The Online Library of Alexandria

Interview with Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the ever-growing online encyclopedia Wikipedia

Open Content -- the effort of the Online Community to produce freely available editorial essays, articles, and other forms of writings -- has become a major success in the realm of Open Source. Pioneer is the Web based encyclopedia Wikipedia which is supposed reach another milestone of 300.000 articles soon. The open content forerunner is giving commercial encyclopedias like Britannica or Encarta a hard time, since they are loosing customers quickly now.

Wikipedia is based on the open editing database Wiki and available in many different languages, including a German version with more than 90.000 articles. The undertaking was started by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001. Stefan Krempl talked to "Jimbo" who is also running the search engine Bomis about the "victory of the free" and about open content and its discontents, too.

The English version of Wikipedia is bigger than the Brockhaus already. Is it also better in providing solid, factual, and useful information?
Jimmy Wales: In many ways yes we are already better, and in the remaining areas where we are behind, we are closing fast. Brockhaus contains 260,000 entries (according to Wikipedia!) whereas the German version of Wikipedia contains 91,000 but is growing at a pace of over 400 per day. Thus it is safe to say that by the end of 2005, the German wikipedia will easily surpass the Brockhaus in size. Of course, measuring things by size alone is not so helpful. To judge quality, the reader should compare some sample articles. To judge timeliness, well, for timeliness there is no competition, because Wikipedia articles are update in real time.
Who needs an encyclopedia in the age of Google and Bomis?
Jimmy Wales:: Increasingly, when people look something up in Google, they find Wikipedia (smiles). But, the real answer is that Wikipedia provides a means for instant realtime peer review, unlike individual web pages which may be biased, unfactual, etc. Everything in Wikipedia is reviewed by hundreds of people who have the ability to correct errors, remove bias, etc.
How many monthly visitors does the English Wikipedia have and which articles are most looked up in general?
Jimmy Wales:: The English Wikipedia has around 6 million visits per month, according to our webalizer statistics. I don't know how accurate those are. In May, the most popular article was "Nick Berg". In April, the most popular article was "Jew". Generally, hot current events are very popular. But there are also some perennial favorites like "World War II", "Mathematics", and of course "Sexual Intercourse".
Who are the 25000+ volunteers who write the entries for Wikipedia? Do you have any ideas about their motives? Is voluntarism still a big factor in the net community or maybe even growing?
Jimmy Wales:: I think most of the volunteers do so because, first and foremost, it's a fun hobby. People speak of themselves as "Wikiholics" and talk about how they really ought to get outside more often (smiles). But there's also the big picture, the grand vision, the sense that we are doing something _important_. We aren't just playing around on a website, we're creating something that's new in the world, that surpasses all prior encyclopedia efforts. Wikipedia will be remembered 2000 years from now as the Library of Alexandria of our time.
How big might be the number of so-called "Wikipediholics"?
Jimmy Wales:: If we define a Wikipediholic as someone who makes more than 100 edits in a month (because we have statistics on that number), there were 1200-1400 of those in recent months.
What was your main idea when you started Wikipedia in 2001 together with Larry?
Jimmy Wales:: The wiki concept was unknown at the time when I hired Larry to organize Nupedia, an earlier attempt. My primary vision at that time was to create a freely licensed encyclopedia, the greatest encyclopedia ever produced. That overarching vision has never wavered, although I have had to vary my methods over time.
Why did the first run -- Nupedia -- fail?
Jimmy Wales:: It was a relatively top-down, closed, and academic project. The barriers to volunteers were too high. It was daunting to get involved. Wikipedia is exactly the opposite of course, insanely easy!
Looking back, are you satisfied with the growing up of your child and what are your milestones for the future?
Jimmy Wales:: Yes! Who could not be satisfied. I am stunned by what has happened, and I am stunned by the incredible goodwill and talent of the volunteers.
What's the real benefit of an encyclopedia based on open content compared to a closed editing process?
Jimmy Wales:: The immediate benefit is realtime updating. But the more important benefit is neutrality. Far too many traditional encyclopedia articles make a half attempt at unbiasedness but end up reflecting the narrow point of view of the author and a small number of reviewers and editors. At wikipedia, texts which survive must survive the scrutiny of hundreds.
How open is the editing process at Wikipedia, actually? Who finally decides what gets published and what are the normal publishing routines? Which contents apart from open spam get censored and why?
Jimmy Wales:: The editing process is so open that most people refuse to believe it when they first hear it. Anyone can go to just about any article on the website and click on 'edit this page' and make a change right now, without logging in or anything. The change is reflected in the text immediately. After that, the change shows up on the Recent Changes page, and is reviewed by anyone who happens to be watching (normally, lots and lots of people are watching). Also, people can log in to add articles to their personal "Watch List", which provides an additional avenue for quality control.
J.J. King argues in his article about Openness And Its Discontents that in any 'open' movement there are bodies of 'soft control' emerging who might be stricter and more opaq than regular decision-making bodies. Is this a concern for Wikipedia, too?
Jimmy Wales:: I don't know if I agree with that or not. Of course within Wikipedia there are bodies of 'soft control'. But everything we do is open, public, and extremely noisy (smiles). We talk about everything internally, and we constantly focus our attention on making sure that we are fair and transparent.
What is your personal job at Wikipedia and the Foundation?
Jimmy Wales:: I am the President of the Foundation, and in that capacity I mostly talk to reporters (like you) and work on the business end of things -- for example we are working on setting up a German Verein and a similar French organization. Within the community, I act as final arbiter of disputes and as "constitutional monarch" within our internal decision making process. What that mostly means is that I encourage people to find ways to do things that make all sides happy.
Are you working on other projects in this field?
Jimmy Wales:: I am working most notably on a project to apply all that I have learned in the Wikipedia community to the building and maintenance of a search engine. See Wikia, although this project is in the very early stages of software development, and isn't really ready for publicity (smiles).
Could you please give some hints how Wikia works? Can you compare it to the effort underway at Nutch?
Jimmy Wales:: It is not similar to Nutch at all, really. The idea is to have a system where people can actually edit the search results, after a wiki fashion, and also to control the travels of a spider. The goal is not similar to Nutch, which is more about crawling the entire web. I guess the best way to explain it is to compare Google to dmoz. Wikia will be more like dmoz, except open and transparent and based on wiki ideas rather than a closed club.
Who pays the bills for server costs and takes care of other development and maintance costs?
Jimmy Wales:: We are a nonprofit organization that relies on donations. Development and server maintenance is all done by volunteers. I pay for bandwidth costs. I try to personally cover as many expenses as I can, so that donor money is applied as directly as possible to absolutely essential expenses (additional server capacity).
Wikipedia articles are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Can you please shortly explain what that means for the creators and did you also consider a Creative Commons License (CC)?
Jimmy Wales:: At the time we started, I was unaware of the Creative Commons license. I am not sure, but I think we may have been in existence already before the appropriate CC license was written. For those who are not familiar with free licensing, the essential points are these: anyone can take our content, modify it if they like, and redistribute it, free of charge or for a price. The only restriction is that they must release their own modifications under the same license. This licensing is crucial to the success of the project -- our volunteers would not be content to donate their time and energy to a proprietary product.
Do you see Wikipedia as a success model for other areas of open content and for internet collaboration in general?
Jimmy Wales:: Yes, absolutely. I think it is an astounding thing, and that it is going to really increase dramatically in the next few years. I think we are going to see a fundamental shift in thinking as publishers realize that proprietary content models are nonfunctional in the web environment. Compare the traffic for Britannica and Wikipedia. According to Alexa, in the last week, Wikipedia has reached 6.5 times the number of users as Britannica, our closest rival. They have been struggling for years to succeed on the Internet, but have not yet realized the source of their trouble -- a licensing model that is unsuited to the new era. (Stefan Krempl)