Saturday, December 31, 2005


UPDATE: Jimmy Wales tells Times of London WikiPedia may accept advertising

Jeff Jarvis writes Dec. 29, 2005 on his blog, BuzzMachine that Jimmy Wales says Wikipedia may accept advertising.  Says Jarvis: "I think it’s a good idea. Some will have a kneejerk response against filthy lucre. But I say the right question is: What could those resources buy?"

The full Times of London interview with Jimbo is below.,,9071-1961321,00.html

Times Online December 30, 2005

Identity question for world's encyclopaedia

By Rhys Blakely
The Times of London

"In my vision of the future of journalism what we will see is an increasing amount of citizen participation in the gathering of news and in feedback and in reporting and analysing the news. At the same time, we’ll have professional organisations managing the process."  -- Jimmy Wales
:"It is pretty weird," the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, says. "A few years ago, I was just some guy sitting in front of the internet. Now I  send an e-mail or edit an article and it makes headlines around the world ... I used to be just a guy – now I'm Jimmy Wales."

Depending on your point of view, there are, at least, two very different Jimmy Wales.

For hard-core "wikipedians" there is the founder of one of the wonders of the internet age – a massive, charitably-funded online repository of knowledge, compiled completely by volunteers whose long-term aim is to create versions in all the languages of the world. 

In contrast, for John Seigenthaler, the founding editorial director of USA Today who last month was linked with the assassination of President John F Kennedy by a libellous Wikipedia article, there is an irresponsible rogue running a haven for "volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects".

For Mr Wales, neither of these will do.

He calls the Seigenthaler entry the "worst" article on Wikipedia – "not the only bad article on Wikipedia for sure, but … the worst". But while he "definitely worries a lot about how to make sure that articles on Wikipedia are right", he suggests his biggest fear was that the incident would overshadow the rest of the work on the site "which is actually pretty good".

Indeed, according to a recent study by Nature, the scientific journal, Wikipedia is actually no more unreliable than the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica – the standard to which the website aspires. The report, Mr Wales acknowledges, came in the nick of time – just as the Seigenthaler crisis risked rubbishing Wikipedia's reputation for good.

"It was good to have this thing out there that said it’s not just this crazy place on the internet where people just post nonsense - that Wikipedia’s actually pretty good in parts," he explains.

That "pretty good" refrain sums up the cautious Wikipedia champion. Never mind the Nature commendation. Or that the site now carries more than 2,500,000 articles and has 80 "live" language versions - from Asturian to Waloon, via Scots, "Simple English" and Telugu - with another 100 already in the pipeline. "If what you’re after is 'who won the World Cup in 1986', it’s going to be fine – no problem," he says. "If you want to know something a little more esoteric, or something that’s going to be controversial, you should probably use a second reference – at least."

To understand Wikipedia's place and potential, Mr Wales argues, you have to accept these kind of qualifications. As one reader wrote to the Editor of The Times, to criticise a website which anybody can edit for being "non-authoritative" is a bit like criticising a "newspaper for being flammable".

Similarly, Mr Wales is reluctant to over-hype the worldwide web as a whole. He recently read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, a history of the telegraph that describes how in the 19th Century the then new technology was lauded in remarkably similar terms to those used by today’s internet gurus.

"We all like to think that we are living through a time of very rapid change, but that was true in the 19th Century as well," he says.

"On the brink of the 20th Century, people thought that because they could suddenly communicate nearly instantaneously across continents, this could be an end to war. And then the 20th Century came and was a fiasco as far as wars were concerned."

The "outlaw" Jimmy Wales, it turns out, is a very reasonable revolutionary. A finance graduate, he ended a six-year spell as a futures trader in Chicago in 2000. According to one report, he earned enough money in the commodities markets to "support himself and his wife for the rest of their lives".

Mr Wales says that is true – but only because he "lives in a normal house and drives a Hyundai". As a trader, he was involved in computer programming, through which he became interested in the "open software" movement - where volunteer collaborators build "free" software - and began thinking about using similar methods to build an online encyclopaedia. Now 39, he is the head of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit body that owns Wikipedia, but works unpaid. The Foundation employs just three people to carry out its mission: to provide every person on earth with a free online encyclopaedia in their own language. The real work, after all, is done by the site’s volunteer writers.

The demand for their output is already phenomenal: Wikipedia, which started in 2001, will notch up around 2.5 billion page impressions this month. According to Mr Wales, its traffic volumes are doubling every four months.

The combination of ultra-low overheads and massive readership would excite any media executive. And while the site does not carry any advertising, Wales admits it might. "There is a great deal of resistance to the idea, both from the community and from me. But at some point questions are going to be raised over the amount of money we are turning down," he says.

"In my vision of the future of the newspaper industry and of journalism in general, people who think that traditional media organisations are going to go away are just kidding themselves," he says. "That doesn’t make any sense to me. On other hand, people who think that journalism can just stay the way it is are also just kidding themselves.

"What we will see is a set of hybrid models with an increasing amount of citizen participation in the gathering of news and in feedback and in reporting and analysing the news. And at the same time, we’ll have professional organisations managing the process – basically being the core framework."

The example Mr Wales gives comes from a spell of consulting he carried out for the BBC last year.

"In the sport division of the BBC they are very interested in thinking about how they can have better coverage of minor sports. Sometimes they are criticised for focusing only on major sports. They don’t carry coverage of every sport and every local club around the country – they don’t have enough money, it’s impossible.

"So what they’re saying is, 'wouldn’t be interesting if we had a model where we could cover the major sports with our traditional people and enrich the whole experience by bringing in people to allow other sporting communities to report on themselves?'

"I’d say that makes a lot of sense. In a similar way, if people out there are willing to make webpages and content, then it makes sense for the newspapers to get involved with that."

Alongside blogging, "wiki" technology (the name, according to Wikipedia, is derived from the "wiki wiki", or "quick", buses found at Honolulu Airport) is one obvious route for newspapers to explore if they want to involve their readers online.

The software could be the key to involving potentially limitless numbers of contributors to co-operate on a single piece of content. It works, Mr Wales explains, by incorporating  a series of "incentives" that encourage positive amendments. For example, it requires just a single mouse click to undo a piece of "vandalism" on Wikipedia – far less effort than it takes to spoil an article in the first place.

Old media companies, however, have an awful track-record in experimenting with wikis. The biggest disaster came in June, when the Los Angeles Times conducted a live trial to discover whether Wikipedia’s software could be used by users of the newspaper's site to collaboratively write a comment piece on the Iraq war.

"Plenty of sceptics are predicting embarrassment," the paper had said prophetically. "Like an arthritic old lady who takes to the dance floor, they say, the Los Angeles Times is more likely to break a hip than to be hip. We acknowledge that possibility. Nevertheless, we proceed."

So it turned out. In a matter of hours the LA Times's "Wikitorial" proved an unmitigated failure, being swamped with obscene messages and photos.

Mr Wales applauds the paper’s "brave experiment". But he also makes it clear he would have done things very differently.

"They used our software, but made a few mistakes when they set it up," he says. "They hid all the community features – so they hid ‘recent changes’ for example, so it was impossible for the community to monitor the site’s development.

"Also, they didn’t take the time to build a community. They just started promoting it wholesale to the general public. So that rather than having a core community of people who cared about the site and to look after it they just had people wandering in with no real personal stake in it.

"And the final point I would make is that they chose just about the most difficult thing there can be to write collaboratively: opinion. And in particular, opinion on the Iraq war – that’s a tough topic. It’s not as if there’s a simple for-or-against argument to be made. There’s a million possible variations and it’s not immediately clear how a community can converge on something."

Such moderation has played a major part in the development of the Wikipedia project. Long-standing plans to ring-fence "completed" articles, once they have been reviewed and checked, were given fresh impetus by the Seigenthaler crisis. The software to allow such "stable" articles, which will be closed off from further revision, is now in the final stages. But there will be no hurry to implement it.

"Exactly how we’re going to do that is going to be open to the community," Mr Wales says.

"As we go along, there will be a lot of debate. It turns out that for us there is almost never a simple answer to anything. Just a lot of questions, a lot of discussions and some fairly detailed policies."
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