Interview Transcript with Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales

The video of the interview can be found at Elektrischer Reporter. The text follows the spoken word.

For the Wikimedia Foundation which is a nonprofit organisation that runs Wikipedia, I am now just one of seven board members. I have stopped to side as chair of board to focus on some of mine other projects. Within the community I still hold a a position. Within the community particular in the english wikipedia I am very involved on a day to day basis with speed resolution and discussion and also globally for policy discussions I still remain very active in those things.


I think pretty important because the failure of Nupedia and watching how that happend and why really thought me a lot about what I call community design. The design of social rules to allow people to build good work. It was really a top down kind of mechanism. In my talk today I talked about the idea that people design a lot of software in a lot of communities around the worst possible behavior. I have come up with a very simple analogy to tell people think about things in a more of a wikilike manor. And so the first thing that I ask peolple to do is to stop and imagine that you have been to ask to design a restaurant.

So you gonne design a restaurant from scratch and you can do anything you like in this restaurant. You can design it however you want. And so you think to yourself -what gee – in that restaurant we going to be serving: Steak!

And whenever you serving steak one of the things is that the customers are going to have access to is knifes. And of course whenever the customers have knifes they might stab people. And so therefore for a restaurant for a good design we better keep everyone in a cage. Well this makes a bad society.

This is not the way we think about restaurant design. And when I put it this way most people get it immeadeatly. They say „Ahh I see what you are saying“. It is true that people can do harm. But in general we should not design our social institutions around assuming the worst. We shouldn´t look for every possible bad thing that people and design around this.

That was Nupedia exactly. We thought of all the bad things people might do and design the system around that. So that was quite instructive. The other thing about the failure of Nupedia is that for nearly two years we had a nice community of a couple hundred people who were talking about writing an encyclopedia but not actually making much progress. But we had at least begun thinking and talking and discussing a lot of issues before we started.
So we had a lot of that sort of community building under our belts so to speak. So its not easy. Its very complicated but its also very human.

Its really… it has very little to do with the software really, it has a lot to do with people. And I wish I knew a simple set of secrets because I think there are a lot of ways to get it wrong. I think having the right personalities and the right people involved early on is really important. Having the idea that well there is a right and wrong we need to be as flexible as we can at accepting lots of different view points and its the way I describe it I think the way a healthy community should work its you face a lot of the same tradeoffs that you face for a community police force.

You want some law and order. You want to go out on the street and if sombody ist going to rob or mug you want somebody to intervene and to protect you from that and so you want a safe space so you can go about your business at the same time you dont want that police force to become the problem and become very controlling and top down.

So I think – if you think in those terms then you think about what do I want from the leadeship in an online community. Well thats very similar: I want them to help protect me against people who are just undermining and being mean and things like that and at the same time I dont want them control everything either.
I want to have a safe space for dissent. You want to be able to protest without getting kicked out for protesting. Thats the way like I approach it.

Ah well it took offence. Its a difficult thing. Wikinews has defintily not grown as fast as any of us sort of liked. I think there ist a couple of reasons for that. One reason is, they doing live daily news update. They have a very big competitor which is Wikipedia. So lots of people are working on current news events in Wikipedia and so thats a sort of duplicating whats going on in Wikinews.

The other thing is that the software that they are using at Wikinews has not been the most designed for that workflow. Thats sort of a technical problem but the workflow of news is very different from the workflow of an encyclopedia article and the software is not really supporting that very well. So thats been a problem.

Its interesting because I feel he has portrayed my position inaccurately. I have actually always been very much a moderate on the issue of advertising. I take a middle position which is I dont want to see advertising in Wikipedia like lots of people but we are a charity with the goal of distributing free knowledge to everyone and money could in some cases benefit that.

What we are doing right now is exploring other revenue options. We are getting enough money from donations to survive so survival is not the questions. The real question is what opportunities are we missing by not excepting a large amount of money. There a lot of complicated tradeoffs there. So one tradeoff is our public image our brandname is quite good and quite strong. Despite of the controversies people mostly love Wikipedia. And people at least understand when you go to Wikipedia and you read an article about General Motors well you dont see an advertisment for the new Corvette next to it.

So you dont have that question of bias that you would have. thats an important issue that I think we shouldn´t leave aside. I mean certainly taking the short term route of saying let´s put ads up on Wikipedia because we can get money for charitable purposes. Well thats sounds quite interesting but its really a big decision and not one that we are really going to make any time soon.

There is no hurry. If we find five years from now we are still this very large website and we haven´t made progress in developing (?) at all, and we feel like we are not fullfilling our mission than we might consider it more. But in the short run there are no immediate plans to do anything.

What´s interesting is, we see in the software world a varity of different models. There is the Linux kernel which is very much about you know mostly – still – individuals contributing. Some are contributing on behalf of their company where they work. Apache is really more organized as I understand it consortium of companys who are all involved in it and there is the nonprofit organization but which is not its not something people think of like a charity its more about a trade consortium of companys who have an interest in the browser. Than we have a for profit company like MySQL which releases free software and they sell services and things like that. So I think there are a lot of lessons from maybe as to how companys can benefit.

For me one of the things I am on my soapbox lately about is, there is this term thats become a little bit popular in the last year called crowdsourcing which I think is just a really, really bad term. I really dont like it at all. I think that anybody who is trying to move into this space and they think of their business model as crowdsourcing they are really missing the point.

They really disrespecting their community. Their thinking of their communities has being: cheap employees. But volunteers aren´t employees. It´s a totally different set of motivations its a totally different world and you really have to think of them as your customers really. I mean even Wikipedia from the early days I talked about cutomer service meaning people come and they want to write things for Wikipedia.

Thats a customer for us. As a community as an organization to say this is somebody we need to treat very well. I have been told thats a very american way of looking at the world. Treating someone like a customer means be nice to them. I don´t know if that´s so american but I think that crowdsourcing ideas really can be poison for people if they are thinking in that way. You know if you were doing something like running a bowling alley and you imagine that what we are gonne do is we gonne produce bowling and we are gonne produce it very cheaply by crowdsourcing and letting the general public come and produce the bowling.

This is – like it makes no sense, right? Thats totally wrong approach to what you need to have a successful bowling alley. What you need to do is you need to think of the people in to bowl as your customers and that you need you to provide them with the sources that they need to enjoy themselfs which means you sell them beer and hotdogs.

You don´t say: Well we won´t have beer because we know that everytime there is beer the quality of bowling goes down. That´s not what you in business to do. You are providing a place for people to do whatever that is they enjoy.

And the crowdsourcing model would say: Don´t give them that. They may enjoy it, but it caused to decline the value. No. What a lot of people are missing there is the real ideas of community. That people come to your website for something like that. They might there to do work for you. They are happy if there is some byproduct which is beneficial for other people.

But generally want to go online in a situation like that and make friends and even they don´t think of it this way but they want to make enemies in some cases – I mean you want to find someone to disagree with and hopefully a enjoyable and respectful sort of tussle (?) with them. All those kind of things in what people are interested in doing on a lot of website around Web2.0 world are really missing that. I sort of just get it quite well.

I am big fan of Flickr for example. People dont go there to hurt you. But you know they do a good job of thinking about not how do we make our pages better for the general public to see ads, they think about how do we make our site better for people want to upload photos and share. So they think of that as their customer. So I think it requires a long term thinking not a short term thinking.

So right now we are in a very early design stages. So a lot of the questions are very much open in the air.

This is the cover of a magazin last month in the US. It has my picture. It says: Googles worst nightmare. I am not so sure about that but my mother bought ten copies. So anyway that was fine.

There are certain principals that we sat into place to guide the work. In terms of the actual functioning what we are currently envisioning three levels of participation. One in terms of the algorythms, the actual ranking algorythms, thats an traditional open source software project. That program was participating and sharing and helps us in lots of different ways. Release the code for other people to use and so forth. But thats participation only by programmers. Its not something that the rest of us can do.

Another level of participation would be people just coming to the website and giving feedback with thumbs up thumbs down, ranking you know, are this good results or not, is this a qualtiy website or not, rank you with your toolbar, those kind of things, very limited interaction not so much community participation, just giving feedback in various community like ways. And than finaly the community participation which will be the area where there will be the most similiar to the Wikipedia community with network of trusted people who are doing well if we can make it enjoyable for them doing different kinds of editorial work to guide people in various ways. So those are the three broad ideas and the details of how we work that out is just really very much up in the air right now.

So my most optimistic view would be that – you know – we see more and more community parcipitation under open licences which enables a culture of sharing and participation. We have a very diverse pariticipation from lots of different kinds of people. We avoid certain kinds of top down control which I think are unhealthy. So thats the good side.

The negative view or the things I am concerned about: I am very concerned about software patents.
Fortunatly so far Europe continous to reject these which is very good both from a global perspective but also from a perspective the economy of Europe and the health of the software industry in Europe. Certainly handing control of your industry to the large american companies that would dominate very quickly seems like a bad idea.

But even more than that I very worry about patents because the way that they are implemented – they really pose a threat to creativity. For something like Wikipedia – you know – just because we invented it by ourself doesn´t mean doesn´t invented six month prior and prevent us from using it. Its very hard to have free software and open source sharing culture when so many things can be patented.

And the reason we have patents – the beneficial reason to have patents ist to encourage innovation. I see no real problem with innovation and software right now, thats not being – we have copyrights which do enable proprietary software to get returns. We have brought open communities which are quite creative. So ….. if … My concern would be that patents would put a dent in this whole movement.

And than there are other things – you know – we will hate the internet to end up like the mobile phone space where the carrier still have just a strangle hold on innovation and – you know – so many people have very obvious ideas about cool stuff you could do with the mobile phone that you just can´t do right now because the platform is so locked down nobody actually can do much with it. We wouldn´t want to see that spread to other areas through DRM and things like that.

So I am not too worried about that stuff. Thats the nightmare scenario. I am so optimistic, I can´t see that happening.

[tags]Wikipedia, Jim Wales, Interview, Elektrischer Reporter[/tags]