Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales Talks Clickbait, Fake News, the Information Wars and How to Fix a Broken Internet

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Photo by VGrigas via Wikimedia

In this day and age of Trump, tech and anti-trust, it’s easy to forget the quiet Internet miracle that is Wikipedia.

I will argue that Wikipedia — the no. 5 most visited website in the world — is the best thing on the Internet. It’s free, there are no ads, the knowledge is so vast, and it’s user-generated.

With Wikipedia, we witness what the Internet can also be. That’s really important to remember, not least amid the so-called “tech backlash”.

Therefore, I was pleased when Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, agreed to talk.

In recent years, Jimmy has been very outspoken against a media world broken by click-bait, fake news and populism. And in 2017, he launched WikiTribune, “a news website where volunteers write and curate articles about widely publicised news by proofreading, fact-checking, suggesting possible changes, and adding sources from other, usually long established outlets,” according to Wikipedia.

Below is an edited transcript of my interview with Jimmy Wales.


Jonathan: In your own words, what is the “philosophy” of Wikipedia?

Jimmy: Well, the vision for Wikipedia is a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. And by “free” I mean freely licensed and not just that you don’t have to pay money to use it. But that everything in Wikipedia should be freely licensed as much as possible. So it’s possible to copy and modify it, redistribute it, redistribute modified versions. You can do all of the things commercially, or non-commercially.

So when a community is contributing to Wikipedia they aren’t just contributing to this one humanitarian project, they’re contributing to a storehouse of knowledge that can be used for all kinds of other things. So we see people doing all kinds of interesting things with Wikipedia work.

Jonathan: Why did Wikipedia become such a success?

Jimmy: Because it’s awesome and everybody loves it… No, I mean basically the public has a great desire for high quality, neutral information. And that’s what we strive to provide. It has of course only intensified in recent years as we’ve seen business models of journalism destroyed or leading in some very unpleasant directions. Now more than ever there is a gap in terms of there not being enough quality information out there. So the demand is higher than ever.

Jonathan: You never monetised Wikipedia. Was that the idea from the beginning? And how important was that?

Jimmy: In the beginning, I didn’t really give it much thought, one way or the other. I mean, Wikipedia was a project. It was a thing that I thought needed doing. And then very early on it became apparent that it would make more sense to do it as a non-profit. A lot of the volunteers wanted it like that, and it made sense to me aesthetically that it’s like a library or a museum. It just fits better into that structure.

Jonathan: But let’s say you had monetised it and placed ads on it or whatever. The credibility would have taken a hit…

Jimmy: Yeah, of course. And of course lately we see a lot of the reputational damage that’s coming to a lot of the Internet giants, because their business models do drive them in the direction of over-exploitation of data and so forth. Whereas for us, we don’t sell your data. We don’t even collect much data. For us, it’s not about that. It’s about the content, and it’s about creating a free encyclopaedia for everyone.

Jonathan: What are the biggest challenges facing Wikipedia today?

Jimmy: Well, one thing that we really do take seriously and pay close attention to is what we call community health. Meaning that the people in the community who are creating the content are having fun and that they are doing good quality work. And that the right people are empowered to take their work forward. That’s one of the key things that we focus on.

And then another thing is that we’re seeing the growth of the Internet now in the developing world, and we want to see the growth of Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world. Because, as I said, the dream of Wikipedia is a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet. So that’s really important to us.

Jonathan: Many years ago, when I first heard of Wikipedia, a friend described the idea to me as “when you have enough people working for free on something exciting, and you have the proper rules set up, then the good in people will win in the end”. I think, given what we’ve also seen on the Internet, that was maybe a bit naïve. But still… what can we learn from Wikipedia? Is there a lesson here for businesses and maybe for society at large?

Jimmy: There’s a lot of things that we can learn from Wikipedia. One of the most important things is that the vast majority of people are basically decent. So whatever problems you might have on the internet, they’re more a problem of design. It’s not that people are terrible. Another big lesson of Wikipedia is of course the power of collaboration. And that’s obviously incredibly important in all kinds of areas today.


Jonathan: What’s your take on the misinformation that we’ve seen in recent years on the web? How big is that problem? And do you see a way to reduce it?

Jimmy: I think it is a problem. For me, the problems that get the most attention actually are not necessarily the most important problems. One problem that gets far too little attention is the destruction of local journalism. People do take note of it, but it’s not headline news every day in the same way as fake news, for example. But I think that’s really one of the most important negative trends today. That things are going silent in terms of actual news from smaller towns and communities. That’s very bad for democracy. And it’s very bad for corruption too.

Jonathan: Do you see a solution to this problem, or at least a way to reduce it?

Jimmy: Well, I hope so. I’m doing all I can with WikiTribune to try to find new ways to bring communities into journalism in a healthy way. Hopefully, that work will show some new interesting insights, but I don’t have a simple magic answer. I don’t think there are any simple magic answers.

Jonathan: This whole development, has it made you less optimistic about what user generated content can do?

Jimmy: No, no, no. Not at all. Almost all of this problem is the problem of professionally produced bad content, not consumers. The fault lies with the business models that are rewarding professionally produced lies — and that’s a huge problem.

Jonathan: How is WikiTribune going?

Jimmy: Well, that’s what I spend most of my time working on. I just spent the whole day working on the design and implementation of our new software which is going out soon, and we’ve got a community who are doing journalism. It’s a pilot project, and I can’t say that we’ve completely figured it out. But that’s the nature of a pilot project. There’s a lot of exploration and learning, so that’s the stage we’re in.

Jonathan: How do you think people will use WikiTribune. Will they go there first or is it more a place to check the news after they’ve seen it elsewhere?

Jimmy: Currently, we’re exclusively focused on the community. So we don’t focus on getting traffic and all of that. That’s one of the problems with most news sites: The desperate search for clicks. And we don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on quality. I want to focus on thoughtful people. So we don’t really look at that.

The concern right now is to say what can the community do? How do we help them do it? How do we innovate solutions to real problems that people have when they participate in a thoughtful way in the process of journalism? So that’s really what we look at.

Jonathan: So essentially it’s similar to Wikipedia, in the sense that the idea is that if you create something that is really valuable, then people will find it sooner or later?

Jimmy: Yeah, exactly.


Jonathan: What’s your view of The Big Four — Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple? Is it a problem that they are so big?

Jimmy Wales: No, I don’t think so. I think they’re growing because they provide great services that people like to use. Obviously, there are many concerns about different things they’re doing. And there are certainly things they should do better. But I think as a whole, it doesn’t really make sense to sort of say ’well they’re big, therefore they’re bad’. That’s kind of silly.

I also think that people don’t easily remember how vulnerable giant companies are and can be. One example is Microsoft. It was once thought to be completely invincible, but in many areas of technology they are completely irrelevant these days. They’re not on the cutting edge in many areas even though they try really hard to be.

Similarly, we may think that Facebook is in this incredibly dominant position. But that’s not guaranteed to last. And as long as we have an open Internet there’s always a possibility of competitors coming up with the better business model that better satisfies what people really want. And, obviously, Facebook had best pay attention to that.

Jonathan: In recent years, we’ve seen that for example the EU has handed out big fines to Google, Apple and Facebook among others. They want big tech to be held accountable. What is your take on that whole discussion about platforms as publishers and increased regulation?

Jimmy: It’s hard to have a very short take on this. But I think the idea of platforms as publishers is incredibly dangerous and incoherent. So we have to fight that in every way possible. I think we are in an era where we’re only beginning to understand the ramifications of for example paid political advertising that is not being disclosed properly, and those kinds of things.

So, I’m very reluctant to say we need to pass new regulations because it’s really hard to know exactly which regulations would work and would actually help with the problem. And certainly, if we have governments intervening in the free flow of information, well, that will do nothing to restore public trust in institutions and governments. In fact, it will very much undermine it.

Jonathan: It is what you hear a lot these days: That we need stricter regulations for Facebook, for instance. Some people even say that these companies should become public utilities, Google as well…

Jimmy: Well, that’s just idiotic. I mean, that’s just completely idiotic. And it’s also impossible. So it’s not coherent to even discuss.

Jonathan: What’s the future of the Internet and social media? Where do you see this heading?

Jimmy: Well, I always say if I knew what was going to happen next, if I knew what the next big thing will be, I would be busy creating it.

I think it’s really hard to know. But we’re not yet at the end of this really big mega-trend (the Internet age, ed.). So we’ve got a long way to go in terms of getting the rest of the planet on the Internet. That’s going to be a huge thing, with a huge social impact across all societies.

The switch to smartphones is also still not complete, and we are not stable in terms of knowing how people can and will use smartphones and data. There’s still a lot of innovation going on there.

There’s a lot of the obvious things that are going to happen. But then there’s always things that are surprising that we haven’t foreseen. And I don’t know yet exactly what those are going to do. But I think a lot is going to change.


Jonathan: What’s your sentiment in general? Do you think things are getting better or worse? Or is it just more of the same?

Jimmy: If we’re referring to the Internet, then I probably have a different answer for it than if we talk about the world as a whole. But even then, however you want to answer it, some things are getting better and some things are getting worse.

One of the things that we can look at is the history of first the Millennium Development Goals, what we now call the Sustainable Development Goals. What we see is that once you start to quantify certain things like extreme poverty, then you see dramatic progress. And that’s an amazing thing that people forget. We’ve made an enormous amount of progress towards eliminating extreme poverty — and for the planet that’s really important.

At the same time you can look at issues around democracy in the West and there’s a lot of bad things that have happened, a lot of bad things are going on. We see things like Brexit and Trump. We see a lot of undermining of democratic notions. The rise of nationalism throughout Europe which is a very ominous thing to see. Those are not good trends, so I don’t think it’s really easy to have a simple view on this.

Jonathan: Some people say that the educational sector is ripe for disruption. And that it’s an area where things need to change soon if we want to reduce income inequality. What do you think?

Jimmy: Well, so far we’ve seen huge changes in informal education, and very, very few changes in formal education. What I mean by that is that if you look around the world, at the trends, at the number of people completing a university education, then it’s pretty stable. It’s getting slightly better every year, but no dramatic shifts are happening.

But when we look at sphere of informal learning, then it’s a completely different universe. In informal ways, people are learning things far more than ever before. They are becoming skilled in lots of new ways.

That’s an interesting trend. But it’s hard to know what it means exactly. Does it mean that we should lament the lack of innovation in formal education? Or does it mean that formal education becomes less important over time as people have other avenues?

So I don’t know, I think it’s really hard to predict.

Jonathan: Another hot topic is AI, of course. Which is also related to work and education. I mean, what do we need to learn? What will work look like in the future? And so on.

Jimmy: Yes, another hot topic. And there’s a lot going on there. But I think in some ways we’re not as far along as people think we are. And in other ways we are further along than people think we are. So I think most people have a pretty weak grasp of exactly what is possible — and of what is hard and what is easy. Therefore, it’s really hard for people to judge what things mean.

For example, if you look at things like Siri or Alexa, then people can be incredibly impressed. But the technology is not that smart. It’s not genuine artificial intelligence, it’s just a handful of good user interface tricks. Obviously, advances have been made there, but we are very far from full human level AI.

At the same time a lot of the new stuff around machine learning and deep learning algorithms is super interesting, and we are making progress towards something more powerful than we’ve seen before. So I don’t know… I’m not an expert in that area.

Jonathan: But I assume you’ve had some discussions at Wikipedia around AI and how that could be applied, or?

Jimmy: We have, but it’s been very minimal. We’re so human oriented. We’re not really particularly technological, as a project. Obviously, we use technology, but Wikipedia is a social invention, not a technological invention. So we’re not saying “oh in five years’ time Wikipedia entries will be written by AI”. That’s complete nonsense and it won’t happen. So we’re not working on it because it just seems too far away right now.

Written by

Co-founder of Wichmann/Schmidt. Digital creative and strategist. Author of "Leth and boredom".

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