Rumors that Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales might be moving to Silicon Valley from his home here prompted two reactions from the region's...
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Rumors that Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales might be moving to Silicon Valley from his home here prompted two reactions from the region’s business leaders:
1. “We can’t let this happen.”
2. “We didn’t even know he lived here.”
The founder of history’s largest, free and questionably accurate online encyclopedia may be a major star on the World Wide Web, and he may hang with the elite of the Geek Universe, but Wales has been flying under the radar in slumberous St. Pete for four years.
“They keep asking me if the tech community here did something to offend me, but I don’t know any of them,” Wales said. “I know more people in London than I do here.”
Wales, a 40-year-old globe-trotter, did agree to give a speech here last year, but the organizers canceled it because of “lack of involvement from the local-area user groups.”
“Like the great artists Jerry Lewis and David Hasselhoff, I’m only appreciated overseas,” he said.
Known by Wikipedians worldwide as the “God-King,” Wales could be a Web prophet without honor in his own town. Or it just might be that this bearded, introspective fellow, who prefers to be called “Jimbo,” has an offline presence vastly overshadowed by the online creation he unleashed in January 2001.
Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) has evolved rapidly into a global resource and a cosmic phenomenon. More than 3 million registered Wikipedians have posted 5 million articles in at least 250 languages in just five years. Writ by the people for the people, it has unrivaled reach.
“We have 2,700 articles in Swahili now, and 4,200 articles in Kannada, the main Indian dialect in Bangalore,” noted Wales, whose mission is to spread knowledge across social, economic and geographic borders.
Wikipedia’s Web site, run by hundreds of servers in the Tampa area and overseas, gets more than 2,000 page requests per second and is usually ranked among the top 15 most-viewed Web sites, according to Wikipedia, which is not always accurate, Wales admits.
Expertise is not a requirement for the encyclopedia’s unpaid authors. Nearly anyone with access to the Internet can contribute entries or edit existing selections thanks to “wiki” (Hawaiian for “quickly”) collaborative software.
Instead of authoritative experts, this free online encyclopedia run by a nonprofit foundation relies on the collective smarts and good intentions of doting Wikipedians.
Still, mistakes, falsehoods and errors show up. Vandals known as “WikiTrolls” slip in lies, jokes, porn and obscenities, stirring controversy and criticism.
“The George W. Bush entry is the most heavily edited site, and it may be the most vandalized, but sometimes the trolls are just quirky,” Wales said. “Often it’s one strange person on a tangent. We had a guy who was very agitated about Chopin’s birthday and kept changing it.”
The price is right even if the information is wrong now and then. Since Wales bans ads on Wikipedia, the foundation relies on financial aid from nearly 13,000 benefactors for its budget of $1.5 million.
Wales created his constantly updated encyclopedia in the benevolent belief that truth emerges from pooled wisdom. Since bad stuff does float to the surface, he has deputized more than a thousand volunteers as “admins.” They police Wikipedia, bust WikiTrolls who try to disrupt the site and lock down oft-molested areas, such as that of the commander in chief.
Supporters have described Wikipedia as democracy in action, a Utopian project and the World’s Brain. Critics, including its former top editor, have assailed it as “anarchy with gang rule,” and likened it to a public restroom, or the world’s most-ambitious vanity press.
“The premise of Wikipedia is that continuous revision will lead to continuous improvement,” said Ted Pappas, executive editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “The mounting evidence seems to suggest the opposite: that the endless revising that Wikipedia articles undergo often makes them worse over time.”
Software guru Eric Raymond, whose work reportedly inspired Wales, recently told New Yorker writer Stacy Schiff that Wikipedia is a disaster “infested with moon bats.”
Wales, who retains final say over all Wikipedia entries (thousands are rejected each month), takes in stride the tossed moon bats and brickbats, noting Wikipedia should be regarded as a starting point, not as the authoritative source.
“As with any encyclopedia, you should go to Wikipedia for background knowledge only,” he says. “It is a work in progress and subject to change, but for the most part, people find it reasonably accurate.”
History’s greatest encyclopedia pitchman (nonprofit, Web-based, wiki division) drives a Hyundai and lives in a modest 2,200-square-foot St. Pete ranch house when not traipsing the globe, coach class.
Confessed cheapskate Wales fled high-cost California for St. Pete four years ago with his wife, Christina (a former Mitsubishi steel trader whom he met in Chicago), and their home-schooled daughter, Kira, 5.
“We moved here because when my daughter was a year old, we started shopping for a house in San Diego and prices were just ridiculous, so I started thinking; ‘Gee, for my work I could be anywhere,’ ” he said.
The son of a Huntsville, Ala., grocery-store manager and a teacher-mother who ran a small private school called The House of Learning, Wales lives frugally by choice.
He did “very well” as an options trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in the 1990s before joining the dot.com boom in California. But he draws no income from Wikipedia, which cost him $500,000 to launch.
“My philosophy is you can be a lot more financially independent if you choose to live cheaply,” Wales said. “You can have a big expensive house and a Mercedes, but then you are a slave to your job.”
Wales is more Wikibohemian than flashy dot.com dude. His top-echelon tech friends include Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, and Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, the couple who created free photo-sharing site Flickr.com.
“Like me, Jimmy is basically an engineer at heart, and sometimes we are not socialized the way most people are,” Newmark said. “I joke about us having nerd values, but in a sense it is a reassertion of traditional values and focusing on what matters.”
The world headquarters of the largest single collection of human intelligence in the history of civilization lies only a few steps from the back door to St. Petersburg’s BayWalk, the downtown home of Wet Willie’s Daiquiri Bar and Happy Feet Plus.
Wikipedia’s offices reflect Wales’ penny-pinching philosophy and the foundation’s nonprofit status. The unsalaried God-King and six paid staffers are packed together in a Dilbert-worthy warren of mismatched chairs and no-frill furnishings.
Wales doesn’t need a lot of workspace because he views the Internet as an extension of his mind. He fills in real-time conversations with info deftly plucked from the Internet as he speaks without missing a word or a stroke.
“I’m online almost all the time, and if I’m not online I’m reading my e-mail off-line. I’m very connected,” he said.
Talking in a crammed cubbyhole, Wales keeps at least one eye on the screen of his Apple PowerBook, which sports a German language keyboard, umlauts und all.
“I am learning German, and you can’t type it on an English keyboard very easily because it doesn’t have the umlauts, but you can type English on a German keyboard,” he explained.
Wales, who speaks “a little Japanese” (Christina was born in Tokyo and is half-Japanese), feels compelled to learn German because the second-largest number of entries (500,000) on Wikipedia are in German.
Mind for math
Wales has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University and a master’s in finance from the University of Alabama. He has a mind for math, but he has been an avid reader since the age of 4. He often perused the family World Books, though his childhood favorites were The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
“I was pretty geeky,” he says.
Though he draws no paycheck from Wikipedia, Wales already is reaping financial rewards from a spin-off.
Wikia Inc. is a free hosting service for the Web sites of special-interest communities of every ilk. Like Wikipedia, it accepts content and editing from one and all, on whatever topics float their boat.
At least 30,000 users have posted more than 400,000 articles on Wikia, according to Wikipedia, (which, remember, might be wrong).
The most actively edited sites on Wikia included those for collectors of Marvel and DC comics, and fan sites for “Star Wars,” the Muppets, “Lost” and “24.”
One of the most popular Wikia sites is Uncyclopedia, a Wikipedia parody that vows to “put the psych” in encyclopedia. Wales finds it “hysterical.”
He has been less amused by jabs from critics for his frequent editing of his own biographical entry in Wikipedia, considered bad form by Wikipedians and akin to “Googling” oneself.
Still, Wales can hardly be considered self-obsessed or selfish. He made global headlines last month by announcing that Wikia will give away software, computing, storage and network access to its clients.
Wikia also will break ground by giving clients 100 percent of any advertising revenue from the sites they build as long as they link to Wikia.com, which will profit by selling ads on its own site.
A handful of high-tech legends have signed on, investing more than $4 million in Wikia Inc. They include Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com; Netscape’s Marc Andreessen; Lotus Development’s Mitch Kapor; and eBay’s Pierre Omidyar.
Wikia is based in San Mateo, Calif., at the insistence of its CEO Gil Penchina, a former head of eBay’s European and Asian operations, whom Wales hired this summer.
Penchina, who hopes to tap Silicon Valley tech talent, has been prodding Wales to move to California. But it is unlikely Wales will uproot his family from their humble Florida digs any time soon — and he knows Wikia’s CEO understands why.
“Gil takes pride in being a cheapskate just like me,” Wales said. “He found a really ugly little office there. It’s worse than the one in St. Pete.”