BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Jimmy Wales, what is Wikipedia?
JIMMY WALES, WIKIPEDIA FOUNDER: Wikipedia is a freely licensed encyclopedia written by thousands of volunteers on the Internet in over a hundred languages and it‘s one of the fastest growing Web sites.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea?
WALES: I had the idea basically from watching the growth of the free software movement. So all of the software that really runs the Internet, Linux, Apache, the Web serving software, it‘s all written by volunteers collaboratively working together using free licenses. And it‘s really good quality stuff.
And I realized in watching that that the principle of collaboration on the Internet, which stead (ph) of the software could be expanded to other types of area.
LAMB: What does Wikipedia stand for?
WALES: So the word you mean?
WALES: Yes. So wiki or wikiwiki is a Hawaiian word meaning quick. So the idea, though, of Wiki software is it‘s a Web site anyone can edit. It‘s really easy to get involved in the editing. And that technology has actually been around since 1995. I didn‘t invent the idea of a Wiki I just invented a use for it. So Wikipedia, so wiki encyclopedia.
LAMB: When did Wikipedia start?
WALES: It started in January of 2001.
WALES: On the Internet. So at the time I was living in California. We started in English and then within a couple months we had French, and German, and Japanese. And since then we just keep adding languages so there are – now there are 62 languages that have at least a thousand articles. So we‘re starting to grow in a lot of fairly small languages, which is really interesting to see.
LAMB: How does – well, let‘s just take our own network here, C-SPAN, how does C-SPAN get its – make its way into your Wikipedia?
WALES: Well, so, of course, C-SPAN has more than one article about it. The – anyone who sees or, you know, if someone mentions C-SPAN and realizes well there should be an article then they‘ll just a couple bracket around it in the text that they are writing. If the article doesn‘t already exist then it shows up as a red link so people will know oh, there‘s no article yet. And they click there and they can just start writing.
And then as people are writing the article and saving it every change goes to the recent changes page so that the community can monitor what‘s going on.
One of the big misconceptions about Wikipedia, people imagine that it‘s something like one million people each adding one sentence each and somehow miraculously it becomes something useful. But in fact what actually makes it work is the community. There‘s a really strong community of people behind the site and they are in constant communication by email and IRC chat rooms and things like this. And so they are monitoring every change that goes to the site – there are people who are looking at it and vetting it and trying to see if it‘s good or not.
LAMB: As I was doing – well, using Wikipedia to do the research for this interview I kept thinking when will Google or Yahoo! put Jimmy Wales out of business. And then I – as I read further, you‘re in business with them in some way.
WALES: Yes, in some way. I think we have – we‘re a non-profit organization that I founded. And we‘ve gotten support from Yahoo! already and Google is very interested in supporting us. We‘re just still talking to them about what to do.
And Yahoo! has donated some servers. And I think what‘s interesting about that is that if you – you know, it‘s almost a joke but it‘s completely true. If you think about well why – why do Yahoo! and Google want to do this and well, their business model depends on the Internet not sucking and we hope the Internet not suck. So it‘s that the Wikipedia for a lot of people hearkens back to what we all thought the Internet was for in the first place which is, you know, when most people first started the Internet they thought oh, this is fantastic, people can communicate from all over the world and build knowledge and share information.
And then we went through the whole dot-com boom and bust and the Internet seemed to be about pop-up ads, and SPAM, and porn and selling dog food over the Internet. And now Wikipedia kind of hearkens back to the original vision of the Internet.
And so it‘s important for the whole business of the entire Internet that there be quality resources that people can turn to and want to turn to. So that‘s – it‘s important to these companies to support us.
LAMB: I think other than the fact that you pop up all the time in Google when I look for things, the first time I really wanted to know more about it exactly was when I saw some article that Alexa at that moment rated you as the 57th busiest Web site in the world.
LAMB: Do you happen to know – I tried to find it yesterday and you can‘t get into Alexa to do this.
LAMB: At least – you have to pay for it I guess now?
WALES: Oh, no, I think it‘s still …
LAMB: Is it still available?
WALES: … last I checked I think we‘re around 40th now.
LAMB: 40th in the world ..
WALES: Yes, in the world.
LAMB: … the busiest …
WALES: Yes, according to Alexa.
LAMB: … 40th busiest Web site.
WALES: Yes, which puts us – if you look at the numbers for reach, meaning the number of unique visitors that we see in a – in a day, you know, if you compare us to the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, we‘re larger than all of those, but even more than that we‘re larger than all of those combined. So that‘s the number of people we‘re reaching globally every day. It‘s substantial.
LAMB: How many people work for Wikipedia?
WALES: One. Its not me.
LAMB: Who is that?
WALES: Our lead software developer who coordinates the releases of the software. The software is mostly written by volunteers but the lead software developer he‘s our CTO and he organizes the people who manage the servers.
LAMB: Where‘s he live?
WALES: Los Angeles.
LAMB: Where are the servers and how many are there now?
WALES: Right now there are around 90 servers. The bulk of them are in Florida at a big co-location facility there. We‘ve got around 20 in Amsterdam and six in Paris. And coming on line very soon are – there‘s 20 some servers in South Korea that were provided by Yahoo! And then there‘s 20 more on order so I think within the next few months we‘ll be at 150 servers. And they are really overloaded at the moment so it‘s really a challenge growing the technical infrastructure. But we‘ve got a lot of good people working on it.
LAMB: How old are you?
WALES: I‘m 39. I think that‘s right.
LAMB: How can you afford to do this non-profit at this stage in your life?
WALES: Well, I made enough money – I used to be a futures and options trader and I‘m not a wealthy person but I‘m a person who lives within my means. So I have enough money to live and I can‘t think of anything cooler to be doing so this is what I do.
We get – you know, to run the Web site, obviously, to buy all the servers and pay for the bills and things like that we get donations from the general public. We‘re – in the U.S. we‘re a 501c3 non-profit so people can deduct it on their taxes. And then in Europe we have a German chapter and a French chapter and they are going through the process of becoming tax exempt there as well because we get a lot of donations from Europe and Japan and all over the world.
So, so far we‘ve had very good success raising money. The fundraisers that we‘ve had we‘ve end up going over what we ask for. So we just finished a fundraiser where our base goal was 200,000 and I think we raised around 240.
So the outpouring from the general public has been quite good. And it doesn‘t …
LAMB: You‘re …
WALES: … it doesn‘t cost very much.
LAMB: You‘re saying $240,000 a year?
WALES: No, that $240,000 is basically we‘re – our budget for the next few months. So …
LAMB: What‘s it cost you a year do you think now?
WALES: I think the total budget for the coming year will be about a million dollars, that‘s my estimate. The budget for the past year was a lot less but we were a lot smaller. You know as it keeps growing there is more costs. You know to double in size from four servers to eight isn‘t as expensive as doubling from 80 to 160. So those costs – but the reason the costs go up is because the audience goes up and so it‘s also a larger base of people who are touched by our work and think it‘s important.
LAMB: Again, good – well, a couple of things, how many unique viewers a day right now?
WALES: I‘m not actually sure about that because since we don‘t have any advertising on the site we don‘t have any immediate need to know that number. So I actually sent (Brian) our – the one employee, I send him an email last night saying, "I really need this number. Everybody keeps asking me." So he‘s supposed to get me that number soon.
LAMB: Just give me a ballpark. Do you have any idea at all?
WALES: It‘s in the millions, yes.
LAMB: A day?
WALES: Yes. But, yes. And the number I do know is that we‘re doing about – at this point we‘re doing about two billion page views per month. So two billion pages served every month. So that‘s a lot of encyclopedia articles being delivered.
LAMB: Were your parents home schoolers or your mother?
WALES: No, actually.
LAMB: Somebody wrote that somewhere.
WALES: Yes, yes, yes, no, that was in Time Magazine. That was a misunderstanding. But the story is actually interesting and so it was unfortunate they got it a little bit wrong. But my mother and my grandmother had a small private school. And it was actually more in the tradition of the one-room schoolhouse or Abe Lincoln type of thing.
WALES: So not home schooling but – this was in Alabama, in Huntsville, Alabama. So not home schooling but, yes, in a sense similar, so very unique educational upbringing so. In the school we had – there were four children in my grade most of the time and we grouped together first through fourth grade and fifth through eighth grade.
And what was nice about it and I think the tie-in to my current work is we had a fair amount of freedom to study whatever we liked. It was Montessori influenced philosophy of education. And so I spent many, many hours just pouring over the World Book Encyclopedia.
And I called my mom recently and I said, "Do you have my old World Books?" And she said, "Oh, son, I think we got rid of those years ago." And I said, "Oh, I could have sold those on eBay (INAUDIBLE)." I‘d like to have those as a – as a memento now.
But, yes, I spent lots of hours pouring over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias.
LAMB: How many years were you schooled – did your mother actually teach you?
WALES: Yes, yes, some significant portion of those years. There were also other teachers and whenever there was another teach available they tried to have me under the other teacher because it‘s, you know, having your mom as your mom and your teach is a little difficult sometimes.
But the – it was – it was an interesting balance I think between the – you know, with home schooling you do get that – the personal attention of a parent which is really wonderful but you also have all these questions about social interactions and so forth. So this for me was a very nice balance, you know. You‘ve got a very attentive environment but you also have other kids there and other teachers.
LAMB: How many years were you in that school?
WALES: Up through the eighth grade and after that I went to really a more traditional college prep high school. It was quite a sacrifice for my parents to pay for me to go there because the, you know, the one-room schoolhouse business doesn‘t pay very well.
And so but they felt that education was important, it was always a passion in my – in my household was the, you know, the very traditional approach to knowledge and learning and establishing that as a base for a good life.
LAMB: Another thing I read about you is that you are a follower or have been at some point a follower of Ayn Rand?
WALES: That‘s right, yes.
LAMB: Who was she and do you still follow her and what is it about it that you like?
WALES: Yes. So Ayn Rand is the – she wrote "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," as is viewed by many as, you know, something of the founder of the libertarian strain of thought in the U.S. She would have rejected quite rightly, I think, the libertarian label.
But I think for me one of the core things that is very applicable to my life today is the virtue of independence – is the vision, you know, if you know the idea of Howard Roark who is the architect in "The Fountainhead" who has a vision for what he wants to accomplish and, you know, there‘s some time in the book when he is frustrated in his career because people don‘t want to build the type of buildings he wants to build. And he‘s given a choice, a difficult choice, to compromise his integrity or to essentially go out of business. And he has to go and take a job working in a quarry.
And for me that model has a lot of – a lot of resonance for me. You know when I think about what I‘m doing – what I‘m doing and the way I‘m doing it is more important to me than any amount of money or anything like that because it‘s my artistic work.
LAMB: What year did you read "Atlas Shrugged" or "Fountainhead?"
WALES: I guess I was around 20 when I – when I read "The Fountainhead."
LAMB: Where were you?
WALES: I was at Auburn University at the time, in Alabama.
LAMB: Auburn‘s in your past and Indiana University is in your past.
LAMB: Are there others?
WALES: University of Alabama.
LAMB: And what did you do at all three of those places?
WALES: So at Auburn University I was an undergraduate in finance and then at the University of Alabama I was in the Ph.D. program in finance that I left there with a Master‘s Degree in finance. And I went to Indiana and I was also in the Ph.D. program there.
So I did two different Ph.D. programs in finance, all the course work. But then I never finished the Ph.D. I left and I went to Chicago to be a futures and options trader. So I have a published academic paper on option pricing theory that I – if I go back and look at it now I realize I used to be pretty smart. But it‘s very intensely mathematical stuff.
LAMB: Where did you – what years did you make your money that allowed you to be able to leave this free?
WALES: You know it‘s – I‘d say I get ‘94 to 2000 I‘d say when I was doing trading.
LAMB: So you were literally in your late 20s-early 30s?
WALES: Yes, yes.
LAMB: You did tell us what your mom did and your grandmother did. What about your father?
WALES: Yes, so my father he is – well, when I was growing up, the whole time I was growing up he was a grocery store manager. And he‘s retired now. And the thing about my father is he‘s a great – he wrote to me and he – after we were grown he had never completed college and so he went back to school and finished his degree or, you know, got a college degree and went back into the work force for a little while but now he‘s retired. But that, you know, that spirit of lifelong learning is something I really admire.
LAMB: When did you notice after starting Wikipedia in what, 2001, when did you notice – when did people start paying attention to you in the general press and …
WALES: Right. Yes, it‘s interesting that, you know, now when we start a new project – we just started a project called Wikinews and it‘s very – it‘s young and experimental and we had a lot of attention already because Wikipedia is famous. So everybody is already noticing Wikinews.
And I always joke about this that with Wikipedia we had the luxury for the first couple of years that nobody cared what we were doing so we could make mistakes and kind of experiment with the model.
I‘d say the first – I‘d say the first real notice we started to get was pretty early on. I remember on September 11th – we started in January and September 11th the New York Times called me, which seemed very strange to me – but it was – it was unrelated to September 11th and I said, "Why are you calling me today?" And he said, "Well, we still have to put out the paper." So, you know, it was the technology editor. And they said, "Well, there‘s nothing – we just have to put out the paper." So that was the first major news article.
But even then it was sort of trickling for a while. But now it‘s become really – you know, we get a lot of attention everywhere.
LAMB: You mentioned the Time Magazine article that got it wrong on your home schooling but they also got it wrong on your – during the Kerry-Bush campaign …
LAMB: … of the – of your computer‘s – or your software freezing. Explain that. Did …
WALES: Right. Yes, so one of the interesting things about Wikipedia is that people assume – you naturally assume that – particularly on controversial topics that the big debates within the Wikipedia community would be somehow roughly the party of the left versus the party of the right.
It turns out on those types of topics it‘s actually the party of the thoughtful and reasonable people and the party of the jerks. And those aren‘t left or right, they can come from all sides you‘ve got jerks.
So within the community there‘s never really been any real controversy about say the George Bush article. Of course the article is edited a lot and there are a lot of editorial disputes over exactly how to word things, but there‘s no real fundamental question there. The article should be comprehensive, factual, sourced. It shouldn‘t be a one-sided political rant on either side. It should discuss criticisms of the President and it should discuss support of the President.
And so the article has always been, you know, fine within the community. But there are some times vandals, some people come in and they just think it‘s funny to post a disgusting picture or something, you know, replace Bush‘s picture with a picture of Hitler. Well we revert that within a minute …
LAMB: Who is we?
WALES: … because there‘s – the community. So there‘s …
LAMB: I mean you don‘t even know who does that?
WALES: Well, I mean, I can – I can look it up. I mean you can on the site – part of the reason the site works is it‘s – you can be anonymous but the people in the community have a consistent identity and so there‘s accountability. So people gain reputations within the community for doing good work, so you can look at the history of the article and see who is fixing the vandalism and things like that.
And even, you know, ordinary, reasonable people who intensely dislike the president will agree that an encyclopedia article shouldn‘t replace his picture with Hitler, I mean it‘s ridiculous.
So we had to – we always have to lock articles from time to time when they are under a particular attack but the …
LAMB: Who does that?
WALES: The administrators, the people – the community. So within the community people can be elected as administrators and can lock articles and block IP numbers. So if somebody is causing trouble they can be blocked from editing temporarily.
And when we had to lock the article for less than two percent of the time – the Bush and Kerry articles were locked for less than two percent of the time during 1990 – during 2004, I‘m sorry.
And so what Time had reported is that, you know, Wales had to lock the article for most of 2004 and that was mistaken on two fronts. One it should have said we did not lock the article for most of 2004, but also that the article sort of gave the impression that I personally had something to do with it and that‘s really not accurate, it‘s the community that cares for it.
LAMB: Why did you make this non-profit and not for-profit?
WALES: Well, I‘m – from very early on when we started it, it was – I conceived of it as, you know, 2001 it was still kind of the tail end of the dot-com era and I wanted to try something and I thought at the time that it could be for profit.
But once we started building the community and I started giving it more thought it really made more sense – it‘s, you know, neutral, educational, it‘s a volunteer effort, people have among the motivations – and this is what really drives me is the idea of there‘s huge problems in the world of ignorance and ignorance causes war, terrorism, poverty. And so this charitable mission of saying lets give a freely licensed encyclopedia to everybody on the planet really captivates people. And that really makes more sense to do in a non-profit framework that the volunteers really wanted it that way. And so we just – I just said well, let‘s do that.
LAMB: But you now have other Wikis that are for profit?
WALES: That‘s right, yes.
LAMB: Explain how you did that and what kind of Wikis are you putting together.
WALES: Right. So one of the most important famous Wikipedians is Angela and she‘s on the board of the foundation elected by the community. And she and I founded a company, Wikicities which we‘re using the same technology but it‘s not about the technology really it‘s about the social structure and the social model of bringing people together and how to – how to build a community of thoughtful people who can do something good.
You know there‘s lots of communities on the Internet that are not healthy, they‘re sort of argumentative, difficult environments. But we try – we try to build a healthy, friendly environment and say, well, let‘s all work together to do something useful.
And but the idea is there‘s lots of types of things people want to do that are perfectly valid that don‘t fit under the rubric of the non-profit educational mission. So, for example, we have – some of the early successful sites would be the, you know, we have a Star Wars site where people are documenting the entire history of the series and doing community pages to discuss, you know, the philosophy or the theories of what‘s going on in Star Wars.
LAMB: How do you make money then?
WALES: That has advertising on it, so that‘s advertising supported.
LAMB: And how big of an operation do you have off on the side like all these for-profit companies you put together?
WALES: We that‘s – it‘s still very small so we‘re finishing around raising, you know, some investment money to buy more servers. And in a for-profit context – so this is the other reason that being in a non-profit made sense, in the non-profit right now at Wikipedia literally right now the servers are running and I‘m not watching them and Brian is probably not watching them. But there are, you know, a couple dozen system administrators who voluntarily – you know, they have root access to log in and they monitor the site and if a server goes down they reboot it and they‘re monitoring …
LAMB: And they don‘t work for you?
WALES: Right. And they – but they do that in the non-profit. They‘re not – and that‘s one of the reason it was so important for Wikipedia to be a non-profit. We couldn‘t afford a staff to manage a server farm of 150 without having advertising on the site. And so being in the non-profit enabled us to do that because people are willing to contribute to their time to a non-profit. They‘re not willing to, you know, volunteer to the, you know, to the Make Jimbo Rich Fund.
LAMB: And that‘s what people call you, Jimbo?
WALES: Yes, yes, that‘s my online nickname. Usually it doesn‘t end up in print but sometimes it does.
LAMB: Don‘t they also call you god king?
WALES: Not really. No, that‘s another …
LAMB: Where does that come from? I saw that in another place.
WALES: Yes, it‘s a – it‘s a mistake that gets repeated a lot it‘s such a cute phrase. The – in the Wiki subculture that predates Wikipedia the idea of these Web sites anybody can edit so it‘s very open ended. If there‘s an administrator who uses their position as owner of the server to be kind of a tyrant and impose their views on everybody and ban people arbitrarily that‘s called a god king. It‘s a very negative connotation.
And so people don‘t really call me god king within the community. But it gets – maybe they‘re starting to now because it keeps getting repeated in the press so often.
LAMB: What – how often are you criticized for setting up a non-profit and then have this huge following and then you – literally people can find their way to your for-profits through the non-profit?
WALES: I‘ve never had any criticisms of that. One of the things that we do is we really have a very – a very firm wall. So, for example, the non-profit there are no special links to the for-profit side, there‘s no – and we wouldn‘t do that. I mean it‘s from an ethical and legal point of view it‘s very important to have that wall.
It wouldn‘t be appropriate for the non-profit to be somehow benefiting the for-profit unduly. So, you know, in my role as the head of the foundation it‘s important that whatever relationships we have are at arm‘s length. So that‘s something I take very seriously because the integrity of Wikipedia and the neutrality is so important.
LAMB: How many – I want to go back to how this all works and I found our own references on there. And I must say I found everything to be accurate. But I wonder what happens when either we decide that we want add a lot more information to that or even people want to add stuff that‘s not accurate, how long does it sit there not accurate?
WALES: Right. Well, in most cases the – you know, for certain types of vandalism there have been academic studies showing that it‘s repaired within a median time of under five minutes. That‘s for fairly obvious vandalism. More subtle problems, of course, are going to take longer for people to debate and edit and figure out.
If you wanted to add more information about C-SPAN that would be fine but you would be expected to adhere to our same neutrality principles. So if – I mean you can imagine there must be lots of neutral information that wouldn‘t be controversial that you could add more about the history and things like that. But I‘m – you know, if there are criticisms of C-SPAN and you went into the article and just deleted them that would be very obvious because we have a – it‘s really easy for people to compare an old version to a new version.
So even somebody who is not familiar could look and say, "Gee, the whole section of criticism just vanished. We‘re going to put that back in there."
On the other hand, it can be perfectly legitimate if there is, you know – the example I always give and it is actually a fictitious example so I don‘t want to imply anything but a company like Nike, for example, who has been criticized for their labor practices but they also have, you know, on their Web site they have a full defense of their labor practices. And if they look at the article on Wikipedia and they said, "Well, this is really a one-sided thing, it doesn‘t show our point of view," it would be perfectly appropriate for them to come into the article and say, you know, Nike has responded to this point by saying so and so. That would be fine.
What wouldn‘t be fine is if they came in and said well, we‘re going to delete the criticism. They wouldn‘t be able to do that because the community would react quite actively against that. So, you know, participation by people writing about themselves in some way is inherently problematic. I mean I encourage people who have biographies of themselves to really try not to edit those biographies, you know, leave a comment on the talk page or something like that because …
LAMB: Do you find people doing that kind of thing?
WALES: Yes, on occasion. But I mean most people who do just – you know, say a famous author may show up and say well, there‘s information that‘s not here that should be here and they add it in that‘s no problem.
LAMB: Well, no, what I was really get at is if somebody‘s watching us right now and says I want to be on Wikipedia but I‘m not, can they start?
WALES: They could start but we have – there is a whole community process for the deletion of articles. So we have several rules that constrain the scope of the encyclopedia.
LAMB: What are those rules?
WALES: Well, one rule, for example, is verifiability. So if you want to write about, you know – most people, you know, you say well I want to write about the street where I live. Well, there‘s really no information that other Wikipedians can verify about the street. And so we would have no way of know if you were hoaxing us or something so those articles can‘t stay.
That‘s one way, you know, if most viewers say, oh, well, I want an article about myself. Well, if you‘re notable in some way and there‘s press coverage of you and things that people can verify that will be fine. Probably preferable that you don‘t write it yourself, there‘s something a little tacky to me about writing an article about yourself for Wikipedia.
But for most people who would think that, you know, our answer would say will that‘s fine, I‘m sure you‘re a wonderful person but we can‘t find any information about you so there‘s no way we can confirm you‘re not just making things up. So that would be deleted. So that‘s one.
No original research is another rule.
LAMB: Explain that.
WALES: Well, most of these rules have really a dual purpose to have the purpose the epistemological or intellectual purpose of saying this is what an encyclopedia should be like. There‘s also a social purpose which is somehow this rule helps us to get our work done collaboratively.
No original research, the original formulation of this came about when we realized that we were getting contributions from physics crackpots, of whom there are a great many on the Internet. So people have their own personal theory of magnetism that they made up and they want to write about it in Wikipedia. Well, this is obviously inappropriate because we‘re – as an encyclopedia we‘re not peer review to academic journal. We‘re not qualified to assess new research.
And that started in physics and it‘s kind of obvious there but it‘s also true in history. Somebody has a new theory of history they need to run it by academics. They need to get it published in a real place. We‘re not qualified to evaluate that. We are qualified to look at the sources and say well, yes, this was published in the journal of history, we can talk about it. But new research can‘t be done.
So from the point of view it‘s the right thing for an encyclopedia to do. But then also socially it‘s much easier to tell someone, you know, instead of saying you‘re a lunatic and your theory of magnetism is nonsense, that‘s hard for people to hear and then they just mad and cause trouble. But if you can say, you know, thank you for your wonderful submission; unfortunately we can‘t do original research, please go get it published somewhere, then you can treat people with respect even if you think they‘re a little dodgy.
LAMB: So somebody in the community, who you probably don‘t know, will tell that person we‘re not ready for you, you‘re out?
WALES: Yes, yes.
LAMB: But what if the person wants to appeal that?
WALES: Well, there are within the community there are various social processes so we have – you know, for the deletion there‘s a page – it used to be called votes for deletion but we just changed the name of it the other day and that‘s sort of in flux. They‘re changing the process.
But there‘s the deletion process. And then if it goes beyond that then there‘s an arbitration committee, partly elected, partly appointed by me – within the community which basically tries mostly to deal with behavioral issues. To say, you know, it‘s – you can‘t continue repeatedly doing the same thing over and over, that‘s annoying the community because eventually you just – you have to stop we have work to do.
So and then ultimately beyond that they could appeal to me. But that‘s very rare, it hasn‘t happened in …
LAMB: So you‘re the ultimate authority?
WALES: Yes, yes.
LAMB: In the end you can change things if you want?
WALES: Yes, yes. And that‘s an – that‘s an interesting role because the way I – the way I like to explain it is within the free software world where a group of volunteers is collaboratively writing software there is a long tradition in that world of having a benevolent dictator.
And so – and this isn‘t because programmers love tyranny or anything like this. It‘s just because when you‘ve got a small group of volunteers trying to get work done you don‘t really want to get into a whole system of voting on every change that goes into the program and things like that. So it just makes sense. It seems to be a viable model to have a trusted person who listens. You have to have the right personality that will listen to the different sides about what should be in the program and then make a decision and everybody can say well, OK, you know – in the Linux Kernel it‘s Linus Torvalds and he decides ultimately. The community of programmers around him makes all the tough decisions but if there‘s a real conflict he decides. But …
LAMB: Does the – how many members of the community do you actually know personally?
WALES: Several hundred. I travel the world.
LAMB: And where did you meet them?
WALES: Yes. Europe mostly, I go – I‘m in Europe about half the time and travel all over the U.S. and …
LAMB: Are there people in Europe, English speaking, who are involved in defining things that are American?
WALES: I‘m sorry?
LAMB: Well, take it back to C-SPAN. Are there people that would live in say, Germany, that would add information about the background on our network?
WALES: Oh, yes, yes, conceivably, yes. That‘s, you know, that‘s very common. People can write in whatever language they know and whatever information they know. So there‘s no national component to it.
LAMB: What year did you give up options trading?
WALES: I guess 2000-ish I guess was the last …
LAMB: And you were living where then?
LAMB: Where in Florida?
WALES: In St. Petersburg.
LAMB: You married sometime along this way?
LAMB: What year did you get married in? Who‘d you marry?
WALES: My wife is Christine (ph). Now see you‘ll going to get me in trouble on national television because I have such a bad memory. We‘ve been married for seven years so we can do the math and subtract that.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
WALES: In Chicago. So she‘s half Japanese and was working for a Japanese steel company selling steel and we met through a friend.
LAMB: Does she – does she get into the computer stuff with you?
WALES: Not so much, not so much. She‘s – we have a daughter who is four-and-a-half and so she stays home and cares for Kiera (ph). And Kiera‘s (ph) really, really, really smart so it‘s a very full time job.
LAMB: Is Kiera (ph) into this already?
WALES: Yes, she thinks it‘s – she thinks it‘s fun. She doesn‘t write or, you know, anything with Wikimedia but she‘s too young for that. But she likes to talk about Wiki-a-pedia (ph).
LAMB: So what do you want to happen with all of this?
WALES: I want to – actually, I want to go back to one thing that we were …
WALES: … we were talking about this – I was talking about the benevolent dictator model and I don‘t want to leave the impression that that‘s our model because what I was going to say is I don‘t feel it‘s appropriate for any one person to be the dictator of all human knowledge.
And so we‘re moving from that model which was necessary when we had a small group of people to a model – I make the comparison of the British monarchy. That my power should decrease over time and become more symbolic. And it‘s more my job is to defend the community not rule over the community.
And so that‘s just – that was one thing I wanted to throw in.
LAMB: Well, and I also shouldn‘t jump ahead too far because you had other rules that we didn‘t go over.
WALES: Yes, there‘s a lot of rules. No personal attacks is one of the rules in Wikipedia that‘s served us very, very well. A lot of Internet communities are quite hostile and rough. I think almost everybody has had the experience of signing up for a mailing list that sounded interesting and realizing after a little while that it is dominated by people who like to scream at each other.
And we try to make Wikipedia a safe space for the broad middle of reasonable, thoughtful people. And that‘s one of the reasons we‘re successful on controversial topics is we really discourage people from, you know, competitive, argumentative behaviors. And we try to say really we should be cooperating, we should be trying to find common ground.
And that‘s – it‘s very successful. And I don‘t mean to paint it as a utopia. Obviously it‘s a human project with lots of internal squabbling and so forth. But on average I think we have a really – we‘ve achieved something in the community in terms of getting together thoughtful people from a broad spectrum of political and religious and different ideological backgrounds but are which still willing to give some space for other people.
LAMB: Who sets the rules?
WALES: Some of the core rules were – have been set by me from the very beginning: neutrality policy that Wikipedia shouldn‘t take a stand on controversial issues but just report on them, that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia as opposed to a joke book or a compendium of random facts and things like that.
But the day-to-day rules within the community are set by the community through a process that no one really understands, it‘s quite complicated. It‘s a process of discussion, debate, consensus, some voting, some aristocracy, you know, people who are well respected in the community can make decisions and they‘ll be respected. It‘s quite a – it‘s quite a confusing mix.
LAMB: Again go back, let‘s say the C-SPAN stuff again, let‘s say there‘s a personal attack in there and that there‘s new information, new research which violates your rules and nobody see it. Does it just sit there?
WALES: Yes, it could – it would just sit there until somebody sees it.
LAMB: Could – now let‘s say somebody at our network saw this personal attack, can they be a part of taking it out?
WALES: Oh, yes, sure. And the other thing people can do is raise attention. You just go to the – every article has an associated discussion page and so you can go to the talk page and post a notice there.
And then one of the important things about the way the software works is that all changes go to the recent change page but also people have their personal watch list. So if somebody edits the C-SPAN article they can add it to their personal watch list. And most of the active editors do this by default. Every time they touch a page it gets added to their personal watch list.
So what happens is whoever wrote the article originally typically would be notified when a change happens so then they can come back in. So if somebody comes in and puts something in an article, typically there will be lots of people notified who come and look at it.
Something could slip through the crack, I mean sometimes things do. And then, you know, I‘m always very interested in studying how it happens. If I look in an article and I see – usually it‘s something very minor like "Hi, Mom," you know, somebody writes "Hi, Mom" at the end of an article. And then I go in and I see, gee, this "Hi, Mom" has been here for seven days and nobody noticed it. That‘s really like what happened there. How come – why is this article not on somebody‘s watch list or like, you know?
So we‘re always looking for ways to make sure that the monitoring is always improved.
LAMB: Statistic, I found January 2005 13,000 editors edit five edits on average a month.
LAMB: And then there are 3,000 editors – 3,000 people in your community have a hundred edits a month.
LAMB: So is that – is it – does it – if you boil it down even farther are there …
WALES: Yes, I actually have been – I‘ve been hoping to get the people who compile the statistics to get me the next narrower group because it‘s really interesting. There are – I did some research myself into who is editing Wikipedia because there is this – there are two models that people think about how Wikipedia works. There‘s the, you know, thousands of people each doing a little bit of work and then there‘s the core community view that says the works being done by the core community.
Well the statistics, when you look at it, show the core community is doing by far the vast majority of the work. So with …
LAMB: For free.
WALES: For free, yes.
LAMB: Can you – before you …
WALES: There are people who make thousands of edits per month …
LAMB: I wanted to …
WALES: … and they‘re the real …
LAMB: I want to stop you there …
LAMB: … and ask you about those people, you know them, why do they do it? Give us a profile of somebody you know and how much they‘re involved in all of this.
WALES: Well, I think there‘s – there are many different types of people and so it‘s hard to boil it down to any one. But a typical type of person is really smart, really friendly – because if you‘re not friendly you have a hard time in Wikipedia because it‘s a social process. So having social skills is really important.
And then I think the people really enjoy the process of engaging with other smart people and a dialog that‘s productive and building something. And so you may have an interest in some area – lots of people report this, now I‘m interested in birds so I wrote this little article. And then they came back three days later and it just got huge and big and interesting and all these other people – there‘s a whole group of people who write articles about trains, the history of trains in unbelievable detail that for me I know nothing about trains and I was shocked to find. But there‘s a little subculture of people who are really hobbyists and very interested in trains. So that‘s the type of people.
And they – there‘s – so there‘s the immediate fun of the process but then there‘s the bigger picture thing. The people feel it‘s freely licensed meaning anyone can copy, redistribute, modify commercially, non-commercially, you can do anything you like with our work. And people really feel that this is something that‘s very important. That this idea of an information commons in an era when most of the – say the copyright debate is about kids stealing music, right, that‘s the way it‘s usually framed.
But for us the whole – the whole concept of free culture and sharing on the Internet, it‘s not a – it‘s not a concept of consumers trying to get something for free. In our case it‘s a concept of producers, people who are actually creating something trying to use – to share it. And so that big-picture vision really motivates people through the boring bits.
LAMB: Could I take a lot of material on one subject off Wikipedia and publish it in a book and not pay any copyright?
WALES: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Is anybody doing anything like that?
WALES: Yes, there have been a few small projects. I think, you know, the one thing is the – our name is a trademark and so you have to be careful about you can‘t just use our logo and pass off your work as ours. So the proper credit – you have to follow the rules of the license which are pretty easy.
But, yes, people are perfectly able to do that. And then something that we really encourage and we really actually are very eager to see that sort of thing happening with educational materials in the developing world. So the idea that some entrepreneurial publisher in India will realize they can publish a full encyclopedia for a fraction of the cost of Britannica and have the market for it of people who they can‘t afford Britannica or traditional resource but they can afford the price of printing. That‘s something I would be very excited to see.
LAMB: I know you are going to know this name because he‘s outspoken against what you‘re doing, Robert McHenry, former editor and chief, Encyclopedia Britannica. I‘ve got an article from Tech Central Station, copyright 2005, and actually this was – actually this was written November 15th, 2004.
LAMB: Last sentence, I mean last paragraph: "The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject to confirm some matter of fact is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom." – I know you‘ve seen that …
LAMB: … many times …
LAMB: "It may be obviously dirty so that he knows to exercise great care or it may seem fairly clean so that he may be lulled into a sense of – a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."
Mr. McHenry‘s not very happy with you.
WALES: Well, I had dinner with Bob after he wrote this article. And he‘s a really very thoughtful, nice guy. So I don‘t actually know if he regrets this inflammatory rhetoric because now he‘s sort of gotten famous as the public toilet guy.
So – but the ultimate point there is an interesting point but one that I feel is invalidated by the fact that there is a community. And I suppose if you want to call it a public restroom you can but it‘s a public restroom that‘s kept immaculately clean for the most part. And most people are more than happy to go into, you know, the Four Seasons hotel and use the public restroom because it‘s cared for by people.
So the analogy is cute but it‘s strained I think. His substantive criticisms are things that, yes, I mean one of the interesting things about Wikipedia is that although the average quality of the articles is very, very high the people who use Wikipedia say, you know, you can – you can say, this is actually – it‘s a miracle that it works at all. But the fact that it‘s pretty darn good is really interesting.
But it is true, any article that you go to may have been edited just five minutes ago and destroyed. And so that‘s something that we‘re constantly studying within the community is how do we – particularly when we think about going into CD ROM or print, which is really necessary for our goals with respect to digital divide and developing countries, how do we identify particular versions of articles that we can say well, this is the one – this is the clean one and this is – this we don‘t know about.
So that‘s an ongoing discussion in the community is how do we get from our always in progress, always edited site to a 1.0 stable version that we can say well this is – these are articles that have been vetted by the community and that we feel are good enough in some sense. And that‘s our goal.
Our goal has always been Britannica or better quality. We don‘t always achieve that.
LAMB: Would you put them out of business?
WALES: You know, I don‘t know. I used to think so but I just was in Germany where Wikipedia is really big in Germany, the readership is about 50 percent higher per capita in German speaking countries than English speaking countries. And Brockhaus is the – is the publisher of the Britannica style traditional encyclopedia. And their sales are up 30 percent in the last year even though Wikipedia is going through the roof.
And I think there‘s a certain maybe there ends up being some complementarity to it that people – there was sort of a period of time when people said well, who needs an encyclopedia anymore, you can just look in Google. And when you look in Google well, the information hasn‘t been vetted and it‘s just some random person‘s Web page. How do you trust it?
So Wikipedia helps people to remember that hey, there is actually something to having a group of people edit, monitor, and put a level of trust to information. And so that makes Brockhaus more appealing, makes Wikipedia more appealing. So it‘s hard to say.
LAMB: You‘re going to recognize this also. "I stopped participating in Wikipedia when funding for my position ran out. That does not mean that I am merely mercenary. I might have continued to participate were it not for a certain poisonous social or political atmosphere in the project." Larry Sanger. Who is he?
WALES: So Larry was an employee of mine who was editor and chief of a prior project, Nupedia, and was the first editor and chief at Wikipedia. And he was never comfortable with the very open social model. He tends to come from a more of a Britannica school of thought of vetted experts reviewing content.
And that‘s essentially a philosophical difference between he and I about that sort of thing.
LAMB: He calls it anti-elitists.
WALES: Yes, and I actually feel that‘s wrong. I think that I‘m – in my own way I‘m much more elitist then Larry even. And – but it‘s the difference between – it‘s perhaps anti-credentialist. To me the key thing is getting it right. And if a person‘s really smart and they‘re doing fantastic work I don‘t care if they‘re a high school kid or a Harvard professor, it‘s the work that matters. And you can‘t coast on your credentials on Wikipedia. You have to – you have to enter the marketplace of ideas and engage with people.
I feel his view on the social environment are a bit out dated. He hasn‘t been in the project for quite some time and so …
LAMB: How long was he there?
WALES: I think he was there for the first year-ish, something like that.
LAMB: Nupedia was what?
WALES: Nupedia, I had the vision for a free encyclopedia and in 1999 I founded and funded Nupedia. And what we didn‘t understand at that time is how to build a community and how to empower a community to do good work. So we had a lot of people really interested in the project because the vision of a free encyclopedia in every language was quite appealing to lots of really smart people.
But our software it was a very traditionally designed review process. There were seven stages and you had to submit your article and then it was reviewed by professors. And it was really not much fun.
I knew it wasn‘t going to work when I personally sat down to write an article about Robert Merton, who was – won a Nobel Prize for option pricing theory. So I said, oh well, I have a published paper in the area, I know something about this, and I sat down to write the article and I felt like I was back in graduate school because they were going to give my paper to professors to review and I was going to get comments and, you know, I might get a C grade or a B grade or something.
It was a very different feel from Wikipedia where you just plunge in and, you know, if it isn‘t that great that‘s fine, somebody else will pick it up and take it on. And you know it doesn‘t have to be a full complete article. You can just write one paragraph and you start off by saying it is. And in French Wikipedia they came up with a fantastic phrase, they call it the piranha effect which is you start with a little tiny article and it‘s not quite good enough so people are picking at it and sort of a feeding frenzy and articles grow.
So Nupedia, ultimately, you know, we worked very hard and had a lot of good people working and we got very, very little done. And so we started looking around and found the Wiki software and we said well, let‘s put it up on the Web and invite the Nupedia volunteers. In fact, the reason it‘s named Wikipedia is actually that we were afraid the Nupedia volunteers were going to hate it and so we didn‘t want to put it up on the Nupedia Web site and upset people. So we said let‘s put it somewhere else, we‘ll put it – Wikipedia is a good name.
LAMB: So as you said, Wiki is – wikiwiki is a Hawaiian …
WALES: Hawaiian word, yes.
LAMB: … for quick …
LAMB: … or speedy.
WALES: That‘s right.
LAMB: What was – what‘s the story – is it – I‘m probably not pronouncing it right, is it Bomis?
Bomis.com was that it?
WALES: Right, yes.
LAMB: Dirty pictures?
WALES: That‘s a much exaggerated story. So, yes, Bomis is a search engine and …
LAMB: It‘s Bomis …
WALES: … Web directory, yes.
LAMB: … and you started it?
WALES: Yes, years ago and I‘m not involved in the company anymore at all.
LAMB: Well, what‘s the dirty picture thing?
WALES: Well, Bomis is – it‘s a search engine so there‘s all kinds of content on there. And Bomis always had a market similar to say Maxim magazine. So it‘s kind of a guy-oriented search engine. But, yes, no. The story is much exaggerated by – through history so.
LAMB: So …
WALES: Something I struggle with constantly by the …
LAMB: At some point somebody said you drove a Hyundai but then there was a parenthesis around it, no, he actually has a Ferrari.
WALES: Well, I do actually have a Ferrari. It doesn‘t work at the moment and my Ferrari cost less than most people‘s SUVs.
LAMB: So what are you going to do with all this? I mean where – what‘s your real goal on this? You want to change the world?
WALES: Yes, yes. I think there‘s a few things that are really important to me. One of the most important is that people need to have access to fundamental neutral information to empower them to make better decisions politically, in their own personal lives; and the world is – you know, the amount of unreason in the world is staggering. And to me one of the areas that I‘m very, very interested in is getting information out in developing countries, growing those language Wikipedias which are now quite small.
So a big focus for me moving forward, you know, English, and German, and Japanese, and French, these languages are doing fine. What I‘m interested in is Hindi, Bengali, Arabic. These are the Wikipedia editions which exist but they are quite small and they need promotion and they need growth. And we‘re really looking at how can we help and push those things.
LAMB: Do you have to buy – your foundation have to buy the servers in order to make that work?
WALES: Yes, but it‘s not really a server issue. I mean the servers – the Internet is global so people can access it from everywhere. It‘s really a matter of finding more good people to be involved, getting people excited about it.
You know as I look into it some of the problems are problems that are beyond the scope of our work. So, you know, if people don‘t have access to the Internet they can‘t work on Wikipedia and that‘s not something I can solve.
LAMB: Do we trace then the Ayn Rand connection at age 20 to today having a political philosophy that you can label?
WALES: Yes, yes. I mean but it‘s important to keep separate – and I‘m very meticulous about this – keeping separate my personal political views separate from the project. The project is politically neutral. And one of the reasons I almost never edit Wikipedia at all, even going back to the very beginning – and I think in the very beginning it was even more important that I not edit because I didn‘t want to give the idea that this encyclopedia is supposed to reflect my view of the world. So I don‘t get involved in editing and I don‘t get involved in content disputes other than just at a very minimal level.
LAMB: So what‘s your politics?
WALES: Some – I think people would – the category people would fit me in that‘s most accessible would be libertarian by I don‘t – I don‘t like that term but …
LAMB: So you don‘t belong to the Libertarian Party?
WALES: No, no, no. Yes, I think they‘re lunatics. So the …
LAMB: You belong to the Republican or Democratic party?
WALES: No, no. They‘re not lunatics but I can‘t support many of their policies so.
LAMB: And so of all the things you feel the strongest about what is it in politics?
WALES: Freedom, liberty, basically individual rights, that idea of dealing with other people in a matter that is not initiating force against them is critical to me. So …
LAMB: And so if you had …
WALES: … dealing with people with reason rather than force is core.
LAMB: And at what point in your life, if you could put a pin on the map, did it all start, that kind of thinking and why?
WALES: Oh, I have no idea. Well, I think maybe even as a child we – my mother and grandmother had this small private school and one of the most difficult things for them was dealing with the government who, you know, it was demonstrable that the kids at the school were often two grades ahead of the public schools. And we get kids who are failing in the public schools, they were a year behind and they would come for a couple of years and they would leave two years ahead. And even so there was constant interference and bureaucracy and very sort of snobby inspectors from the state who came out and didn‘t care for this, that and the other, and our books weren‘t new enough and things like this. And so that from a very early age I thought, you know, it‘s no simple answer to say the government is going to take care of something.
LAMB: What‘s your mom‘s name by the way?
LAMB: What‘s your grandmother‘s name?
LAMB: Is she alive?
WALES: No, she passed away some years ago.
LAMB: Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia we‘re out of time on that.
LAMB: Thank you very much.
WALES: Thank you.