Compassionate, open and friendly, Jimmy Wales is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had the privilege of speaking with. His persona is the antithesis of the intense, high-powered personalities generally associated with the leadership in internet technologies. This really isn’t too surprising considering that Wales doesn’t view himself a technology innovator at all. Instead, he values cooperation and promotes self-regulating social systems to actualize his radical idea of gathering all the world’s knowledge onto a free online encyclopedia: “Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” What’s interesting is that the corollary of enacting this vision was unanticipated: longstanding social science presumptions about human behavior like “people are fundamentally selfish and do things that only benefit themselves” have been demonstrated to be blatantly false. In just eight short years, what has emerged is a global phenomenon, the eighth most accessed website in the world, and a cyberspace socially innovative marvel – Wikipedia.
Open access to knowledge is an evolutionary concept since historically information was often (and in many instances still is today) controlled within hierarchical institutions and societies. Even Wikipedia’s internal regulation has become somewhat of an egalitarian model. Wales refers to the people who make entries and contribute to the pool of information as “doing good.” Each contributor agrees to abide by a fundamental set of core values: stay neutral, maintain balance between freedom and order, uphold civil and individual rights, and don’t hurt other people. Once entries have been made, anyone who accesses the website may copy, modify, redistribute, and redistribute modified versions, commercially or noncommercially.
Overseeing the operations of a freely licensed encyclopedia, written by thousands of volunteers (over 75,000) in 260 languages (and growing), has its own unique and complex set of challenges. Wales, ever the calming optimist during inevitable storms, has recently begun reviewing recommendations generated from members within the Wikipedia community regarding how best to protect the website from the increasing levels of vandalism. To address these problems, some of the more intuitive and fundamental elements related to access may need to be modified with an additional layer of review added before the information goes live.
“Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”
Even though managing information at this scale through an open access information generation system certainly involves problems, for the millions of people worldwide who use the internet regularly, Wikipedia is often their first-stop for information.
SC:Please explain, especially for nontechnically oriented people, why is it that Wikipedia is not a technological innovation?
JW: Simply because the technology that is used to create Wikipedia already existed in 1995. In order to have a wiki, we needed to have a web browser, a web server, a database, and the idea of a wiki – a website you can edit. All those things existed in 1995, but Wikipedia didn’t start until 2001, which shows that it is not a technical innovation at all.
The things that are interesting and innovative about Wikipedia are the social rules: the community involvement, collaboration and innovation.
SC: Why a free, multi-language encyclopedia? What’s behind the vision?
JW: Really, most conflict and war is the direct result of ignorance. And as for poverty, it is caused primarily by a lack of educational resources. People can find better solutions and when they have access to knowledge, they tend to make better decisions.
SC: You’ve stated before that people in third world countries use Wikipedia differently than those of us in the western, developed nations. Do you have any examples?
JW: There was a time when the health minister in South Africa was an HIV/AIDS skeptic. She was in denial about the connection between HIV and AIDS. Her recommendation addressing the infections so many people were suffering from was to simply eat beet root. That health minister did a really bad, shockingly bad job of tending to the people’s needs.
That’s a really great example why it’s important that people have ways to get really good information that is not being controlled in a top-down manner. If the only information people in South Africa had about AIDS was from their own health ministry, it would have been an even bigger disaster. As we continue to move forward with developing access to the internet and as more and more people are online, that kind of nonsense has a very hard time surviving.
There are many examples of how good quality information is something people can really use and it can change their lives in very material ways, either during a crisis situation, or in longer term situations after a crisis where trying to know more can make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.
There are many examples of how good quality information is something people can really use and it can change their lives in very material ways during a crisis situation.
SC: Like Chernobyl.
JW: Yes, like Chernobyl.
SC: With Wikipedia, it’s more than just access. The traditional top down model of information generation has also been overturned because now everyone in the world has the ability to contribute to the information pool.
JW: Social software is all about human dialogue, conversation, and at Wikipedia, it involves humans making decisions about whether or not some piece of information should be kept available to everyone else.
People become empowered through contribution. It is recognized that there is far more possibility in collaboration than just a single person’s effort in creating an encyclopedia. And even though Wikipedia is an information portal that anyone can edit, the community is mostly comprised of thoughtful editors and the standards for entries continue to be based on fundamentals like reference, good writing, neutrality, how to rewrite, and getting along in a community.
It’s all in the overall design of social software: what is built in is the opportunity for trust, spontaneous input, and real time peer review. Every edit is reviewed by hundreds of people daily. Then, every version of every article is stored so that any article can be reverted to a previous version if necessary. The open dialogue becomes a new template for who owns, who provides and who controls information. Because the information flow is open to public dialogue and debate, the ownership of history, in a certain sense, is no longer controlled by a very small group of people. That’s a pretty interesting change from the past.
SC: It’s egalitarian by virtue of the fact that it places value on individual contribution…
Because the information flow is open to public dialogue and debate, the ownership of history, in a certain sense, is no longer controlled by a very small group of people.
JW: Yes, it’s egalitarian in a certain sense, but that can also be a misconception about the Wikipedia community because, we are also very “elitist” in our own way. In other words, there are certainly some people who have no business writing in an encyclopedia because they have no idea what they are talking about, and we are very passionate about finding experts that can contribute high quality content. It’s just that it’s an open process. Sometimes Wikipedia is portrayed as anti-elitism, but what it’s really about is open verses closed.
SC: You’ve been working on a new project – the full library.
JW: Yes, it’s a for-profit company called Wikia and what we say is that we are building the rest of the library. When you go to a traditional library and you look for the encyclopedia there, you will find about thirty or so volumes on a shelf somewhere. But when you think about all the other books on the shelf of the library, the magazine racks and all the different things people can write about, or want to read about and all of the perspectives – that’s the rest of the library. For instance, we have Wikia Green where people are documenting the world, but really focusing on environmental perspectives, or even Wikia Humor. It’s actually quite funny. Wikia is very different from Wikipedia.
How has living in “The Information Age” affected your life?