Jimmy Wales

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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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