Who wants to be a billionaire?
Jimmy Wales founded the website that made the sum of the world’s information freely available. By some estimates, Wikipedia would now be worth $5 billion if it sold adverts, but he hasn’t made a cent from it. He says that rarely crosses his mind these days, though
According to Wikipedia, Tampa International Airport is a public airport six miles west of downtown Tampa, in Hillsborough County, Florida. It’s also where Jimmy Wales flies in and out of a couple of times a month – in economy class – to visit his 12-year-old daughter, Kira. She lives with Wales’ ex-wife in a ranch-style home not far from the strip mall where Wales, along with a handful of colleagues he generally no longer speaks to, ran Wikipedia a decade ago. The original Florida address for one of the internet’s most life-changing innovations is now a UPS store with a faded red awning.
That was Wales’ old life. In his new one, he lives in London with Kate Garvey, his third wife, whom he often describes as “the most connected woman in London”. Garvey doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, but if she did, it would probably note that she was Tony Blair’s diary secretary at 10 Downing Street and then a director at Freud Communications, the public relations firm run by Matthew Freud, a great-grandson of Sigmund Freud, who is also Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law. And that Blair, in his 2010 memoir, wrote that Garvey ran his schedule “with a grip of iron and was quite prepared to squeeze the balls very hard indeed of anyone who interfered”.
At Garvey and Wales’ wedding last October, the maid of honour made a toast teasing Garvey for marrying the one world-famous internet entrepreneur who didn’t become a billionaire. But the wedding was still covered in the Daily Mail and The Sunday Times, much to Wales’s excitement. He pulled up the Mail’s website on his laptop to show me photographs from the reception. “That was surreal,” he said.
Wales, who is 46, has a complicated time balancing his new life with his old one. That was evident one morning last winter as he bounded into the lobby of the West End building where he rented office space. Wales was 45 minutes late, dishevelled and a little frantic. He had left the keys to his and Garvey’s London apartment at his place in Florida; the nanny, here in London, was stranded with the couple’s three-year-old daughter. “I forgot to drop off the key.” Just when Wales thought he might have to run home, his assistant, who is based in Florida, texted that a building manager had let the nanny in. Global childcare crisis averted.
After he composed himself, Wales explained that his office was too embarrassingly unkempt for public consumption. So he joined me on a cracked sofa in a common lounge area downstairs. With its ratty Oriental carpets and mismatched folding chairs, the space exuded a bohemian chic look that Wales, a savvy purveyor of his own image, seemed to delight in showing off. The building, a condemned former BBC space, had been scheduled for demolition. Wales would soon be moving. “I’m not the Google guys,” he said.
Before he showed me his wedding photos, he talked about his new friend, British model Lily Cole, who rented office space across the hall. Then he took a call from a business advisory firm to discuss a speech he would be giving at the World Economic Forum. On his laptop, he was following his Wikipedia ‘talk’ page, where the site’s volunteers log their discussions and disagreements over entries. The page had lit up with a raging debate about the banning of some editors on the Turkish version of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is built as a wiki – a website that allows users to collectively create, add and edit content – and more than a million people have edited at least one entry. But the veracity and updating of its more than 24 million encyclopedia entries relies largely on an army of more than 80,000 dedicated volunteers known as the community. This global collection of grassroots volunteers makes for a collectively brilliant creation, but it can also lead to online hysteria and “edit wars” over minutia such as how to categorise hummus.
Although Wales no longer runs the day-to-day operations of Wikipedia – instead travelling the world giving talks on free speech and internet freedom – he still spends an inordinate amount of time interacting with, and thinking about, the community. Wales – or “Jimbo” as he is called – is the person the community turns to when disputes are not settled in their online arbitration committees.
He has weighed in on arguments over whether the Wikipedia entry for the military historian Lynette Nusbacher should mention her gender change (he said it should, but the entry was later removed) and whether the entry on homeopathy should describe the practice as “quackery” (Wales agreed that it could, as long as the word “quackery” was attributed to the American Medical Association). “Argumentum ad Jimbonem” means dutifully following what Wales says, but there are even arguments about that. Some users have also disputed the Latinised version of “Jimbo”. (Should it be “Jimboni” or “Jimbini”?) Either way, the Google guys probably wouldn’t put up with this.
Wales doesn’t have much choice. He realised early on that the community would revolt if he were to monetise Wikipedia by selling ads. He may travel the world giving speeches and even include Bono as a friend, but Wales’ celebrity relies largely on being the guy who made the sum of the world’s information free without making a penny himself. As such, his reputation remains inextricably linked to the noisy, online volunteers who got him there.