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Filmed on Friday April 14, 02006

Jimmy Wales

Vision: Wikipedia and the Future of Free Culture

Vision is one of the most powerful forms of long-term thinking. Jimmy Wales, founder and president of the all-embracing online encyclopedia Wikipedia, examines how vision drives and defines that project and its strategy--- and how it fits into the even larger world and prospects of "free culture."

Community-built content rules

Vision is one of the most powerful forms of long-term thinking. Jimmy Wales, founder and president of the all-embracing online encyclopedia Wikipedia, examines how vision drives and defines that project and its strategy— and how it fits into the even larger world and prospects of “free culture.”

“The design of Wikipedia,” said its founder and president Jimmy Wales, “is the design of community.”

When Wikipedia was started in 2001, all of its technology and software elements had been around since 1995. Its innovation was entirely social— free licensing of content, neutral point of view, and total openness to participants, especially new ones. The core engine of Wikipedia, as a result, is “a community of thoughtful users, a few hundred volunteers who know each other and work to guarantee the quality and integrity of the work.”

Wikipedia, already enormous, continues to accelerate its growth. It is one of the top 20 websites, with 5 billion page views monthly. As an encyclopedia, it is larger than Britannica and Encarta combined and is now in so many languages, only 1/3 of the total Wikipedia is in English. When Wales went to Taiwan last week, strangers recognized him on the train, and 1,200 came to his talk. (One attraction to a Chinese audience is that Wikipedia takes the position of “no compromise with censors, ever.”)

The free licensing of Wikipedia content means that it is free to copy, free to modify, free to redistribute, and free to redistribute in modified forms, with attribution links. This is in service to the Wikipedia vision “to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” One byproduct is that Wikipedia’s success is helping shift the terms of the copyright debate, in a public-good direction.

The secret of Wikipedia’s content-generating process, Wales explained, is the nurturing and shaping of trust, instead building everything around distrust. He said that most social software systems are designed around expected problems. “Suppose you ran a restaurant that way. If you serve steak, that means steak knives, which are really dangerous in the wrong hands, so you need to put barriers between the tables.”

“If you prevent people from doing bad things, you prevent them from doing good things, and it eliminates opportunities for trust.”

Thus every page of Wikipedia has an open invitation to edit it, and the operational motto is “Be bold.” The expectation is that most edits will be improvements, and they are. Problems are dealt with completely post facto. There is an all-recent-changes page watched by hundreds of people, and another page proposing “Articles for Deletion.” Regular users set up watch lists for Wikipedia articles they care about, so they are notified immediately of new edits. Besides the edit history and text comparison features of the wiki itself, many users employ IRC (Internet Relay Chat) to discuss ongoing issues, from article details to general policy. The court of last resort to resolve fraught issues is a benign emperor, Jimbo Wales.

Wales continually fights the programmers to keep them from automating matters he thinks must remain social. Issues are decided not by voting but by dialogue, in which some voices have more weight because they are recognized to have earned it. Yet users do not get formal ratings. “Suppose you had to go around wearing a badge that says how many people like you.” In support of the Wikipedia rule to welcome new contributors, programmers would like to install the ability to automatically send a welcome note to anyone who has made eight contributions. Wales insists that only people can welcome people. The best way to keep Wikipedia deeply radical, Wales feels, is to keep its process deeply conservative.

Wikipedia is a window into further realms of free culture. What else can be done with wiki-enhanced communities? “A library is bigger than an encyclopedia.” So alongside the nonprofit Wikipedia Wales has set up the for-profit Wikia— a general purpose wiki community enabler, drawing its income from Google ads.

Most leaders, in my experience, focus on their organization’s product. Jimmy Wales focuses with exceptional clarity and insight on Wikipedia’s process, and therein lies its magic.

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