UPDATED: Here are some excerpts of an interview I did with Jimmy on Thursday afternoon. I posed questions from myself and relayed some questions asked via this blog. The full interview is now on the M&G Online. Video and audio of the interview are now also available on the M&G Online article.

There will also be a version in the paper later in the week, which a different audience will access. I’ve published it here also given that this is an open community subject and I thought a blog would be appropriate in this context. (Pic by Jayne Morgan)

Interview with Mr Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales
Matthew Buckland: A major difference between Wikipedia and publications like Britannica is that publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood and reputations depend on it. With Wikipedia’s largely anonymous reader base, it appears that there isn’t that same pressure. How do you respond?
You might imagine that if you open up a website for anyone to edit, it’s going to be complete rubbish. Well, if you look at Wikipedia and you look at the quality of the articles, it’s clearly much better than anyone would have ever expected. This argument that says that because people are anonymous they won’t do anything good is just false.

The bulk of the community are not anonymous — we know who they are and things about them. In some cases they have some personal reason to stay anonymous, but even there they have an identity that’s stable over time; they have a reputation within the community. It is unthinkable to imagine any major Wikipedian suddenly deciding to insert malicious, false facts. They would be caught and really embarrassed. Those kind of social ties within the community and the idea of doing good seem to be quite powerful in ensuring quality.

What about the Los Angeles Times editorial-wiki experiment that ended up as complete rubbish in the end?
There’s a few things they did wrong. The first thing that they did, they opened the wiki up, but they hid the link to the history of recent changes, and for a wiki community to be able to see the history of every article is crucial. If you can’t see the history, then as soon as someone makes a change the old version is lost forever. You can’t roll things back to the pervious version.

A group of Wikipedians tried to help them that day, including me, but it was really difficult because they had really bunched up the interface. The second thing that they did was that they didn’t make anyone an administrator other than LA Times staff, and the story I heard was that they closed it at around 4am in the morning because the staff were so exhausted and had to go home.

Another thing … what they should have done was buy some pizza and beer, and invite certain people from the newspaper’s existing community to have their participation in the project. They didn’t do anything like that. It’s as if they thought the software would do all the magic for them in community building.

Finally, after botching all those things, they chose to do what has got to be one of the most difficult things to do collaboratively, which is write opinion pieces. They posted their editorial on the Iraq war … I don’t even know if I would even attempt an open editorial sort of thing.

Do you think Wikipedia signals a fundamental shift in the publishing model, and perhaps even in society itself? Is that why people are getting so excited about it?
I think there is an element of that, although I try to not be too over-hyping about it. Those are really big thoughts. Certainly I think Wikipedia is the first major example of good-quality, consumer-generated content that is really a radically different production model. So, I do think in that sense we are still at the beginning of a broader shift in how media are produced. And I do call it a shift — I don’t think it’s replacing the old media. It’s changing and impacting old media, no question, but I still think a lot of the traditional stuff will survive. Anyone who said that with the invention with the light bulb we’d no longer have candles, well, that might have seemed plausible for a while, but clearly we still have candles because they serve a different purpose and do some things better than the electric light. We’re just a tiny piece of a bigger revolution, which is all about what the internet is doing.

Do you think the roles of readers and publishers are blurring with the advent of the internet? Where is it all going?
Definitely we are seeing some blurring there, even via letters to the editor, but also via web forums that some newspapers have. And the forums tend to be unmoderated or very lightly moderated, so people can express an opinion much easier than in the old days of the newspaper only. The way I think this is going is hybrid models where traditional news organisations start to see community participation as a huge positive thing for them … to say there is all sorts of stuff out there and we just cannot afford to cover everything, and there is a community that would be happy to help us with that.

So far, we haven’t seen anything from citizen journalism, broadly construed, that would replace a traditional newspaper.

Do you think we’ll get there?
I don’t think so, no. There are some parts of it where I find it really hard to imagine how you would do it… This is something I just thought of recently that I’ve never said before: The pieces of the newspaper that I think are the most vulnerable are the commentary, the editorial page — simply because, with some rare exceptions, for the most part this is a purely intellectual activity.

Anybody who has good writing skills, access to information and who can come up with an opinion about the world, investigate it, have an interesting idea … can just post it on their blog. This is what the best bloggers are doing. They don’t need the infrastructure of a news organisation to do their job; it’s all about that one solitary individual who has something interesting to say.

This is why the New York Times selling access to their columnists makes no sense to me. I cannot imagine who would pay to read Maureen Dowd [NY Times columnist], and that’s not a slam on her; it’s just to say there are lots of interesting people in the world that I can read and nothing that she’s doing is unique in the sense that it has to come from the New York Times.

The other one that I think is interesting and perhaps vulnerable is sports coverage … It’s difficult for a citizen journalist to cover a car accident or some kind of disaster because you’re at work in the day, and how do you know this even happened? But everyone knows when a cricket match is, and it’s actually arranged so that people can be there at defined times. So it seems quite plausible to me that you can have citizen coverage that is essentially identical to what professional journalists do in the sports field.

You’ve come under a fair bit of criticism from a well-known tech site, The Register. The site is a well-known and often acerbic critic of yours, calling Wikipedia a “multiplayer shoot-’em-up game”. How do you respond to that?
[Laughs] The Register is completely ridiculous. I wouldn’t even consider it a serious website. It’s more of a humour site or something, I think. I read some of their things and I think that’s, like, really bizarre. In term of (Wikipedia) being a shoot-’em-up game, I don’t even know what that means.

The only thing that is close to that, I suppose, is that people do try to vandalise Wikipedia and there are people whose job it is to fight the vandals, so they go around reverting and blocking IP addresses. That activity is sort of analogous to a video game, I suppose.

A major difference between publications like Britannica and Wikipedia is that publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood and reputations depend on it. With Wikipedia’s largely anonymous base, it appears that there isn’t that same pressure. How do you respond to that criticism?
You might imagine that if you open up a website for anyone to edit, it’s going to be complete rubbish. Well, if you look at Wikipedia and you look at the quality of the articles, it’s clearly much better than anyone would have ever expected. This argument that says that because people are anonymous they won’t do anything good is just false.

The bulk of the community are not anonymous — we know who they are and things about them. In some cases they have some personal reason to stay anonymous, but even there they have an identity that’s stable over time; they have a reputation within the community. It is unthinkable to imagine any major Wikipedian suddenly deciding to insert malicious, false facts. They would be caught and really embarrassed. Those kind of social ties within the community and the idea of doing good seem to be quite powerful in ensuring quality.

Doug, who posted a question for you via my blog, wants to know if you plan any projects beyond Wikipedia.
Yes, I have a completely new project and a completely new organisation. It’s a completely separate company: Wikia. And the project that I am spending the most time on personally working on is the search-engine project.

The idea here is to take some of the lessons we’ve learned from Wikipedia, even some of the lessons we’ve learned from a lot of the social networking sites, the idea of free culture … to have freely licensed software, everything is open-sourced, publish all the algorithms and have a search engine to try to compete directly with Google and Yahoo! in a radically different, public, transparent way.

So you are taking on Google and Yahoo?
Well, yeah. It will be fun, anyway… and we expect to launch something by the end of this year. It won’t be a fully functioning search engine by then, but it’ll be the openings of the community project — the software to start building the search engine — and it should be fun to see if it works.

Full interview on M&G Online

12 Responses to “One-on-one with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales”
  1. […] quality — the prime motivator for me behind this blog. (What Jimmy Wales emphasised in an interview I did with […]

  2. Seroquel xr….

    Seroquel xr….

  3. […] There has also been quite a bit of speculation about Wales’ stated intentions to create a new search engine under his company Wikia, which is a for-profit operation. Wales has openly stated in interviews that such a search engine would rival Google, but it would based on the Wikipedia principles of collective user collaboration and openness. […]

  4. […] This is confirmation of what Jimmy Wales told me on a trip to Cape Town recently. He told me it would be “fun” to launch a Google and Yahoo rival. He also said it would be a different kind of competition — that he would compete with the online giants in a “in a radically different, public, transparent way”. […]

  5. […] Last week Matthew Buckland interviewed Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and he posted the transcript of the interview on his blog and put a story up on the Mail & Guardian Online. We figured people would like to see the video footage we shot of the interview too so we just posted it on Zoopy. […]

  6. Thanks for sneaking my question in there Matt :) You rock! 😛

  7. We did one of our first blog entries on wikipedia. I personally love the site. For a “dummies” summary you can read http://www.odinjobs.com/blogs/page/thatsinteresting?entry=forget_windows_get_a_wiki

  8. Am jealous! lucky you and I agree with Paul.

  9. […] matthewbuckland.com » Blog Archive » One-on-one with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (tags: jimmywales wikipedia wales interview) […]

  10. thanks…

  11. Great interview Matt!

  12. […] In an interview with Matthew Buckland yesterday, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, said he is working on a new search engine project that he hopes will compete directly with search giants Google and Yahoo! […]

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