Jimmy Wales

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Jimmy Donal Wales born August 7, 1966, also known by the online moniker Jimbo, is an American Internet entrepreneur, best known as the co-founder of the online non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia, and the for-profit web hosting company Wikia. As of October 2013, it is ranked as the 6thmost visited site on the planet. In January 2010 only, Wikipedia earned more than 365 million unique visitors. It is used regularly by more than 500 million users worldwide. Wikipedia has revolutionized digital knowledge sharing which has been the reason behind its immense success. Jimmy Wales has been the reason behind the rising of Wikipedia into a global phenomenon.

Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, shortly before midnight on August 7, 1966; however, his birth certificate lists his date of birth as August 8. His father, Jimmy, worked as a grocery store manager, while his mother, Doris Ann (née Dudley), and his grandmother, Erma, ran the House of Learning, a small private school in the tradition of the one-room schoolhouse, where Wales and his three siblings received their early education.

As a child, Wales was a keen reader with an acute intellectual curiosity. When he was three, his mother bought a World Book Encyclopedia from a door-to-door salesman. As he grew up and learned to read, it became an object of reverence. It put at his fingertips an abundant supply of knowledge complete with maps, illustrations, and a few cellophane layers of transparencies one could lift to explore such things as the muscles, arteries, and digestive system of a dissected frog. But Wales soon discovered that the World Book had shortcomings: no matter how much was in it, there were many more things that were not. World Book sent out stickers for owners to paste on the pages in order to update the encyclopedia, and Wales was careful to put the stickers to work, stating, “I joke that I started as a kid revising the encyclopedia by stickering the one my mother bought.”

Jimmy Wales

During an interview in 2005 with Brian Lamb, Wales described his childhood private school as a “Montessori influenced philosophy of education”, where he “spent lots of hours poring over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias“. There were only four other children in Wales’s grade, so the school grouped together the first through fourth-grade students and the fifth through eighth-grade students. As an adult, Wales was sharply critical of the government’s treatment of the school, citing the “constant interference and bureaucracy and very sort of snobby inspectors from the state” as a formative influence on his political philosophy.

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After eighth grade, Wales attended Randolph School, a university-preparatory school in Huntsville, graduating at sixteen. Wales said that the school was expensive for his family, but that “education was always a passion in my household … you know, the very traditional approach to knowledge and learning and establishing that as a base for a good life.” He received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University in 1986. He began his Auburn education when he was 16 years old. Wales then entered the PhD finance program at the University of Alabama before leaving with a master’s degree to enter the PhD finance program at Indiana University. At the University of Alabama, he played Internet fantasy games and developed his interest in the web. He taught at both universities during his postgraduate studies but did not write the doctoral dissertation required for a PhD, something he ascribed to boredom.

In 1994, Jimmy Wales took a job with Chicago Options Associates, a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, Illinois. Wales has described himself as having been addicted to the Internet from an early stage and he wrote computer code during his leisure time. During his studies in Alabama, he had become an obsessive player of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs)—a type of virtual role-playing game—and thereby experienced the potential of computer networks to foster large-scale collaborative projects.

Inspired by the remarkably successful initial public offering of Netscape in 1995, and having accumulated capital through “speculating on interest-rate and foreign-currency fluctuations”, Wales decided to leave the realm of financial trading and became an Internet entrepreneur. In 1996, he and two partners founded Bomis, a web portal featuring user-generated webrings and, for a time, erotic photographs. Wales described it as a “guy-oriented search engine” with a market similar to that of Maxim magazine; the Bomis venture did not ultimately turn out to be successful.

Though Bomis had struggled to make money, it provided Wales with the funding to pursue his greater passion, an online encyclopedia. While moderating an online discussion group devoted to the philosophy of Objectivism in the early 1990s, Wales had encountered Larry Sanger, a skeptic of the philosophy. The two had engaged in detailed debate on the subject on Wales’s list and then on Sanger’s, eventually meeting offline to continue the debate and becoming friends. Years later, after deciding to pursue his encyclopedia project and seeking a credentialed academic to lead it, Wales hired Sanger—who at that time was a doctoral student in philosophy at Ohio State University—to be its editor-in-chief, and in March 2000, Nupedia (“the free encyclopedia”), a peer-reviewed, open-content encyclopedia, was launched. 

The intent behind Nupedia was to have expert-written entries on a variety of topics, and to sell advertising alongside the entries in order to make profit. The project was characterized by an extensive peer-review process designed to make its articles of a quality comparable to that of professional encyclopedias.

The idea was to have thousands of volunteers writing articles for an online encyclopedia in all languages. Initially we found ourselves organizing the work in a very top-down, structured, academic, old-fashioned way. It was no fun for the volunteer writers because we had a lot of academic peer review committees who would criticize articles and give feedback. It was like handing in an essay at grad school, and basically intimidating to participate in.

In an October 2009 speech, Wales recollected attempting to write a Nupedia article on Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert C. Merton, but being too intimidated to submit his first draft to the prestigious finance professors who were to peer review it, even though he had published a paper on Option Pricing Theory and was comfortable with the subject matter. Wales characterized this as the moment he realized that the Nupedia model was not going to work as only a single person was able to submit an article and only a single expert would be able to edit it. This process was taking a long time and thus hindered the growth of the web portal.

In January 2001, Sanger was introduced to the concept of a wiki by extreme programming enthusiast Ben Kovitz after explaining to Kovitz the slow pace of growth Nupedia endured as a result of its onerous submission process. Kovitz suggested that adopting the wiki model would allow editors to contribute simultaneously and incrementally throughout the project, thus breaking Nupedia’s bottleneck. Sanger was excited about the idea, and after he proposed it to Wales, they created the first Nupedia wiki on January 10, 2001.  The wiki was initially intended as a collaborative project for the public to write articles that would then be reviewed for publication by Nupedia’s expert volunteers.

The majority of Nupedia’s experts, however, wanted nothing to do with this project, fearing that mixing amateur content with professionally researched and edited material would compromise the integrity of Nupedia’s information and damage the credibility of the encyclopedia. This is when they realised that finding faults in an article is very easy but collecting information is more important. So Wales started Wikipedia with the hope and dream that it would be a portal where more and more information would be piled up. Thus, the wiki project, dubbed “Wikipedia” by Sanger, went live at a separate domain five days after its creation

Originally, Bomis planned to make Wikipedia a profitable business. Sanger initially saw Wikipedia primarily as a tool to aid Nupedia development. Wales feared that, at worst, it might produce “complete rubbish”. To the surprise of Sanger and Wales, within a few days of launching, the number of articles on Wikipedia had outgrown that of Nupedia, and a small collective of editors had formed. It was Jimmy Wales, along with other people, who came up with the broader idea of an open-source, collaborative encyclopedia that would accept contributions from ordinary people. Initially, neither Sanger nor Wales knew what to expect from the Wikipedia initiative. Many of the early contributors to the site were familiar with the model of the free culture movement, and, like Wales, many of them sympathized with the open-source movement.

Things work well when a group of people know each other, and things break down when it’s a bunch of random people interacting – Jimmy Wales

Wales has said that he was initially so worried about the concept of open editing, where anyone can edit the encyclopedia, that he would awaken during the night and monitor what was being added. Nonetheless, the cadre of early editors helped create a robust, self-regulating community that has proven conducive to the growth of the project. In a talk at SXSW in 2016, he recalled that he wrote the first words on Wikipedia: “Hello world”, a phrase computer programmers often use to test new software.

Sanger developed Wikipedia in its early phase and guided the project. The broader idea he originally ascribes to other people, remarking in a 2005 memoir for Slashdot that “the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy’s, not mine, and the funding was entirely by Bomis. Of course, other people had had the idea”, adding, “the actual development of this encyclopedia was the task he gave me to work on.” Sanger worked on and promoted both the Nupedia and Wikipedia projects until Bomis discontinued funding for his position in February 2002; Sanger resigned as editor-in-chief of Nupedia and as “chief organizer” of Wikipedia on March 1 of that year. Early on, Bomis supplied the financial backing for Wikipedia, and entertained the notion of placing advertisements on Wikipedia before costs were reduced with Sanger’s departure and plans for a nonprofit foundation were advanced instead.

Wales has asserted that he is the sole founder of Wikipedia and has publicly disputed Sanger’s designation as a co-founder. Sanger and Wales were identified as co-founders at least as early as September 2001 by The New York Times and as founders in Wikipedia’s first press release in January 2002. In August of that year, Wales identified himself as “co-founder” of Wikipedia. Sanger assembled on his personal webpage an assortment of links that appear to confirm the status of Sanger and Wales as co-founders. For example, Sanger and Wales are historically cited or described in early news citations and press releases as co-founders. Wales was quoted by The Boston Globe as calling Sanger’s claim “preposterous” in February 2006 and called “the whole debate” “silly” in an April 2009 interview.

In late 2005, Wales edited his own biographical entry on the English Wikipedia. Writer Rogers Cadenhead drew attention to logs showing that in his edits to the page, Wales had removed references to Sanger as the co-founder of Wikipedia. Sanger commented that “having seen edits like this, it does seem that Jimmy is attempting to rewrite history. But this is a futile process because in our brave new world of transparent activity and maximum communication, the truth will out.” Wales was also observed to have modified references to Bomis in a way that was characterized as downplaying the sexual nature of some of his former company’s products. Though Wales argued that his modifications were solely intended to improve the accuracy of the content, he apologized for editing his own biography, a practice generally discouraged on Wikipedia.

In a 2004 interview with Slashdot, Wales outlined his vision for Wikipedia: “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.” Although his formal designation is board member and chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales’s social capital within the Wikipedia community has accorded him a status that has been characterized as benevolent dictator, constitutional monarch and spiritual leader.  In two interviews with the Guardian in 2014, Wales elaborated on his role on Wikipedia.

In the first interview, he said that while he “has always rejected” the term “benevolent dictator”, he does refer to himself as the “constitutional monarch”. In the second, he elaborated on his “constitutional monarch” designation, saying that, like the Queen of England, he has no real power. He was also the closest the project had to a spokesperson in its early years. The growth and prominence of Wikipedia made Wales an Internet celebrity. Although he had never traveled outside North America prior to the site’s founding, his participation in the Wikipedia project has seen him flying internationally on a near-constant basis as its public face.

When Larry Sanger left Wikipedia, Wales’s approach was different from Sanger’s. Wales was fairly hands-off. Despite involvement in other projects, Wales has denied intending to reduce his role within Wikipedia, telling The New York Times in 2008 that “Dialing down is not an option for me … Not to be too dramatic about it, but, ‘to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language,’ that’s who I am. That’s what I am doing. That’s my life goal.” In May 2010, the BBC reported that Wales had relinquished many of his technical privileges on Wikimedia Commons (a Wikipedia sister project that hosts much of its multimedia content) after criticism by the project’s volunteer community over what they saw as Wales’s hasty and undemocratic approach to deleting sexually explicit images he believed “appeal solely to prurient interests”.

In mid-2003, Wales set up the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), a non-profit organization founded in St. Petersburg, Florida and later headquartered in San Francisco, California. All intellectual property rights and domain names pertaining to Wikipedia were moved to the new foundation, whose purpose is to establish general policy for the encyclopedia and its sister projects. Wales has been a member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees since it was formed and was its official chairman from 2003 through 2006. 

Since 2006 he has been accorded the honorary title of chairman emeritus and holds the board-appointed “community founder’s seat” that was installed in 2008. His work for the foundation, including his appearances to promote it at computer and educational conferences, has always been unpaid. Wales has often joked that donating Wikipedia to the foundation was both the “dumbest and the smartest” thing he had done. On one hand, he estimated that Wikipedia was worth US$3 billion; on the other, he weighed his belief that the donation made its success possible.

On May 26, 2014, Google appointed Wales to serve on a seven-member committee on privacy in response to Google v. Gonzalez, which led to Google’s being inundated with requests to remove websites from their search results. Wales said he wanted the committee to be viewed as “a blue-ribbon panel” by lawmakers and for the committee to advise the lawmakers as well as Google.

In 2017, Wales announced that he is launching an online publication called Wikitribune, with a goal to fight fake news through a combination of professional journalists and volunteer contributors. Wales described it as “news by the people and for the people”, and that it will be the “first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side-by-side as equals writing stories as they happen, editing them live as they develop, and at all times backed by a community checking and rechecking all facts”.

From his background in finance, and working as a futures and options trader, Jimmy Wales developed an interest in game theory and the effect of incentives on human collaborative activity. He identifies this fascination as a significant basis for his developmental work on the Wikipedia project. He has rejected the notion that his role in promoting Wikipedia is altruistic, which he defines as “sacrificing your own values for others”, stating that the idea of “participating in a benevolent effort to share information is somehow destroying your own values makes no sense to me”.

Jimmy Wales has been married three times. At the age of twenty, he married Pamela Green, a co-worker at a grocery store in Alabama. They divorced in 1993. He met his second wife, Christine Rohan, through a friend in Chicago while she was working as a steel trader for Mitsubishi. The couple were married in Monroe County, Florida in March 1997, and had a daughter before separating. Wales moved to San Diego in 1998, and after becoming disillusioned with the housing market there, relocated in 2002 to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Jimmy Wales had a brief relationship with Canadian conservative columnist Rachel Marsden in 2008 that began after Marsden contacted Wales about her Wikipedia biography. After accusations that Wales’s relationship constituted a conflict of interest, Wales stated that there had been a relationship but that it was over and said that it had not influenced any matters on Wikipedia, a claim which was disputed by Marsden.

He married Kate Garvey in London on October 6, 2012. She is Tony Blair’s former diary secretary, whom Wales met in Davos, Switzerland. Wales has three daughters: one with Rohan and two with Garvey. Wales is an atheist. In an interview with Big Think, he said his personal philosophy is firmly rooted in reason and he is a complete non-believer. As of 2012, he lives in London, England.

Jimmy Wales have been designated to high profile offices as a result of his influence and contributions to world as well as receiving several global recognitions to his works. Wales is a former co-chair of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2008, and a former board member of Socialtext. He is a member of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and the board of directors at Creative Commons and Hunch.com.

In 2006, Wales was listed in the “Scientists & Thinkers” section of the TIME 100 and number 12 in Forbes “The Web Celebs 25”. Wales has also given a lecture in the Stuart Regen Visionary series at New Museum which “honors special individuals who have made major contributions to art and culture, and are actively imagining a better future” and by the World Economic Forum as one of the “Young Global Leaders” of 2007. The 2008 Global Brand Icon of the Year Award, and on behalf of the Wikimedia project the Quadriga award of Werkstatt Deutschland for A Mission of Enlightenment.

The 2009 Nokia Foundation annual award, the Business Process Award at the 7th Annual Innovation Awards and Summit by The Economist. In April 2011, Jimmy Wales served on the jury of the Tribeca Film Festival, Wales has received a Pioneer Award, the Gottlieb Duttweiler Prize and the Leonardo European Corporate Learning Award in 2011, the Monaco Media Prize. Wales has also received honorary degrees from Knox College, Amherst College, Stevenson University, Argentina’s Universidad Empresarial Siglo 21, and Russia’s MIREA University. On December 5, 2013, Wales was awarded the UNESCO Niels Bohr Medal in Copenhagen, Denmark at a conference on “An Open World” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Niels Bohr’s atomic theory. His presentation on “Wikipedia, Democracy and the Internet” emphasized the need to expand Wikipedia into virtually all the languages of the world.

The “Wikipedia Zero” initiative was beginning to prove successful in encouraging telecommunications companies to provide children in the developing world with free access to Wikipedia for educational purposes. Jimmy Wales was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2013. In February 2014, Wales was named one of “25 Web Superstars” by The Daily Telegraph. On May 17, 2014, Wales was awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa by the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI Lugano, Switzerland). On June 25, 2014, Wales received an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. 

On July 10, 2014, Jimmy Wales received the UK Tech4Good Awards “Special Award” for establishing Wikipedia. He was one of eight winners in various categories meant to honor organizations and individuals who use digital technology to improve the lives of others. In December 2014, Wales shared the inaugural $1-million Mohammed bin Rashid Knowledge Award with World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In January 2016, Wales, along with Baroness Rebuck, became a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group. On February 2, 2016, he received a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Université Catholique de Louvain. In June 2016, during the opening ceremony on Wikimania 2016, Wales was awarded with the honour citizenship of Esino Lario. In September 2017, he was awarded the President’s Medal of the British Academy “for facilitating the spread of information via his work creating and developing Wikipedia, the world’s largest free online enclyclopedia