This is the first interview in Chapter 2 in my new book, Designing Media
Jimmy Wales, October 2008
Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia in 2001, harnessing voluntary contributions from anyone with sufficient interest and time to create the world’s largest encyclopedia. I was surprised that the first email that I received from him was signed Jimbo, which struck me as an intimate name that might be reserved for family members and longtime friends, but it turned out to be his online nickname. I interviewed him in the Wikia offices in San Francisco. He has a very busy schedule, but once he was seated in front of the cameras, he talked in a gentle and friendly manner about his philosophy, seeming to have all the time in the world, until an hour later, when he looked at his watch and rushed off to another appointment.
I still find it amazing that Wikipedia works so well. There is genius behind the simplicity of the design that Jimmy Wales created, with a self-correcting structure that allows open contribution with just a little bit of police work by the volunteer administrators. In his interview he talked very philosophically about the values of community, collaboration, and sharing, so it seems ironic that he started Nupedia and Wikipedia with money made from financial futures and a men-only Web portal.
Crowd (Wikimedia Commons Photo by Alessio Domato)
Jimmy evolved the design to control the quality of crowd-sourced material, developing a simple hierarchy in four levels, which he describes as a benevolent monarchy: 1. An open architecture that allows anyone to contribute material, identified by an IP number and a screen name._ 2. Volunteer administrators, elected from within the community, who police the behavior of contributors. 3. An arbitration committee, elected by administrators, to resolve difficult issues. 4. King Jimbo, holding the board-appointed “community founder” seat, to personally appoint officers for key roles. This structure relies on the combination of automation and human judgment. Jimmy thinks of it as community design, where social rules and norms for interaction enhance the software, bringing members of the community together to do something productive and enjoyable.