Jimmy Wales: The Maverick Who Brought The Encyclopaedia Into the Internet Age

By James Laird on at

Looking back, 2001 was kind of a big deal. Obviously, the events of 9/11 altered the world's geopolitical makeup, with repercussions that are still being felt today. But well before that - in January 2001 - the Internet's landscape was also subject to a seismic shift that would change the way we consume information forever.

On Monday, 15 January 2001, a little website called Wikipedia went online. Looking to bring the encyclopedia off of dusty bookshelves and into the digital age, it was the brainchild of two men, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. But chances are, you only recognise one of those names.

That's because since the launch of Wikipedia, which coincided with Rui Da Silva's spell atop the UK charts with flash-in-the-pan hit single Touch Me (a fact I found out on, you guessed it, Wikipedia), one Jimmy Donal Wales has become not only the face of the world's sixth most trafficked website, but one of the tech world's most influential personalities. But the story of Jimmy Wales, or 'Jimbo' as he likes to call himself online, doesn't actually start with Wikipedia.

No, the kid from Huntsville, Alabama who would create the world's go-to source for free information was busy establishing himself as a maverick well before lazy students were getting hip to the powers of copy-and-pasting.

The Maverick Origins of Wikipedia

The concept of a digital encyclopedia wasn't exactly new when Wikipedia came around. Way back in 1993, Microsoft's Encarta was distributed by CD-ROM and hyperlinked, while in 1995, the renowned Encyclopedia Britannica started to digitise its content as part of Project Gutenberg. And while all of this was happening, Jimmy Wales was starting to think about how he could revolutionise the way we consume porn. Well, sort of. Bomis, Wales' first venture of note where he was one of three co-founders, was setup in 1996 and became a successful web portal based on one thing: the ample amount of X-rated media it featured, and the way it used this pull to rake in digital advertising money.

Originally, the idea was conceived as a male-orientated search engine - a digital version of Maxim, perhaps - with a focus on things like cars, sports, and of course, girls. Its success was based almost exclusively on the latter though, with the portal offering sub-sections like 'Bomis Babes', the 'Bomis Babe Report', the 'Babe Engine', and of course the 'Bomis Premium' service, which offered explicit content for a fee. In fact, an advertising director at Bomis once noted that 99 per cent of searches on the site were for naked photos of women and The Atlantic dubbed it the "Playboy of the Internet". Wales, of course, had a much simpler explanation in the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers?: "We were just like, 'Okay, well, this is what our customers will want, let's follow this'."

It seems an odd leap, but the success of Bomis ultimately kickstarted the Wikipedia revolution, funding its direct predecessor, Nupedia, initially as a for-profit venture. Moreover, the way Bomis featured user-generated 'webrings' foreshadowed Wikipedia's embrace of user-generated content.

Established by Bomis in March 2000, Nupedia's aim was to create a free online encyclopedia. Sound familiar? However, it differed from what would soon be its more successful offshoot in that it only featured content submitted by experts, demanding an excruciatingly thorough (some might say slow), multi-party review process. This meant that approved posts were thinner than Wayne Rooney's hair in 2012. Larry Sanger, a philosophy graduate hired by Wales, was its editor-in-chief, and between himself, Wales and programmer Ben Kravitz, the idea of creating a complementary, wiki-based website that allowed anyone to contribute content, as a way of feeding Nupedia, was born.

Of course, this idea met with some resistance among the niche Nupedia community, but Wales ploughed ahead nonetheless, aided in a sense by the fact that Bomis pulled its financial support in the early Noughties following the dot-com crash. That allowed Wales to re-establish Wikipedia as non-profit charity - a fairly maverick idea given nearly everyone in the tech world was broke. Its success, at least in terms of establishing depth of content, was fairly immediate: over 1,000 posts within a month and more than 20,000 entries by the end of 2001. In addition, it featured editions in a range of languages, including French, Chinese, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. All within a year. Out of the ashes of a smutty search engine, the Wikipedia phoenix had risen.

The Sole Founder Debate

Fast forward to 2003 and Wikipedia was its own beast. Nupedia had been completely integrated into Wikipedia (in other words, it had folded) and Larry Sanger left the company in 2002, following disagreements with Wales over how the site should be managed. While both agreed that open-collaboration should be at the heart of the project, Wales favoured a bottom-up, self-governing approach for the growing Wikipedia community, while Sanger felt there was still a place for top-down guidance from expert editors.

Details of the fallout between the two are still murky, though Sanger has emerged as a critic of Wales and Wikipedia since his departure and commands a loyal army of supporters, who view Wales as something of a usurper and, at best, the website's co-founder. The bad blood between the two shouldn't really come as a surprise. In fact, bitter rivalry between those who establish great ideas is one of the tech world's great traditions. In Wikipedia's case, the Wales/Sanger breakup carries something of an official moniker - the sole founder debate.

When we've spoken to him, Wales himself is steadfast in the assertion that he's the project's 'founder', and that's certainly the party line.  Critics contend that it was Sanger who advocated the integration of wiki software into Nupedia and crafted most of its early guidelines. But Wales quickly emerged as the project's figurehead, demonstrating a savvy PR nous as he established both the site's reputation and his own public persona. Whatever the case, Wales' notion that a major information resource could essentially police itself was ahead of its time and helped Wikipedia stand out in the post dot-com bust era.

Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia Today

By now, you probably get the idea: in his idea that ordinary people could produce authoritative content on a wide range of subject matters, and that a network of such people could effectively govern themselves, Wales was many years ahead of wider industry trends. You could even go so far as to say that Wales' model for Wikipedia - crowdsourcing information to be vetted and shared on a person-to-person basis - helped to inspire the tech landscape as it looks today, whether it's P2P currency systems like bitcoin, file-sharing networks like Bittorent, or even the world of crowdsourced funding as epitomised by Kickstarter. Jimbo had clearly hit on something when said that his vision was to "imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Since its inception, Wikipedia has grown to include a number of related projects. The most important offshoot was the first: the Wikimedia Foundation. With the titty-driven funding from Bomis pulled, Wales established Wikipedia as a charity enterprise back in 2003, and this arm of the organisation has since grown to be able to fund a number of sub-sites flown under the Wikimedia banner. Shortly after that came the for-profit Wikia company, essentially a 'farm' of individual wikis on separate subjects - from Star Wars to city-by-city guides on the sex trade - all hosted on the same website.

In his emergence as one of the tech world's most respected and visionary - but not universally popular - figures, Wales has also become a vocal advocate for various causes, perhaps most famously standing up for Internet piracy, criticising plans for an Internet porn filter by UK ISPs (he was ignored), and calling holistic health advocates "lunatics". Obviously, Jimbo has never been short on self-belief opinions, and the sole founder debate isn't the only controversy he's found himself in over the years - there are also accusations of selective Wikipedia editing by Wales, and misuse of WMF funds, not to mention the three divorces in his personal life. So is Jimmy Wales a hero or a villain? The latter seems harsh, while the former is arguably too reverential. So perhaps the only word we should ascribe to Jimmy Wales is simply this: maverick.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia (1, 2,), Wikimedia, Wikiality