Launched a decade ago, Wikipedia now exists in 280 languages with more than 18 million articles. We recently caught up with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who told us why he feels his game-changing encyclopedia will remain free and accessible to all.
Dorothée Enskog: Did you ever imagine this sort of success?
Jimmy Wales: I was always very optimistic about the possibility for Wikipedia. I remember looking at a list of the top 100 websites and seeing an encyclopedia at around number 50. I thought if we do a great job, it could reach the top 100. It is now the world’s fifth most-viewed website.
DE: How has Wikipedia changed the world?
JW: It has changed the world in many different ways. We actually face too much information in the wealthy developed countries. Wikipedia provides a very fast access to basic and condensed information. In the developing countries, it gives people going online access to knowledge that they never could access before. Sometimes it is even the first time knowledge is made available to them in their own language. A proper encyclopedia for instance never existed in the Swahili language. The Swahili Wikipedia now contains more than 20,000 entries. Similarly, I recently visited a slum in the Dominican Republic, which had no electricity three years ago. Computer labs have since been built in the slums and the kids there are now surfing on the Internet, using Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc. The world has truly opened up to these kids, who only knew their small neighborhood before going online.
DE: You’ve been quoted as saying that you want Wikipedia to one day contain the sum of all human knowledge. Is this a realistic goal?
JW: Yes. One of the key words here is sum, in the sense of a summary. Wikipedia is not a data dump for every topic. It obviously has limitations on what it is possible to create in terms of reference and quality. But the general concept of an encyclopedia for everyone is achievable.
DE: What are Wikipedia’s strengths?
JW: Its neutrality. Wikipedia tries to be as unbiased as possible. Another strength is the speed with which it is updated. Any new information that comes to life tends to be incorporated into Wikipedia very quickly. Take a presidential election for instance. If you want to know who won, you can look it up and the information will be updated within hours or days.
DE: Its weaknesses?
JW: Because it is an open public project, it is always in working process, growing and changing. There can be errors. These are usually corrected fairly quickly. That is part of the process.
DE: Wikipedia does not have a single paid employee. What motivates its contributors to edit and write for free?
JW: There are probably two basic reasons. We are a charitable, humanitarian project bringing free knowledge to everyone. That is inspiring to people, a cause worth spending their time on. Secondly, it is fun. People enjoy the process of writing and editing Wikipedia. If they really thought of it as work, they would not do it. It is a fun project, because contributors “meet” other interesting people virtually. We also try to avoid conflict and strive for a cooperative and uncompetitive environment.
DE: Do you block many contributors for submitting false or biased information?
JW: We ban a lot of people from editing every day. Many people just cannot believe they are allowed to edit freely on Wikipedia and put nonsense live to test it. These people are first warned and then blocked for 24 hours or longer if they continue submitting gibberish.
DE: How does Wikipedia protect itself against libel lawsuits? Have any been filed against you?
JW: It has very strong rules, particularly with regard to biographies. A negative entry in a biography is required to have a reliable source. If some libelous rant is posted, the community reacts and it is the surest way to be blocked from editing. Such entries are deleted fairly quickly. There have been a few libel lawsuits, but these are not against Wikipedia as such, as it is an Internet service provider. They have been directed against individual contributors.
DE: Your own Wikipedia entry is quite long. Have you drafted parts of it?
JW: It is not against the rules to edit your own biography, but I do not edit mine. I do however edit on Wikipedia nearly every day on topics that I enjoy. I try to stay out of any controversial areas, but do work on some biographies under the pseudonym Jimbo Wales to stay active and have fun.
DE: Is Wikia, your for-profit publishing company, a potential competitor to wikipedia?
JW: We definitely do not want to compete with Wikipedia, but rather complement it. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which does not fill an entire library. Wikia complements it, with any other topic people want to contribute on. Wikipedia is neutral, while Wikia has political activist sites, communities about video gaming to very deep dives on all types of topics. There is for example a “Lostpedia“ about the TV series “Lost“ with some 7000 articles. Contrarily to Wikipedia, Wikia contains speculation as sources are not required. It is more open-ended.
DE: How is Wikipedia financed?
JW: We have an annual giving campaign every fall, launched in November. We get donations from all over the world, with most money coming from the US, Europe and Japan. The average donation is 35 US dollars. We also have some major donors and philanthropic foundations supporting us, but the bulk of our funds come from the small contributors. That helps us to preserve the integrity of the project, as we do not have to worry about any demands from our donors. We remain independent this way.
DE: Have you ever considered selling Wikipedia?
JW: No. (laughs) This would be like selling the Red Cross.
DE: What are your future plans, beyond Wikipedia?
JW: I am increasingly focusing on the developing world, on the growth of knowledge sharing there. In India, for example, we already have more than 20 Indian-language Wikipedias. A common misconception about India is to think that all literate people speak English. That is definitely not the case. Some 95 percent of those who are literate do not understand English. These people are now going online for the first time.
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