Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales' Sprawling Vision

By Mangu-Ward, Katherine | Reason, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales' Sprawling Vision


Mangu-Ward, Katherine, Reason


JIMMY WALES, the founder of Wikipedia, lives in a house fit for a grandmother. The progenitor and public face of one of the 10 most popular websites in the world beds down in a one-story bungalow on a cul-de-sac near St. Petersburg, Florida. The neighborhood, with its scrubby vegetation and plastic lawn furniture, screams "Bingo Night." Inside the house, the decor is minimal, and the stucco and cool tile floors make the place echo. A few potted plants bravely attempt domesticity. Out front sits a cherry red Hyundai.

I arrive at Wales' house on a gray, humid day in December. It's 11 a.m., and after wrapping up some emails on his white Mac iBook, Wales proposes lunch. We hit the mean streets of Gulf Coast Florida in the Hyundai, in search of "this really great Indian place that's part of a motel," and wind up cruising for hours--stopping at Starbucks, hitting the mall, and generally duplicating the average day of millions of suburban teenagers. Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens slip past as Wales, often taciturn and abrupt in public statements, lets loose a flood of words about his past, his politics, the future of the Internet, and why he's optimistic about pretty much everything.

Despite his modest digs, Wales is an Internet rock star. He was included on Time's list of the 100 most influential people of 2006. Pages from Wikipedia dominate Google search results, making the operation, which dubs itself "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," a primary source of information for millions of people. (Do a Google search for "monkeys," "Azerbaijan," "mass spectrometry," or "Jesus," and the first hit will be from Wikipedia.) Although he insists he isn't a "rich guy" and doesn't have "rich guy hobbies," when pressed Wales admits to hobnobbing with other geek elites, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and hanging out on Virgin CEO Richard Branson's private island. (The only available estimate of Wales' net worth comes from a now-removed section of his own Wikipedia entry, pinning his fortune at less than $1 million.) Scruffy in a gray mock turtleneck and a closely cropped beard, the 40-year-old Wales plays it low key. But he is well aware that he is a strangely powerful man: He has utterly changed the way people extract information from the chaos of the World Wide Web, and he is the master of a huge, robust online community of writers, editors, and users. Asked about the secret to Wikipedia's success, Wales says simply, "We make the Internet not suck."

On other occasions, Wales has offered a more erudite account of the site's origins and purpose. In 1945, in his famous essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek argued that market mechanisms serve "to share and synchronize local and personal knowledge, allowing society's members to achieve diverse, complicated ends through a principle of spontaneous self-organization." (These are the words not of the Nobel Prize winner himself but of Wikipedia's entry on him.) "Hayek's work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project," Wales wrote on the blog of the Internet law guru Lawrence Lessig. "One can't understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek." Long before socialism crumbled, Hayek saw the perils of centralization. When information is dispersed (as it always is), decisions are best left to those with the most local knowledge. This insight, which undergirds contemporary libertarianism, earned Hayek plaudits from fellow libertarian economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman as the "most important social thinker of the 20th century." The question: Will traditional reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica, that great centralizer of knowledge, fall before Wikipedia the way the Soviet Union fell before the West?

When Wales founded the site in 2001, his plan was simple yet seemingly insane: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. …

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