:::: interview with jimmy wales

27 Mar

Back in 2009/2010 when I started researching Wikipedia, I chose interviews as entry point. Here you find the interview with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. The interview was conducted on 18/02/2010 on skype chat.  2 years later you find it here – the wikipedia world moved on and yet stayed the same….

JN: What was the driving idea behind founding Wikipedia?

JW: I had been watching the growth of the free software movement, or open source software as many people call it. I realized that programmers were coming together in communities to create really great software – large scale projects like GNU/Linux, perl, apache, php, MySQL –  the software that really runs the web. I realized that this kind of collaboration was being fueled by the free licensing model, which solved certain kinds of incentive dilemmas, and that although it was natural that this type of collaboration would arise first among programmers, it would be possible to do the same thing with many kinds of cultural works other than just software.

JN: So would you say that there is an intrinsically built-in connection between Wikipedia and so called the free culture and/or free software movement?

JW: Yes. The ideas of sharing and collaboration under the framework of a free license have always been core to the Wikipedia community.

JN: Could the licensing process be called a political statement in your eyes?

JW: No, it is not political.

JN: Why is it not political?

JW: Well, for me the word “political’ – if we are to speak precisely – is about governmental or public affairs. I know that some people torture the word to make almost everything a political act or statement, but I don’t agree with that usage. So the choice of the free license is a social statement to be sure, but it is not really a social statement in the sense of a protest against the alternatives. It’s a functional statement, it is part of the infrastructure that lets us get on with what is important, which is the writing of the encyclopedia.

JN: At the beginning you referred to “many kinds of cultural works other than just software”. So I wonder, if you and other core actors have thought about a cultural and/or a knowledge archive/space when the idea for Wikipedia was born?

JW: Yes. I thought a lot, and still do think a lot, about the meaning of Wikipedia in the grand sweep of history and culture. It is too early to be sure – history takes a long time to unfold – but I think this is an important moment in history, and Wikipedia an important part of that moment – the idea of everyone on the planet having access to knowledge, and the ability to participate in the creation of our story, is powerful in ways that I don’t think have been fully realized yet.

JN: Thinking about this, what is the role of the foundation in the Wikipedia project and has it changed over time?

JW: Well, the Foundation is tasked with keeping the servers running and with other things that are difficult for the volunteer community to do. The Foundation is only a very little bit involved in the life of the community or the policies of the encyclopedia. They are supportive of quality and part of their task is to listen to the needs of the core community and provide them with the tools they need to make the encyclopedia as good as it can be. The Foundation does also play a small role in helping to overcome barriers such as the censorship in China, although to date, they have not been so much directly involved in that. I personally go and meet with the Minister and try to see how to keep Wikipedia available in China without agreeing to participate in censorship.  The Foundation supports me in my work there, but also leaves it mostly to me.

JN: Though the foundation is only a little involved in community life, the foundation takes care to be connected with the communities, e.g. through events like Wikimania or through the volunteer coordinator Cary Bass. Beyond this, how important are the chapters to be up-to-date? And maybe you can tell me also something about the role of the en and de community in contributing to Wikipedia as a project?

JW: To be careful, when you say “you”, you place me into the Foundation, but I speak of the Foundation usually as a third party. I’m from the community side of things, not the Foundation side of things, although I am of course a board member and stay actively informed about what the Foundation is doing. When I speak of what the Foundation is doing, I speak of the staff. So, yes, the Foundation does take care to be connected to the community, with Cary Bass taking the most active role, but also Wikimania and the chapters meetings. That’s important. The en and de communities have always been the largest and most mature and organized… and a very large number of people who work in the “international” or “foundation” area are from those communities.

JN: So in a broader sense, beyond these structural sides: How and in which ways do you see the language versions connected?

JW: Well, generally speaking the “meeting ground” for most languages is English, as it is by far the most popular second language. There are exceptions, of course, but in the broad sense, we meet in English and discuss things. People share ideas of what is going on in their language community, and learn how others have dealt with similar issues, opportunities, and problems.

JN: Also there is an English speaking discussion that has been lasting for quite a bit on foundation-l, the strategy wiki and elsewhere. This discussion is about the question of the language versions’ autonomy vs. the versions’ standardization. Do you think this discussion will ever come to an end? And what is your personal point of view?

JW: Well, I think that languages versions simply must be autonomous – there are no serious proposals as to how it could be otherwise. People who don’t speak Thai can have no practical say in how things are done, in detail, at the Thai Wikipedia. At the same time, I think there is a healthy urge towards standardization, and this should not be stifled unnaturally. Good ideas do come from many languages and get adopted elsewhere, and there is no reason for people not to copy what is working in other languages.

JN: I was referring to http://strategy.wikimedia.org/wiki/Proposal:Combination_of_all_languages_into_a_unipedia.

JW: Let me speak about that proposal: I think it does not make sense. Even if machine translation were usable – which it is not and will not be for quite some time – there are cultural needs and difficulties which simply won’t be overcome. If I am an English speaker, my inherent needs based on my normal background knowledge, are quite different from my inherent needs based on the normal background knowledge of a Japanese or Chinese… or even German speaker.

JN: Also, there ist this list: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/List_of_articles_every_Wikipedia_should_have.

JW: I think this list is a very good example of what is wrong with most conceptions of a “unipedia” – the list is a nice list of what every English encyclopedia should have – but it’s incredibly Euro-US-centric in a way that’s almost embarrassing for a global project.

JN: So in that sense there is no NPoV?

JW: I don’t think NPOV is in conflict with the idea of cultural context. The cultural context notion is that as an English speaker, you can’t simply mention in passing some commonly understood symbol in German, without explaining it. I can tell a story to illustrate what I mean.I have a friend in the movement who is American and speaks a very American form of English – not just in terms of the grammar, but also in terms of using a lot of contemporary American slang and cultural references. To see him speaking to Germans was always quite interesting. He would reference something from the Seinfeld tv show and people would often have no idea what he was talking about. (I don’t know if by now people in Germany know Seinfeld, but at least at this time, with this group of Germans, it was essentially unknown.) He could have made his points using standard international English and be understood, although it would have been less entertaining and poetic to native speakers of course. But this brings out the point: we all have cultural context and knowledge that is part of the background and doesn’t need to be explained, and this will impact the writing of the encyclopedia in a number of interesting ways.  This is not a violation of neutrality, it is just an acceptance that people have different contexts of knowledge.

JN: Users such as DrorK might be serve as an example of “inter wp embassadors” so to say who negotiate meaning and also (political) conflicts. Thinking about political knowledge (beyond pure governmental issues) – are you seeing wp also a space of political education of users, editors, lurkers etc…?

JW: Yes. I’m hopeful about the role Wikipedia might play in cooling down some political / ethnic / religious / etc conflicts – not necessarily in resolving them, but in cooling them down through education. If all people know is a cartoon version of what “the other” believes and thinks, they are unable to approach the issue with thoughtfulness and respect. This leads to misunderstandings and conflict that should be avoided. I should add: I’m hopeful, but not naive. People will always fight. I just hope they will have more intelligent fights.

JN: I also look at the case of the Mohammed article where there was a discussion about the integration of Mohammed pictures – did you also had to deal with this ‘wikiwar’ on foundation level? And are there other kind of political and or religious conflicts you remember being a) language crossing and b) being scaled up to the level of the foundation?

JW: No, the Foundation stays ouf of content issues like that. I personally get involved sometimes and to some small extent, but mostly my role is to remind about fundamental principles and to encourage an open and thoughtful dialog.

JN: Thank you very much!

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