Few websites can claim to have changed the way that people find information like Wikipedia. Universally accessible and open to all who would share their knowledge, the Wikipedia contains more one and a half million articles in the English section alone and growing. It’s available in 250 languages, and holds to a strict ad populum philosophy that has made it one of the most visited sites in the world.
See something that’s incorrect or biased? Does an article need more information? Simply click “edit this page” and make your changes. Your knowledge will be added for all to reference. And the man behind this project, according to the Wikipedia itself, is Jimmy Wales: entrepreneur and staunch advocate of open reference media.
Wikipedia and other projects under the banner of Wales’s non-profit Wikimedia Foundation support the GNU Free Documentation License, originally designed for software developer Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation. Even Wales’s commercial wiki hosting venture, Wikia, requires all hosted content to be under a free content license like GNU or Creative Commons.
According to Wales, he has always had a passion for knowledge, often reading his parents’ World Book encyclopedia as a kid. He describes himself as “a voracious reader of all kinds of things.” His mother and grandmother ran a small private school in Huntsville, Alabama where he was first educated. His father, a grocery store manager, didn’t graduate from college until returning to school later in life.
After getting a masters in finance from the University of Alabama and nearly completing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Wales set off for Chicago and made his fortune trading futures and stock options—not enough for him to call himself wealthy, but enough to live comfortably within his means.
“A large part of my studies and training was in game theory,” says Wales. Game theory is a branch of mathematics used in economics to model social interactions and their unforeseen consequences. “That has shaped how I manage the communities and how I have designed the social structure around Wikipedia.”
The community nature of Wikipedia allows it to be edited and reedited time after time, which gives it unprecedented breadth and timeliness. But that same openness can sometimes lead to “wiki vandalism,” where someone will publish bogus information on a particular topic, or to bias in controversial topics. The community is designed to quickly spot and correct those inaccuracies, with flags to point out articles that need attention and lockdowns to prevent anonymous contributions.
Following his success in the financial arena, Wales started his first commercial venture in 1996, an advertising-supported webring-style portal called Bomis.com, the company that would eventually fund Wikipedia’s early development. Until 2005, Bomis featured a premium section that allowed subscribers to view photos of hot babes. A few have criticized Bomis for offering pornography, but Wales equates Bomis’s babes to the types of photographs seen in men’s magazines like Maxim.
When he began his open encyclopedia project, Wales hired Larry Sanger, a doctor of philosophy he knew through the internet. They wrote frequently back and forth on each others online mailing lists. Both men shared similar interests, one of them being philosophy. Sanger refers to himself and Wales as “debate partners.” They had originally met face-to-face for the first time in 1995, says Sanger, when they were both still graduate students. Wales invited Sanger, who was traveling cross-country, to stay over in Chicago where he was living at the time.
In January 2000, Wales got word that Sanger was looking to start what would today be called a cultural blog. Wales offered him a position as chief editor and designer of the Nupedia project, a Bomis-sponsored initiative that was to be a freely accessible online encyclopedia, but contained an extensive 7-step top-down review process to ensure quality and accuracy.
Sanger took the job with Bomis, but the mechanics of Nupedia would initially doom it to failure. The idea was to have scholars write content for free and publish publicly through Nupedia. Unfortunately, through its three-year lifespan, Nupedia’s review process had only been able to fully approve 24 articles. “It was no fun for anybody,” says Wales.
Clearly, Nupedia was too complicated. Wales and Sanger sought a solution. According to Sanger, he was the one who brought Wales’s attention to a little-known web program called WikiWikiWeb written by developer Ward Cunningham in 1994. “Wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “fast,” and Cunningham designed WikiWikiWeb as a platform to quickly and automatically create links and web pages related to each other through common keywords.
Wales took the Wiki idea and commissioned an encyclopedic version of the platform to quickly generate content that could then be vetted and added to the Nupedia project. The idea was to cast a wide net and keep this new online encyclopedia as open as possible for as long as possible. At first Wales was nervous about what the results would be. “The first few days I had it up, I would get up late at night and check the site, convinced somebody would trash everything, but nobody ever did,” says Wales.
For the first year or so, as head of the Nupedia project, Sanger also ran the new Wikipedia, dubbing himself the “Chief Instigator,” building the Wikipedia community and writing many of the Wikipedia’s policies, many of which are still followed today. Wales gave him complete freedom to direct the project.