OPW INTERVIEW -- June 25, 2006 -- Strange things happen when you empower people. Myspace allowed users to create freeform profiles…85 million users later, Fox has their arms wrapped around them. Linux asked for a little help with a new OS. Jimmy Wales pondered on the wealth of the worlds encyclopedias, and set the framework for a new, open encyclopedia. Here's the story of Wikipedia. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. How can you empower YOUR online personals site users more? Have faith, step back, you might be surprised what happens. – Mark Brooks
What's your personal story?
One of the interesting things, I guess, is when I was growing up, I had a fairly unusual education. My mother and grandmother had a small private school and there were four kids in my grade, 1st through 8th grade. In fact, what they did was they grouped us into two groups, so 1st through 4th grade, and 5th through 8th grade. There were about 16 kids in the classroom but at different levels. So that enabled us to work at whatever different levels we were interested in. We had a very open-ended time schedule and we were able to just study and learn whatever we wanted. I spent a lot of time pawing over the encyclopedia. Self-directed learning has always been a part of my upbringing.
I was in grad school studying financial economics and did PHD coursework, but I never did finish the PHD. I got an interesting job in Chicago as a trader. When I was in grad school I started looking at the Internet and looking at free licensing software. I was watching the growth of the free software movement. At first I was skeptical but then we saw that very high quality software was being created. All the software that really runs the Internet is Apache, Linux, PHP, it's all free licensed software that's written primarily by volunteers, programmers just working together collaboratively. So that was really the genesis of the idea for a free encyclopedia, to get a bunch of people together to collaborate on something useful. We've seen them do it in the software world and it works so, let's do the same thing with encyclopedias.
Was there one particular turning point for you? When was Wikipedia started?
Wikipedia was started in January 2001. Before this, for two years, I had the previous project Newpedia. Newpedia was a completely different social model. It was very top down, very structured, very hierarchical – seven stage review process for articles, academic committees and so forth. And it was also a failure. It was a failure because it wasn't very fun for the volunteers. It was way too heavy in terms of controls and mechanisms and that's actually one of the things, as you said, Wikipedia was intuitive but it was born out of really a reaction against that.
In the Newpedia days we engaged in a lot of thinking about how to control things, how to make sure nothing bad got in. Wikipedia goes in totally the opposite way. So I said, "Let's just be as open as possible. Let's rely on accountability rather then gate keeping." By that I mean, every edit is visible, every edit is trackable to your account, people can see what you're doing, so there's that public oversight of the work that the community does. Wikipedia is really a reaction against the gatekeeper approach, which was to say, "we'll just make sure that only good people are involved and that people know what they're talking about before they get started." That was the gatekeeper model, which didn't work.
Did the information drastically improve on Wikipedia at a certain point, once you had a critical mass of contributors?
It's not about the number of people, it's about the quality of the individuals who are working on Wikipedia. We had more work done in two weeks on Wikipedia than we had done in two years on Newpedia. Even in the very early days, there was some pretty good articles, within a couple of weeks, where people got excited and edited together and kept adding information and rewriting and smoothing out, and then it just kept growing from there. I can't really point to any particular point and say, "Once we had this, then we were that." It grows and improves over time.
Is what you've created at Wikipedia magic, or is it reproducible?
I think the core principles are reproducible. You've got to think really hard about being in a social environment that's friendly and polite and helpful. Of course, with humans it's never perfect,there's always some fighting and things going on. There's always some sort of drama going on in the community.
Craigslist is a fine example. It's a community of friendly, helpful people who help each other out. And then, of course, I now have my company Wikia and people are building communities there using the same software (hosted) that Wikipedia is built on, but it isn't encyclopedias. It can be anything, political, fan sites, whatever, and those communities are also seeming to be very successful. I think it is reproducible.
I think that what we're going through right now is a period of learning about how to design software that let's people interact in friendly ways online. A lot of behaviors online, bad behaviors, come from incentives that are implicitly in the software that people don't necessarily notice. So a lot of my thinking about these kinds of issues is how do we keep the software in a state that encourages good work and gives a means of deflecting negative energy.
How do you make money? Why did you go non-profit with Wikipedia?
So Wikipedia started sort of on the side as a hobby and it just became bigger and bigger and there was a real demand from the volunteers that it be a non-profit. The idea of a free, neutral, high quality encyclopedia as a reference standard, written by a community…it just seemed to make sense as a charitable project.
I now get a salary from my work at Wikia, so that's how I make money. And then the foundation gets money primarily from small donations. So the bulk of the money that we get is $50 to $100, or 50 to 100 Euro. It's basically thousands of small donations that pay the bills and keep us going.
You're building an incredible reference to a world of information. Are you friends with Google?
Yeah, I mean I talk to people at Google. Of course, there are tons of people at Google who are fans of Wikipedia. We don't have any kind of formal business relationship or anything like that with Google.
What does the future hold for Wikipedia? What partnerships are you looking for in 2006 through 2007?
We just announced that we hired an Executive Director for the foundation. We're trying to mature the organization. Our organization is very small and a little chaotic because we're swamped all the time with all the crazy stuff that's going on with Wikipedia growing so fast. The main kinds of partnerships we're pursuing are around helping people to reuse our content commercially or non-commercially, so that involves us taking a careful look at how it can be used that are consistent with our community values. You should take a look at http://personals.wikia.com. It's not very active but it's kind of interesting. There's a few people working on. It's very limited at the moment but they're basically thinking about how to do personals in a community way. An open ended system. It's a neat experiment.
Mark Brooks: Wikipedia is modeled on the ancient campfire; the wise sharing information with the community around them. Jimmy knows open learning. He grew up in an open learning environment. It took that immersion in freeform thinking to drive the creation of the radical, rather counterintuitive Wikipedia. Web 2.0 will model (and improve on) many of the social dynamics that we experience in the real world. At the core of some of the best rising star web sites are two common themes. Trust and empowerment. (Wikia, Jotspot and Wetpaint are the top hosted wiki services available to the public).