AUSTIN—It's hard to imagine a time when Wikipedia was just a slur for a poorly researched academic paper. Now, it's the de-facto encyclopedia for the world.
That's not to say it's without its problems. But Jimmy Wales, a "pathological optimist" thinks Wikipedia will move through its problems as it always has, and Guy Kawasaki, who interviewed Wales on Sunday here at SXSW Interactive, thinks he's up there with Gutenberg and Jobs—someone who has changed the world for the better.
Kawasaki kicked things off by asking Wales for his opinion on Apple's encryption fight with the FBI.
"That's an easy one. I'm really proud of Apple for fighting this thing," Wales responded, surprising no one. He went on to say that it's a better thing for all of us that Apple takes the issue to court so "we can be really sure that we're doing the right thing."
With that out of the way, Kawasaki set the stage for Wales to talk about Wikipedia, its importance to the nearly half billion peope who use the site each month, and what's next for the online encyclopedia.
Wales, a financial trader turned Internet entrepreneur, founded Wikipedia in 2001 as an offshoot of another product that he and partner Larry Sanders were developing. Inspired by programs like Linux Apache and Perl Sql, he had an idea of an open-source encyclopedia, but realized that only programmers had the tools to collaborate. His vision was a crowd-sourced, collaborative platform to which anyone could contribute (within reason, of course). Sanders convinced Wales that the process needed to be more academic than that of a traditional encyclopedia because it was open sourced.
Their first product, the now defunct Nupedia, didn't take off. The upshot was that they'd built a community, so when the first Wiki was produced, there was an audience ready to read it. Kawasaki asked if he remembered the first entry, but Wales did not. He did, however, remember the first words that were written because he'd typed them himself: "Hello world."
Kawasaki moved to an area a lot of people have questions about. Why can't you cite Wikipedia? What happens when you want to edit your own entry because the information is incorrect? Wales's responses were pragmatic. "Being able to cite Wikipedia is not a goal for the same reason you shouldn't cite an encyclopedia—it's a starting point, not an ending point. You need to do additional research."
About editing your own entry, Wales understands why it doesn't make sense to people that they can't fix simple things. After all, subjects know the truth, right? But Wikipedians don't, which is why they need third-party verification. He emphasized that his editors take people very seriously when they send alerts about erroneous information. If you dispute the information, he said, you should remove it until it's verified.
So, what about controversial subjects like Planned Parenthood? On this, Wales says they "go to meta"—step back from the issue. He asks users to think of "kind and thoughtful people" from both sides who can come together to state the other's position. If you want to understand the issue, you should be able to see both sides on Wikipedia and form an opinion, Kawasaki said. "But those people can edit, so..."
They are reverted very quickly, Wales explained.
Beyond the human touch that Wales considers critical to Wikipedia, what does a Wikipedia editor do in a world of machine learning and AI? "Google can't do decent translation, much less go from scratch," Wales explained. Instead, he sees a time when machines will assist with verification of information and other tasks. "Once machines can write encyclopedic articles, we will have bigger things to worry about."
What are his biggest fears? That the Wikipedia community ages out, and writing a Wikipedia entry is something "old people do." He's also largely focused on righting gender balance issues. "Part of it is technical," he explained, "but we may be too tolerant of bad behavior. We want women to participate more." He's investing in workshops and training to bring more women into the Wikipedia fold.
But some of the biggest issues for Wales are also global issues. There's the security of his editors, like Bassel Kharatbil, who disappeared after being arrested in Syria. Wales is working with Western governments and the Syrian government to find out what happened and where he is. He's also patiently fighting censorship in countries like China. After offering Wales the option to have a Chinese university oversee Wikipedia in China, to make sure that they adhere to Chinese laws, or ban Wikipedia in China altogether, he turned down their offer.
"F**k that. That's never going to happen," he said succintly. "I'm ready to wait 1,000 years. I'd rather the Chinese people understand what's happening to them when they understand that the government won't let them view any of the Wikipedia pages."
So, what's next for Wikipedia and what technology is Wales most excited about? Wikipedia is now on iOS and moving towards offering users a feed of interesting content and personalization. But he's most excited about something that "has nothing to do with my work": driverless cars.
"I'm excited about the secondary offering—what happens when driverless cars are on the market? That's when the real disruption will happen."