Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, lives in a house fit for a grandmother. The progenitor and public face of one of the 10 most popular websites in the world beds down in a one-story bungalow on a cul-de-sac near St. Petersburg, Florida. The neighborhood, with its scrubby vegetation and plastic lawn furniture, screams "Bingo Night." Inside the house, the décor is minimal, and the stucco and cool tile floors make the place echo. A few potted plants bravely attempt domesticity. Out front sits a cherry red Hyundai.
I arrive at Wales' house on a gray, humid day in December. It's 11 a.m., and after wrapping up some emails on his white Mac iBook, Wales proposes lunch. We hit the mean streets of Gulf Coast Florida in the Hyundai, in search of "this really great Indian place that's part of a motel," and wind up cruising for hours-stopping at Starbucks, hitting the mall, and generally duplicating the average day of millions of suburban teenagers. Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens slip past as Wales, often taciturn and abrupt in public statements, lets loose a flood of words about his past, his politics, the future of the Internet, and why he's optimistic about pretty much everything.
Despite his modest digs, Wales is an Internet rock star. He was included on Time's list of the 100 most influential people of 2006. Pages from Wikipedia dominate Google search results, making the operation, which dubs itself "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," a primary source of information for millions of people. (Do a Google search for "monkeys," "Azerbaijan," "mass spectrometry," or "Jesus," and the first hit will be from Wikipedia.) Although he insists he isn't a "rich guy" and doesn't have "rich guy hobbies," when pressed Wales admits to hobnobbing with other geek elites, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and hanging out on Virgin CEO Richard Branson's private island. (The only available estimate of Wales' net worth comes from a now-removed section of his own Wikipedia entry, pinning his fortune at less than $1 million.) Scruffy in a gray mock turtleneck and a closely cropped beard, the 40-year-old Wales plays it low key. But he is well aware that he is a strangely powerful man: He has utterly changed the way people extract information from the chaos of the World Wide Web, and he is the master of a huge, robust online community of writers, editors, and users. Asked about the secret to Wikipedia's success, Wales says simply, "We make the Internet not suck."
On other occasions, Wales has offered a more erudite account of the site's origins and purpose. In 1945, in his famous essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek argued that market mechanisms serve "to share and synchronize local and personal knowledge, allowing society's members to achieve diverse, complicated ends through a principle of spontaneous self-organization." (These are the words not of the Nobel Prize winner himself but of Wikipedia's entry on him.) "Hayek's work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project," Wales wrote on the blog of the Internet law guru Lawrence Lessig. "One can't understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek." Long before socialism crumbled, Hayek saw the perils of centralization. When information is dispersed (as it always is), decisions are best left to those with the most local knowledge. This insight, which undergirds contemporary libertarianism, earned Hayek plaudits from fellow libertarian economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman as the "most important social thinker of the 20th century." The question: Will traditional reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica, that great centralizer of knowledge, fall before Wikipedia the way the Soviet Union fell before the West?
When Wales founded the site in 2001, his plan was simple yet seemingly insane: "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." In case that plan didn't sound nutty enough on its own, he went on to let every Tom, Dick, and Friedrich write and edit articles for that mystical encyclopedia. "Now it's obvious that it works," says Wales, "but then most people couldn't get it." And not everyone gets it yet. Wales has his share of enemies, detractors, and doubters. But he also has a growing fan club. Wikipedia, which is run by Wales' nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, is now almost fully supported by small donations (in addition to a few grants and gifts of servers and hosting), and many of its savviest users consider it the search of first resort, bypassing Google entirely.
Wikipedia was born as an experiment in aggregating information. But the reason it works isn't that the world was clamoring for a new kind of encyclopedia. It took off because of the robust, self-policing community it created. Despite its critics, it is transforming our everyday lives; as with Amazon, Google, and eBay, it is almost impossible to remember how much more circumscribed our world was before it existed.
Hayek's arguments inspired Wales to take on traditional encyclopedias, and now they're inspiring Wales' next big project: Wikia, a for-profit venture that hopes to expand the idea beyond encyclopedias into all kinds of Internet-based communities and collaborative projects. If Wikia succeeds, it will open up this spontaneously ordered, self-governing world to millions more people. Encyclopedias aren't the only places to gather knowledge, and by making tools available to create other kinds of collaborative communities, Wales is fleshing out and bringing to life Hayek's insights about the power of decentralized knowledge gathering, the surprising strength of communities bound only by reputation, and the fluidity of self-governance.
Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1966, the son of a grocery store manager. He was educated at a tiny private school run by his mother, Doris, and grandmother, Erma. His education, which he has described as "a one-room schoolhouse or Abe Lincoln type of thing," was fairly unstructured: He "spent many, many hours just pouring over the World Book Encyclopedia." Wales received his B.A. in finance from Auburn University, a hotbed of free market economists, and got his master's degree in finance from the University of Alabama. He did coursework and taught at Indiana University, but he failed to complete a Ph.D. dissertation-largely, he says, because he "got bored."
Wales moved to Chicago and became a futures and options trader. After six years of betting on interest rates and currency fluctuations, he made enough money to pay the mortgage for the rest of his life. In 1998 he moved to San Diego and started a Web portal, Bomis, which featured, among other things, a "guy-oriented search engine" and pictures of scantily clad women. The en déshabillé ladies have since caused trouble for Wales, who regularly fields questions about his former life as a "porn king." In a typically blunt move, Wales often responds to criticism of his Bomis days by sending reporters links to Yahoo's midget porn category page. If he was a porn king, he suggests, so is the head of the biggest Web portal in the world.
Bomis didn't make it big-it was no Yahoo-but in March 2000 the site hosted Nupedia, Wales' first attempt to build a free online encyclopedia. Wales hired Larry Sanger, at the time a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Ohio State, to edit encyclopedia articles submitted voluntarily by scholars, and to manage a multistage peer review process. After a slow start, Wales and Sanger decided to try something more radical. In 2001 they bracketed the Nupedia project and started a new venture built on the same foundations. The twist: It would be an open-source encyclopedia. Any user could exercise editorial control, and no one person or group would have ultimate authority.
Sanger resigned from the project in 2002 and since then has been in an ongoing low-grade war with Wales over who founded Wikipedia. Everyone agrees that Sanger came up with the name while Wales wrote the checks and provided the underlying open-source philosophy. But who thought of powering the site with a wiki?
Wikis are simple software that allow anyone to create or edit a webpage. The first wikis were developed by Ward Cunningham, a programmer who created the WikiWikiWeb, a collaborative software guide, in 1995. ("Wiki wiki" means "quick" in Hawaiian.) Gradually adopted by a variety of companies to facilitate internal collaboration (IBM and Google, for instance, use wikis for project management and document version control), wikis were spreading under the radar until Wikipedia started using the software.
Wales characterizes the dispute with Sanger as a fight over the "project's radically open nature" and the question of "whether there was a role for an editor in chief" in the new project. Sanger says he wanted to implement the "common-sense" rules that "experts and specialists should be given some particular respect when writing in their areas of expertise." (Sanger has since launched a competitor to Wikipedia called Citizendium, with stricter rules about editors' credentials.) They also differed over whether advertising should be permitted on the site. Not only does Wikipedia allow anyone to write or edit any article, but the site contains no ads. Yet it allows others to use its content to make money: The site Answers.com, for example, is composed almost entirely of Wikipedia content reposted with ads.
When Nupedia finally shut down for good in 2003, only 24 articles had completed its onerous scholarly review process. In contrast, Wikipedia was flourishing, with 20,000 articles by the end of its first year. It now has 6 million articles, 1.7 million of which are in English. It has become a verb ("What exactly is a quark?" "I don't know. Did you Wikipedia it?"), a sure sign of Internet success.
An obvious question troubled, and continues to trouble, many: How could an "encyclopedia that anyone can edit" possibly be reliable? Can truth be reached by a consensus of amateurs? Can a community of volunteers aggregate and assimilate knowledge the way a market assimilates price information? Can it do so with consistent accuracy? If markets fail sometimes, shouldn't the same be true of market-based systems?