Jimmy Wales Wikipedia Interview

Jimmy Wales – “People just didn’t know things back then”

Interview: Andrew Swann and Christoph Kristandl
Picture: Getty Images

The Red Bulletin met up with the brain behind Wikipedia at the Pioneers Festival 2016 in Vienna to talk about…
  • How to use Wikipedia correctly
  • The strangest Wikipedia article he’s ever read
  • What he’s most proud of
  • Why the Internet is helping to improve lives around the world 

THE RED BULLETIN: How does Wikipedia today compare to the vision you had before you started?

JIMMY WALES: In many ways, it’s very similar. We had the vision of a free encyclopaedia for everyone in his or her own language. If you look at very early screenshots of Wikipedia, they look very similar to the way it looks today. One of the reasons why Wikipedia has been successful is that it’s always been simple and easy to use. The vision was very straightforward.

How do you think people should use Wikipedia?

In general, Wikipedia is a great starting point and a place to get acquainted with a topic. It’s then up to you to go deeper and follow the references. If you’re interested in a certain topic, we give you the basics and the opportunity to learn more.

Do you think people are going deeper?

Yes, absolutely. Students, for example, are using Wikipedia a lot as a framework. But if you’re really passionate about a subject then you very quickly run through Wikipedia and then you want more.

You grew up without Wikipedia. How did you get your knowledge or prepare for a presentation at school?

I was a big fan of traditional encyclopaedias and I went to libraries like everybody else. But the other thing that most people forget is that people just didn’t know things. Today you put on the radio and hear something awful has happened in Azerbaijan. You think about that for a while and realise you don’t know where Azerbaijan is and you look it up. In the old days you might have thought, ‘Oh, I should go to library’ or you might consider getting the Atlas out of the attic, but the reality is most people didn’t.

Jimmy Wales, Craig Palmer and Ralph Simon talked about the new golden age of media at Pioneers Festival 2016 

© Pioneers Festival/YouTube

How do you like to consume your information today?  

I still really like paper books. The technology of a book – you might not see it as a technology, but it is – is great. The battery never runs out, it is very inexpensive, dropping it in water or leaving it on the bus is no big deal. But I travel a lot and for practical reasons I read many books on my phone or my Kindle. I think long form book content is still very, very important, but obviously the delivery is changing. 

What’s the strangest article you have ever read on Wikipedia?

There is one article on the English Wikipedia called “inherently funny words”. It is about words that are just funny. For a while the article was a disaster. Basically, people combined words they thought were funny, and it was on the verge of being deleted. But the contributors continued to argue avidly that this was a real concept, and now it is very well referenced. A lot of famous comedians have talked about word choice in the punch line of a joke. That was very important, there is a lot of research on it. It’s a great article now, but back then it was just a funny idea.

Jimmy Wales on Twitter

When your Uber is a pickup truck... you might be in Texas. :)

What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make in your career so far?

I always say I’m a pathological optimist, so I think everything is fine all the time. But it was probably back in the early days of the vision of a free encyclopaedia. The first incarnation of Wikipedia was in the form of a project I created called Nupedia. This didn’t work out, and it made sense to switch to the very open Wiki model. The decision wasn’t actually that difficult, but it did take a while to understand what we really needed to actually make that change happen.

Was there a moment when you had doubts that this decision was the right one?

I really had my doubts before we started the project, but thankfully it took off really quickly so I didn’t have to worry too long. Within two weeks, we’d created more articles and done more work than we’d done in nearly two years before. That was exciting to experience. Wikipedia finally gave people a platform to share their knowledge, something they had been trying to do before but to no avail. 

What would you say is the thing you’re the most proud of in 30 years as an entrepreneur?

It’s definitely the work we’re doing in the developing world at the moment. I was in the Dominican Republic recently and I visited the first lady’s project that over there. They’re building computer labs in very rough areas. We’re talking about areas where the kids have only had legal electricity in their neighbourhood for about three years. Now they’re sitting in a computer lab between tin roofs, shacks, and so on. So it’s not just my work I am proud of, it’s the whole internet community.

The kids have access to YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia. These are kids who had almost no contact to the world, no books in their school library and now they have the whole world at their fingertips. That’s huge and I think it’s very inspirational. The reach of the internet continues to grow and it’s having a major humanitarian impact on our lives. I’m just very proud to be a small part of that.

Read more

Next story