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?
Wikipedia does fail sometimes. The most famous controversy over its accuracy boiled over when John Seigenthaler Sr., a former assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, wrote about his own Wikipedia entry in a November 2005 USA Today op-ed. The entry on Seigenthaler included a claim that he had been involved in both Kennedy assassinations. "We live in a universe of new media," wrote Seigenthaler, "with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research-but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects."
The false claim had been added to the entry as a prank in May 2005. When Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia about the error in October, Wales personally took the unusual step of removing the false allegations from the editing history on the page, wiping out the publicly accessible records of the error. After the USA Today story ran, dozens of the site's contributors (who call themselves "Wikipedians") visited the page, vastly improving the short blurb that had been put in place after the prank entry was removed. As in a market, when a failure was detected, people rushed in to take advantage of the gap and, in doing so, made things better than they were before. Print outlets couldn't hope to compete with Wikipedians' speed in correcting, expanding, and footnoting the new Seigenthaler entry. At best, a traditional encyclopedia would have pasted a correction into a little-consulted annual, mailed out to some users many months after the fact. And even then, it would have been little more than a correction blurb, not a dramatic rethinking and rewriting of the whole entry.
But well-intentioned Wikipedians weren't the only ones attracted
to Seigenthaler's Wikipedia entry. Since the article appeared,
Seigenthaler says, he has been a constant target for vandals-people
whose only goal is to deface an entry. He has been struck by the
"vulgarity and meanspiritedness of the attacks," which included
replacing his picture with photos of Hitler, Himmler, and "an
unattractive cross dresser in a big red wig and a short skirt,"
tells me. "I don't care what the hell they put up. When you're 80 years old, there's not much they can say that hasn't been said before. But my, they've been creative over the last months."
Seigenthaler's primary concern these days is about the history page that accompanies each Wikipedia article. Even though various allegations against Seigenthaler have been removed promptly from the main encyclopedia entry, a record of each change and reversion is stored on the site. Many of the comments, says Seigenthaler, are things he would not want his 9-year-old grandson to see.
Seigenthaler says he never intended to sue (surprisingly, the site has never been sued), but he worries that Wales will eventually find himself in legal trouble unless he takes more action to control what appears on the site: "I said to Jimmy Wales, ‘You're going to offend enough members of Congress that you're going to get more regulation.' I don't want more regulation of the media, but once the Congress starts regulating they never stop." Coverage of the scandal was largely anti-Wikipedia, focusing on the system's lack of ethical editorial oversight. Sample headline: "There's No Wikipedia Entry for ‘Moral Responsibility.' "
Wikipedia's flexibility allows anyone who stumbles on an error to correct it quickly. But that's not enough for some detractors. "There is little evidence to suggest that simply having a lot of people freely editing encyclopedia articles produces more balanced coverage," the editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica said last year in an online debate hosted by The Wall Street Journal. "On the contrary, it opens the gates to propaganda and seesaw fights between writers." Another Britannica editor dissed Wikipedia by comparing it to a toilet seat (you don't know who used it last). A host of academics charge Wikipedia with having too casual a relationship with authority and objectivity. Michael Gorman, former president of the American Library Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, "The problem with an online encyclopedia created by anybody is that you have no idea whether you are reading an established person in the field or someone with an ax to grind." Last summer at Wikimania 2006, a gathering of Wikipedians and various hangers-on at the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, university professors expressed concern that their students were treating Wikipedia as an authoritative source. In January the history faculty at Vermont's Middlebury College voted to ban the use of Wikipedia in bibliographies. Wales has issued statements telling kids to use Wikipedia as a starting point, but not to include it in their bibliographies as a final source. Good Wikipedia articles have links to authoritative sources, he explains; students should take advantage of them.
Referring to the Seigenthaler controversy during his opening remarks at Wikimania 2006, Wales got one of the biggest laughs of the weekend when he said: "Apparently there was an error in Wikipedia. Who knew?" Wales and the hundreds of Wikipedians could afford a giggle or two because the entry had long since been corrected. This wasn't a traumatic incident to Wikipedians because they admit error hundreds of times a day. There is no pretense of infallibility at Wikipedia, an attitude that sets it apart from traditional reference works, or even The New York Times; when an error is found it doesn't undermine the project. Readers who know better than the people who made the error just fix it and move on.
Wikipedia's other major scandal hasn't been quite as easy for Wales to laugh off, because he was the culprit. In 2005 he was caught with his hand on the edit button, taking advantage of Wikipedia's open editing policy to remove Larry Sanger from the encyclopedia's official history of itself. There has been an ongoing controversy about Wales' attempts to edit his own Wikipedia entry, which is permitted but considered extremely bad form. After a round of negative publicity when the edits were discovered, Wales stopped editing his own profile. But in the site's discussion pages, using the handle "Jimbo Wales," he can be found trying to persuade others to make changes on this and other topics. If he wanted to, Wales could make these and other changes by fiat, then lock out other editors. But he doesn't. If the individuals that people Wales' experiment in free association choose to ignore his pleas, as they occasionally do, he takes a deep breath and lets it happen.
Wales isn't the only one who has tried to use Wikipedia to rewrite history. In January 2006, all edits originating with the House of Representatives were briefly blocked after staffers for Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) were caught systematically replacing unflattering facts in his entry with campaign material; among other things, they removed a reference to his broken promise not to serve more than four terms. In the fall of 2006, officials from the National Institute on Drug Abuse dramatically edited their own entry to remove criticism of the agency. In both cases, the editors got more than they bargained for: Not only was the original material quickly restored, but a section describing the editing scandal was tacked on to each entry.
Then there are edits that are less ideological but still
troublesome. Wales has adopted Hayek's view that change is handled
more smoothly by an interlocking network of diverse individuals
than by a central planning authority. One test of the rapid
response to change in Wikipedia is how the site deals with
vandalism. Fairly often, says Wales, someone comes along and
replaces an entry on, say, George W. Bush with a "giant picture of
a penis." Such vandalism tends to be corrected in less than five
minutes, and a 2002 study by IBM found that even subtler vandalism
rarely lasts more than a few hours. This, Wales argues, is only
possible because responsibility
for the content of Wikipedia is so widely distributed. Even hundreds of professional editors would struggle to keep six million articles clean day in and day out, but Wikipedia manages it fairly easily by relying on its thousands of volunteer contributors.
The delicate compromise wording of the entry about abortion is an example of how collaborative editing can succeed. One passage reads: "Most often those in favor of legal prohibition of abortion describe themselves as pro-life while those against legal restrictions on abortion describe themselves as pro-choice." Imagine the fighting that went into producing these simple words. But the article, as it stands, is not disputed. Discussants have found a middle ground. "It's fabulous," says Wales, citing another example, "that our article about Taiwan was written by Mainlanders and Taiwanese who don't agree." That said, other entries-such as the page on the Iraq War-host ongoing battles that have not reached equilibrium.
Skeptics of Wikipedia's model emphasize that the writers have no authority; there is no way to verify credentials on the site. But Wikipedia seems to be doing OK without letters after its name. In 2005 the journal Nature compared the accuracy of scientific articles in Wikipedia with that of Encyclopedia Britannica. Articles were sent to panels of experts in the appropriate field for review. Reviewers found an average of four errors in Wikipedia entries, only slightly higher than Britannica's average of three errors per entry.
One way to understand what makes Wikipedia unique is its reaction to the threat of blackout by the Chinese government. When government censors in China blocked the Chinese-language Wikipedia page and demanded that the content be heavily censored before it was unblocked, the site's Chinese contributors chose to lie low and wait. Wales agreed to let them handle it. Eventually the site was unblocked, although its status is always precarious.
Wikipedia's decision not to censor its content selectively in order to meet the demands of the Chinese government was easy, since it would be almost impossible to do anyway. The "encyclopedia that anyone can edit" would have to employ a full-time staff just to remove objectionable content, which could be added back moments later by anyone, anywhere. The diffuse responsibility for the content of Wikipedia protects it from censorship.
By leaving such a big decision to the community of Chinese Wikipedia users, Wales made good on his boast that he's "a big supporter of federalism," not just in politics but in the governance of Wikipedia. Wales tries to let communities of users make their own decisions in every possible case. "It's not healthy for us if there are certain decisions that are simply removed from the democratic realm and are just ‘the Supreme Court says so,' " he argues. "I would even say this about abortion, although I'm a big pro-choice guy. It's not clear to me that it's such a great thing to have removed it completely from politics."
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.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (a supporter of Reason Foundation, the
nonprofit that publishes this magazine) has spoken enviously of
Wikipedia's collaborative model, expressed his regret that Amazon's
user reviews aren't more like wikis, and credited Wikipedia with
the code for user-generated content." Bezos "really drove this deal personally," Wales says, adding that he was in the enviable position of vetting potential investors.
Wales is reluctant to get into more precise detail about what exactly Wikia will do, or what the communities or collaborative projects will produce, since that will be up to the users. This reticence turns out to be, in part, philosophical. Wikia is radically devoted to the idea that if you provide free, flexible tools, people will build interesting things. It's the same concept that drives Wikipedia, but expanded to nonencyclopedic functions. Like the rest of the cohort sometimes dubbed "Web 2.0"-YouTube, MySpace, Blogger, and other services that emphasize collaboration and user-generated content-Wales is relying on users to make his sites interesting. It isn't always easy to explain this to investors. "Before Wikipedia, the idea of an encyclopedia on a wiki seemed completely insane," says Wales. "It's obvious that it works now, but at the time no one was sure. Now we're going through the same moment with Wikia."
Perhaps because of the indeterminate nature of the final product, Wales has opted for the '90s approach of "build the site now, make money later." Industry analyst Peter Cohan thinks Wikia isn't likely to fall into the same trap as the busted Internet companies of the dot-com era. "Wikia is getting two and a half million page views a day," he says, "and it's growing steadily. There are people who are willing to pay for those eyeballs." (It has been growing at about the same rate as Wikipedia did at this stage of its development.) Still, says Cohan, there will be some hurdles for Wales, who is known only for his nonprofit work. "When you bring money into the picture it might change the incentives for people to participate in this thing" he says. "When people know that there is no money involved, then ego gets involved and it's a matter of pride."
Wales is banking on strong communities to give Wikia the staying power that flash-in-the-pan Internet sensations or more loosely knit social networking sites lack. Wales is plugged into social networking sites (and has more than a few online friends/fans), but he says he finds the exhibitionism and technical precocity of MySpace somewhat creepy.
It might sound strange, but Wales' interest in community dovetails nicely with his interest in individualism. No one is born into the Muppet Wiki community. Everyone who is there chooses to be there, and everyone who participates has a chance to shape its rules and content. People naturally form communities with their own delicate etiquette and expectations, and they jealously guard their own protocols. Each one is different, making Wikia communities fertile ground where thousands of experimental social arrangements can be tried-some with millions of members and some with just two or three. Like the "framework for utopia" described in the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Wikia maximizes the chance that people can work together to get exactly what they want, while still being part of a meaningful community by maximizing freedom and opportunities for voluntary cooperation.
Wikia boosters contend that many existing online communities would benefit from the kind of curb appeal a wiki offers. The firm hopes to co-opt, buy, or duplicate them. Wikia CEO Gil Penchina, formerly of eBay, is a frequent-flyer-miles enthusiast, for example. But most of the sites now haunted by airfare obsessives deal in nitty-gritty details and are useless to the outsider hoping to figure out the best way to get a free ticket by gaming various frequent-flyer plans, or by finding fares listed erroneously as $3.75 instead of $375. "This makes it hard to monetize that content," says Wales. "People just come and look around and don't find what they want and leave." Incorporating those same geeks into a wiki community could make their considerable knowledge available to outsiders and make the page more welcoming to advertisers. If lots of outsiders looking for a good price on a specific product can use the site, advertisers will compete (and pay) to grab their attention.
For now, Wikia makes money solely from Google ads running on its community pages. Wales says this is because they're "lazy" and because Google ads are a good way to generate a little revenue while they "build communities." Since its 2004 launch, Wikia has spent exactly $5.74 on advertising-a small fee for Google analytics to track stats on the site. "That makes our ad budget about 25 cents per month," Wales grins. It's early yet to expect a big push to generate revenue, but this charming laziness could be troublesome if it persists much longer.
Wikia now has 40 employees, including a handful of Polish programmers-a huge staff compared with the three people it takes to run Wikipedia. With 500,000 articles on 2,000 topics produced by 60,000 registered users in 45 languages, the network of websites is growing fast. The biggest wikis are dedicated to Star Trek and Star Wars. Wales is partial to the wiki devoted to the TV show Lost. He also admires the Campaign Wiki, which among other projects has neutral voter guides for elections.
Even as Wikia relies on Google ads for its only revenue at the moment, Wales recently has started to talk publicly about building a search engine using open-source tools, a project Wales casually calls "The Google Killer." Wales hopes the transparency and flexibility of an open-source model will discourage the gaming of the system that plagues Google. A search for "hotels in Tampa" on Google, a search I tried before my trip into town to interview Wales, yields nothing useful, just a jumble of defunct ratings sites and some ads that aren't tailored to my needs. By using a community of volunteers who will rerank results and tweak algorithms, Wales hopes to get useful results in categories that are particularly subject to gaming.
The Pathological Optimist
Later that December afternoon, after an excellent Indian lunch in a Florida strip mall, Wales proposes that we hop back into the Hyundai for a stop at the "fancy mall" in the Tampa area. En route to the Apple store, he surveys the bright lights and luxury goods for sale and announces that he is generally pretty pleased with how things are going in the world. In fact, he calls himself a "pathological optimist." On issue after issue, he pronounces some version of "things aren't that bad" or "things are getting better": People are more connected than they used to be (thanks, in part, to Internet communities), the wide availability of ethnic food has made the American diet more interesting, bookstore mega-chains are increasing the diversity of media available in America, entertainment is increasing in quality, gun rights are expanding, and so on. Tempted to get involved with free speech activists, Wales, a self-declared "First Amendment extremist," says he drew back because real repression doesn't seem likely. "There's a lot of hysteria around this," he says-concerns about censorship that aren't supported by the facts.
Wales is optimistic about the Internet too. "There's a certain kind of dire anti-market person," he says, "who assumes that no matter what happens, it's all driving toward one monopoly-the ominous view that all of these companies are going to consolidate into the Matrix." His own view is that radical decentralization will win out, to good effect: "If everybody has a gigabit [broadband Internet connection] to their home as their basic $40-a-month connection, anybody can write Wikipedia."
Wales' optimism isn't without perspective. After reading Tom Standage's book about the impact of the telegraph, The Victorian Internet, he was "struck by how much of the semi-utopian rhetoric that comes out of people like me sounds just like what people like them said back then."
Among Wikipedians, there is constant squabbling about how to characterize Wales' role in the project. He is often called a "benevolent dictator," or a "God-King," or sometimes a "tyrant." While the 200,000 mere mortals who have contributed articles and edits to the site are circumscribed by rules and elaborate community-enforced norms, Wales has amorphous and wide-ranging powers to block users, delete pages, and lock entries outside of the usual processes. But if Wales is a god, he is like the gods of ancient times (though his is a flat, suburban Olympus), periodically making his presence and preferences known through interventions large and small, but primarily leaving the world he created to chug along according to rules of its own devising.
After spending a day cruising the greater Tampa Bay area, I find myself back at the Wales homestead, sitting with the family as they watch a video of Wales' daughter delivering a presentation on Germany for a first-grade enrichment class. Wales is learning German, in part because the German Wikipedia is the second largest after English, in part because "I'm a geek." Daughter Kira stands in front of a board, wearing a dirndl and reciting facts about Germany. Asked where she did her research, she cops to using Wikipedia for part of the project. Wales smiles sheepishly; the Wikipedia revolution has penetrated even his own small bungalow.
People who don't "get" Wikipedia, or who get it and recoil in horror, tend to be from an older generation literally and figuratively: the Seigenthalers and Britannica editors of the world. People who get it are younger and hipper: the Irene McGees and Jeff Bezoses. But the people who really matter are the Kiras, who will never remember a time without Wikipedia (or perhaps Wikia), the people for whom open-source, self-governed, spontaneously ordered online community projects don't seem insane, scary, or even particularly remarkable. If Wales has his way-and if Wikipedia is any indication, he will-such projects will just be another reason the Internet doesn't suck.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of Reason.