Jimmy Wales, Internet Entrepreneur
"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing." -Jimmy Wales, 2004, Slapdot
Jimmy Wales had a vision. A simple vision of a world of information available to all for free. In 1999, according to Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson (Time magazine, April 30, 2006), Wales "set out to reinvent the encyclopedia for the Internet age," to provide a resource that would be "free, up-to-date and available to all."
His brainchild, Wikipedia, started with a few commissioned articles, but its true genius was the unique "edit this page" feature that allows all readers to add to or alter any article on the site. The site has had no shortage of mischievous and sometimes malicious vandals and pranksters. But even its founder and strongest promoter has been surprised at how well Wikipedia works, emerging in an astonishingly short time as the most used and frequently most complete and accurate source of information on a constantly expanding range of subjects.
Jimmy Donal Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 7 or 8, 1966 (even from the start, controversy has enveloped Wales' story). His father managed a grocery store and his mother and grandmother ran the small private school (the House of Learning) Jimmy attended through 8th grade, along with three siblings. An avid reader, Jimmy found the school's educational philosophy conducive to his intellectual curiosity, and he spent hours working his way through the Britannica and World Book encyclopedias. At the age of 16, he graduated from Randolph School, a college preparatory school, and went on to obtain a bachelor's degree in finance at Auburn University and a master's from the University of Alabama.
Wales entered the PhD program at Indiana University but apparently lost interest before completing his dissertation, and left to begin a career in finance as a research director in a Chicago futures and options firm. By 1996, he once more changed course and with a couple of partners, founded Bomis, a male-oriented search engine featuring webrings and described as the "Playboy of the Internet," and reputedly selling erotic photographs. He had been deeply impressed by Netscape's successful initial public offering in 1995, and in his student years had whiled away many an hour engaged in an early virtual reality game, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), which possible anticipated the Internet's potential for online collaborations. Bomis, was never successful, but it did raise the funds Wales needed to found Nupedia (2000-2003) and ultimately Wikipedia, in 2001.
Nupedia was a peer reviewed free encyclopedia featuring articles written by experts and financed by advertising. Larry Sanger, a philosophy doctoral student at Ohio State University, whom he had known since the early 1990s, was invited to be its editor-in-chief. But building a comprehensive expert-based electronic encyclopedia turned out to be a very slow process, and in 2001 the first wiki model was created - a collaborative project that opened the process to the public to produce rough drafts that experts would then review. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this didn't sit well with Nupedia's volunteer experts, and the wiki project had to be launched on a separate site, which came to known as Wikipedia.
It wasn't only the experts who doubted that articles submitted by amateurs would produce a high-quality site. Wales himself reputedly expected the result would be "complete rubbish," but he and Sanger hoped to speed up the process with drafts that could be reworked by experts. Much to everyone's surprise articles poured in at a furious pace, outstripping the number of entries at Nupedia within a few days. A small core of dedicated editors who believed in the open-source movement soon established what has been described as a "robust, self-regulating community."
Personal and Professional Controversies
A number of controversies have swirled around Wikipedia and its founder since its inception. Charges of inaccuracies and vulnerability to malicious attacks have plagued the project, but Wikipedia remains one of the most popular resources on the Internet. Insertions of false information and deletions of unflattering material are usually caught and corrected quickly by the many Wikipedia users who share Wales' vision of a free open-source encyclopedia.
While Sanger claims to have co-founded the project, he has always attributed the idea to Wales. He wrote (Slashdot, 2005) that "the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy's, not mine, and the funding was entirely by Bomis." But he goes on to say he was responsible for developing and promoting both the Nupedia and Wikipedia sites. Wales was considerably less gracious, calling Sanger's claim as co-founder "preposterous" in a 2006 Boston Globe interview, though significant evidence, in articles dating back to September 2001 and Sanger's blog, seem to support Sanger's claim. (Even in Wales' self-created biographical entry in Wikipedia, all mention of Sanger as co-founder appear to have been deleted). At any rate, Sanger resigned as Nupedia's editor-in-chief and Wikipedia developer in early 2002 after funding for his position was discontinued. As costs were reduced, Wales created the Wikimedia Foundation to fund the site instead of relying on ad placement.
In 2008, Wales' was accused by a former foundation employee, Danny Wool, of using foundations funds for his personal expenses and misusing his foundation credit card, and Jeffrey Merkey claimed he had favorably edited Merkey's Wikipedia entry in exchange for a donation to the foundation. Wales has denied all of these accusations, and evident and the backing of the foundation's chair and interim executive director seem to bear him out.
Twice married, Wales had one daughter with his second wife, Christine, before they separated. But even in his personal life, controversy has followed Wales. In a damaging interview appearing in W magazine in September 2008, his first wife, Pam, tarnished his reputation as a fighter for democratic and egalitarian values, claiming he had discouraged her pursuit of a nursing career and had been fixated from an early age on becoming a millionaire. A whiff of scandal again emerged from Wales' relationship with Canadian conservative columnist Rachel Marsden, with allegations that their affair had influenced her Wikipedia biography, a charge Wales strongly refuted in his own blog and Wikipedia user page.
Wikipedia and Beyond
Wales' status as an Internet entrepreneur has made him world famous, and much in demand internationally as Wikipedia's most visible spokesperson. This ground-breaking open-content encyclopedia has grown at a phenomenal pace, quickly evolving into the most popular reference source on the Web and the world's largest encyclopedia.
Wales now serves as Chairman Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation's Board. In 2004, he co-founded, with fellow foundation board member Angela Beeslev, a free Web-hosting service known as Wikia, which according to Wales' Wikipedia entry, is a kind of "wiki farm" for numerous independent "wikis" - for Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars devotees, among others. Wikia Search, an open-source search engine designed to challenge Google's Web dominance and "introduce transparency and public dialogue about how it's created," was discontinued in March 2009.
In all of his professional activities Wales' has been guided by his personal philosophy. In numerous interviews, he has cited a few particularly formative works from his extensive reading. As an undergraduate, he was deeply impressed by Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, which formed the basis of his Objectivist and libertarian beliefs, though he calls the American Libertarian Party a bunch of lunatics. The ideals of independence, individual rights, and integrity form his core values. It was through his own Objectivist online discussion group that Wales met and came to be friends with his future colleague Larry Sanger.www.wikipedia.com
personal blog: blog.jimmywales.com/