MS Podcast#146


The wikipedia guy.

(WORLD) The MediaSnackers podcast focusses on individuals, organisations or companies who are simply impressing us and which are crying out for more discussion.

Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and co-founder of Wikia, talking here about the two projects, their history plus current and future focuses.

0.00—0.24 intro
0.23—1.09 history of Wikipedia
1.10—2.02 current role (from @podcast_review)
2.03—3.50 growth from non-english language contributions
3.51—5.55 difference between Wikipedia and Wikia
5.56—6.41 focus of different platforms (Tampa Bay Homeless Resource Wiki)
6.42—7.30 how does he manage the roles
7.31—9.17 best/worst thing about having a completely user-generated site (@neil_raygun)
9.18—10.40 if knowledge is no longer power – what is?
10.41—12.12 future
12.13—12.23 thanks and outro

Sound is a bit flaky at the start but gets better as the interview goes on.

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Jimmy Wales: I’m Jimmy Wales. I’m the founder of Wikipedia and the co-founder of Wikia. And I keep myself very busy travelling around talking about the projects and working in the community.

DK: Okay, well it’s a pleasure to have you with us on MediaSnackers podcast Jimmy; really appreciate you giving up your time. So let’s jump straight into it and ask you a little bit, just a little bit about Wikipedia in terms of its history. I know it’s been going since 2001. But why did you start it essentially?

Jimmy Wales: Well, I think the main thing is, I was watching the growth of the free software movement or open source software and I realised that people could come together and collaborate on far more than just software. So that was the core idea. And then I had the idea for the encyclopaedia. And I thought, wow, having a free encyclopaedia for everyone on the planet is something that we can do. We’ve got this great global information sharing tool, so let’s do that.

DK: Brilliant. So, give us a flavour about how much of an active hand you currently do have in Wikipedia now and essentially is well, what do you do day to day?

Jimmy Wales: So, with regard to Wikipedia, I do a lot with the community. I’m travelling so I’m visiting a lot of different people in the international community; many, many different languages. Within the English Wikipedia I’m active in dispute resolution; primarily working with the arbitration committee but also thinking a lot about governance and big picture policy issues. I try not to get involved in day to day editing, simply because there’s too much of it for me to do and it’s just been a little distant from that but other than that, I’m still very, very (inaudible).

DK: Brilliant. You touched on the international scene there. I recently read that 20% of the total of Wikipedia is English language, which was a surprise to me. I would love to get your take on how or where you see the growth coming from and what you guys are doing to support and encourage this, because I know that’s a focus that you want.

Jimmy Wales: Yeah. So right now we’re seeing much faster growth in non-English languages than in English, which is natural. English has been harder to maintain a really fast pace of growth. Where we’re seeing a lot of success is in India; we have a lot of traction in a lot of the Indian languages, some articles 30,000 / 20,000. And we’re looking at Africa. There’s only a couple of languages that have a substantial community but now we have a few others that are coming up that are starting to really emerge as – still small communities but important.

Because we’re a charity and our goal is a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet, we really feel like it’s important for us to support those communities. In some languages, there are always issues about input methods and fonts and keyboards and all those kinds of things. Some of that we can help with and some where we can’t, we can just try to make sure we do as good a job as we can. And then finally, we’re getting very interested in the mobile space simply because we know that in a lot of the developing world the first time when people are visiting the internet is going to be through a mobile device. So that’s really important to us.

DK: Brilliant. So give us an idea then of the difference between Wikipedia and Wikia.

Jimmy Wales: So, Wikipedia is the encyclopaedia and Wikia we say we’re building the rest of the library on the reference shelf basically. So we have now about 30,000 active Wiki communities and they range all over the map, all kinds of things. So people are doing things like humour sites; they’re doing things like Lostpedia which is all about the TV show Lost or WoWWiki which is about World of Warcraft, the video game. Those are huge sites. We have the other newer things that are interesting. Things like the Recipes Wiki, it’s all about people sharing recipes and being able to work in a community to discuss and formulate new recipes.

And what’s interesting about that site is that it really is about a new demographic. The kinds of people who have traditionally been active in Wikipedia and Wikia have been more, you know the tag, geek, early adopter crowd. But we’ve spent a lot of effort at Wikia making the software easier to use so we’re starting to see much broader participation from people who have knowledge to share but they’re not necessarily all that into figuring out Wiki Syntax which is a bit complex.

DK: So in terms of just for any listeners here, would it be fair to say that Wikia is more creative focused and Wikipedia is more knowledge and fact focused?
Jimmy Wales: Yes and no. A lot of the sites at Wikia are creative but a lot of them are also very knowledge and fact focused. I mean one of the ones that I’ve personally been working on is, it’s called the Tampa Bay Homeless Resource; it’s And this is basically, I met some people from the Tampa Bay area where I live and they said we want to do something because we’re having trouble managing all the knowledge around, the resources available to homeless people. And I knew that we had, in San Francisco a successful Homeless Wiki.

And so we copied the model of what they were doing in San Francisco and we started putting up. And that’s all very fact-based but it’s much more practical and how-to. It’s like, here’s this agency, here are their hours, here’s what services they provide. And we’re inviting those agencies to come in and embellish their profiles and things like that. So it’s all about knowledge sharing there and it’s not about a general interest encyclopaedia but it’s about a very specific topic. So it varies and of course some of them are purely creative. Uncyclopedia is a humour site and everything is completely originally written and it’s basically a parody of Wikipedia and it’s hilarious.

DK: That’s a great example right there. And tell us how you juggle those two companies in a sense. Because I know one is a charity, Wikipedia. And one is a for profit, Wikia. So how do you manage that because is there a conflict of interest or not?

Jimmy Wales: What we do is the two organisations are completely separate. We have completely different management. The only thing they really share is me as a board member. And then for me, I don’t have much difficulty with it because they’re very different projects. At Wikia, we really specifically shy away from doing anything about a general interest encyclopaedia. That’s just not who we are and what we do. So it works out pretty well.

DK: Okay. Well, going back to Wikipedia for a second, if I may. What’s the best and worst thing about having a completely user-generated site?

Jimmy Wales: I think the best thing is probably the neutrality. And we’ve worked really hard and really kept that as a core principle, the idea that an encyclopaedia should be neutral. And one way to ensure neutrality is to have broad participation; to have an open and transparent system so that if somebody sees something that’s biased, they can challenge it, they can get involved. That actually works reasonably well. And I think that we can look at Wikipedia and be proud that hey, this is basically the basic facts that everyone can agree on.

I guess the worst thing is we do have troublemakers and I think the human element sometimes shines through in a way that we wish that it wouldn’t. And what I mean by that is, you can come to a page where people are in the middle of a quarrel and it’s a bit of a mess at the moment. But that’s kind of part of what people know about Wikipedia. I always say at least at Wikipedia we will normally warn you; we’ll say the neutrality of this page has been disputed. And I always joke that I wish the New York Times would tell us that sometimes because they tend to – even if they know a story is somewhat controversial, within the news run they run it with a very authoritative voice. I think it’s kind of nice to say, hey you know what, knowledge is messy and we’re having little trouble here but we’re going to tell you what we do know and we’re also going to tell you that maybe we don’t all agree about it but here’s what’s going on and let’s get started trying to figure it out better.

DK: Nice way of going forward that line yes. See if New York Times picks up that little gauntlet. So if knowledge is power then, which is what essentially you focus on Wikipedia – I know that’s your core kind of value right there is to present knowledge to everybody in the world. If knowledge is acquired by everybody or available to everybody, then it’s no longer powerful then what is, in a sense?

Jimmy Wales: Well, I think knowledge is powerful not only in the relative sense or the competitive sense in which if I have knowledge and you don’t, I have some kind of advantage over you. It’s also just powerful in and of itself. If I know something, I can improve my life; I can make a better decision. And that doesn’t take away from what anyone else is doing. And so it’s not a zero sum game. The more that we all have valid knowledge, the more that we understand the world in calm and reflective and thoughtful way, we can be better voters; we can be better critics instead of just sort of angry, protest about things we barely understand. We can actually offer constructive suggestions and I think it can help us in so many ways to make life better here on earth. The more that people know, well the better off we all are or at least I hope so.

DK: Totally. Well, we’ll wrap up this interview with a future question, I always do this. You’ve done a lot with Wikipedia; it’s come on leaps and bounds. What more is there to do with Wikipedia and Wikia as well?

Jimmy Wales: Well I think – so I’ll answer with Wikipedia first. We have a big usability initiative. We want to make Wikipedia easier to edit. We do know that we are very, very strong in certain tech geek kind of topics and we’re not as strong in the topics that are going to be more popular with a different demographic. And so we feel like making the editing process easier will increase participation from people who have knowledge, who aren’t currently sharing it; that’s really important. Also at Wikipedia we’re very focused on the developing world and so for that, when I think about Wikipedia ten years from now, you realise the percentage of Wikipedia that’s in English today is 20%, well it’s going to be down to 10% or 5%. I mean we really live on a planet that isn’t all English speakers so I think English will continue to be the largest language for quite some time.

And then at Wikia, we’re really focused on expanding the demographics, getting more,
different kinds of people involved. And we’re really interested in seeing people innovate on the platform. In other words, we’re not focused on building an encyclopaedia, we’re focused on the Wiki aspect of things and how do we integrate the platform to allow more people to use it more easily because they’re going to use it in ways that we never expected, and I think that’s really cool. So, a lot of exciting stuff going on.

DK: Wicked. Well thank you for giving up your time to speak to MediaSnackers Jimmy. We really appreciate it.

Jimmy Wales: All right, fabulous. Thank you.

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