The encyclopaedia salesman

Jimmy Wales talks about the wonders of worldwide collaboration and the woes of the rumour mill.

JIMMY Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, apologises as he taps his iPad.

Just minutes ago, he told reporters at a press conference at the World Capital Markets Symposium in Kuala Lumpur how he couldn’t stop playing the video game Angry Birds on the device. Now, he’s downloading Spanish lessons.

“It’s a crime how much free advertising I give Apple (makers of iPad),” he says wryly.

Wales, 44, was in town to speak at the symposium on Monday and Tuesday. It was his first time in Malaysia.

“I download Spanish lessons because I want to learn Spanish, but I think it’s hopeless because I’m so hopeless at languages, but I’m going to try,” says the American as he settles into our interview.

After all, the urge to learn is in his blood.

His mother, Doris, and his late grandmother, Erma, founded a private school – the kind of school President Abraham Lincoln went to, says Wales, who comes from the state of Alabama. There, students of different grades would study together in one room, and they were allowed to forge ahead at their own pace, not restricted by age or grade level.

“It’s a very small, very personal education,” says Wales who was a student there until he was 13.

“My family sacrificed quite a bit in order to run this school. There’s no money in running a small school. They did it because the local schools were really quite bad and they wanted me and my siblings to get a good education.

“So there’s a lot of passion for education in my family, which persists with me till this day,” he says.

(Wales went on to study finance at Auburn University and read for a Master’s Degree in Finance at the University of Alabama.)

How it all began

When Wales was a child, he had a set of encyclopaedias that he read constantly. His love for those books led him to imagine “an encyclopaedia for all the languages of the world for everyone”.

In the late 1990s, he saw how computer programmers came together to create free programs during the “open source” movement, and realised that he could gather encylopaedia-loving folks like himself to create a free encyclopaedia the same way.

(Open source refers to development practices that allow access to the end product’s source materials; Linux is a pioneer.)

“All of the software that runs the Internet is written by volunteers collaborating online. And I realised that that form of collaboration can extend far beyond just software into all kinds of cultural works,” he says.

So, in 1999, Wales formed Nupedia, a free encyclopaedia initiative. However, articles had to go through a seven-stage review by experts before they were accepted.

Wales knew that Nupedia wasn’t going to work when he sat down to write an article about Nobel Prize winner Robert Merton (an American sociologist) and felt like he was “back in graduate school”.

“It was really not much fun,” he said in a Sept 25, 2005, interview with US cable channel C-Span (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network).

Then came the Wiki software, which allowed multiple users to edit a website easily.

He tentatively launched Wikipedia (a portmanteau word combining the Hawaiian word “wiki”, meaning “quick”, and encyclopaedia) together with Larry Sanger and others in January 2001.

Wikipedia began in English, but within months, users had, on their own, developed French, German and eventually Japanese versions. Today, there are Wikipedia sites in 273 languages – from Arabic to Zulu, and, yes, Bahasa Malaysia, too.

According to Wikipedia, there are 3,428,453 articles on Wikipedia. And Google statistics say it is now the fourth most visited website in the world (

It would seem natural for a person with Wales’ background in finance to take advantage of Wikipedia’s prodigious growth, but Wales has maintained since its inception that it must remain free and non-profit.

“It wouldn’t have been as successful if it wasn’t free,” he now says. “That’s a big part of why everyone is using it, because it’s so accessible, it’s easy, it’s free.

“It’s about free knowledge for everyone. It really is a charitable project, to make sure that everybody in the world can get access to information,” he insists.

In 2005, Wikipedia only had one full-time employee – a software designer – and needed US$5,000 (RM15,600 at today’s rates) a month for bandwidth. Today, it has over 50 staff members and requires thousands of volunteer writers, administrators and technicians as well as – according to Wales’ own call for donations in 2009 – nearly US$10mil (RM31.2mil) to keep going. (Information from – American TV station CBS’ Interactive Business Network – and

Wikipedia relies entirely on donations to operate, so once a year around September, the Wikimedia Foundation will hold an annual donation campaign during which it asks people to give money via banners on the website. At Christmas, Wales will usually send out a personal appeal for donations.

“We don’t like to bother people for too long. Most of our fund raising is online and it has been very successful for us. It doesn’t require much actual direct work from me,” he says.

In February this year, Google donated US$2mil (RM6.24mil) to Wikipedia; the foundation hopes to get US$10mil (RM31.2mil) in donations this year.

Fame and fortune

Spotted at the World Capital Markets Symposium last Monday: Two women in business suits, daring each other to get an autograph from Wales.

“Come on, let’s get Jimmy Wales’ autograph,” says one pleadingly.

“Oh, I don’t know – he looks so busy!” says the other bashfully.

And indeed he was. Wales was being interviewed on camera by business channel CNBC.

These days, Wales is the public face of Wikipedia, travelling the world to speak about Wikipedia and about his philosophy of “information democracy”. He’s was one of Time magazine’s top 100 influential people in 2006, and is definitely an Internet celebrity.

But Wales insists that he isn’t that famous.

“I’m not really that much in the spotlight. ...I’m a very small character. People do recognise me but very rarely,” he says.

He’s a bit of a workaholic – when he’s not on Wikipedia business, he edits Wikipedia.

“That’s probably my hobby,” says Wales, admitting that he’s obsessed with his computers.

It’s when he is home in Florida in the United States that he gets some “relaxing time” – sleeping a lot and playing with his nine-year-old daughter Kira, who he had with second wife Christine (they’re now divorced).

“We are learning computer programming because that’s what she’s interested in. We play chess and things like that. We went boating last weekend,” he says.

Most of the time, he lives a very simple, normal life.

“I drive a Hyundai Accent – a very normal car. But I’m not pretending to be poor or rich. I make a good living and I travel around the world and have a fun life,” he says.

It is said that Wales made his riches in the stock market before starting Wikipedia, which is a non-profit enterprise that, to this day, doesn’t have advertising.

But gossip rags suggest other, less squeaky-clean means. According to a June 2007 issue of the American magazine Reason (Wikipedia and beyond at, Wales often had to field questions about, a “guy oriented search engine” he began in 1998, and which apparently earned him the title of “porn king”!

Just how rich he is, or how he got his riches is still hotly debated on the Internet today.

“I’ll let them wonder,” says Wales coyly when we ask.

Still, Wales certainly exudes the charisma of a celebrity. He is handsome, smartly dressed, and charming. And like many celebrities, his personal life is often dissected by the media, and controversy never seems far away.

In 2008, his affair with Canadian right-wing political pundit Rachel Marsden was chronicled by the media. Marsden, reported London’s The Times, “had been dumped on Wikipedia” by Wales!

In retaliation, Marsden put up Wales’ shirt and jumper for sale on eBay and wrote, “Hi, my name is Rachel and my (now ex) boyfriend, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, just broke up with me via an announcement on Wikipedia.”

Later, she sent a transcript of their steamy instant message conversations to technology-and-gossip website Valleywag (, which later published it.

And controversy

But the allegations that weighed most heavily on Wales is that he has rewritten his own biography on Wikipedia several times, a practice that is frowned upon in the Wikipedia community. The most prominent “alteration” had been the deletion of Larry Sanger’s involvement in co-founding Wikipedia.

According to technology magazine website (Wikipedia founder edits own bio, Dec 19, 2005), on Oct 28, 2005, Wales changed the sentence, “On January 15, 2001, Wales and Sanger set up Wikipedia” to “On January 15, 2001, Wales set up Wikipedia”. Sanger, who later went on to start Wikipedia rival site Citizendium on September 2006, documented proof of his involvement with Wikipedia online at

Wales’ Wikipedia biography now credits Sanger as a co-founder, though on Wales’ Wikipedia user page (Jimbo Wales), he writes: “I founded Wikipedia in 2001”.

In Wales’ opinion, the Sanger issue is just a “manufactured dispute” which he doesn’t care about at all.

“My view is, he was an employee who worked for me and that sums it up. Even he has written that I had the idea for a free encyclopaedia for everyone. I don’t think it’s important. I think people like a controversy.

“I think, in fact, what’s unfortunate is Larry is given too little credit for his work in the early days and that this so-called controversy has overshadowed his contribution not as co-founder but as a very important employee and a very important part of the early community,” he says.

Then, in May, the Wikipedia community was shaken by a Fox News channel report that Wales lost some of his editorial privileges after purging Wikipedia of pornographic images without the consent of other editors.

That controversy, says Wales, is all over, too.

“Fox News basically ran some outrageous, inflammatory stories that were absolutely not true. Normally, if there’s just some small minor error in the papers – this happens all the time – it’s understandable. You know, it’s part of the world.

“We actually decided to respond because the allegations were just absolutely outrageous – about paedophiles being allowed to edit Wikipedia when we have the strongest policy of any major website against paedophilia advocacy or participation, so I was deeply offended by their irresponsible reporting,” he says.

He assures that he still has editing privileges.

“I’m still editing the site every day. Everything is completely normal. I always love it when I wake up and see a news headline that says I resigned. Well, that’s interesting. I can take a nap now!” he chuckles.

Headlines about him losing his editing privileges have appeared “two or three times” over the years, says Wales. Another favourite headline – though he hasn’t seen it for some time now – is, “Wikipedia to have advertising”.

“No advertising in Wikipedia. No plans,” he says. Neither are there plans to “jazz up” Wikipedia with multimedia applications such as videos, he says in an e-mail interview before he arrived in Malaysia.

“In some ways, we will remain pretty old-fashioned. Text is the perfect medium for most of what belongs in an encyclopaedia. But we do hope to use improvements in the web browser to make it easier to edit Wikipedia.”

When we point out that there’s a lot of information online about him and not all of it is accurate or positive (in fact, some of it is downright unflattering), Wales says that it has no impact on his life.

“People love to talk. Let them talk,” he says with a grin.

An apt response indeed from the man who made information – whether accurate or not – so accessible.

The Second World Capital Markets Symposium was held in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 27 and 28 and was hosted by the Securities Commission.

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