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Politically, Wales cops to various libertarian positions but prefers to call his views "center-right." By that he means that he sees himself as part of a silent majority of socially liberal, fiscally conservative people who value liberty-"people who vote Republican but who worry about right-wingers." The Libertarian Party, he says, is full of "lunatics." But even as he outlines all the reasons why he prefers to stay close to the American political mainstream, Wales delicately parses the various libertarian positions on intellectual property and other points of dispute without breaking a sweat. He swears to have actually read Ludwig von Mises's 10-pound tome Human Action (which he ultimately found "bombastic and wrong in many ways"). And of course, he credits Hayek with the central insight that made Wikipedia possible.
Wales' political philosophy isn't confined to books. Pulling onto yet another seemingly identical Florida highway during our day-long road trip, Wales blows past the Knight Shooting Sports Indoor Range, lamenting that he hasn't made it to the range in a long time. "When I lived in San Diego," he says, "the range was on my way home from work." Wales used to be preoccupied with gun rights, or the lack thereof. "In California," he says, "the gun laws irritated me so much that I cared, but then I moved to Florida and I stopped caring because everything is fine here."
Wales, whose wife Christine teaches their 5-year-old daughter Kira at home, says he is disappointed by the "factory nature" of American education: "There's something significantly broken about the whole concept of school." A longtime opponent of mandatory public school attendance, Wales says that part of the allure of Florida, where his Wikimedia Foundation is based, is its relatively laissez-faire attitude toward homeschoolers. This makes it easier for Wales and his wife to let Kira (a tiny genius in her father's eyes) follow her own interests and travel with her parents when Wales gives one of his many speeches abroad.
Kira has recently become interested in Ancient Egypt, and a few books on the subject lie on the kitchen counter of their sparse house. When she was younger, Kira was transfixed by digital clocks, staring at one minute after minute, trying to guess which number would be next. "She just needed time to do that," says Wales. "Once she figured it out, she stopped. Christine and I were a little worried, but we let her do her thing, and it turned out fine."
Likewise, Wales says he prefers the users of his encyclopedia to make their own decisions about governance and follow their own peculiar interests wherever possible; things usually turn out fine. "Simply having rules does not change the things that people want to do," he says. "You have to change incentives."
One of the most powerful forces on Wikipedia is reputation. Users rarely identify themselves by their real names, but regular users maintain consistent identities. When a particularly obnoxious edit or egregious error is found, it's easy to check all of the other changes made by the same user; you just click on his name. Users who catch others at misdeeds are praised, and frequent abusers are abused. Because it's so easy to get caught in one stupid mistake or prank, every user has an incentive to do the best he can with each entry. The evolution of a praise/shame economy within Wikipedia has been far more effective at keeping most users in line than the addition of formal rules to deal with specific conflicts.
"It's always better not to have a rule," Wales says. "But sometimes you have to say, ‘Don't be a dick.' " On the English Wikipedia, there is a rule that you can't undo someone else's changes more than three times. It is formalized, a part of the system. But Wikipedias in other languages have a more casual approach to the same problem. Wales himself sometimes talks to troublemakers. "I try to talk jerks into adopting a three-revert rule as a principle for themselves," he says.
Wikipedias in different languages have developed their own policies about practically everything. Only one point is "not negotiable": the maintenance of a "neutral point of view" in Wikipedia encyclopedia entries. Wikipedia has been uniquely successful in maintaining the neutrality ethos, says Wales, because "text is so flexible and fluid that you can find amongst reasonable people with different perspectives something that is functional." ("Most people assume the fights are going to be the left vs. the right," Wales has said, "but it always is the reasonable versus the jerks.")
The jerks range from the Chinese government to the giant penis guy. But mostly they're regular contributors who get upset about some hobbyhorse and have to be talked down or even shamed by their communities.
Although he professes to hate phrases like "swarm intelligence" and "the wisdom of crowds," Wales' phenomenal success springs largely from his willingness to trust large aggregations of human beings to produce good outcomes though decentralized, market-like mechanisms. He is suspicious of a priori planning and centralization, and he places a high value on freedom and independence for individuals. He is also suspicious of mob rule. Most Wikipedia entries, Wales notes, are actually written by two or three people, or reflect decisions made by small groups in the discussion forums on the site. Wales calls himself an "anti-credentialist" but adds that doesn't mean he's anti-elitist. He likes elites, he says; they just have to duke it out with the rest of us on Wikipedia and his other projects.
"Jimmy Wales is a very open person," says his friend Irene McGee, the host of the radio show No One's Listening and a former Real World cast member. "He has very genuine intentions and faith in people. He'll come to San Francisco and come to little Meetups that don't have anything to do with anything, just to find out what's going on. He'll go to meet the kid in this town who writes articles and then meet with people who run countries. He can meet somebody really fancy and he could meet somebody who nobody would recognize and tell the story as if it's the same."
The Individualist Communitarian
Rock star status can be fleeting, of course. Whether Jimmy Wales will still be meeting fancy people who run countries five years from now may depend on the success of his new venture, Wikia. Wikipedia is here to stay, but the public has an annoying habit of demanding that its heroes achieve ever more heroic feats. Wikia is an attempt to take the open-source, community-based model to profitability and broader public acceptance.
Consider, for instance, the astonishing growth and readership at the Wikia site devoted to Muppets. At a little over one year old, the Muppet Wiki has 13,700 articles. Every single one is about Muppets. Interested in an in-depth look at the use of gorilla suits in the Muppet movies? No problem. Just type in "gorilla suits" and enjoy a well-illustrated article that documents, among other things, the names of actors who have worn an ape outfit for Jim Henson. There is a timeline of all things Muppet-related. An entry on China details Big Bird's reception in the People's Republic. The site is astonishingly comprehensive and, perhaps more impressive, comprehensible to a Muppet novice.
This ever-expanding encyclopedia of Muppetry is just a tiny part of Wikia. It is an arguably trivial but hugely telling example of the power of open publishing systems to enable professionals and amateurs to work together to aggregate vast amounts of data and conversation on topics and areas ranging from the serious to the sublime. Founded in November 2004, Wikia communities use the same editing and writing structure as Wikipedia. The site provides free bandwidth, storage, blogging software, and other tools to anyone who wants to start an online community or collaborative project. If you don't care for Kermit the Frog, you can try the Your Subculture Soundtrack, an "interconnecting database of the music scene" with more than 5,600 articles. Many of them are just enormous lists of discographies, lyrics, or guitar tabs. The topics of other Wikis range from Star Wars to polyamory to transhumanism. Wikia also includes collaborative online projects such as the Search Wiki, an effort to create an open-source competitor to Google where a Wikipedia-style universe of users rates websites and sorts the search results instead of relying solely on an algorithm.
In December, Wikia announced that its first corporate partner, Amazon, had committed $10 million to further development of the project. Amazon's money added to the $4 million kicked in by angel investors earlier in the year. Amazon and Wikia have not integrated their services, but Wales has not ruled out the possibility of cooperation at a later date, spurring not entirely tongue-in-cheek rumors of a joint Wikipedia-Amazon takeover of the Web. The site plans to make money by showing a few well-targeted, well-placed ads to massive numbers of community members and users.