Jimmy Wales

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Walter Isaacson is thought, with some validity, as a proponent of the Great Man Theory, which is why Steve Jobs, with no shortage of hubris, asked him to be his biographer. Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin and me, he thought. Jobs, who deserves massive recognition for the cleverness of his creations, was also known as a guy who sometimes took credit for the work of others, and he sold his author some lines. Bright guy that he is, though, Isaacson knows the new technologies and their applications have many parents, and he’s cast his net wider in The Innovators. An excerpt from his just-published book, via The Daily Beast, in which he describes the evolution of Wikipedia’s hive mind:

“One month after Wikipedia’s launch, it had a thousand articles, approximately seventy times the number that Nupedia had after a full year. By September 2001, after eight months in existence, it had ten thousand articles. That month, when the September 11 attacks occurred, Wikipedia showed its nimbleness and usefulness; contribu­tors scrambled to create new pieces on such topics as the World Trade Center and its architect. A year after that, the article total reached forty thousand, more than were in the World Book that [Jimmy] Wales’s mother had bought. By March 2003 the number of articles in the English-language edition had reached 100,000, with close to five hundred ac­tive editors working almost every day. At that point, Wales decided to shut Nupedia down.

By then [Larry] Sanger had been gone for a year. Wales had let him go. They had increasingly clashed on fundamental issues, such as Sanger’s desire to give more deference to experts and scholars. In Wales’s view, ‘people who expect deference because they have a Ph.D. and don’t want to deal with ordinary people tend to be annoying.’ Sanger felt, to the contrary, that it was the nonacademic masses who tended to be annoying. ‘As a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tra­dition of respect for expertise,’ he wrote in a New Year’s Eve 2004 manifesto that was one of many attacks he leveled after he left. ‘A policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia’s first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respect­ing and deferring politely to experts.’ Sanger’s elitism was rejected not only by Wales but by the Wikipedia community. ‘Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid ed­iting Wikipedia,’ Sanger lamented.

Sanger turned out to be wrong. The uncredentialed crowd did not run off the experts. Instead the crowd itself became the expert, and the experts became part of the crowd. Early in Wikipedia’s devel­opment, I was researching a book about Albert Einstein and I noticed that the Wikipedia entry on him claimed that he had traveled to Al­bania in 1935 so that King Zog could help him escape the Nazis by getting him a visa to the United States. This was completely untrue, even though the passage included citations to obscure Albanian websites where this was proudly proclaimed, usually based on some third-hand series of recollections about what someone’s uncle once said a friend had told him. Using both my real name and a Wikipedia han­dle, I deleted the assertion from the article, only to watch it reappear. On the discussion page, I provided sources for where Einstein actu­ally was during the time in question (Princeton) and what passport he was using (Swiss). But tenacious Albanian partisans kept reinserting the claim. The Einstein-in-Albania tug-of-war lasted weeks. I became worried that the obstinacy of a few passionate advocates could under­mine Wikipedia’s reliance on the wisdom of crowds. But after a while, the edit wars ended, and the article no longer had Einstein going to Albania. At first I didn’t credit that success to the wisdom of crowds, since the push for a fix had come from me and not from the crowd. Then I realized that I, like thousands of others, was in fact a part of the crowd, occasionally adding a tiny bit to its wisdom.”

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As an outsider, I’ve never understood UK privacy laws, which are supposed to be more stringent than America’s free-market melee, yet seem to have absolutely no impact on how tabloids can tarnish the reputation of whomever they please. These rules seem to have done little good in protecting “memory.”

Of course, in a globalized world, when information can travel across borders instantly, there’s little practicality in attempting to be “forgotten,” even though the exposure sometimes pains us. As a very private person, I wish it were different. It’s not.

Maybe I feel that way because I’m from the U.S., or maybe it’s because I’m pragmatic about privacy in the wake of the tools we’ve developed–and the ones that will come soon enough.

Julia Powles of the Guardian has a very different take. The opening of her article:

“Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, has a particular cultural and economic perspective on free speech – reflected in comments made both by him and by the Wikimedia Foundation.

Free speech is undoubtedly a cornerstone of freedom, but it cannot always be fought or guarded in the court of public opinion; the free market of ideas.

To Wales, bad speech is defeated by more speech. Such a solution does not guarantee a defence to the weak and the marginalised. Here, in particular, the human rights that benefit all of us serve a fundamental purpose.

In the UK – where a serious legal commitment to human rights is wavering – we cannot afford to be loose with terminology. Wales refers, inaccurately, to ‘history as a human right,’ to ‘the right to remember,’ to ‘the right to truth.’

Of course, memory is at the foundation of humanity. Memory builds truth, truth brings justice, and justice brings peace. These are the fundamental pillars of human society.

Within these pillars, the right to privacy and, in Europe, the right to personal data, are embedded, harmonised, legally-recognised human rights.

And so we come to the hard sociopolitical problem at the heart of the so-called ‘right to be forgotten.’ It is not about the search engines, online services, Google, or Wikipedia. It is about the value humanity ascribes to them as purveyors of ‘truth,’ of ‘history,’ and of ‘memory.’

It is about confronting what they really are.”

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I guess I’m remarkably jaded because from the minute the Patriot Act became law, I assumed there would be large-scale surveillance by our government. What’s more, most Americans probably wanted it and likely still do.

Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales commenting on NSA surveillance in an interview with Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian:

Carole Cadwalladr:

You’ve spoken out publicly about the NSA revelations, but how surprised were you when that first headline hit? Or did you suspect something like that was going on?

Jimmy Wales:

I was surprised by the scale, by some of the revelations. I was surprised – as Google was – that they were tapping into lines inside, between the data centres of Google. That’s pretty amazing. And hacking Angela Merkel’s phone – that was a surprise. But I think we haven’t yet had the revelation that will really set people off.

Carole Cadwalladr:

You’ve said that you’re going to start encrypting communications on Wikipedia as a result…

Jimmy Wales:

We have done. It’s not completely finished yet but the only thing that GCHQ, hopefully, can see is that you’re looking at Wikipedia. They can’t see which article you’re reading. It’s not the government’s business to know what everybody is reading.”

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Jimmy Wales Is Not an Internet Billionaire” is the title of Amy Chozick’s short, sharp New York Times Magazine portrait of the Wikipedia founder, a singular figure in the Information Age, who was right about crowdsourcing knowledge when almost everyone else thought he was wrong, when he was treated like a punchline. The collective nature of the virtual encyclopedia made it impossible for Wales to cash in, but somehow I think he’ll slide by. Let’s weep for others. An excerpt:

Wikipedia, which is now available in 285 languages, gets more than 20 billion page views and roughly 516 million unique visitors a month. It is the fifth-most-visited Web site in the world behind Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook; and ahead of Amazon, Apple and eBay. Were Wikipedia to accept banner and video ads, it could, by most estimates, be worth as much as $5 billion. But that kind of commercial sellout would probably cause the members of the community, who are not paid for their contributions, to revolt. ‘The paradox,’ says Michael J. Wolf, managing director at Activate, a technology-consulting firm in New York and a member of the Yahoo! board, ‘is that what makes Wikipedia so valuable for users is what gets in its way of becoming a valuable, for-profit enterprise.’

Wales suffers from the same paradox. Being the most famous traveling spokesman for Internet freedom brings in a decent living, but it’s not Silicon Valley money. It’s barely London money. Wales’s total net worth, by most estimates, is just above $1 million, including stock from his for-profit company Wikia, a wiki-hosting service. His income is a topic of constant fascination. Type ‘Jimmy Wales into Google and ‘net worth’ is the first pre-emptive search to pop up. ‘Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table,’ says Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia.

Wales is well rehearsed in brushing off questions about his income. In 2005, Florida Trend magazine reported that he made enough money in his brief stint as an options-and-futures trader in Chicago, before starting Wikipedia, that he would never have to work again. But that was before he had to pay child support and rent for homes in Florida and London. When I brought up the topic recently, Wales seemed irritated. ‘It rarely crosses my mind,’ he said. ‘Reporters ask me all the time and expect me to say: ‘I’m heartbroken. Where’s my billion dollars?’  On two occasions, he compared himself to an Ohio car salesman. ‘There are car dealers in Ohio who have far more money than I’ll ever have, and their jobs are much, much less interesting than mine,’ he said during one conversation. When his net worth came up again, he brought up Ayn Rand. ‘Can you imagine Howard Roark saying, ‘I just want to make as much money as possible?’ Wales asked rhetorically.

Wales likes to invoke the higher purpose of Wikipedia.

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Encyclopedia Britannica infomercial, 1992:

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Hollywood is certainly moving ass-backwards through our technological revolution, but it seems a stretch to say that it will be undone by crowdsourcing. Decentralized by more people having better filmmaking tools, sure, but not toppled by the defeat of personal vision. Jimmy Wales disagrees, however. From Wired:

“Jimmy Wales has a message for Hollywood: You’re doomed, it won’t be piracy that kills you, and nobody will care.

The Wikipedia founder, delivering a keynote address at the Internet Society’s INET convention in Geneva, predicted that Hollywood will likely share the same fate as Encyclopedia Britannica, which shut down its print operation this year after selling just 3,000 copies last year.

‘Hollywood will be destroyed and no one will notice,’ Wales said. But it won’t be Wikipedia (or Encarta) that kills the moviemaking industry: ‘Collaborative storytelling and filmmaking will do to Hollywood what Wikipedia did to Encyclopedia Britannica,‘ he said.”

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Crowds: very useful, but very creative?

I’m all in favor of the great utility of crowdsourcing and, for example, use Wikipedia, which is powered by a collaborative effort, on a daily basis. But those who laud Wikipedia as a creation of crowdsourcing are only half right: Wiki has been made possible by a collective, true, but it was created by two inventors: Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The crowd can marshal great force to complete a task, but invention still doesn’t seem to me a domain of the many. Not that the people who toiled for no money to make Wikipedia such an amazing tool are less important than its creators, but the crowd needs an idea to rally around. It seems unlikely that the many can dream with the same sharp precision–let alone genius–as a Tesla, Tucker or Jobs. Joel West wondered about the same thing last month on the Open Innovation Blog:

“At the #BAexec event last week, one of the interesting questions from the floor was ‘could the iPhone have been produced via crowdsourcing?’

My immediate reaction was ‘no.’ What’s made Apple so special for the past 13 years has been the solitary, laser-focused vision of product design brought by its CEO. Of course, that’s just the supposition of a 35-year Apple-watcher.

What I think was more interesting was: what are the limits of crowdsourcing? Those who study crowdsourcing consider its advantages for accessing heterogeneous knowledge bases or sheer scale of ideas. But integrating that hodgepodge of ideas — no matter how good — can be daunting if not labor intensive.”

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