Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales: 'It's true, I'm not a billionaire. So?' – interview

A Billion Dollars

On Wikipedia, you're "Jimbo", are you called that in the real world too?No. Just Jimmy in the real world. Many many years ago, when I first got on the internet, I was on this mailing list where there was already a James, a Jim, a Jimmy, so I said: "I'll be Jimbo."

And are you still the self-styled benevolent dictator of Wikipedia?

No, I've always rejected that term. The community has always rejected the term. But I do say that I'm the constitutional monarch. Like the Queen. It doesn't mean I have any actual power. I do a lot of waving.

Do you feel like you're an adopted Brit these days?

I've been here for quite a while, and my wife is English. We live in central London and I'm quite stuck in here.

We are meeting near "Silicon roundabout". Have you had much involvement with the UK tech start-up scene?

I've been here for a while, and I know loads of people who've done different startups. I love those guys and what they're doing. I think London is such a great place. In the US, Washington is politics, LA is Hollywood, San Francisco is tech, New York is advertising and finance, but London is all of those things. So, you get a real mix of people and you don't get that in the US.

You must get pitched by an awful lot of companies, but you've just announced you're joining a virtual mobile phone network, the People's Operator as its co-chair. What was the draw?

Usually I get pitched things that have some great noble purpose and a great vision, but no practical plan. Or I see quite perfectly nice business ideas and I've been on the board of some startups and I do enjoy that. But, this was both – the idea that we could raise a huge amount of money for good causes, while at the same time having a business model that worked. I thought that was actually an interesting combination.

So 10% of a customer's bill will go to the cause of their choice, and 25% of profits to a foundation. And the plan is to raise a billion dollars for good causes?

Yeah that would be amazing. It may take a while.

In a New York Times profile of you last year, there was a suggestion that it might be nice for you to do something that you actually get paid for.

Well, that was the weirdest piece I've ever read. It was false on multiple points.

They made quite a big deal about the fact that you were the only world famous internet entrepreneur who didn't actually have all that much money.

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.

But most of us haven't set up this phenomenal thing, the fifth most popular website in the world.

Yeah, but I love it. It's so fun.

Do you get fed up with that question? Do you ever regret donating Wikipedia to the Wikipedia Foundation and not turning it into a commercial enterprise?

No. I mean, I get asked it less now than I used to. But it's one of the least interesting questions I think there is, so ...

The New York Times claimed that your net worth is $1m, which it said "isn't Silicon Valley money. It's not even London money." There is a point to that, because actually a million dollars wouldn't buy you much more than a small terraced house in inner London these days.

But then every conversation in London very quickly converges on property prices. People in London are obsessed with property prices. That and schools.

You've spoken out publicly about the NSA revelations, but how surprised were you when that first headline hit? Or did you suspect something like that was going on?

I was surprised by the scale, by some of the revelations. I was surprised - as Google was -that they were tapping into lines inside, between the data centres of Google. That's pretty amazing. And hacking Angela Merkel's phone – that was a surprise. But I think we haven't yet

had the revelation that will really set people off.

You've said that you're going to start encrypting communications on Wikipedia as a result…

We have done. It's not completely finished yet but the only thing that GCHQ, hopefully, can see is that you're looking at Wikipedia. They can't see which article you're reading. It's not the government's business to know what everybody is reading.

You raise money for Wikipedia by campaigning and asking the public for money. Are there things you'd like to do that you can't because of lack of funds?

We have certain goals which we want to achieve. Growing Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world is

really important.

If Wikipedia were capitalised in the same way as these Silicon Valley companies, wouldn't you have more money to do more things?

No, no, because if we were in that situation, we wouldn't care about the languages, for example. If we were supported by advertising, we would care about entries that get another million users in the US but not what might be of interest to another million readers in India. A big part of my aesthetic vision for Wikipedia is that it is like a temple for the mind. I'm not anti-commerce, but I don't think it belongs in every aspect of life.

But there are problems, aren't there, with commerce entering Wikipedia? One example of this was mentioned in the comments beneath an article about the People's Operator which claimed the Wikipedia entry for the People's Operator was written by its marketing consultant.

No, it wasn't. I'd rather not talk about him.

But, when I looked at the Wikipedia entry for the People's Operator and looked at the history of the article, and then Googled the name of the person who had written the initial entry and looked him up on LinkedIn, it stated he was a marketing consultant for the People's Operator.

I'll have to look that up. That's very interesting. A lot of companies struggle with what they're supposed to do. This was long before they got me in because we're very strict about this sort of thing. To me, it's quite important that companies understand the right way to deal and interact with Wikipedia. It's quite common, not only for companies, but for individuals to say: "Oh, there is an error about me. I think I'll fix it." We advise against it. It's just not the wisest thing to do.

There was a funny story about you not being able to correct your own birth date on Wikipedia.

Yeah, it's more complicated than that because all my legal documents say one thing, and my mum says another.

And you couldn't verify it?

With what? A note from my mum? The last I looked the discussions died down. I think it's right now.

How much do you get involved in the day-to-day ongoing spats on Wikipedia?

I edit Wikipedia almost everyday.

Do you have pet entries that you like to look at?

I used to edit a lot about the House of Lords. It was kind of a hobby. I don't any more because I know too many of them.

I've read that of the people who write Wikipedia and edit it, something like 85% are male. And this is supposed to be the sum of all human knowledge. But it's the sum of all human knowledge as written by men about subjects that interest men from a male point of view.

It's a huge problem. It's something that we're really keen to resolve. It's technically quite geeky which excludes a lot of people. Computer geeks are overwhelmingly male. That is a part of the gender imbalance.Another is that Wikipedia is written in this very authoritative style and, as you know, men have no problem speaking in an authoritative manner about something they know nothing about. And woman are much more sensible. And the third problem is: are we a welcoming environment for a variety of people? There's a lot of internal research going on about that sort of thing.

Tony Blair was at your wedding. Did you see him doing dad dancing?

I have seen Tony Blair dance. That's all I'm allowed to say. My wife worked for him for 10 years so they are very good friends. The description he gave of her in his memoirs sounded a bit scary. "She ruled my diary with a rod of iron and if anyone interfered, she'd squeeze their balls so hard …" Or something. But always with a winning smile.

Powered by article was written by Carole Cadwalladr, for The Observer on Friday 7th February 2014 07.01 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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