Today
Mon 1 March 2021

In a special report, John Lubbock speaks to the tech entrepreneur about the ethos of the world-famous platform he founded, the rise of Big Tech and how social media could be fixed

When Wikipedia launched on 15 January 2001, the open, editable encyclopaedia had few rules and a small group of contributors. Twenty years on, the website has spawned versions in 316 languages and a network of Wikimedia charities across the world which work with editors to improve the platform.

It is a huge and complex structure, which I was part of when I worked as communications coordinator for Wikimedia UK. This doesn’t mean I think Wikipedia is perfect by any means. Rather, despite the platform’s flaws, I think it is a good thing that the world’s largest encyclopaedia is run by a non-profit charity that aspires to make the sum of all knowledge freely available to everyone, or at least everyone who can access it, seeing as 40% of the world’s population still has no internet connection.

The idea for the project did not first spawn in 2001, however. Wikipedia began life as an encyclopaedia called Nupedia in 1999.

Nupedia had a seven-step approval process for content created by subject experts. Only 21 articles were published in the first year, so the website’s founders – Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger – decided to create a feeder website for Nupedia, based on wiki software which allows users to create and publish pages themselves.

18,000 pages were created in Wikipedia’s first year and, as of 15 January 2021, there are a total of 55,617,669.

Wales says that he often cites an essay by Chicago School economist Friedrich von Hayek as an inspiration for Wikipedia’s decentralised structure.

Wikipedia was more successful than its founders expected. It was owned by Wales’ internet hosting company, Bomis, which floated the idea of placing adverts on the site in 2002, partly to pay for Sanger’s salary as the site’s only employee. Wales says that there were a number of business models considered at the time, but in the end they decided to start a charity to accept donations, and changed the domain from wikipedia.com to wikipedia.org

Wales also stopped funding Sanger’s salary, who quit the project, saying that it was being overrun by “anarchist types”. Clearly, the bizarre idea of a public encyclopaedia would collapse due to its lack of rules and governance, he thought.

“The great and terrible thing about the dot-com era is that everything felt possible and exploratory,” Wales says of this initial period.


Fixing Big Tech

Like the Wild West, though, Wikipedia has been somewhat tamed.

It has a huge set of rules and guidelines on its bigger language versions and English Wikipedia is patrolled by bots that automatically identify vandalism, as well as by 1,114 administrators and 127,117 active users.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that runs the servers and develops the site’s software, was launched in 2003, and Wales is now just one of its board members, though he acts as a figurehead for the movement. I asked Wales how he sees his role now.

“When people have the idea that I’m somehow editor-in-chief, that’s not correct,” he says. “When you really understand how ‘wiki’ works, you can see how infeasible that would be, because it’s so distributed.

“I’ve compared myself many times to being like the Queen, in the sense that I have a certain position of authority, but I’m not Henry VIII. There’s the ability to say to people: ‘I’m old, I’ve been around here a long time, and this is going to be a mistake if we do this’. That’s really speaking more about the Foundation, behind the scenes. Anybody can check and see publicly what my edits are.”

All of User:Jimbo_Wales’ contributions can be found here.

One of the things I find surprising about Wikipedia is how this non-commercial encyclopaedia, with no advertising and run by a charity, stemmed from posts from a former financial trader on a libertarian message board devoted to writer and philosopher Ayn Rand. Indeed, Wales says that he often cites an essay by Chicago School economist Friedrich von Hayek as an inspiration for Wikipedia’s decentralised structure.

“A big part of the problem of the organisation of society is how to convey information to make decisions like ‘how much bread should we produce?’ It turns out it’s very difficult for people to communicate all the information inward to a central body that will then do central planning, versus a market system,” he says, before applying that logic to his project. “Should we try to organise an encyclopaedia with a central board of editors or should we push the decision-making out to the end points where people who actually know and are interested in a topic can chew over it and make that decision collaboratively?”

Yet Wales is not a capitalist fanatic like some of Hayek’s devotees: “Wikipedia doesn’t have, and I would be very opposed to, a price system where the content of articles would be up to the highest bidder, that’s insanity. So it’s not a price system like a market economy, but it’s decentralised.”

Wikipedia’s servers are in the US and, like all the big tech companies, it is legally protected by an important piece of legislation called Section 230 – a safe harbour provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act which provides legal immunity for websites that publish third-party content.

In January 2020, incoming American President Joe Biden said in an interview that “for [Facebook] and other platforms, [Section 230] should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false”. 

Wales, who often describes himself as a “pathological optimist”, says that he hopes the new administration can bring about a return to “reasoned dialogue and debate” in America.

He says: “I don’t know exactly what Joe Biden’s position is or the [Democratic] Party more generally, but I hope we would say ‘what are the exact problems we are trying to solve, and how can we solve them in a way that is consistent with an open, diverse internet where something like Wikipedia can flourish?’”

Does Wales think that tech companies should be subject to other legal strictures to prevent some of the negative consequences of their business models?

“I think the areas that should be of interest are around transparency and algorithms,” he suggests. “If you’ve got a weird, crazy uncle who posts something obnoxious and racist on Facebook, that’s not really Facebook’s problem, that’s your family’s problem. It’s part of society, it’s not great but it’s not the end of the world. What I do find problematic is if their algorithm notices that when your crazy uncle posts some obnoxious thing it gets a lot of engagement because people respond to yell at him, and because of this the algorithm starts to promote that content to a wider audience of like-minded people, and now your crazy uncle suddenly ends up with 10,000 followers.”

Wales acknowledges that the problem is complex and is embedded in the business model of tech companies, which leverage their users’ data to drive advertising revenue – something that Wikipedia avoided back in 2002 when it decided to not pursue a commercial business model. He also admits that he doesn’t have the solution and that, while legislation could be a part of the answer, “it’s really hard to design something that solves the problem without bringing more problems”.

It is perhaps unsurprising given his politics that he thinks the answers shouldn’t be imposed top-down by governments.

The impression is that Wales sees the failures of big tech platforms as the teething problems of a relatively young internet, as it struggles to cope with mountains of data and millions of new users every single year. But the worry is that the larger structural problems of capitalism mean that polarisation, anger and the collapse of a consensus on basic facts are a feature, rather than a bug. Polarisation drives engagement – and engagement brings profits.

Wikipedia is an outlier in being able to survive and grow based entirely on public donations – the Wikimedia Foundation received $120 million in donations in 2018/19, or 0.075% of Google’s $160 billion revenue in the same year – and it is doubtful whether Wikipedia’s success holds any lessons for the commercial tech companies, unless they suddenly decide that their raison d’être is no longer making lots of money. 

This theory may soon be tested, however, as Wales is attempting to bring Wikipedia’s wiki-based model to social media with WT:Social, a project which started out as a collaborative journalism site before shifting to a Facebook-style layout.


The Future

Wales says that Wikipedia’s vision of a world where “every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” is still a long way from being fulfilled.

He identifies “the growth of Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world” as the main objective for the next 10 years. What that looks like in practice will be decided by the communities on the ground and Wales says that this means changing the way that local Wikimedia groups are funded.

“The affiliated organisations that have a lot of money are largely in wealthy Western countries and that probably needs to change,” he says. “We need to see that Wikimedia Ghana has a budget proportional to its population, not to the wealth of Ghana.”

A lot has been written on Wikipedia’s gender and geographic biases. The platform is transparent about its users and data, which helps these biases to be identified and corrected. Yet, while they are to some extent a reflection of the underlying structural inequalities of the world, it is not enough for Wikipedians to just shrug and do nothing.

The community and charities are doing a lot of work to correct biases in its content but, once again, they don’t believe that these changes can be imposed from above. Since anybody can edit Wikipedia, we must all contribute to the lack of representation given to women, people of colour and other marginalised groups.

Wikipedia shouldn’t really work, but it does. It shouldn’t be able to survive in a hyper-capitalist commercial world, but people keep donating to it. Its model is unique and bizarre – a relic of a more open, idealistic 1990s techno utopianism, but it may still outlast even the biggest corporate tech giants.

“I don’t think Wikipedia is a fluke, but in some ways personally, of course I was lucky,” Wales says. “Right idea at the right time.” Indeed.


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