Sunday, June 17, 2012

A CULT ENTREPRENEUR SOLVING A SOCIAL DILEMMA

THE CONFLUENCE OF OPEN EDITING POLICIES AND A DELUGE OF VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS HAVE HELPED JIMMY WALES IMMENSELY IN HIS VISION TO MAKE KNOWLEDGE FREE TO ALL. NEXT STOP – HELPING GOVERNMENTS?

Jimmy Wales, Founder and Member of the Board of Trustees, Wikimedia FoundationWhen Jimbo ‘Jimmy’ Wales, co-founder Wikipedia, first got back to my office communicating that he was eager to talk, I hadn’t yet conveyed to him that I considered him a cult entrepreneur par excellence. It’s not that I quite agree with Wikipedia’s editorial policies (on which Wales’ personally holds little or titular control) – far from it, I perhaps would be their harshest critic – but the social promise that the model has fulfilled till now and holds for the future is reason enough to catapult this sincerest 45-year-old American into my topmost list of legendary innovator entrepreneurs.

When Brin and Page took their dorm room data mining experiment beyond the confines of Stanford, the world learned to associate search with Google. And when Jimmy Wales brought in his bold venture enabled by ‘open editing’ in 2001, free information in the Internet space about any company, individual, event, entity et al rapidly started becoming synonymous with Wikipedia, and the world of encyclopedias shrunk by hitherto unimaginable proportions. Type a search key on Google today, and you will, with rare exceptions, encounter a Wikipedia article on the term right up there in the rankings. And that is really a testimony to the kind of power it holds among the Internet audience as a reference tool.

Wikipedia, which derives its name from the word ‘wiki’ (a website whose content can be edited through a simplified mark up language or a rich text editor), was anti-establishment at its very core, and one would not be surprised at the same, if one were to closely examine the credentials of Jimmy Wales himself. Disdain for what passes off as convention and a passionate search for freedom have been part and parcel of Jimmy’s character, whose initial schooling happened in a oneroom schoolhouse, which was run by his mother and grandmother. His most pleasant memory of that time is the Montessori influence on the school, which meant that he could spend a lot of time studying anything he felt like. And perhaps his most unpleasant memory was how bureaucrats and high school inspectors used to constantly interfere in the school’s functioning.

His most recent war against the establishment is one where he was joined by most of the prominent websites of the world – the war against the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the PIPA (Protect IP Act), Acts which could expand the US government’s power to curb copyright infringement and piracy and act against websites that are dealing in counterfeit goods – critics mention these Acts are just another way to gain ill-thought control over the net; Wales tells us that these Acts are “fundamentally flawed”. Wales has firmly protested against the attempts by the industry, particularly the movie making industry, to back such legislations through all means possible. He famously proclaimed to Hollywood recently that it was doomed and not because of piracy, but because of a growing trend of collaborative story telling and filmmaking. He told us, “The solution to problems of piracy cannot lie with any form of censorship. It’s really as simple as that. Any law which makes it possible to shut down or significantly damage (through withdrawal of access to markets) a website without due process of law must be opposed.”

Wikimedia Foundation Report, FY 2010-11
He also laments the recent attempts by the Indian government to act against online firms in particular, “The IT industry in India is maturing to the point that the next great consumer Internet start-ups – the next Google, the next Facebook, the next Wikipedia - could come from India. All of this is destroyed, utterly destroyed, if India imposes censorship on the web.”

I consider Jimmy Wales, like most iconic entrepreneurs in business history, as a genius, albeit one with a very unconventional perspective towards life. After completing college, Jimmy went on to attend the finance PhD programs at both Indiana and Alabama, but did not write the dissertations in either, because he was ‘bored’! However, he did make a lot of money in the market through very intelligent speculations on forex and interest rate fluctuations. Then he took his life-changing decision to quit the financial realm and become an internet entrepreneur with Bomis (acronym for Bitter Old Men In Suits), a website targeted towards males and featuring user-generated webrings around popular search terms among that target audience.

Jimmy’s passion for freedom has pretty much guided his perspectives and actions throughout his life. He was deeply influenced by noted author Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivity, individualism and capitalism. He closely identifies himself with Howard Roarke, the main protagonist of The Fountainhead (arguably Rand’s most popular work), an architect who embodies these very philosophies, in particular the value of having great ideas and pursuing them to fruition.

Using the funding from Bomis, Jimmy moved on to the web encyclopaedia project he was most passionate about, with Nupedia. In this version, articles were supposed to be written by experts and each article was to undergo an exhaustive peer review process to ensure that credibility was at par with encyclopaedias. But seeing how slow the process was, Wales and Larry Sanger (editor- in-chief of Nupedia) jumped upon the idea of making the whole project a ‘wiki’ called Wikipedia and enabling independent editors to contribute to articles as they were being written.

Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001. Volunteers jumped on the wiki bandwagon almost immediately – though not a quarter as high as the numbers one sees now. Yet, the improvement in quantity over Nupedia was dramatic. While Nupedia approved 21 articles in its first year, Wikipedia had completed 18,000 plus! Of course, Sanger later opposed the change in focus by Wales towards Wikipedia and its rather simplistic editorial policy – due to which Sanger ultimately quit. This was quite similar to the turf war at Apple between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (whose interview with my office was covered in my previous editorial), leading to Wozniak leaving Apple. The difference here being that I actually consider Jimmy Wales the Wozniak of the duo. And that’s because of the uncanny similarity in one particularly sparkling attitude. While Woz wished to give away Apple’s computers for free (an idea which Jobs opposed), Jimmy Wales has always wanted to give away Wikipedia’s knowledge for free – and has succeeded like nobody else ever could. If Jobs was the autocratic head of Apple, Wales is the epitome of community decision making, where leave critical policies, Wikipedia is more or less managed everyday by thousands of independent volunteers who are not even paid by Wikipedia.

With Wales’ vision, Wikipedia has become the exemplar of Jimmy’s vision to bring “the sum of all human knowledge” free of cost to every human in the world. Wales professes a belief in decentralisation of knowledge, which was the guiding philosophy of the Wikipedia project. “I always do the most interesting thing I can find to do,” says Wales to us. And Wikipedia has been one massively interesting thing to do.

Today, Nupedia is extinct, but Wikipedia is no pushover in the numbers game by any stretch of imagination. With over 100,000 active editors globally as reported in the annual report for 2010-11, the Wikimedia Foundation (which officially runs Wikipedia) received funding of around $23 million that year. By the end of 2010, 3.5 million articles had been published on the English version of Wikipedia (currently over 3.9 million in English & 21 million in total for all 282 language versions), and the site got its 1 billionth edit during the year. On a trailing three month average basis, around 13.9% of global internet users access Wikipedia. org as per statistics from Alexa.com. In comparison, the figure for Google (the number 1 site in terms of web traffic) is 49.77% and for Youtube is 32.69%. But compare the paid staff of Wikipedia, which is around 139 people as on date in comparison to Google, which had 32,467 employees by the end of 2011, and you get the real perspective.

There are inherent contradictions in the model, but one beats the rest by a huge margin. Nupedia was supposed to base itself on advertising, but Wales has shunned advertising for Wikipedia. Wales has stood by his stand that advertising would not allow the content on the site to stay neutral and the current mode of targeted advertising is a violation of the privacy rights of an individual. He asserts to us, “I see no problems with our revenue model. People have been asking that question for years, and we continue to be more and more successful with it.”

Wikimedia Foundation report 2010-11
Clearly, one can argue that advertising on the website would increase the revenue base phenomenally and expand the possibilities for the site, especially ramping up an in-house team to counter- balance the thousands of volunteer editors across the world, whose credentials are quite hard to ascertain. Definitely, credibility of data and bias remain an issue even without following an online advertising-based model – issues which Wikipedia itself accepts officially – and the freedom provided to these contributors has to be consistently guarded against misuse.

But to be honest, the bigger promise for Wales – and perhaps various nations – in the future is Wikiversity, a project similar to Wikipedia set up by the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikiversity offers structured teaching in various subjects and topics “to foster learning”. While countries like India are struggling in spreading the reach of university learning centres due to the costs involved in setting up technology and learning networks through vast geographic expanses, Wikiversity offers a readymade university-like learning platform on the Internet; and the best part is that it is all provided free of cost. In other words, governments could use Wales’ Wikiversity platform completely free of cost to teach university subjects through the Internet – and even formally certify the students undertaking such distributed learning post formal tests. Imagine the potential such an idea holds in increasing literacy rates and in reducing poverty globally. And for this very Wikiversity concept, if not for Wikipedia itself (for which Jimmy has been praised ad nauseum), I consider Wales one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, in the same league as the contemporary persona of Bill Gates.

“The original vision statement for Wikipedia still sustains me, ‘Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge’.” When Wales mentions this, it teaches me again how passion has almost nothing to do with making money. He’s my new benchmark in the world of cult entrepreneurs – gentlemen, let’s give a hand to Jimmy Wales; he’s making a bigger difference than many nations.

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