Jimmy Wales wants Wikipedia to change the world, again

Wales wants Wikipedia to be an agent of change, and he believes it has the tools to help set oppressed societies free and bridge conflicts.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (photo credit: REUTERS)
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is not content that the website he helped build, one of the most widely used sites on the Internet, has transformed the way people access information.
It is not enough that with the click of a button, anyone with an Internet connection can get a pretty good (if not citable) overview of topics ranging from Iraqi Kurdish politician Falah Mustafa Bakir to a list of Houston Astros Opening Day starting pitchers (both real pages).
It is not enough that the community- built and community- managed free encyclopedia has put traditional encyclopedias out of business.
No, Wales wants Wikipedia to be an agent of change, and he believes it has the tools to help set oppressed societies free and bridge conflicts.
“The biggest problems that we’ve had were in China, where we were completely banned for several years. Now Wikipedia is broadly accessible in China, but they still block certain pages,” Wales said in a Sunday interview with The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv.
“In other places around the world we frequently encounter censorship of valid information.
One of the places I’m most concerned about these days is Russia,” he said, adding that laws banning “homosexual propaganda” and information on drugs have been used to shut down entire ranges of discussion there.
“If you’re going to censor the page in Wikipedia that explains that people smoke marijuana, you’ve probably got a big problem. Clearly this is not a viable long-term policy,” he said.
Wales, 48, had less lofty ideas when he co-founded Wikipedia with Larry Sanger in 2001. The website was a spin-off of Bomis, a male-oriented search engine that included erotic pictures of women in a section called the “Bomis Babe Report.” To help generate content for the site, the team created Nupedia, which eventually spawned the easier-to-update Wikipedia.
The idea of building an encyclopedia Wiki-style (wiki, the Hawaiian word for quick, is Web jargon for something that is developed collaboratively in an open source style, without a set leader) might have seemed crazy, given the level of decorum so often seen in Internet conversations.
“There was this view that the Internet is just inherently a very hostile place, and certainly if you make the error of reading newspaper comments you kind of weep for the future of the planet, because it’s just idiots screaming at each other, by and large, and the occasional thoughtful voice that weighs in just gets shouted down or ignored,” Wales said.
But the way people interact online, Wales believes, has as much to do with the format and rules that govern interaction.
By creating a system with checks and balances, accountability and methods for resolving disputes, Wikipedia managed to overcome some of those problems, helping people work out their disputes over the material in a productive way.
“The overwhelming bulk of people in the world are perfectly nice people who wouldn’t do horrible things. So the possibility exists to create spaces where that overwhelming majority of perfectly sensible people dominate, and that’s the big lesson from Wikipedia – that people can collaborate, people can behave themselves,” he said.
It’s a hopeful view of human nature, he added. “It’s not just the software tools, though that’s a part of it, but it’s the community we’ve developed and the spirit of the community.”
Recently, he said, a group of Russian and Ukrainian Wikipedians, or people who write and edit and not just read the articles, came together for a meet-up, despite their political differences.
“That’s the kind of thing Wikipedians like to do, because they really do like dialogue rather than bombs,” he said.
But of course, Wikipedia has its limitations.
One of them is that it tends to attract a certain kind of person.
About 85 percent of Wikipedia editors are men, and many of them tend to be from specific sectors of society: well off, educated and often ethnically similar.
Despite efforts to create greater balance, Wales said, the site tends to attract technically savvy “computer geeks,” meaning that people who aren’t computer geeks don’t become Wikipedia editors.
When asked if that creates bias, he replied, “It does. It must. One of the problems with that type of bias is that it’s really hard to see. It’s like a fish. You ask a fish about water and they say ‘What water?’ They’re swimming in it.”
Instead of bias within articles, the bias manifests itself in the kind of content available on the site.
“If you’re a 26-year-old computer geek, single, no children, then your interest in early childhood development is quite low. So many of our entries on early childhood development are quite weak, because it’s just not part of their life experience. This is one of the reasons we value diversity. It’s not just political correctness. It actually affects the quality of the content,” Wales said.
One study found that entries on award-winning male novelists had deeper, broader coverage than those by their female counterparts.
There are other sticky issues as well.
For example, while Wales has said he wants Wikipedia to reflect the entirety of human knowledge, there is a fine line when it comes to privacy.
Wikipedia essentially defers to other sources: Once information is publicly available from a reliable source, it is fair game, regardless of whether that reliable source obtained it through illegal or immoral means.
“Once it’s out there and it’s been published in, wherever, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post – whether some people disagree with the original publication, I think it’s time to say OK, now it’s out,” he said.
Wales’s concern about censorship colors his views on several important issues pertaining to the Internet age.
For example, he has come out strongly against Europe’s “right to be forgotten” laws, which are meant to protect people from living in the shadow of some action that has been memorialized online, protection that is afforded by, for example, banning Google from linking to a certain article.
“What it’s really about is a right to censor, a right to force people to not speak about something that they do remember, and it’s important to bring that to the center, because then we’re saying, ‘OK, look, this is actually kind of a big deal if we’re going to put forward a general right to censor the media,” he said. “My big complaint about the European legislation is that it’s forcing Google to become the judge, jury and executioner on these things with no right of appeal for the publisher, which is being censored.”
The world, he believes, will slowly come to terms with the fact that people cannot and should not be judged by the results of a Google search.
“I think a big piece of what’s going to happen here is a cultural shift, as people come to understand that one idiotic moment on Twitter should not destroy your life,” he said, citing the case of Justine Sacco, a public relations executive who was fired for an off-color joke made on Twitter. “I think maybe we should be more concerned about the witch-hunt than we are [about] a bad joke on Twitter.”
Wales believes that the interesting questions on how Wikipedia deals with “edge cases” is less significant when turning to oppressive regimes.
“In Israel there is generally freedom of speech, and so then we begin to think about the edge cases, but I’m more focused on cases in many, many parts of the world where, clearly, legitimate political speech is being attacked and suppressed,” he said.
“I was given a prize by the leader of Dubai, which I couldn’t in good conscious accept, but I couldn’t give it back, because it’s very oppressive there, so I started the Jimmy Wales Foundation for Freedom of Expression,” a foundation that promotes access to information in oppressive countries.
Wales had no such compunctions about accepting the $1 million Dan David Prize that occasioned his current visit to Israel.