Jimmy Wales is a renowned internet entrepreneur who is best known as the co-founder and promoter of the non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia. He has admitted to being “addicted” to the internet and is a passionate believer in its power and relevance as a tool to spread knowledge in today’s world and for future generations. Born in Alabama in the US, he now lives in London with his wife and two daughters. Euronews’ Paul McDowell caught up him.
Paul McDowell euronews: “Jimmy Wales, you and Wikipedia won the Princess of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Another award – growing every year it seems.”
Jimmy Wells: “ We are quite happy about this award because it is for international cooperation, which is an aspect of Wikipedia which is really important to us as it’s part of our culture, part of our community spirit and it is not often recognised. So, people sometimes think of us as an internet phenomenon, a technical phenomenon but we really think of ourselves as more of a cultural phenomenon and about international people working together globally so it’s nice, yes.
euronews: “How much of Jimmy Wells is in Wikipedia?”
JW: “Well, that’s really hard to say. I do think some of the early values of Wikipedia are still reflected in Wikipedia so I tend to be a very reflective and thoughtful person. I don’t like political debates that are one side yelling at the other side and everybody being very extreme. I like to say, “no let’s stop and understand this first”. That’s obviously a value of Wikipedia – to try and really seek that neutral presentation to understand first, before having an opinion.”
euronews: “Do we want to be neutral, surely we want to be stimulated, we want that argument. Politics moves on by arguing, by that debate.”
JW: “It’s very interesting, I think. I believe very strongly that people want both and actually one of the mistakes which has been made in the media – I now live in London and so newspapers there can be sniping at each other and it is all that sort of thing. It gets a lot of attention and obviously we know online “clickbait” headlines as we call it get a lot of attention.Yet Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website in the world and we don’t run outrageous articles to get people’s blood boiling. So, I think people want both. They want a bit of spirited debate but actually want the background information.
For example if you take an issue like Obamacare – healthcare reform in the US – turn on any television news programme or look at any newspaper and you will see ranting editorials for and against. It is actually very hard to figure out what the hell it is exactly, what exactly were these reforms. It was enormously complicated and Wikipedia provides that. Just a basic description of what is it and so now we can fight about it because we actually know what we are talking about.”
euronews: “Of course you are providing knowledge and knowledge is power. Could it be a bit of a dangerous game giving us all power, empowering us with that knowledge?”
JW: “Yeah, that’s great. I hope so, I hope so, I hope that what we are doing is giving people the ability to access lots of information, lots of knowledge to improve their lives by learning more about culture, literature, science also political matters. One of the things we see around the world is that the internet and the new communication tools are giving rise to popular rebellions.
But we also see people really struggling and saying “look here in my country we have sham elections and the same people have been running things for 40 years and in Europe and America – as flawed as things might be in this way or that way – you have a change of government that is peaceful and ideas that people support do ultimately get expressed. How can we get there, what is wrong with our institutions?” So that is a deep question of political science that is not answered by going out on the street corner and protesting. It is answered by saying, “okay, what are the right checks and balances, how do we form a proper government that will tend be protective of human liberty and so forth?”
Well, we are only a tiny piece of that, but I hope the internet, by giving people access to knowledge that they are less vulnerable to the demagogue of the weak in various places around the world.”
euronews: “I am thinking of when we were at school – you all remember those teachers that really inspired you to learn. The internet is a very flat dull uninteresting way, I just pick up Wikipedia and read it and there is nothing that comes out and hits me.”
JW: “But, people do read it and they get quite passionate about it. I think for many people they are a bit tired of inflammatory things and so on and they actually just want a calm sane presentation of the facts. And also the massive comprehensiveness of Wikipedia means there is something interesting for everyone.”
euronews: “Looking at your page on Wikipedia I don’t really know the man, I don’t really know what your dark moments were, I don’t really know what your high moments are.”
JW: “Yeah, yeah for sure. One of the interesting things about Wikipedia is that we say we want to be the sum of all human knowledge – the sum meaning “summary” but there is so much more to culture. The experience of a fantastic presentation of Hamlet is a world apart from reading about Hamlet in Wikipedia. On the other hand, going to see Hamlet without any background, any cultural understanding and so on you miss a lot of the nuances and so the two hand in hand are a fantastic experience and so I think it’s absolutely right. If you want to understand a person, really understand them you need more than just the Wikipedia page. It will give you the basic facts.”
euronews: “You mentioned the sum of all knowledge and you said you want to get that available to every individual in the world. That is a huge strategy, that is a huge task.”
JW: “It is and interestingly enough I think it is one of the reasons we have been successful. It is a big bold exciting idea and I think if it were more limited people wouldn’t be as inspired by it. But it does drive our work. We know in the next five to 10 years there is going to be a billion, possibly two billion coming online. We need to think now about how we can support them, what does it mean for people who previously had almost no access to knowledge to have the whole internet in their pocket because they are coming online with mobile devices.
So that vision of trying to reach as many people as possible in every part of the world is really important to us. And for me it is part of what makes Wikipedia really meaningful. It is to say this is actually a moment in history where we have this fantastic tool. When most people first saw the internet they thought this is fantastic, this can bring everyone together as one planet, they can all learn together and so on. And then in the dot com boom it seemed to be mostly about ordering dog food at home and sort of nonsense like that. Wikipedia is about that fundamental vision to say “wow” we have got this amazing tool to bring people together, to share knowledge, to understand each other, to understand the world. Okay great let’s do that then, that sounds like a fun thing to do so that is where we are up to.”
euronews: Jimmy Wales, thank you very much indeed.
JW: “Great, thank you.”