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Jimmy Wales: The internet's first aristocrat

Google co-founder calls it one of the great triumphs of the internet. As Wikipedia, the fifth most-visited website in the world celebrates ten years as an unrivalled source of knowledge, its founder talks about the future of the Wiki project and the infamy of namesake Wikileaksnamesake Wikileaks.

Image Credit: Rex Features
Google's co-founder Jimmy Wales.

Life in brief

  • Born 7 August, 1966, Huntsville, Alabama
  • Educated Randolph School, Huntsville; Auburn University, Alabama, University of Alabama; Indiana University
  • Career While a student Wales worked at a grocery store, where he met his first wife. Made his fortune as a futures trader in Chicago before deciding to become an internet entrepreneur, setting up Bomis, a search engine aimed at young men. The prototype Nupedia morphed into Wikipedia after Wales hired Larry Sanger, who introduced the "wiki" concept that allowed outside contributors to create and edit the pages. Today the site has 400m monthly users and runs to 17m articles
  • Family Twice married, with one daughter from his second marriage, Wales lives in Florida. Has a girlfriend with a home in London

A decade after Jimmy Wales, one of the great artistocrats of the internet, founded Wikipedia, the apparently limitless trove of online information has grown to 17 million articles and attracts a monthly audience of 400 million users, making it the fifth most popular website in the world. No wonder than that Wales has a spring in his step as walks the streets of London in the lead-up to Christmas.

He is unconcerned by the extreme cold in Britain, having recently returned from a trip to Russia where he met President Dmitry Medvedev, one of the many international excursions he makes to promote and explain a project that depends on the dedication of an army of unpaid contributors. Besides, Wales needs to acclimatise to the British winter weather, intending as he does to make London his future home.

This Anglophile streak extends to a fixation with the House of Lords which, somewhat bizarrely, is identified by the Alabama-born digital media entrepreneur as the subject area he spends most time studying on Wikipedia, sometimes editing the articles himself. He has become acquainted with numerous peers including Lord Mandelson, whom he met last week.

If Wikipedia - which some estimates have valued at $5 billion - were not a non-profit venture, shunning advertisers and overseen by a charitable foundation (of which he is emeritus chairman), Wales would possess unimaginable wealth. He is making his annual appeal to Wikipedia users for added funding, this year seeking $16m, in order to maintain independence by avoiding dependence on major benefactors.

He made his own small fortune as a futures and options trader in Chicago before even dabbling in the Internet. And, having established Wikipedia with his then partner Larry Sanger on 15 January 2001, Wales has since set up a separate for-profit business, Wikia, which carries advertising and caters to more than 100,000 "wiki" groups with specialist interests ranging from The Muppet Show to the cult computer game World of Warcraft.

Speaking to 4men at a London hotel, the 44-year-old Wales admits that the scale of Wikipedia's growth has outstripped even his famous self-confidence. "[With] 400m people a month visiting the site it has become really a fundamental part of the information infrastructure of the world," he says.

"I didn't imagine this. It just didn't occur to me, sitting at my computer, that I would end up travelling all over the world. That bit escaped my thought process."

Before starting Wikipedia, Wales's only foreign trips had been to Canada and Mexico. Now he travels to speak at global economic events and his social network includes Bono, Richard Branson, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter.

But as he spreads his gospel internationally he must overcome an unforeseen and potentially damaging misapprehension: the comparatively common view that Wikipedia is in some way attached to WikiLeaks, the scourge of the Western establishment for its publication of millions of confidential documents, exposing diplomatic secrets and covert military operations. While Wales has been hobnobbing with British politicians in London, the WikiLeaks co-founder, Julian Assange, spent much of last week across town in Wandsworth prison fighting extradition charges over accusations of sex offences.

"The most important message... is that we have absolutely nothing to do with WikiLeaks," says Wales, who is irritated by the name of Assange's site. "What they're doing is not really a wiki. The essence of wiki is a collaborative editing process and they're just getting documents from people and releasing them. There's no collaborative editing going on. The fundamental of what they're doing is not really a wiki. It's unfortunate. I wish they were called Open Leaks."

That's not to say that, as a champion of free speech, he doesn't have some sympathy with WikiLeaks in its current position. "It's complicated. In open and free societies it's really important that people who have evidence of wrongdoing have some avenue to make that known. I think that's a good and healthy part of democracy," he says.

"At the same time I would echo some of the concerns raised by Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and counsel that WikiLeaks should be thoughtful and careful about the ramifications of what they're releasing and work with people to make sure that what they're doing is providing a useful public service."

Wikipedia, he has no doubt, is doing just that. The site was once widely lampooned for the untruths that resulted from allowing anyone to edit its entries. Wikipedia's own Wikipedia page contains the acknowledgement that "some media sources satirise Wikipedia's susceptibility to inserted inaccuracies". The Onion, the American satirical newspaper, once published a prominent article headlined "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence".

Wales believes the quality of articles has markedly improved. This is partly due to protection measures recently introduced for the most sensitive articles (such as the biography of George W Bush), where all changes are subject to a delay so that they can be reviewed by an established Wikipedia editor. "Where we've gotten to now is fairness. We don't get these stories that we are a crazy bunch of people and it is complete garbage," says Wales, acknowledging that an institution of the scale and influence of Wikipedia is rightfully held to account. "We do get criticised where there are errors and I do think it's a valid subject, a really important subject, for broad public dialogue."

Where Wikipedia can improve, he admits, is in the diversity of its contributors. Around 100,000 volunteers are involved in editing on at least a monthly basis, allowing the site to operate with only a tiny staff of around 45. But editors are "over 80 per cent male and tech-savvy", he says, meaning that subjects such as "sociology or Elizabethan poetry" can be neglected. "Whatever 26-year-old tech geek males are interested in we do a very good job on. [But] things that are in other fields we could do with some more users participating."

So Wikipedia will begin its second decade by making it easier for less tech-minded users to edit pages. In future, users are likely to be encouraged to give ratings to the pages they read, encouraging them to be more interactive with the site.

Not that Wales wants everyone to be an editor. "We've never been about participation for participation's sake. We are trying to build an encyclopaedia." Similarly, he is unconcerned that growth in new articles on English Wikipedia appears to be slowing. "All of the easy topics have been written about years ago. But it's good to slow down a bit. It's not about rapidly creating the maximum number of pages - that's not the point. The point is to create useful pages."

His focus is moving to the east, specifically to India where in the next six months Wikipedia will open its first office outside of America, probably in Mumbai or Bangalore. Increasing the number of articles in Indian languages is "really key", he says. "We have 50,000 articles in Hindi and tens of thousands in other languages, so we already have active communities there but we are still very far behind the European languages."

There is still so much to do. Africa remains largely undocumented by the site, especially in native languages. Around 20,000 articles have been written in Swahili (and a similar number in Afrikaans) but Zulu accounts for barely 100 entries. "One of the big keys is increasing the diversity of the contributor base," says Wales. He cites a need for more contributions in Arabic but is pleased that the linguistic breadth of Wikipedia - which has 262 language editions - gives it a remarkable reach in the developing world.

Where many of the great digital media brands have lost their way - AOL, MySpace, Yahoo! - Wikipedia has maintained its relevance. According to Sergey Brin, a founder of Google, Wikipedia is "one of the greatest triumphs of the internet".

Wales does not have the same profile as some of the other great online pioneers. He has not had a Hollywood film made about him like the creator of Facebook. But as a character he is more red-blooded than other famous nerds such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. After working as a futures trader, Jimbo set up Bomis, a male-oriented dot-com business focusing on "babes" and sport. He has been married twice and has a daughter with his second wife. When he broke up with one girlfriend, Rachel Marsden, she delighted internet gossips by selling off his clothes - on eBay.

His first marriage was to the former work colleague in a grocery store who he wed when he was 20. Back then in Alabama - where he had grown up as the son of a store owner and had spent long hours poring over the Encyclopaedia Britannica - he had the ambition of being rich and living in Britain, seeing a photograph of an English castle and telling his young wife Pam: "Yeah, we're going to have that one day."

He achieved a geek's dream recently by visiting old Albion's ancient seat of governance and dining with Merlin. Awesome dude! In fact, although the Wikia empire has an entire community dedicated to the mythical wizard featured in the BBC/NBC series, the Merlin that Wales went to see was Merlin Hay, the 24th Earl of Arroll, who invited him to lunch at his beloved House of Lords. He later realised he had edited the Wikipedia page of the earl's father, Sir Rupert Iain Kaye Moncreiffe of that Ilk. A visit to the meticulously edited article reveals that "of that Ilk" is "a contraction of Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe". It is this level of factual detail that Wales likes to see in his online encyclopaedia.

It seems strange that the man behind a concept that gives everyone the chance to contribute to a unique knowledge resource should be in awe of a chamber that is still derided for being undemocratic and anachronistic.

But Wales responds by trying to draw an analogy between the internal structure of Wikipedia and the United Kingdom's system of government. He talks of the lack of a written constitution, refers to the website's highest body (its arbitration committee), and notes that "if you become an administrator in Wikipedia, you are pretty much in for life as long as you behave yourself".

Then he refers to his own role. "I'm working as hard as I can to make it as ceremonial as possible, much like in the UK... a constitutional monarch where I have certain reserved powers," he says, hinting at the egotism for which he is sometimes criticised.

Sitting here in the hotel drinking from a glass of water, he's just an ordinary looking bearded guy in an open neck shirt. He might not be quite the king of the internet but for millions of users of Wikipedia, there's something quite noble about the peer-loving Jimmy Wales.