Sunday, September 25, 2005

Jimmy Wales, Defender of Wikipedia

Excerpts from a C-SPAN Q&A Interview:

"LAMB: As I was doing—well, using Wikipedia to do the research for this interview I kept thinking when will Google or Yahoo! put Jimmy Wales out of business. And then I—as I read further, you're in business with them in some way.

"WALES: Yes, in some way. I think we have—we're a non-profit organization that I founded. And we've gotten support from Yahoo! already and Google is very interested in supporting us. We're just still talking to them about what to do.

"And Yahoo! has donated some servers. And I think what's interesting about that is that if you—you know, it's almost a joke but it's completely true. If you think about well why—why do Yahoo! and Google want to do this and well, their business model depends on the Internet not sucking and we hope the Internet not suck. So it's that the Wikipedia for a lot of people hearkens back to what we all thought the Internet was for in the first place which is, you know, when most people first started the Internet they thought oh, this is fantastic, people can communicate from all over the world and build knowledge and share information."

"One of the interesting things about Wikipedia is that people assume—you naturally assume that—particularly on controversial topics that the big debates within the Wikipedia community would be somehow roughly the party of the left versus the party of the right.

"It turns out on those types of topics it's actually the party of the thoughtful and reasonable people and the party of the jerks. And those aren't left or right, they can come from all sides you've got jerks."

"LAMB: Why did you make this non-profit and not for-profit?

"WALES: Well, I'm—from very early on when we started it, it was—I conceived of it as, you know, 2001 it was still kind of the tail end of the dot-com era and I wanted to try something and I thought at the time that it could be for profit.

"But once we started building the community and I started giving it more thought it really made more sense—it's, you know, neutral, educational, it's a volunteer effort, people have among the motivations—and this is what really drives me is the idea of there's huge problems in the world of ignorance and ignorance causes war, terrorism, poverty. And so this charitable mission of saying lets give a freely licensed encyclopedia to everybody on the planet really captivates people. And that really makes more sense to do in a non-profit framework that the volunteers really wanted it that way. And so we just—I just said well, let's do that."

"WALES: Well, most of these rules have really a dual purpose to have the purpose the epistemological or intellectual purpose of saying this is what an encyclopedia should be like. There's also a social purpose which is somehow this rule helps us to get our work done collaboratively.

"No original research, the original formulation of this came about when we realized that we were getting contributions from physics crackpots, of whom there are a great many on the Internet. So people have their own personal theory of magnetism that they made up and they want to write about it in Wikipedia. Well, this is obviously inappropriate because we're—as an encyclopedia we're not peer review to academic journal. We're not qualified to assess new research.

"And that started in physics and it's kind of obvious there but it's also true in history. Somebody has a new theory of history they need to run it by academics. They need to get it published in a real place. We're not qualified to evaluate that. We are qualified to look at the sources and say well, yes, this was published in the journal of history, we can talk about it. But new research can't be done.

"So from the point of view it's the right thing for an encyclopedia to do. But then also socially it's much easier to tell someone, you know, instead of saying you're a lunatic and your theory of magnetism is nonsense, that's hard for people to hear and then they just mad and cause trouble. But if you can say, you know, thank you for your wonderful submission; unfortunately we can't do original research, please go get it published somewhere, then you can treat people with respect even if you think they're a little dodgy."

"I was talking about the benevolent dictator model and I don't want to leave the impression that that's our model because what I was going to say is I don't feel it's appropriate for any one person to be the dictator of all human knowledge.

"And so we're moving from that model which was necessary when we had a small group of people to a model—I make the comparison of the British monarchy. That my power should decrease over time and become more symbolic. And it's more my job is to defend the community not rule over the community."

Full Interview Transcript, Watch, Background

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