets, and a colourful past.
Last year Wales tried to rewrite that past. His contribution to the dot-com boom of the late '90s included bomis.com, a Yahoo-like search engine with a collection of adult photos called "Bomis Babes". A Wikipedia entry described it as "soft-core pornography", which Wales later edited to read "adult content".
As Mr Wikipedia, you'd have thought this would be only fair.
Droit de seigneur, and all that. But Wikipedia doesn't work this way.
The site is the first encyclopedia written by its readers, constantly edited and re-edited, as debates rage and history unfolds. This democracy of information doesn't take a dictatorial edict lightly.
And anyway, the original writers of the entry had a point. As The New Yorker magazine wrote, "Adult content (is) perhaps not the most precise way to describe lesbian strip-poker threesomes."
Argument ensued. Eventually Wales had to agree to a compromise phrase: "erotic photography".
"I still check out the entry from time to time and complain when I see something I don't like," he says, on the phone from Japan ahead of a visit to Melbourne on Friday. "(But) if you have a direct interest in an entry (and want to rewrite it), it raises a lot of difficult questions about conflict of interest, about bias. Also it's not very much fun to edit the entry about yourself - it's a little too close to home."
This story is a great example of the qualities that have made Wikipedia one of the biggest internet success stories, and set Wales on a path that now ranks him as one of the most influential players in the new information economy.
His plans now include a direct assault on that megalith of search, Google. If it sounds as if he has set his sights pretty high, it's because he always has.
Wales was born in 1966, according to his Wikipedia entry, the son of a grocery store manager in Huntsville Alabama, near NASA's Space & Rocket Centre.
"I wanted to be, maybe not an astronaut, but maybe a scientist, building rockets," he says. "It was an environment where we felt a real connection to the space program, and science, and all that excitement about going to the moon and the space shuttle."
He read voraciously and was into computers from a very young age. "I was definitely quite the geek in high school," he says. But at university he studied finance, and spent a few years as a futures and options trader in Chicago.
"I just thought it was fun, and an intellectual challenge," he says - plus it reportedly set him up for the rests of his life.
At the time the dot.com boom was on. "It really felt this was something really big coming, and I was itching to be a part of it somehow," he says. "I was quite the internet addict, I was online basically all the time. But even today I find the internet rather frustrating, when a web page won't load. I still sometimes joke that it's going to be really great once the internet doesn't suck."
When Google arrived it was a revelation. "Wow, it was like I could actually find things now," he says.
He wanted a big idea himself, one that would solve the frustrations of the online realm he loved.
Soon afterwards he had what he calls a flash of inspiration - the idea of a freely licensed, online encyclopedia, built by unpaid collaborators. "I remember being in such a hurry, because I had this feeling it was such an obvious idea, I'd better hurry up or someone else would do it first."
That first project was Nupedia.
It was written by experts, freely contributing their work and reviewing each other's entries - and it was not very successful.
"It wasn't much fun (for the contributors)," says Wales. "That big charitable goal, of a free encyclopedia for everyone on the planet, can keep you going through the dark moments but in the long run it has to be an enjoyable experience."
In 2001 Nupedia's editor, Larry Sanger, came up with the idea of Wikipedia, a side project where the Nupedia writers could kibitz, collaborate, debate and create.
This brought the fun that Nupedia lacked and soon Wikipedia dwarfed its parent. It now has 1,744,558 articles in English.
Wales could have made an absolute fortune from the idea, as it became clear it was, alongside Google, the best way of getting a useful answer out of the billion byways of the internet.
But Wales was already rich.
So he gave it away, in 2003, to the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.
He is just one of several trustees, and "chair emeritus" - though he kept his (unpaid) role as final arbiter of disputes in the encyclopedia.
"My role in the community is something like the monarch of the Commonwealth. Some technical powers exist but they shouldn't be used except as a safety valve in an extreme situation."
In a world where hot internet properties sell for billions, does he wake up in the middle of the night and bitterly regret this decision, to give away his most valuable possession?
"It was either the dumbest thing or the smartest thing I ever did," he says. "The dumbest thing for the obvious reasons, but the smartest thing because I don't think it could have had nearly as much impact as it has. One of the key things that inspired people to put a lot into it (was the charity aspect)."
Wales is full of fascinating contradictions, Alan Deutschman wrote recently in Fast Company magazine. Wales named his daughter after Ayn Rand, a "combative elitist who glorified the heroic, capitalistic individual and denigrated the envious, ignorant masses", but Wikipedia is the epitome of collectivism.
Despite his wealth he's a confessed cheapskate who lives in a modest single-story house in St Petersburg, Florida.
Philosophically, he backs away from trusting the "wisdom of the crowd", despite creating the wisest crowd on the planet.
"I always feel that a lot of the 'wisdom of crowds' rhetoric is overblown," he says. "Everything comes down to the individual mind, someone putting in some diligent effort, thinking, working, and writing something useful.
Most of the articles are written by one or two people, or small groups of people discussing something, hammering out a compromise. It isn't 10 million people adding one sentence each."
The key is that it creates a forum where the best person can contribute.
"Having all the world's information at your fingertips really does empower you," he says. "You can quickly confirm some halfforgotten fact and move on."
He tells the story of a college freshman, who went to his first class in linguistics and surprised the professor with deep, searching questions. He had learnt everything he knew through Wikipedia.
"It doesn't mean Wikipedia is a substitute for the university eduction, but it's pretty cool this knowledge was at their fingertips," Wales says.
The question is: can you trust that knowledge. The reliability of Wikipedia is, depending on your point of view, both its Achilles heel and its strength. One study in the journal Nature said its accuracy was similar to that of the Encyclopedia Britannica - at least in a particular area of science - though that study was later criticised as flawed (by Britannica).
Political and religious entries are hotly contested, and spoof entries have survived undetected for some time. Last month Wikipedia user "Essjay", who edited more than 20,000 Wikipedia articles and described himself as a tenured professor of religion at a private university, was revealed to be a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky.
Wales says the nature of Wikipedia is that it will keep getting better, in breadth, depth and reliability.
"I always invite people to pick 10 articles at random, and take a look at them two, three, five years ago," he says. "It's pretty clear the quality has improved dramatically over time.
"That hardly finishes the matter. IT and the hard sciences, some aspects of history, anything that the 'geek crowd' is into is going to be a strength. Beyond that, subtle points about intellectual thought in ancient China - it's not going to be so strong.
It follows the core interests of our contributors. As we've gotten bigger we have a more diverse set of contributors.
"The core community is passionate about quality and getting it right. If you want to read some good criticisms of Wikipedia, probably the best place to go is to the Wikipedia article called 'criticisms of Wikipedia'."
Wales is keenly aware that Wikipedia, by its very nature, is "always open to being wrong on something at any given moment in time".
His response is that Wikipedia should be better understood. "To discourage (students) from using it is unlikely, so instead we need to do some education about media competence, how to evaluate sources - that's a skill that needs to be taught more across the board, with respect to television, newspapers and magazines, helping students to critically evaluate sources of information."
Wales is now chasing profits with his new company Wikia, which wants to use Wikipedian principles to build a challenger to Google. "Wikia is building up the rest of the library. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia, and we are the rest of the library and the magazine rack," he says.
Wikia's 500,000 articles makes it bigger already than the French Wikipedia. At the end of this year the search project will be unveiled.
"This is what I'm really excited about," he says. "Good quality search, like the giant leap forward that was Google, is close to being something we can create as a commodity. If we could create a freely licensed search engine of similar quality it would change the landscape of the internet, take a lot of the power away from the search engines and put it back with the content producers, newspapers and so forth."
It's a giant-killing idea. But you wouldn't put it past Wales, whose eyes have always been fixed on the stars.