How Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia Harnessed the Web as a Force for Good
WIRED, March 19, 2013
Business – Icons
By Ted Greenwald
“Ted Greenwald interviews Jimmy Wales.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica finally threw in the towel. In March 2012, after 244 years, the staple reference source of libraries and households ceased publishing its 32 dusty volumes. (It survives in digital form.) Who humbled the mighty Britannica? Jimmy Wales and his crowdsourced compendium of all the world’s knowledge.
Wikipedia began as a side project of Wales’ dotcom-bubble-era entrepreneurship (he launched a search engine, among other things), but it soon took on a life of its own. Far surpassing its paper predecessors in sheer size and scope, it became the go-to source for answers to a vast variety of questions and the best evidence for the proposition that information really does want to be free. And though everyone who has ever added an obscure data nugget or deleted a spurious fact can claim a little of the credit, the global, free-of-charge, not-for-profit, real-time encyclopedia is very much Wales’ baby.
Founding Wikipedia in 2001 (along with Larry Sanger, by most accounts other than Wales’), Wales understood the web’s egalitarian underpinning and the open source method’s ability to spur productivity on a grand scale. What separated him from many first-wave net entrepreneurs, though, was his idealism: He harnessed those forces in the service of social good. He recognized the incalculable value of offering the entire human store of knowledge to anyone, anywhere, at no cost, and he made it his job to get it done.
Wales’ work has been criticized by observers either misinformed about the mechanics by which Wikipedia improves itself or nostalgic for a time before the illusion of a singular, authoritative perspective was irrevocably shattered. And the man himself has come under fire as having overstepped the line between do-gooder and dictator. Yet Wikipedia rolls on, delivering more than 24 million articles in 285 languages by 85,000 regular contributors to nearly 500 million readers monthly. It is one of the foundations of contemporary life. Tomorrow it will be even better.
About the Author:
Ted Greenwald is a contributor to WIRED.
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