Jimmy Wales (1966–)

While the number of people familiar with the name Jimmy Wales is small, millions in the United States and around the world know of and have consulted his innovation—Wikipedia. Thousands have contributed or updated information to the online encyclopedia and to other online sites in the wiki movement. According to a January 2011 Pew survey, more than half of the 79 percent Americans with Internet access have consulted Wikipedia for information. Worldwide, millions of Wikipedia entries were available in 57 language groups as of March 2011.

Wales stated his vision for Wikipedia in a 2004 Slapdash interview: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”

Wiki server software offers users the freedom to create Web content with hyperlinks to other content throughout the Internet. Its “open editing” facility permits any person, regardless of technical ability, to create and edit content rather than just passively access it. As a result, almost anyone with a computer may participate in a group project such as Wikipedia.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, calls Wales “a champion of Internet-enabled egalitarianism,” noting that Wales describes his beliefs as “anticredentialist,” not antielitist. Anderson sees that as an important distinction: “It means that amateurs can have as much to contribute as professionals and that talent can be found anywhere.”

The cultural implications of wiki possibilities far exceed the technical. No longer do those contributing to an encyclopedia or similar compilation of information have to meet a test of expertise, usually measured by degrees and a résumé of achievement. What had been the province of a limited group of professionals is now free territory for amateurs, those with a desire to express their knowledge or interests.

Social Media Today in 2010 reported that only 4.9 percent of Wikipedia editors have PhDs and 19 percent masters. Just 13 percent are women. More than two-thirds of users are involved in fixing errors.

Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which allows readers the freedom to create and edit content.

Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which allows readers the freedom to create and edit content. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Jimmy Wales, a man whose product’s influence has surpassed that of the experts at the Britannica and other established encyclopedias, can be considered “almost anyone with a computer,” albeit one with substantial wealth before he entered the computer world as an entrepreneur. His education was in finance at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, and Indiana University. While he did not complete his PhD at Indiana, Wales has a master’s from the University of Alabama. In 1994, Wales took a job with Chicago Options Associates, a futures and options trading firm. His wealth resulted from speculation on interest rates and foreign currency.

Wales does admit to having had a computer addiction as a young man, writing programs and, especially, playing Multi-User Dungeons, a collaborative role-playing game. In 1995, he decided to become an Internet entrepreneur by creating a “guy-oriented” Web portal called Bonris, modeled on the print magazine Maxim.

While Bonris did not succeed, it provided Wales with enough additional income to fund a long-desired goal of creating an online encyclopedia in 2000. He called it Nupedia and brought in a philosophy PhD student named Larry Sanger as editor-in-chief. Wales planned to fill the content with peer-reviewed entries written by experts on specific subjects to compete with the standards of the established encyclopedias. He expected to make money by selling advertising space on the site.

The project ran into problems because of a tension between the writers and the reviewers. As Wales put it in an interview with New Scientist magazine, “Initially we found ourselves organizing the work in a very top-down, structured, academic, old-fashioned way. It was no fun for the volunteer writers because we had a lot of academic peer review committees who would criticize articles and give feedback. It was like handing in an essay at grad school, and basically intimidating to participate in.”

Sanger, aware of wiki programming, suggested that they could move the project along by establishing a wiki ancillary for Nupedia and inviting the public to contribute entries that would be reviewed by the experts. But the experts rejected this idea, arguing that the validity of Nupedia would be compromised by the participation of amateurs. As a result, Sanger made Wikipedia a separate site even though he and Wales were skeptical that it would achieve success.

Within days, however, the entries on Wikipedia outnumbered those on Nupedia because of the participation of many writers with commitments to open-source computing and the free culture movement, which promoted the liberty to distribute and modify creative work. Initially, Wales worried about the quality of the large number of entries pouring in, staying up nights to check them as they arrived on the site. Soon he realized the effectiveness of the wiki process and embraced it.

Sanger’s role in the creation of Wikipedia became a point of disagreement. Early references named him as cofounder, and Wales agreed in 2002; but in 2006, Wales changed his position and claimed to be sole founder, revising his entry in the British Wikipedia. It is noteworthy that the entry on Wales in the current American version discusses this issue and Wales’s behavior.

Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 7, 1966, the son of a grocery store manager and a mother who ran a one-room private school, the House of Learning, which Wales and his siblings attended for their elementary education. As a boy he was an avid reader, especially of encyclopedias. For his secondary education, he attended the private Randolph School in Huntsville, graduating at 16.

Wales’s reactions to the House of Learning’s interactions with government inspectors and bureaucracy became the basis of his personal political philosophy. He calls himself a libertarian with some reservations, and an objectivist, a system based on the writings of Ayn Rand that stresses individuality and rationalism. He also was influenced by the Austrian theorist, Friedrich von Hayek, and identifies his politics as “center-right.”

Wales’s first marriage to a coworker at the family grocery store took place when he was 20, his second when he was 31 in 1997 to Christine Rohan, who had been a trader for Mitsubishi. That marriage ended in separation after producing his only child, a daughter. The Guardian in 2011 reported that Wales had become engaged to Kate Garvey, Tony Blair’s former diary secretary. Wales has lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, since 1997.

Wales expanded Wikipedia into the Wikimedia Foundation in 2003, subsuming all intellectual property rights and domain names of the encyclopedia. The foundation became the source of policy for Wikipedia and related endeavors. He served as chairman until 2006, when he left that role and was given the honorary title of chairman emeritus. He remains a member of the foundation’s board of trustees. In 2004, with Angela Beesley, he founded a for-profit company named Wikia that managed a group of wiki sites. Wales served as CEO until 2006.

Wales was hit with two allegations of scandal in early 2008, accused of impropriety in his romantic relationship with a conservative Canadian television commentator named Rachel Marsden. Not only did Marsden make public revelations about their affair, Wales was accused of using his power at the site to modify her Wikipedia entry early in their affair. A second accusation came from Danny Wool, a former Wikimedia executive, who on his blog claimed that Wales misused the organization’s funds. Other organization executives defended Wales against the charges.

Wales did play a very public role in Wikipedia’s 2010 campaign to raise $16 million to keep the site free of advertising. His face, along with that of several others, appeared at the top of the computer screen whenever a user accessed an entry. The target was met much more quickly than anticipated through donations by a half million people from 150 countries between November 14, 2010, and January 3, 2011.

The open nature of Wikipedia has led to a number of disputes over controversial subjects, with participants on the various sides on an issue changing the contents of an entry frequently, in some cases, several times a day. The site has itself identified a long list of topics with “unbalanced” entries that require editing to provide what it calls a “neutral point of view” (NPOV), many of them related to extreme positions on opposite sides of contemporary “culture wars.” Such topics include subjects ranging from abortion and the invasion of Iraq to obesity to the electric car.

The common denominator of such issues is stated in this definition: “A controversial issue is one where its related articles are constantly being re-edited in a circular manner, or is otherwise the focus of edit warring. This page is conceived as a location for articles that regularly become biased and need to be fixed, or articles that were once the subject of an NPOV dispute and are likely to suffer future disputes.”

Wikipedia eventually attempted to develop a method of addressing the need for controls placed on the site, first establishing what it called an Association of Members’ Advocates. The system failed, and Wikipedia posted the following message to explain why the page on advocates is no longer active and retained only for historical purposes: “it was found that many Wikipedians considered the association unhelpful, overly bureaucratic, and prone to wikilawyering. Some reform was suggested. Several months later, when this reform failed to surface and most cases were not responded to for a long time, the project was shut down.” The replacement has been a site called The Village Pump for users to discuss policies and technical issues and to propose new projects and ideas.

The need for such a system reveals the complexities of managing a participatory site and assuring the validity of its information. Wikipedia found that it requires policies and procedures to avoid disruptions and confusions. One effort, Advocates, did not succeed. The Village Pump is another attempt. Of course, information sources with a structured policy of authoritative gatekeepers face similar issues but are not obliged to maintain transparency in its processes of reacting to them.

While debates over the validity of Wikipedia entries have been essentially academic, a much more controversial wiki outlet emerged in 2010. Wikileaks shook global politics and caused major embarrassment to governments by posting on the Web thousands of diplomatic cables and exchanges classified as secret. The issue became framed as a choice between claims of national security and the public’s right to know. In effect, people with no elected office or government authority were denying the authority of those in official positions. Wikileaks stood as an extreme case of the democratization of the ability to provide information to a world audience.

Wikipedia and Wikileaks are just one aspect of the freedom of any individual to function in areas once the exclusive domain of experts and professionals, people with special knowledge and authority. Now the media courts the contributions of anyone with a camera, smartphone, or keyboard. Television news posts e-mail addresses for uploading newsworthy scenes, and sellers like Amazon.com ask readers for reviews of books, film, and many other products. Every person can be heard or even set up a blog or Web site with few, if any, restraints. While this enables information sharing, some sites are riddled with errors or misinformation. Yet the technology of our time and the expectations of its users make it very difficult to reverse the rise of the amateur facilitated by Jimmy Wales.

—Walter Cummins


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