Jimmy Wales is single-handedly changing the Internet. As the creator of Wikipedia — the online encyclopedia anyone can edit– Jimmy is bringing the Internet back its roots of global communication and sharing of knowledge. Celebrity Parentscaught up with Jimmy and his daughter, Kira, in NYC. Jimmy spoke to us about Wikipedia, the wonders of the Internet, and why it truly is a Wiki World.
It’s an obvious question, but were you always into computers?
I’ve been a computer geek since I was a kid! My uncle had a computer store when I was little, and I spent time there. I got my Masters in Finance while I lived in Alabama, and then went to work in Chicago as a trader. It was a heavily mathematical and computerized process. So I’ve always been into computers and numbers.
How did Wikipedia come to be?
Before Kira was born, I was working on a project called Nupedia. This was the predecessor to Wikipedia. It was the same concept; an online encyclopedia run by volunteers written in all the languages of the world. At the time, we didn’t have the Wiki editing software. It was a top-down, academic system that didn’t work. Kira was born on December 26, and we launched Wikipedia on January 15, with the new Wiki software. It just grew and grew from there.
How do you explain the Wikipedia phenomenon? It’s the fourth most popular site on the Internet.
Wikipedia goes back to the original roots of the Internet; it is a great platform for sharing knowledge. The Wikipedia community has done a great job of staying focused to the core mission. Our goal is to create an encyclopedia in every language of the world. This way, any person can find the information they need in their own language.
I saw the lecture you gave at a TED conference where you spoke about Wikipedia and neutrality. Can you talk a bit about that?
Neutrality is one of the core principles of Wikipedia. If the goal is to gather all human knowledge, there’s obviously going to be many topics that are controversial. Wikipedia should be as neutral as possible; it’s not our job to take sides, but to give all the information about the subject so that users can decide for themselves.
About how many articles does Wikipedia have?
In English, there are about 2.8 million. However, that’s less than 20% of the total number of articles. I figure in the next 5-10 years English-language articles will be less than 10% of the total. Currently, we have articles in over 170 different languages; each of those languages has at least 1000 articles.
A huge part of my work with Wikipedia is including the languages of the developing world. That’s why I travel so much. Many people are using the English Wikipedia because there’s not a lot of content in their own language. I recently went to the Dominican Republic; the First Lady has a project where computer labs were built in impoverished areas. I went to the labs and I saw the school children using Wikipedia. It is amazing to be able to put the world’s knowledge at the world’s fingertips.
And it’s true that anyone can write/edit a Wiki article?
Yes, it is. Anybody can participate. Almost all the pages are unlocked, but we do encourage people to first get an account. It helps for people to both know you and it establishes you as an author. The community monitors everything; we have a few thousand admins worldwide. If they see someone doing something malicious, they can block them.
We keep all the history of the articles, so if something were to get deleted, we can restore it with one click. More often than not, it’s not a person trying to cause problems, but rather someone seeing if they could potentially do it. And the answer is, yes, you can! But you will be blocked for 24 hours.
Did you ever think that Wikipedia would become what it has now?
I knew it was a big idea. I remember looking at a list of the top 100 websites to see if there was anything similar to it. I thought, “If we do a really good job, we might make it to the top 100.” I think it’s pretty amazing how far we’ve come.
What are the future plans for Wikipedia?
The biggest thing is the growth of the site and to include all the languages of the world. We are also focused on its ease of use. Sometimes it can be a bit geeky when you go to edit it an article, which can turn off a lot of people.
Let’s talk a bit about Kira. She’s been on her laptop typing away during our interview.
Kira lives in Florida with her mom. I go there quite often; in fact, I’m there every other weekend for at least a few days. We spend a lot of quality time together; that is really important to me.
What kinds of things do you do together?
We play Club Penguin a lot, and we’re learning flash programming, so we do our computer lessons together. Kira is really good at computers. She’s a very fast typist.
Kira, I know that you’re homeschooled. How do you like it?
Kira: I like it a lot. I get to go to the home school co-op once a week, and I learn at my own level, which is good.
What else do you like to do?
Kira: I like playing with my kittens and watching reality TV with my mom. My favorite shows are American Idol ( I voted for Adam Lambert!), Survivor and Amazing Race.
Jimmy: Kira and I have a dream that we’ll go on Amazing Race one day. If it’s still on the air, we’re going to try for it!
I noticed that you’re both really, really into computers. Are you ever not plugged in?
Well, this summer Kira and I are going on a backwoods camping trip to Isle Royale on Lake Superior. We’ll be off the grid for a few days.
How are you going to deal with the withdrawal?
I don’t know. We’ll probably wind up drawing a keyboard in the dirt!
Now, how is it being a single dad?
It’s difficult. Because of work, I have to travel a lot. I make sure that the time I spend with Kira is fun and that we do different activities together. We talk every day on the phone, and we often talk on IM. Sometimes we do Skype. That’s always fun to do and make funny faces at each other.
Kira knows that my IM is open all the time, 24 hours a day. Well, I might sleep sometimes…
Jimmy: Yeah, once in a while! My phone is always in my pocket, and Kira knows she can pop online anytime, send me an IM, and I’m right there with her.