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

Mon, Jul 8, 2013, 13:00

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.

Wikipedia is now available in 285 languages and gets more than 20 billion page views and roughly 516 million unique visitors a month. It is the fifth-most-visited website in the world behind Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook. Were Wikipedia to accept banner and video ads, it could, by most estimates, be worth as much as $5 billion (€3.85 billion).

Wales’ total net worth, by most estimates, is just above $1 million, including stock from his for-profit company Wikia, a wiki-hosting service. In 2005, Florida Trend magazine reported that Wales made enough money in his brief stint as an options and futures trader in Chicago, before starting Wikipedia, that he would never have to work again. But that was before he had to pay child support and rent for homes in Florida and London. When I brought up the topic, Wales seemed irritated. “It rarely crosses my mind,” he said. “Reporters ask me all the time and expect me to say: ‘I’m heartbroken. Where’s my billion dollars?’ ”

Wales likes to invoke the higher purpose of Wikipedia. He applies his libertarian world view to the internet and has taken on institutions such as the US government and Apple for threatening to curb the free exchange of information on the web. He also packs his schedule with sponsored events that have supported his new life. Corporations, universities and foundations typically pay Wales more than $70,000 to deliver a standard but eloquent speech about internet rights.

Last year I watched Wales speak on a panel titled Champions of Action at the Clinton Global Initiative, the annual gathering that matches wealthy donors with worthy causes, run by the former US president. (Wikipedia uses donations to keep its servers running and for about 160 paid employees.)

At the Clinton Global Initiative, hip-hop artist Will.i.am stopped Wales to complain about an error on his Wikipedia page. “Everyone thinks he’s William James Adams Jnr, but it’s not James and it’s not junior,” Wales told me as he opened his laptop and corrected the entry. Several contributors protested that Wales had used a first-hand, unsourced experience to change Will.i.am’s entry. A user called Fram said Wales had violated Wikipedia protocol, which requires factual information be attributed to published materials. “People are not necessarily trustworthy when it comes to personal information,” Fram wrote after changing Will.i.am’s full name back, referencing two published sources. The same rule applied when Wales tried to get his own birthday changed, from August 8th, 1966 (as his passport and driver’s licence used to read) to his actual birthday, August 7th. “This is unverifiable information, I’m sorry to say,” he wrote on his entry’s talk page. “Maybe I’ll have to upload a signed note from my mom as documentary evidence.”

Wales grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and studied finance at Auburn University. At 20, he married Pamela Green, whom he met when he worked at an Alabama grocery store. Later he worked briefly as a trader in Chicago where he met his second wife, Christine Rohan, a steel trader.

In 1996, Wales co-founded Bomis, a search engine that came with a “Bomis Babe Report”, a blog with photos of scantily clad celebrities and porn stars. He and Rohan moved to San Diego to get in on the internet boom. Bomis’ profits financed Wales’ side project, Nupedia, an online encyclopedia with peer-reviewed entries written by experts and academics that served as the predecessor to Wikipedia. As his business partners tried to expand Bomis, Wales saw a potentially larger cultural experiment in a free, open-sourced encyclopedia and devoted almost all of his attention to it. In January 2001 he registered the domain names www.wikipedia.org and www.wikipedia.com. The project went live on January 15th, 2001, henceforth known as Wikipedia Day.

Like many internet entrepreneurs of the early noughties, Wales aimed to create something cool first and worry about a business model later. At first, Wikipedia was a hand-to-mouth operation. Wales would hand-deliver a cheque from Bomis to keep Wikipedia’s servers running. In those early days, Wales thought he could turn his free encyclopedia into a billion-dollar idea.

“I think Jimmy thought he could get very rich off this,” his friend and partner at Bomis, Terry Foote, told me. Foote, who went to high school with Wales, was the best man at his second wedding. He didn’t attend the third. “Fame tends to change people,” Foote said. Wales mostly declined to discuss the status of his friendships from Wikipedia’s early days. “Moving to London has had a big impact on my social circle,” he said. “My wife, you know, knows everyone.”

The internet bubble burst before Wales could implement a revenue-generating business model for Wikipedia. After the crash, he was stuck with an oddity – a popular but penniless online encyclopedia run by strong-willed volunteers likely to reject the idea of advertising. But as Wikipedia grew, Wales undertook a shrewd branding transformation.

In June 2003, he set up a non-profit foundation to run the operation. In a 2004 interview with the website Slashdot he publicised the mission statement that would definitively distance his Wikipedia future from his seedier Bomis Babe Report roots. “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,” he said. Wales’ lofty goal got him a TED Talk at the ideas’ conference in 2005. Then Bono personally invited him to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

During that trip, people who were close to Wales say he morphed from a schlubby computer guy to an activist with dramatically improved access to information and power. His mantra of an internet unconstrained by corporate or government interests resonated. Time magazine named him one of its 100 most influential people of 2006. The following year at Davos, Wales and Garvey were both named “Young Global Leaders”. (Wales, who separated from Rohan in 2008, says he first recalls meeting Garvey in Monaco in 2009. Their romantic relationship began in 2010.

Some have wondered whether Wales, who couldn’t figure out a way to become rich off his innovation, was cynically making a play to cash in on being a great humanitarian. “Did Jimmy have the vision or did he settle into his spontaneous role?” asked Scott Glosserman, a filmmaker who spent a year with Wales filming Truth in Numbers?, a 2010 documentary about Wikipedia. “It was like throwing the magic beans away and the next day seeing a beanstalk,” Glosserman said of Wikipedia’s evolution.

Even before he married Garvey, some members argued that Wales had grown increasingly out of touch. “Jimbo does not own Wikipedia,” wrote one volunteer. “He may have co-founded it, but so what? It has always belonged to the community.” Wales concedes this is more or less true. “In theory, I have the authority to do anything and to make policy by fiat,” he said. “In practice, if I tried to do that, people would go crazy and revolt.”

That collective ownership model won’t make anyone rich, but Wales argues that in the long run it makes Wikipedia far more enduring and valuable to society than Facebook or Twitter. It openly bothers Wales that Wikipedia doesn’t get more credit for events such as the uprisings that led to the Arab Spring. “People like to talk about the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, but I think that’s the most superficial endpoint of the whole process,” he told me. “It’s incredibly important that people are able to self-organise and go demonstrate, but what led them to believe that was even possible?” He pointed to activists reading about the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, revolts in Europe and the early days of democracy in the United States. “It’s one thing to go out on the street and demand change,” he said. “It’s another to say, ‘OK, we won, the bad guy’s gone, now what?’”

Wikipedia, he says, can inform those decisions. And that’s why Wales’ current project is to expand Wikipedia to the developing world. Last year, as part of a ‘Wikipedia Zero’ campaign, the foundation established partnerships with telecommunications companies to provide mobile phones preloaded with Wikipedia in developing countries. In speeches, Wales largely focuses on this mission to spread the online encyclopedia to every person in the developing world at no data charge.

One night in New York, Wales took a break from his evangelism to have dinner with friends. He had just finished taping an appearance on The Colbert Report. Six years before, a less media-savvy Wales felt like he struggled on Colbert. This time he shut himself in the green room with a publicist. “Since you were last on, Wikipedia has been ubiquitous,” Colbert said. “You must be rolling in the cash, right?” Wales laughed it off, and reminded the audience that Wikipedia still needed their donations. At dinner afterward, he seemed adrenaline-fuelled, coyly soaking up compliments on his performance.

A few months later, as I was reading something he had written on the question-and-answer website Quora, I thought about Wales sipping wine and eating oysters after Colbert. In response to a question about how to get his help with a start-up idea, Wales advised against using the type of buzzwords that impressed Bono before that first trip to Davos. “‘A world-changing next-generation platform for Gen Z blah blah blah’ – yuck,” he wrote. He advised aspiring internet entrepreneurs to “treat me like a businessperson”, including, he noted, offering compensation with stock options – “yay”. Internet ubiquity is great, but it would be nice to get paid for it, too.
© 2013 The New York Times

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