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So What Do You Do, Jimmy Wales, Co-Founder of Wikipedia and Wikia?

Wikipedia's co-creator discusses the rapid growth of participatory journalism and why media organizations should adopt a more community-friendly model

By E.B. Boyd - March 17, 2010
Most people know Jimmy Wales' story. They know that, almost 10 years ago, the former Chicago futures and options researcher launched an open-content encyclopedia that has become one of the most popular sites in the world, a blessing for millions and the bane of school teachers and university professors everywhere. They might not know, however, that the Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia, has other user-generated projects similarly focused on spreading knowledge to the four corners of the earth, including Wikimedia Commons, a repository for public domain and Creative Commons-licensed images, and Wikinews, a user-generated breaking news site.

And while most people might know that Wikipedia is a commercial-free, nonprofit venture, they might not be aware that, back in 2004, Wales launched another company, the for-profit Wikia, where millions of volunteers also use wiki software to create sites on everything from pop culture blockbusters like the television show Lost and the video game World of Warcraft, to domestic pursuits like cocktails and vintage sewing patterns. And in an era in which the revenue outlook for most newspapers and magazines seems increasingly dismal, last year the advertising-supported Wikia hit profitability. It also broke into Quantcast's top 100 list of the most popular sites on the Internet, and has over 10 million unique users -- and growing.

We caught up with Wales, who regularly circles the globe, speaking at conferences and meeting with members of the Wikipedia community, to ask him what he's focusing on these days, what newspapers and magazines can learn from Wikipedia and Wikia, and why there's a dish in China called "stir-fried wikipedia with pimentos."

Position: Chair emeritus, Wikimedia Foundation; Chair, Wikia
Resume: Taught finance at the University of Alabama and Indiana University while doing graduate studies at each. Research director at Chicago Options Associates. Founded the web portal Bornis, Nupedia (the precursor to Wikipedia), Wikipedia, and Wikimedia Foundation. Co-founded Wikia.
Birthdate: August, 1966
Hometown: Huntsville, Alabama
Education: B.A. Finance, Auburn University, M.A. Finance, University of Alabama
Martial status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Front page
Favorite TV shows: Lost, Flash Forward
Last book read: "I'm always reading about five books at once!"
Guilty pleasure: Pringles
Twitter handle: @jimmy_wales

Where are you right now?
I just got back from the World Economic Forum in Davos, and then I was at the Wikimedia Foundation board meeting in San Francisco over the weekend. Now I'm in Washington, D.C., for a few days. Then I'm home in Florida for about a week and a half. Then I'm back in D.C. for one night only, and then I'm going to London.

How many days of the year are you actually home?
I'm probably home less than a hundred.

What are you focusing on these days?
The biggest thing is pushing forward the usability of the wiki software platform, to get more people involved. We're doing a lot on that at Wikia. We're trying to branch out beyond the tech-geek early adopter crowd, in terms of who's doing the editing.

We've done a lot of testing to get data on what helps people contribute more. And we now have the WYSIWYG ["what you see is what you get"] editor, which is a much easier editing environment. It's much more familiar to people, more like a word-processing program.

And we're branching out topic areas. So, for example, we have the Recipes Wikia, which is doing very well and bringing in a whole different kind of audience from the people who are editing the World of Warcraft wiki.

"We're the fifth-largest Web site in terms of reach -- 350 million people a month or more. And yet [the Foundation has] only 35 people [on staff]."

Wikipedia seems to loom so large in our consciousness that I think most people would be surprised to discover how small the organization really is.
The Web site has been incredibly successful, and the community around the Web site has been incredibly successful. But the foundation behind it all has been very bare bones. Even today, when we finally have capacity to do things, we're talking about 35 people, still a very tiny organization compared to the reach of the Web site. We're the fifth-largest Web site in terms of reach -- 350 million people a month or more. And yet [the Foundation has] only 35 people [on staff]. That's very different from everybody else in the top 10 [most popular Web sites], where you're looking at hundreds or even thousands of employees.

There was a dust-up last year about a study -- which was later proven to be flawed -- asserting that volunteers were abandoning Wikipedia. And yet, Wikimedia's strategic plan still talks about the "health" of the editing community -- in other words, that the organization needs to put systems and processes in place to ensure that enough people continue contributing to Wikipedia. Are there natural limits to a project of this kind, which depends on volunteers to create the content?
That's always been a focus for us, and it will continue to be a focus. The community has been very successful, so making sure that that community is healthy and happy and growing appropriately -- and is sufficiently diverse -- will always be a priority for us. When you're talking about user-generated content as we are, it depends on those users.

Particularly as compared to more social Web sites -- like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, where the community does whatever they want to do, and it's for entertainment and hanging out with your friends -- that's very different than the Wikipedia world, where we have a clear mission that unifies the community and defines what the work is. So the health of the community means more than just numbers of people participating. That's not really the goal. We're concerned about having quality participants doing good quality work.

What's the difference between what people are doing on Wikia and what they're doing at Wikipedia?
Wikia is building the rest of the library. If you go into a traditional library, and you look for the encyclopedia, you find a set of books, 30 volumes, A through Z. And then there's all the other books in the library. So people are using Wikia for all different kinds of things that are not [in] an encyclopedia. For example, Uncyclopedia is a humor site that parodies Wikipedia. And one of the ones we're focused on right now is the Recipes Wikia, where people are sharing recipes.

"The idea that people will pay for quality, and that the traditional magazine is quality -- that doesn't really hold up."

Big-name advertisers like Verizon and Toyota have discovered Wikia and started placing ads on its content sites. How much of a disruptor is that for traditional media?
I don't think we're big enough yet to be that much of a disruptor, but I'm hoping to be a disruptor in that area. (Laughs) The interesting thing that's going on with advertising and Wikia is that advertising today is trying to reach the influencers. At Wikia, the editors are the influencers. These are the kinds of people who have lots of knowledge and share it with their friends.

How about on the content side? Is that disrupting traditional media in any way?
There's a shift among what are called the magazine audiences. We're not talking about headline news journalism -- CNN or The New York Times -- but among the kind of things you traditionally would associate with a magazine. Gaming magazines are probably where we're having the biggest impact. These days, consumers want information, and they want more information than they ever did before. If they subscribe to a traditional magazine that has 90 or 100 pages of content every month, and a lot of that is advertising -- they're finding [the magazine] to be quite lacking, compared to what they're able to get online. So with something like the World of Warcraft wiki, which has 70,000-plus articles, there's really no competition. No traditional magazine can compete with that level of detail and quality of information.

I don't know what the future is. I'm not predicting the death of the paper magazine, because the physical form of the magazine is useful in certain contexts. But I do think that, right now, readers are realizing, "Why should I subscribe to a photography magazine, when I can go and get massive amounts of information, that's much more detailed and much more in-tune with my interests, online, and it's good quality?" The idea that people will pay for quality, and that the traditional magazine is quality -- that doesn't really hold up.

Wikinews hasn't taken off the way Wikipedia has. Why is that?
There's a couple of reasons. Volunteer contributors are really drawn to writing about current events in Wikipedia itself because of the traffic. When some large-scale global story like the earthquake in Haiti happens, volunteers really want to go to Wikipedia, to contribute, do the research, find all the background information, and put in all the links. They do that in part because they know people are going to go to the Internet, type "Haiti earthquake," and find Wikipedia. So if you want to actually be useful to people, you need to go to where people are going to be.

Then there is the question about the way people are consuming information. Wikinews generally follows the same kind format as any kind of Associated Press-type news service. They write a single story. They update it at some point. They cut it, and then they move to the next story on the same topic. But that's less and less the way people want to consume information. For example, me. I'm not following the news every day, particularly not about Haiti. I check in every few days to find out the latest. But if I go to a news story about it, I get what's happened in the last 24 hours, when I actually want the summary -- what's the overall status? The Wikipedia-style entry is more useful for that.

What lessons are there in Wikipedia's and/or Wikia's success for news organizations and magazines?
Communities are capable of high-quality work. Journalists and magazines both operate in communities and should consider moving away from the "top-down" and "broadcast" way of thinking towards more of a "community facilitator and moderator" way of thinking.

Media reports about you tend to repeat the same details over and over. What's one meme about you that's either wrong, wrongly emphasized, or wrongly framed?
There are so many small ones that I don't know where to begin. (Smiles)

There's a restaurant in China that has a dish called "stir-fried wikipedia with pimentos." Why did they call it "wikipedia"?
There's a whole weird meme about this. People keep sending me photos of menus in China with all kinds of different dishes being translated as "Wikipedia". The best we can figure is that someone is asked to translate the menu into English. They ask, "What's the name of this dish in English?" And someone says, "I don't know, look it up in Wikipedia!" And they just write down: "Wikipedia". But honestly, I have no idea!

E.B. Boyd is a WebNewser contributor and San Francisco-based freelance writer.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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