Do you need to know the result of the English Football Association (FA) Cup Final in 1956? Information about the Loch Ness monster? A potted life history of Steve McQueen? If you run a search on any of these topics in any major search engine, you will find that the most salient and readable content will be on Jimmy’s baby – Wikipedia. It will be a top five listing too, such is the trust put in the product.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn the secret of Jimmy’s success – failure. Jimmy has failed at least three times to do what he set out to achieve. His story began with success – his job in finance, in a company called Chicago Options Associates, led to him making enough money to plough into other projects. His next avenue was mildly successful, a site called bomis.com – catering to the young male market with content similar to what you might find in Maxim magazine. Bomis provided the revenue (via advertising) and the server space to host what was to be probably Jimmy’s biggest failure to date – but also one that led to Wikipedia as we know it today. Nupedia was the name of his first free encyclopaedia, which was created by professionals, paid for by advertising and open to all. Having spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars and not even reaching twenty entries, he took the radical step of creating a new source of data. A free,open and peer-reviewed site that anyone could edit. He originally intended it as a source to feed his Nupedia project, but this sat badly with the Nupedia professional contingent. A separate domain was set up, based on a new method of editing content called a ‘wiki’ (coming from the Hawaiian word ‘wiki’, meaning ‘fast’). Nupedia was doomed from that day on. Speaking to Tampa Bay Online, Jimmy outlined his appreciation of failure:
• Fail faster. If a project is doomed,
shut it down quickly.
• don’t tie your ego to any one project. If it
stumbles, you’ll be unable to move forward.
• real entrepreneurs fail.
• Fail a lot. But enjoy yourself along the way.
• If you handle these things well, you
Naturally, faced with a man who has failed in such a successful way, Together was intrigued to find out a little more about him, Take it away, Jimmy.
Together: There is a raft of information available on the web – and, indeed – in the world. Why you? Why Wikipedia?
Why not? One of the things that I always tell people is that I am a carpenter, not an architect. By this I mean that I believe one reason for my success is that I’m willing to sit down and start working on something without asking questions like “Why me?”
Together: The working model of Wikipedia seems – if you will pardon the word – impossible. Yet, it works and works very well. Why do you think people don’t just log in and deface large portions of others’ hard work? People do it in public, why not ‘anonymously’?
The key is in the expression ‘accountability, not gate keeping’. The software keeps track of who is doing what, and makes it easy for us to block troublemakers. Also, all past versions are kept, so it is easy to restore to the proper state if someone tries to cause harm. In a nutshell, the philosophy is to abandon the concept of ‘absolute security’ and instead work to make it slightly more difficult to cause harm, and slightly easier to do good. And the result follows.
Together: You refused to co-operate with China in anything less than a completely transparent way regarding the accessibility of Wikipedia in China. Was this a personally political or an egalitarian stance, or maybe a bit of both? What is the availability of Wikipedia behind the ‘great Firewall of China’ at present?
For me, access to knowledge is a human right – a corollary of the right to freedom of expression – that is to say, it makes no sense to say that one person has the right to free speech, if others are not allowed to read or listen. As such, it is impossible to participate or compromise in human rights violations. Currently, Wikipedia is mostly available but – outside our control – some pages are filtered. We hope to continue to work with the Chinese government to encourage them to abandon those filters in due course.
Together: How many articles (in all languages) does Wikipedia carry at the moment, and what’s the target?
There are around 15 million entries today. There is no target in terms of a number of articles, though. The goal is stated in this way – to have a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. One way of looking at that is to say I want us to have 250,000 entries in every language spoken by at least 1 million people.
Together: What is coming up in the next ten years of Wikipedia? Are we likely to see any radical changes?
We will see some big changes in the editing process – making it easier for neweditors. But I think the end result – the look of Wikipedia when you visit it – will be essentially the same. Perhaps up to date with the style of the times, but in terms of text plus pictures, it should be more or less the same.
Together: We ask this question of all our high-profile interviewees – what are the keys to your success?
I think it is more or less what I mentioned above – I like to simply sit down and make things, to get things done, without waiting for permission or approval, without asking “why me?”. I just like to have fun.