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Wikipedia is turning 10, and founder Jimmy Wales has big plans

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The 'un-leader' of Wikipedia talks with On Leadership's Raju Narisetti about motivating volunteers, the feedback that was 'hard to hear' and why Wikipedia is 'fair and balanced.'

Wales sits in an old-world hotel lobby in New York's Bowery district, utterly anonymous, drinking a glass of mulled wine. Over the past several weeks, he has been on a marketing tear, publicizing Wikipedia's 10th anniversary and evangelizing his cause of free information. He's up here from his home in Florida for some meetings; tomorrow he'll be on "The Daily Show," where Jon Stewart will speculate that Wales must be jealous of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's bajillionaire success.

"Whenever people say that Wikipedia's such a great brand, it could be a for-profit, I think that, well, you could say the same thing about the Red Cross, too," he said.

Today Wikipedia is a nonprofit institution, run by the Wikimedia Foundation, and has 57 paid employees, most of whom are engineers or office types. Even Wales's official position is simply "board member," and that position is not paid. (He also founded the for-profit company Wikia and reportedly achieved financial success as a Wall Street trader in his 30s.)

Were he to make Wikipedia into a for-profit (estimates of its worth have varied wildly, up to $5 billion a few years ago), Wales said, he would be forced to care about which pages get the most hits and how to monetize them. But he just wants to build a free source of information. He sees it as a public service. He pronounces it "Wee-kee-pedia."

Wales, 44, grew up in Alabama. His mother and grandmother ran a one-room schoolhouse in Huntsville that Wales attended; at home, his mother kept a set of World Book encyclopedias, which were updated yearly with an annual supplement. Stickers could be placed next to the out-of-date entries to signify that a country had changed its name, perhaps, or that someone had landed on the moon.

It was a physical cut-and-paste prototype of a Wikipedia edit, the function that today allows teams of editors worldwide to haggle over the details of an entry in pursuit of a commonly accepted truth. Should President Obama's Wikipedia entry mention birthers? (Only in the footnotes.) Should endive be referred to by its French term, the chicon? (No.)

As spiritual leader of Wikipedia, Wales's own personal entry is a model of crowd-sourced biography, detailing everything from his high-profile breakups - one ex-girlfriend accused him of ending things with her via Wikipedia - to accusations that he elbowed early Wikipedia player Larry Sanger out of the site's origin story. (Sanger, who has a doctorate in philosophy, went on to found the user-generated Citizendium and is involved in developing free resources to teach children to read.)

About 1,000 new articles are added to the English Wikipedia every day, handled by about 100,000 active volunteer editors.

There is a strange equality of topics on Wikipedia. Because space is endless online, entries are limited only by the stamina and interest levels of their contributors, who tend to be young, male and nerdy, which helps explain why the entry for actress Megan Fox is approximately the same length as the entry for President Millard Fillmore. This is why, in addition to opening international offices, Wales's other main goal for the site's future is to diversify the editor base.

"We're really strong in technology, the hard sciences - anything related to geek culture, like science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars," Wales said, naming two pop-culture phenomena that, he pointed out, are popular in every language. "It turns out that geek culture is quite international."

In 2009, the most viewed Wikipedia article was not an artifact of nerddom, but rather the entry for "Wiki," which might imply that even people using the site every day still weren't sure what they were looking at.


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