Robin Hicks
Sep 18, 2008

Profile... The internet revolutionary with sensible shoes

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales may look like a professor, but he is bringing his knowledge crusade to Asia.

Profile... The internet revolutionary with sensible shoes
Jimmy Wales is not short of ambition. “I want every person in the world to be given free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” he recently told the Global Brand Forum in Singapore.

But, the thing is, he hardly strikes you as a man who is going to change the world.

Wearing a plain sweater, sensible shoes and a tidy beard, the diminutive founder of Wikipedia looks more dowdy professor than crusading politician. But this is probably his intention. Flashiness would not become a man with such worthy ambitions.

For anyone living on another planet for the past seven years, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that is unusual in that anyone with a computer can update or modify its content. Launched in 2001, the site now contains more than 10 million articles in 253 languages, and is used by almost a third of the world’s internet population. Wikipedia has grown into one of only a handful of instantly recognisable web brands. It has become world-famous thanks mainly to its users, and with “exactly zero dollars spent on advertising”, says Wales. It is, he insists, not your typical get-big-fast dotcom cash cow.

“People are always surprised to find that we aren’t located in a big building with 600 people in it,” he says. “Wikipedia is a not-for-profit foundation with 15 employees. We only had US$2 million in outgoings last year.”

Wales is in Asia ahead of a push by Wikipedia into developing markets. He wants to build Wikipedia’s reach in countries, such as India, where there has been a surge in user numbers, thanks to “a passion for knowledge”.

Of course, not everyone in Asia shares his dream of free access to information. Unlike Google and Yahoo, Wales has refused to bow to pressure from the Chinese Government to censor content. The site has been blocked in China, though recently it became accessible due to the Olympics. Whether such leniency lasts remains to be seen, and the Chinese Wikipedia tells users how to get round the firewall at the top of every page.

“Wikipedia has no interest in censorship. China’s censorship body is a mysterious black box for what is censored and what isn’t, often with little explanation or timeframe. We think it is important that we don’t give in.”
Despite these problems, Wales says that the Chinese-language version is one of the largest editions of Wikipedia, which is likely to grow “with or without China”, since “there are a large number of Chinese speakers outside of China - more than there are Dutch people anywhere.”

At present Wikipedia is unable to provide detailed statistics about its visitor base in Asia. However, it claims 500,669 registered users of its Chinese-language version, compared with 7.9 million for its English-language version. Its Hindi version has around 6,000 registered users, and there are smaller versions in languages such as Bengali and Gujarati.

Despite his lofty principles, Wales is interested in monetising his baby. Using the same community principle as the encyclopedia, Wales has launched spin-off products that are most certainly for-profit. Wikia and Wikia Search are the two most notable to date, and operate as a separate company to Wikipedia. “We hope to make a lot of money from them,” Wales affirms. But this could take some time. Wikia, a web hosting service that supports communities of people who are interested in a certain topic, was originally called Wikicities but the name was changed because people confused it with a site for city guides.

Wales claims that Wikia is growing as fast as Wikipedia (which, he concedes, is growing much more slowly than Facebook), but revenue generated through advertising is said to be disappointing. Creating far more hype is Wikia Search, a human-powered search engine that allows users to edit and rate search results. “I love Google. But is it right that so much information is pumped through one company?” asks Wales. “Google recommends search engine optimisation to force companies to the top of the rankings. That doesn’t sound like a process to yield the best journalistic results to me.”

The first version of Wikia Search launched in January. It received “unbelievably bad” reviews, admits Wales, partly because its user community wasn’t big enough. A second version launched in June, which Wales hopes “doesn’t suck as much”.

As of last month, Wikia Search held a microscopic 0.000079 per cent of the US search market (there are no figures for Asia) while Google is leads with 71 per cent. But Wales insists he’s onto something. “Google is read-only. And yet the web is inherently designed to be read-write. Search should be open-source,” he says.

Of course Google has taken note. It is an open secret that the media giant is testing a search engine that allows users to alter and comment on search results.

Wales’ main concern, however, is one that has persisted since day one: quality. Wikipedia articles are open to manipulation by people or companies that try to rewrite history to suit their own purposes. In fact, Wales himself was subject to some nasty headlines earlier this year when he was accused of breaking up with his then girlfriend, Fox News journalist Rachel Marsden, by rewriting her Wikipedia entry.

While Wikipedia employs a team of fact-checkers and can block out persistent ‘vandals’, Wales argues that the success or failure of his ventures boils down to trust.

“Sometimes people do go crazy and stab people in restaurants. But we trust that everyone we meet is basically good.” Perhaps forgetting that he is in Singapore, he adds: “You don’t want a society that, when people speak out, they get locked up in prison. We don’t want top-down control.”

Jimmy Wales’ CV

2008 Founder, Wikia Search
2004 Founder, Wikia
2001 Founder and chairman emeritus, Wikipedia Foundation
2000 Founder,
1996 Founder, Bomis
1994 Research director, Chicago Options Associates
Campaign Asia

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