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"WHY is this working?", Jimmy Wales recalls pondering during the mid 1990s. He had been doing online research for his PhD thesis in financial mathematics and came across a "free software" manifesto written by Richard Stallman, a bearded hacker and an evangelist for what is now known (to his own chagrin) as "open-source" software. Nobody was in charge of it. Strangers were collaborating without even asking for money. Instead of copyright, there was "copyleft". It was all a puzzle. Mr Wales was intellectually hooked.
He never completed his PhD thesis. But his fascination with the idea of "free" information eventually led him, through twists and turns, to co-found Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anybody can edit and that has arguably become the single best example of "user-generated content", "audience participation", the "hive mind", "collective intelligence" and other "Web 2.0" buzzwords.
Wikipedia belongs to a non-profit foundation and, being an exercise in collaboration among volunteers, it has no boss. But Mr Wales, with his scruffy beard, piercing blue eyes, black mock-turtleneck and velvet coat, has become the public face of Wikipedia by default. He is the closest thing it has to a spokesman, the occasional monarch who intervenes in editing disputes, and the ambassador-both inspiring and controversial-of the Wikipedian idea.
Even as a boy in Alabama, recalls Terry Foote, a close friend for decades, Mr Wales was a "voracious reader" with "intense intellectual curiosity" for absolutely anything except sports. They grew up in Huntsville, where Werner von Braun conceived his Apollo moon shot and where Messrs Foote and Wales hung out with the children of rocket engineers. They would drive down to New Orleans and "get drunk off our butts," then get over the hangover with science and philosophy. "I always knew that he was going to be somebody famous, having to do with technology," says Mr Foote.
The philosophy that appealed to Mr Wales was Objectivism, a strand of thinking associated with the author Ayn Rand. "It colours everything I do and think," he says. In her cult novels "Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" and other works, Rand described rugged and unbending individualists who embodied a raw brand of capitalism and a metaphysical conviction that reality was fixed and objectively knowable. Through his interest in Objectivism, Mr Wales met, in the early 1990s, a philosopher named Larry Sanger.
Mr Wales was moderating an online discussion about Rand, and Mr Sanger joined in as a sceptic, freely displaying his "contempt for Objectivists because they pretend to be independent-minded and yet they follow in lockstep behind Ayn Rand," as he puts it. Then Mr Sanger started moderating his own philosophy discussion, and Mr Wales joined in. Mr Wales called him up to contest every single point, and when the two met offline to carry on the jousting, they hit it off famously and became friends.
By the late 1990s, Mr Wales was investing in a website called Bomis, a sort of search engine or web directory where "99% of the searches had to do with naked babes," as Mr Foote, who was Bomis's advertising director, puts it. Bomis did barely well enough to support its four employees, he says, but it enabled Mr Wales to fund his bigger fascination: an online encyclopedia. He invited Mr Sanger to be its editor, and in 2000 they started Nupedia. Experts were invited to write articles on various subjects, and the idea was that Nupedia would sell advertising and make profits.
Edit this page
It soon became clear that this was not going to happen, so Messrs Wales and Sanger changed tack. They had often discussed the open-source model in software and how it might be applied elsewhere, and had both read "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", a seminal open-source text. Who first had which part of the winning idea is now the subject of a bitter dispute, but Mr Wales seems to have proposed throwing the project open to contributions from the public, while Mr Sanger suggested using "wiki" software (which allows easy editing of web pages) to do it. The result was Wikipedia, launched in 2001 as a non-profit project. It soon became a global hit and is now one of the most visited sites on the internet. Its 10m-odd articles in 253 languages are often among the top results for Google searches.
This added several intellectual twists to Mr Wales's fundamental Objectivism. On one hand, Wikipedia seems to fit well with Rand's contention, elaborated more fully by libertarian thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek, that decentralised markets work best because they are so much more efficient than centralised bureaucracies at digesting information. In this case the outcome was not a commodity price, say, but knowledge. On the other hand, Wikipedia continues to be free in the sense of both "free speech" and "free beer", as an old open-source saying has it. Some people react by wondering, "gee, this is a guy who is very pro-capitalist and yet he started a non-profit foundation for sharing knowledge," says Mr Wales.
This is my truth, tell me yours
The more subtle twist has to do with the philosophical concept of truth. Ayn Rand believed that truth exists independently of the minds and opinions of people. This ran directly counter to the postmodernist view that there are many truths, depending on the perspective of the observer. And Wikipedia's process seems, on the face of it, to assume the postmodernist rather than the Objectivist stance. The truths described in its millions of articles evolve over time and through the dialectic of editing wars, leading to a new and fuzzy concept of reality dubbed "wikiality". "Ayn Rand would be turning in her grave," thinks Mr Sanger.
As Mr Wales struggles with Wikipedia's intellectual controversies, he now does so as a minor celebrity.
Mr Wales takes a different view. "I think that reality exists and that it's knowable," he says, adding that Wikipedia aims not for truth with a capital T but for consensus. "You go meta," he says, meaning "beyond" the disputes and to the underlying facts. For instance, when deciding how to describe abortion, "I may not agree that it's a sin, but I can certainly agree that the pope thinks it's a sin." Despite their disagreements, people on both sides of a debate can in many cases reach a consensus on the nature of their dispute, at least. Through this process, says Mr Wales, Wikipedia articles eventually reach a fairly steady state called the "neutral point of view", or NPOV.
"Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process," says Gene Koo of Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. "Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power are not destroyed-Foucault taught us that this is impossible-but simply visible." To which Mr Wales responds, more simply, that NPOV is a way of saying: "Thanks, but, um, please let's get back to work."
That is easier said than done. Wikipedians are quite willing to get back to work, and on some truly bizarre subjects. This has led to a running controversy between "deletionists" who would prefer to cover only noteworthy subjects on Wikipedia, as a more traditional encyclopedia would, and "inclusionists", who want to accept anything, no matter how banal. A deletionist wonders what message it sends when there is more "knowledge" available about Pokémon characters than about quantum mechanics; an inclusionist responds that the Pokémon articles do not preclude the addition of more articles about quantum physics.
Mr Wales describes himself as a moderate in this debate. "Wiki is not paper," as the saying goes, so more can be included than in past encyclopedias. That said, he is "somewhat deletionist" when it comes to biographies. With Wikipedia's sudden power comes a responsibility to "preserve human dignity", since nothing is ever forgotten online. Does Corey Delaney, an Australian teenager who made headlines after throwing a wild party in Melbourne while his parents were away, really deserve a Wikipedia page? (As of this writing, he no longer has one.)
As Mr Wales struggles with such intellectual controversies, he now does so as a minor celebrity. Neither Bomis nor Wikipedia has made him rich--if he is comfortable, it is mainly the result of earning money from speaking engagements, say friends. But as the face of Wikipedia and of free knowledge he hobnobs with the likes of Al Gore and Tony Blair. He may live in a modest home in suburban Florida, but he has also been a guest on Necker Island, the private Caribbean hideaway of Richard Branson, a British tycoon. When Mr Wales had an affair with a Canadian television presenter, bloggers treated it with the same voyeuristic zeal usually reserved for the likes of Brad Pitt.
Not rich, but famous
All this has gone to his head, say former friends. Mr Wales "has created something of a mythology about himself," says one. "The image he created is that he is this benevolent millionaire who donates his time for this charitable project; that is not true." Instead, this acquaintance argues, Mr Wales is merely basking in the glow of Wikipedia's success. He has alienated his former inner circle, and he "keeps his Objectivism under wraps" when hanging out with famous people.
An alternative view is that Mr Wales is still as intellectually curious as ever and is looking for a next big thing. He is in his forties now, an age that Carl Jung believed to be the "noon of life", when men, in particular, reappraise past achievements and look for new ways to make a contribution. Mr Wales wants his to be Wikia, a for-profit company that is separate from Wikipedia. He calls it the "uncyclopedia" because he hopes to use wiki technology to build "the rest of the library"-books, articles about health and hobbies-with no presumption of neutrality.
Mr Wales is especially passionate about Wikia's web-search project. Its search bar looks like Google's but has a twist. Whereas Google keeps its algorithms a secret, Wikia has made its own open-source. Mr Wales has no illusions about taking on the search juggernaut that is Google and says that "we would be overjoyed to get 5% of the search market," which would still be worth a fortune in advertising revenues (Google, meanwhile, is moving onto Wikipedia's turf with a new project called Knol.)
So far Wikia's search results are embarrassingly poor, as reviewers have noted. And there are more fundamental doubts. Wikipedia succeeded because, in 2001, there was no free online encyclopedia. Today web search, by contrast, is a hyper-competitive industry. Consumers are not clamouring for a new search engine. And revealing the algorithms could make it easier for website designers to manipulate the results. Mr Wales does not see it that way. Search has become a window to knowledge, and Google and its rivals have become its arbiters. "For me it's a political statement," he says. "We don't need secrecy." Ayn Rand would surely approve.