SNW INTERVIEW -- June 25, 2006 -- Strange things happen when you empower people. Myspace
allowed users to create freeform profiles…85 million users later, Fox
has their arms wrapped around them. Linux asked for a little help with
a new OS. Jimmy Wales pondered on the wealth of the worlds
encyclopedias, and set the framework for a new, open encyclopedia.
Here's the story of Wikipedia.
It shouldn't have happened, but it did. How can you empower YOUR online
personals site users more? Have faith, step back, you might be
surprised what happens. – Mark Brooks
What's your personal story?
One of the
interesting things, I guess, is when I was growing up, I had a fairly
unusual education. My mother and grandmother had a small private school
and there were four kids in my grade, 1st through 8th grade. In fact,
what they did was they grouped us into two groups, so 1st through 4th
grade, and 5th through 8th grade. There were about 16 kids in the
classroom but at different levels. So that enabled us to work at
whatever different levels we were interested in. We had a very
open-ended time schedule and we were able to just study and learn
whatever we wanted. I spent a lot of time pawing over the encyclopedia.
Self-directed learning has always been a part of my upbringing.
I was in grad school studying financial economics and did PHD
coursework, but I never did finish the PHD. I got an interesting job in
Chicago as a trader. When I was in grad school I started looking at the
Internet and looking at free licensing software. I was watching the
growth of the free software movement. At first I was skeptical but then
we saw that very high quality software was being created. All the
software that really runs the Internet is Apache, Linux, PHP, it's all
free licensed software that's written primarily by volunteers,
programmers just working together collaboratively. So that was really
the genesis of the idea for a free encyclopedia, to get a bunch of
people together to collaborate on something useful. We've seen them do
it in the software world and it works so, let's do the same thing with
Was there one particular turning point for you? When was Wikipedia started?
was started in January 2001. Before this, for two years, I had the
previous project Newpedia. Newpedia was a completely different social
model. It was very top down, very structured, very hierarchical – seven
stage review process for articles, academic committees and so forth.
And it was also a failure. It was a failure because it wasn't very fun
for the volunteers. It was way too heavy in terms of controls and
mechanisms and that's actually one of the things, as you said,
Wikipedia was intuitive but it was born out of really a reaction
In the Newpedia days we engaged in a lot of thinking about how to
control things, how to make sure nothing bad got in. Wikipedia goes in
totally the opposite way. So I said, "Let's just be as open as
possible. Let's rely on accountability rather then gate keeping." By
that I mean, every edit is visible, every edit is trackable to your
account, people can see what you're doing, so there's that public
oversight of the work that the community does. Wikipedia is really a
reaction against the gatekeeper approach, which was to say, "we'll just
make sure that only good people are involved and that people know what
they're talking about before they get started." That was the gatekeeper
model, which didn't work.
Did the information drastically improve on Wikipedia at a certain point, once you had a critical mass of contributors?
not about the number of people, it's about the quality of the
individuals who are working on Wikipedia. We had more work done in two
weeks on Wikipedia than we had done in two years on Newpedia. Even in
the very early days, there was some pretty good articles, within a
couple of weeks, where people got excited and edited together and kept
adding information and rewriting and smoothing out, and then it just
kept growing from there. I can't really point to any particular point
and say, "Once we had this, then we were that." It grows and improves
Is what you've created at Wikipedia magic, or is it reproducible?
think the core principles are reproducible. You've got to think really
hard about being in a social environment that's friendly and polite and
helpful. Of course, with humans it's never perfect,there's always some
fighting and things going on. There's always some sort of drama going
on in the community.
Craigslist is a fine example. It's a community of friendly, helpful
people who help each other out. And then, of course, I now have my
company Wikia and people are building communities there using the same
software (hosted) that Wikipedia is built on, but it isn't
encyclopedias. It can be anything, political, fan sites, whatever, and
those communities are also seeming to be very successful. I think it is
I think that what we're going through right now is a period of
learning about how to design software that let's people interact in
friendly ways online. A lot of behaviors online, bad behaviors, come
from incentives that are implicitly in the software that people don't
necessarily notice. So a lot of my thinking about these kinds of issues
is how do we keep the software in a state that encourages good work and
gives a means of deflecting negative energy.
How do you make money? Why did you go non-profit with Wikipedia?
Wikipedia started sort of on the side as a hobby and it just became
bigger and bigger and there was a real demand from the volunteers that
it be a non-profit. The idea of a free, neutral, high quality
encyclopedia as a reference standard, written by a community…it just
seemed to make sense as a charitable project.
I now get a salary from my work at Wikia, so that's how I make
money. And then the foundation gets money primarily from small
donations. So the bulk of the money that we get is $50 to $100, or 50
to 100 Euro. It's basically thousands of small donations that pay the
bills and keep us going.
You're building an incredible reference to a world of information. Are you friends with Google?
I mean I talk to people at Google. Of course, there are tons of people
at Google who are fans of Wikipedia. We don't have any kind of formal
business relationship or anything like that with Google.
What does the future hold for Wikipedia? What partnerships are you looking for in 2006 through 2007?
just announced that we hired an Executive Director for the foundation.
We're trying to mature the organization. Our organization is very small
and a little chaotic because we're swamped all the time with all the
crazy stuff that's going on with Wikipedia growing so fast. The main
kinds of partnerships we're pursuing are around helping people to reuse
our content commercially or non-commercially, so that involves us
taking a careful look at how it can be used that are consistent with
our community values. You should take a look at http://personals.wikia.com.
It's not very active but it's kind of interesting. There's a few people
working on. It's very limited at the moment but they're basically
thinking about how to do personals in a community way. An open ended
system. It's a neat experiment.
Mark Brooks: Wikipedia
is modeled on the ancient campfire; the wise sharing information with
the community around them. Jimmy knows open learning. He grew up in an
open learning environment. It took that immersion in freeform thinking
to drive the creation of the radical, rather counterintuitive
Wikipedia. Web 2.0 will model (and improve on) many of the social
dynamics that we experience in the real world. At the core of some of
the best rising star web sites are two common themes. Trust and
empowerment. (Wikia, Jotspot and Wetpaint are the top hosted wiki
services available to the public).