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

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 10:18 PM

For a very long while, knowledge was privileged and so were books, and only privileged people had access to either. Then came printing presses and libraries, and in this printed age, knowledge was both more accessible and more alphabetical; one could flip through a leather-bound encyclopedia and learn all of the exports of Sweden.

Then there came a time when one didn't flip but scrolled through not only the exports of Sweden but also detailed descriptions of every single "7th Heaven" episode ever made, plus discussions of the circumstances behind Jessica Biel's departure from the show (naughty photos). This editorial triumph represents the age of Wikipedia.

As it nears its 10th birthday Saturday, it has about 17 million articles - 3.5 million of them in English - making it the largest encyclopedia in the history of encyclopedias, if that's indeed what it is.

Grumpy knowledge purists like to say it's not - that true encyclopedias are not user-generated and do not allow dramas that aired on WB to have entries that are longer than those for some Ernest Hemingway novels.

Jimmy Wales, the site's public face and most well-known founder, says that it is, and that Wikipedia's just getting started. He wants Wikipedia in every language of the world. The company is preparing to open its first international office, in an Indian city yet to be selected.

Five years ago, it might have been clever to write a story on Wikipedia in the style of an entry on Wikipedia, with elaborate footnotes and heated discussion pages and a stupid error or two.

But by now it's been analyzed and mocked to death. It simply is, an omnipresent fact of modern living, like Facebook or Betty White. The accuracy debate is the most important, but in some ways less interesting discussion about Wikipedia's impact. What's most revealing might be not the vastness of the articles and the things they get wrong, but rather how they reveal what things we care about, and how humanity is both better and dumber than you ever would have expected.

Please read: A personal appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

For the last part of 2010, Wales stared at you from every page of Wikipedia, his fundraising request appearing in a banner ad across the top of the spare blue-and-gray site. He has crinkly eyes, a limpid smile; he looks like John Travolta during a stubbly phase.

The boys from the 4chan Web community got hold of that photo and made it into a meme, a series of jokes playing up the fervent intensity of the plea: For more information on Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, he is standing right behind you.

"I was afraid people might start to recognize me," Wales said. During the first weekend of the fundraising campaign - which went on to achieve its goal of $16 million - he took his young daughter on a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, worried that he would be mobbed while there. He wasn't.

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.

In the early 1990s, a computer programmer named Ward Cunningham was on vacation in Hawaii when the airport counter agent told him that the fastest way to get from one terminal to another was to take the "wiki-wiki bus," so named after the Hawaiian word for "quick."

Cunningham had been experimenting with a system that would allow data engineers to work collaboratively on projects; after the Hawaii trip, he decided to call the system a "wiki," and several years after that Wales and Sanger decided to adopt the technology for their new encyclopedia.

The collaborative nature of Wikipedia is what concerns people in the knowledge business, particularly the traditional encyclopedia editors who dedicate their lives to the spreading a methodically researched truth.

Wikipedia editors "aren't writing about what they know, but about their prejudices and preferences," said Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "The fact that information is available hasn't made us more inquisitive, it has made us more lazy. It's the same way that you might take the first highway exit and go to the first junk-food shop."

Even the stalwart Britannica has been forced to adapt to the new rules of information seeking defined by the era of Wikipedia: The encyclopedia now issues edits every 20 minutes rather than the yearly overhaul it once did.

"We may not cover cartoon characters very well," Cauz joked about his encyclopedia's comparatively fewer entries, but he said its contents have been carefully weighed for importance and deserve to be there.

"People were always taught that you had to assign tasks to people so you could assign blame if something went wrong," said Cunningham, who was reached via phone while preparing his keynote speech to celebrate Wikipedia's birthday - he's not involved in the company but remains an ardent fan. But it turns out that people "are really very revolutionary in their willingness to collaborate."

Early critics had worried the site would become a hackers' paradise, populated by doinks who took perverse pleasure in mangling celebrity birth dates or misquoting quotes. Instead, mistakes are caught almost immediately; the number of Wikihackers who would damage an article are far outweighed by the humble Wikimaids who do nothing but tidy up their small corners of the Internet as soon as someone tries to make a mess. There is something both lovely and crotchety about this.

Wandering into a deliciously specific but completely useless Wikipedia entry is the equivalent of discovering that a fan club catering to your own personal nerdery has been meeting all along in the unused classroom next to the gym.

And centuries from now, when all that's left of Wikipedia is a cached Wikipedia page about Wikipedia, maybe that is how we will remember it. The thing that makes Wikipedia's more obscure entries remarkable is not that one somebody bothered to write them, but that other somebodies bothered to read them. From a cultural standpoint, Wikipedia's biggest contribution might be the way in which it affirms that no interest is too obscure, that no private passion is too geeky and that no one is really alone on the Internet.

"We've always viewed it as a grand humanitarian mission," Wales said. "To do something useful for the world."

It's a nice goal. Happy birthday.

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