Having first tried out the free online-enyclopedia concept with the ultimately unsuccessful Nupedia, Jimmy Wales started Wikipedia in 2001. This serious and essential Web resource is now public-funded and not-for-profit (Jimmy doesn't take a salary from it).
Although, interestingly, its set-up was originally partly funded from the profits of another previous site of Jimmy's, called Bomis. This was, a “male-oriented Web portal featuring entertainment and adult content” (facts courtesy of Wikipedia). Hey, why not?
We spoke to Jimmy about the secrets of Wiki's success, the chances of it being edited by artificial intelligence, and whether or not a cow is inherently funny (sadly, peer-reviewed research has officially decided that it's not).
T3: OK, obvious question first: what are your favourite Wikipedia pages?
Jimmy Wales: I wouldn't say I have a favourite page, because you tend to read them once and move on, but I'm drawn to certain sections. I used to read quite a bit about the House of Lords when I first moved to the UK; I was interested in that. Lately, I've been concentrating a lot on female scientists, mainly because it's an area we need to improve on at Wikipedia.
T3: Anything lighter?
JW: One of my favourite entries is called “Inherently funny words”. It's about the concept in humour that certain jokes or punchlines are better with certain types of words rather than others. It started, and then it got kind of out of control, as people would just come by and put in ANY word they thought sounded funny.
So the page was nominated for deletion, but someone said, “No, this is a legitimate subject. Famous humourists have written about this concept, so there's a lot of valid material we can point to.” They basically removed anything that was silly, and kept in only validated things.
The only thing I regret about making the page more serious is that it used to have a picture of a cow, with, like, fake horns tied on its head – just a silly-looking picture. And the caption just said, “According to some, cow is an inherently funny word.” But it's gone now because there was no source for that.
T3: Wikipedia is all edited by public volunteers. Do you think they could ever be replaced by AI?
JW: We already have assistance from 'bots with simple things like spell-checking – although even that requires human oversight, because they make a lot of mistakes. We also have 'bots to create very simple pages based on statistics, but that's not really AI.
Writing an encyclopedia page is actually quite a high-level task. You need to understand things like context, and you need to be able to write well…
I feel like if we get to a point where AI can do that, we'll be living in a completely different world – one where we're debating, “Do robots have human rights?” I think we're a long way from that.
T3: There are certain pages that are edited endlessly because they're so contentious. Ever want to turn them off?
JW: A classic example of that would be people like George W Bush or Barack Obama. Their pages are always being updated anyway, of course, but then people have strong views about how information on people like that should be interpreted.
We have a much harder time, funnily enough, with more obscure pages, because not enough people care enough to follow them, but then you have a few people with very strong views. About ten years ago, I stumbled onto a debate about a particular breed of dog, and a massive row had broken out about whether it was a breed of dog or not. It was a new breed that hadn't been recognised by the powers that be, blah blah blah, but it was this VICIOUS debate.
T3: What were your ambitions for Wikipedia when you started it? Did you always think it would be massive?
JW: I'm what you'd call a pathological optimist, so I always thought it could be pretty big. I remember looking at the top 100 most popular websites at that time, and an encyclopedia site was at number 50. So I thought, “If we do a great job, we can make it into the top 100, or even the top 50.” Although I was optimistic, I didn't think we'd make the top five, which is where we've been for some time now.
T3: Were you very hands-on in Wikipedia's early days?
JW: Oh, yeah. I used to check every edit as it came in – although the pace picked up so quickly that, soon enough, no one person could possibly do that. But I've always been very active withinthe community, helping to set policy and stuff like that.
In the early days, we didn't have any mechanisms for making decisions about things, so I had to decide everything, but I quickly set up group systems that let the community decide. For instance, back then the only way someone could be banned was if I personally did it, so we created concepts like the arbitration committee. This meant we had the checks and balances you need to do that properly.
T3: It's still entirely funded by public donation, right?
JW: We have a few institutional investors but, yeah, the real backbone is still the people donating $100-$150. We have a high level of repeat donors. What's made fundraising more difficult is, likea lot of sites, much more of our traffic is on mobile. People are much more willing to pull out a credit card when they're sat at their desktop. We see that impact.
T3: What about biometric payments made on mobiles?
JW: Yeah, absolutely. I think there will be a lot more impulse purchases of everything from supporting Wikipedia to buying a magazine, because it'll become a lot easier. The problem right now is that they're expensive. You might get money… but you have to pay for it.
T3: Do you ever check your own Wikipedia page?
JW: Rarely. Only if someone says there's an issue with it… But it's pretty stable.
T3: Do you enjoy being the public face of Wikipedia?
JW: Yeah, I do. OK, sometimes it can get a bit tedious being asked for the 10,000th time what my favourite Wikipedia page is – no offence! But I like to talk to people about our mission, and I'm very proud of what we're working on and trying to accomplish. I love it.