As they say, life, death and taxes is the one thing that we can be sure will affect us all and when we leave this blessed planet it would be amazing to exit knowing you’ve made a substantial mark on humanity. I relish meeting those that have changed the status quo and the way we live.
Nowadays no one uses a print copy of the olde worlde style encyclopaedia but everyone logs onto Wikipedia to find out the basics about anything at all. Wikipedia doesn’t just give us straight facts – its an information tool that anyone globally can and do contribute to and mould for the best most updated, factual accurate information.
The founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales this fortnight took time out to meet the LONDON360 team and talk about his support for TECH4GOOD. The Tech4Good Awards recognise organisations and individuals who use digital technology to improve the lives of others.
Usually when the media interview Jimmy they make a huge deal about the fact that he’s the only world famous Internet entrepreneur who isn’t a billionaire. To which his recent response to a journalist was ‘‘that fact is true, I’m not a billionaire. So? You aren’t either, so are not most people. It’s kind of a stupid thing to bang on about’’. So we didn’t. Here’s how our conversation went.
Can you tell me a bit about what motivated you to start Wikipedia?”
Jimmy: “So I had been looking at the growth of software, free software, programmers coming together from all over the world, collaborating, to build all the really great software that runs the Internet. Analytics, Apache, Pearl and HP, all of these fundamental software tools people are using to build the web, which are all open-source projects, all of whom are volunteers and it got me thinking about what else could be built in this way? We got this great opportunity of an Internet where people can communicate on, what else could be built? I hit upon the idea of an encyclopaedia that we could bring people together and give a free encyclopaedia to every person on the planet, in their own language and I was very excited about that idea. Here we are today”
Well today we’re the fifth most popular website with over 500 million users every month so we’ve become part of the infrastructure of the world people are relying on us for anything at a time. For free and with no advertising it’s had a huge impact, for me I’m particularly proud of the impact it is having on the developing world. We seeing a lot of growth in the developing world and that’s where the humanitarian mission of wiki is becoming more important and strong and that a net billion people are coming online and that’s why they’re going from very little information to having the world open to them and we’re pumped to be there helping them find out by their government and learn about their politicians. Whatever it is to me that very exciting.
Wikipedia is a freely licenced encyclopaedia written by thousands of volunteers in many languages, the original vision for Wikipedia is for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge, and that’s what we’re doing at Wikipedia
In terms of the motivation of the people involved, what sort of things would you say about their motivation? What motivates them to do what they do?”
Jimmy: “Yeah, I think it’s 2 things. First, you know, imagine a world where every single person is given free access to the sum of human knowledge through what we are doing. That’s our vision, which is very exciting, this big thing and if you are going to spent a lot of time on a hobby, you might as well be doing something that’s historic and important and that’s meaningful to people. But that’s not enough, there a lot of things that can be historically important, but that’s not very fun, this is very fun. People enjoy the process of editing Wikipedia, than you get those people who you agree, disagree and argue with, but in a constructive way. It’s an intellectual hobby, people really like, and people get really passionate about. So I think it’s a combination of those two things. It’s fun with purpose, is what makes the community really work. “
And in terms of achieving that encyclopaedia for everybody where do you put yourself on the scale in terms of how far along the line…
A few years ago I formulated in a more precise way to say I want to have at least 250 000 entries in every language that has at least 1 million native speakers because people say that in every popular language there are only three speakers. We probably won’t be able to make a separate encyclopaedia for them but we can have a million speakers. We have some small languages like that, that have been very successful and that’s about 339 languages depending on how you count and we are a long way from that. In the languages of the developing world there is a long way to go in the smaller languages particularly in the smaller languages of Africa there is a lot of work to be done; but in the larger languages, in the European languages, in the Chinese, Japanese we have come a long way towards that goal.
I do think that there are some big leaps happening faster than people realise in terms of Internet access. You know you can find predications from a few years ago when your smart phones become big in Africa and you realize today actually five years ago, three years ago we were probable two years too conservative. In fact it is coming really fast, much faster than people realize. I think that is going to have some sharp impacts in the community. Look at the percentage of people that have access to the Internet in various countries. A lot of places in the developing world are experiencing what we all experienced in the late 90s of sky rocketing access to the internet, sky rocketing participation – it is coming to them now and that is a very exciting time obviously.
And using devices that we could never imagine at the time the differences in these things and on the phone and nonetheless computer is a completely different experience…
For us one of the challenges is excessive building. If people are coming on a device than if it is the smart phone it is easy and its quite a good experience to read Wikipedia on a smart phone but I don’t think you are ever going to really edit Wikipedia from a smart phone…
That won’t change I think there is room for a bit more video. I always love it when people contribute to high quality photos and illustrations and things like that, those are important but not as important as changing the overall nature of the product Encyclopaedia is texting and that’s fine. There are other things. There is not a lot of demand from the community for video – it is really hard to collaboratively edit a video if someone posts a video and I think ‘oh there is an error there they should have done this differently’. Well there is not much you can do about it after the fact whereas with text you can say ‘oh I can add that or I see a mistake you made there or I can see a way it could be better phrased and I see a dialog along that’. Text is very fluid so it’s easy to continually improve text so I think that’s the nature of it and most of the topics in encyclopaedia text is really ideal. Audio, no in terms of access ability making sure that screen reader software works on our Wikipedia – something that is always a nagging problem because it’s so easy to change something and breaks people’s screen readers and they complain and we have to fix it again but we really try to be as successful as we can.
Turning to tech 4 good I was trying to think of a couple examples that will sit alongside Wikipedia that are not for profit tech-driven globally do you have some examples that you sort of place yourself amongst.
I never think about that question we are so absorbed in doing what we do that we don’t really compare ourselves. I think if you think in a broader way I don’t know if any other organisation are like us but there is a broader movement and spirit around the internet of the users of the Internet so while Youtube is a commercial platform a great a mass of content on Youtube is not commercial it’s just people sharing knowledge and I was just reading about music editing software so creating music and apparently there’s hundreds and hundreds of videos on Youtube explaining details of how to do it. If you have a software saying I want to learn how to make music using software there is an enormous amount of free educational material that people have just posted because it is their hobby and they love it so that is the spirit of Wikipedia that I know something and I’d love to share it.
If you had a child that is in to Mindcraft you know full well that’s all they do is watch YouTube, Mindcraft is the same thing there’s the same spirit of sharing and developing
I play Mindcraft all the time as does my 17 year old daughter there’s massive amount of Mindcraft in there. I have heard of some cases they spend more time watching Mindcraft on You Tube than they do actually playing which is interesting.
Looking ahead, I know you have been advising the government, UK government for example, what kind of lessons do you think there are about the way that tech can be used for good, social good, even stuff that you have learnt through Wikipedia or just generally.
I think that one of the most important lessons of Wikipedia is that there’s an enormous amount of good will out there and so when we think about designing projects for good, we should be designing around that good will or rather the good people not designing around the very tiny minority of people who are trouble makers and that is a big mistake I see people making. They start thinking what could the bad people do, lets design the system around that to stop them from doing that and there’s consequences that stop the good people from spontaneously doing good, so that kind of approach and design of software, design of communities is really key and something I think we should see a lot more of.
Can government introduce that do you think, is there any role they can play in that?
They can stay out of the way as much as possible, one of the big mistakes can be made is for politicians to imagine that they know what to do in the world of tech and entrepreneurship in general, and in general they don’t and they cant and it is not the right thing. What they should do is what they should be good at which is make sure that the legal structure is solid, understandable and fair to allow for innovation within that framework, and they get out of the way.
In five years time what is going to be different about Wikipedia with all the technology, which we’re using?
The two big changes you’ll see will be one will be visible to you and the other wont. The visible change will be that the editing environment will become a lot more like a word processor much more friendly. Right now when you click on edit you get wiki mark-up language and it’s a bit of a learning curve on how to do it. We want to eliminate the barrier so that is a visible change. The invisible change is what I’ve talked about already which is invisible to me which is the growth of Wikipedia in the developing world. We probably won’t notice when Zulu Wikipedia goes from two hundred entries to two thousand entries but the people who do speak Zulu will notice and that’s a big change.
I know Wikipedia is very assessable to the disabled and the elderly and perhaps those with learning difficulties, was that something built in at the very beginning was that part of your mantra. And if so why?
Yeah it’s been core sometimes we’ve had a mixed track record on it. It’s something we are making sure Wikipedia works on screen readers, making sure the site is usable and we follow all the best practises of accessibility. And occasionally we break something and we try and fix it as quick as we can so there are issues on Wikipedia, which we can improve in terms of accessibility. But it is a core value and its part of our mission to say we want a free encyclopaedia in every major language for everyone on the planet. And that’s including for the blind and every other disability, which they may have. We want to make it available.
So in your view technologies good and technology is moving all the time. Do you have a vision of what the big next vision is going to be?
Yeah. In terms of tech 4 good for me one of the biggest things we’ve talked about briefly but its mobile in the developing world. There are phones coming out now the cheapest one I’ve seen so far for an android smartphone is $41. Which is reaching hundreds of thousands millions of people who could never have reached it before. They’re coming online for the first time there joining the global conversation. They’re using twitter or facebook or Wikipedia they’re reading the newspaper. That is a true revolution and I think that’s going to have an enormous impact. In places where people are finally able to get organised over the tyrants that rule over them. The kleptocrats that steal the money form them those sorts of things. They begin to gain the opportunity to gain some power and I think that’s incredible.
What was your brilliant moment that caused you to create Wikipedia?
The interesting question of what was my brilliant moment is one that I really struggled with because I don’t think there was a brilliant moment. I think maybe the brilliant moment which is lost in the sands of time now, was the realisation that I wasn’t going to have a brilliant moment and that I need to allow other people to have lots of brilliant moments. So the creation of Wikipedia and the growth of Wikipedia required a lot of innovations by a lot of people. Developing the community norms and rules and editorial standards umm…. various genius changes to the software, things like that made a big difference. Other than saying I had the idea to create a free encyclopaedia for everyone, maybe that was a brilliant moment, I don’t think that was that important. I think lots of people have great ideas and they never do anything with them so for me I would say I’m a carpenter and architect, I’m a builder I build things, keep things moving forward
What impact do you think Wikipedia has had so far?
I think Wikipedia has had an enormous impact on the world. I’m really proud of our community and the things that we have accomplished. We’ve got 550,000,000 readers every month now so that’s a substantial portion of the planet. Were continuing to grow, were really excited for the next five years as we see the next billion people come online in the developing world and join in the global conversation. We want Wikipedia to be there for them to help them in the same way it has helped all of the rest of us so its an exciting time.
The evolution of Wikipedia has been very minimal actually, its an interesting thing that the original vision, the original concept, the original software, the original look of the site is all very similar today, a few things have changed here and there and obviously its bigger.
But one of the reasons that Wikipedia has been so successful is that the simple core idea, a free encyclopaedia for everyone has always been the driving force and it has helped us make decisions through the years and as long as we have remained true to that mission we have prospered and so I that sense we were not completely different than we were 7 years, we are pretty much the same as we were 7 years ago just bigger and better.
What do you think is the most important lesson you have learnt since you have started that you want to share?
The single lesson that I have learnt from Wikipedia, the main thing is that there is an enormous number of wonderful people out there, in general if you think that that out of a 1000 people who turn up in the world, there’s probably 10 of them that are really annoying, and only 1 of them is actually destructive. But the 99 can deal with the 10 and the 1 you have to learn to cope with somehow. But in general we should design our systems we should design our societies we should design our software, the tools that we us are around the assumption that most people are good and we should allow the flexibility and ability to do what it is they want to do. Yes we have to deal with difficult people, that’s a piece of it but don’t design things about the difficult people first, don’t think of all of the horrible things people might do, lets lock everything down so they wont do that. Look at all of the great things people might do and lets design for that, and then yes, we have to cope with the trouble.
What is your ultimate goal for Wikipedia?
The goal for Wikipedia is to have a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet in their own language, to make that a little more specific, the goal is to have 250,000 articles in every language that has as least 1,000,000 native speakers, so that’s about 330 languages. We are a long way off form that now, there’s a lot of work to be done in the developing world but it is a growing, we are on the way.