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Dancing with Jimmy Wales in 'Second Life'

Wikipedia's founder visits CNET's virtual theater to talk about the free, open encyclopedia, his for-profit company and more. Images: Wales urges audience to get onstage

On a recent cover of the business magazine Fast Company, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is depicted with a sly grin and the headline, "Google's worst nightmare."

That's because his for-profit company, Wikia, has begun a search project that some see as a possible contender to Google's dominance.

Despite whether that's true, the world takes Wales and his endeavors seriously, and to his credit, Wales is certainly not resting on his laurels.

From traveling the globe to promote Wikipedia, to working closely with the encyclopedia's passionate user communities in various countries, to pitching Wikia, Wales is almost never stationary. It is hard to dispute that he is one of a small number of innovators who is truly changing the way the world works.

On Wednesday, Wales took time out of his schedule while he was in Texas to visit CNET's theater in Second Life for an hour of discussion and answering audience questions.

At one point in the middle of the visit, CNET News.com reporter Daniel Terdiman lost his Internet connection, causing him to crash out of Second Life and disappear from the interview. Rather than leave, Wales calmly exhorted the audience members to get up and dance, and when Terdiman reappeared, he found a number of avatars, including Wales', dancing onstage.

"Quick," Wales joked. "Hide the beer! Dad's back."

Q: Let's talk about Wikipedia. I wonder where you see it in its development. Is it still young? Is it maturing? Is it aging? How would you characterize it?
Wales: It is still pretty young globally. It's like a young teenager in English. We still have a lot of work to do, obviously, and a lot of learning to do, specifically around community and quality control. We know how to do a lot of things well, but we also are struggling in some ways to grow up.

How is it struggling to grow up?
Wales: We do a great job of dealing with routine vandalism. But for more subtle errors, we have to mature to figure out strategies to deal with those things. A significant portion of the community "gets it" about biographies of living people. But some people still have too casual an attitude about crappy noninformation or pseudoinformation. This is changing.

What is an example of pseudoinformation?
Wales: It's like vague, "I think I heard it somewhere" stuff with no source. This is particularly problematic when the subject of the article is a controversial living person, especially one who is not superfamous. This is something you can often find in random Wikipedia articles, and it is not the product of maliciousness, just carelessness.

What do you think you can do to educate the more casual Wikipedia user about these issues so as to ensure that the quality of content gets higher?
Wales: Well, the casual Wikipedia user is fine. We educate them pretty well. It is really more about the internal community growing up. I am not criticizing or advocating here, by the way. Just reporting on what I observe coming from the community. We have, in the past year or two, had a lot of great internal discussions about getting to the next level of quality.

We do a great job of dealing with routine vandalism. But for more subtle errors, we have to mature to figure out strategies to deal with those things.

A few months ago, you talked about a potential feature that would allow people to edit the front page. What's the status of that?
Wales: It is still in programming and testing. It is called "stable versions," though we keep trying to come up with a better name that will stick, and the basic idea is to open up editing even further by reducing the use of protection and semiprotection, and to instead place high-risk articles into a state where edits from the unknown--users less than four days old, say--are held until someone who is known approves them or edits further.

There are a lot of user interface design issues, but done well, it would allow us to open up the front page for editing for the first time in several years. But this is mostly about better dealing with vandalism, not about the "next level of quality," which is really more about community standards. It is supposed to be done "any day now," but I do not know the exact status.

Let's talk about Wikia. For those that aren't familiar with it, can you offer a brief explanation?
Wales: Wikia is an effort to extend the model of Wikipedia beyond encyclopedias and other reference/educational contexts into "the rest of the library and the magazine rack." For example, everyone here please go visit http://secondlife.wikia.com for an example--and start editing. Ha ha!

We have a bunch of great communities that are thriving, and some that are just getting going. Some are sad and lonely, and need someone to adopt them like lost puppies--like the Second Life Wikia. It needs a mom and dad so it can grow up strong. In addition to that, we also have the search engine project, which has gotten a lot of attention, far out of proportion to what we have done so far.

How does the fact that Wikia is for-profit affect the content?
Wales: It doesn't affect the content at all. We don't intervene in content any more than Wikipedia does. It's all about the community. I guess one way it might indirectly affect the content is that we can support communities that have not been able to support themselves as nonprofit organizations. It is difficult to imagine a 501(c)(3) charity with enough donations to support a Second Life wiki. Anyway, I haven't seen it happen.

Wikipedia participants know that their contributions are for a nonprofit initiative. So, since Wikia is for-profit, I wonder if that affects people's motivations when they contribute to it?
Wales: I have seen no impact at all. I think this is a question that only comes to people's minds because of Wikipedia. We don't ask Yahoo if people will use their message boards.

Let's talk about the search project. You said it has gotten more attention than its progress merits. How do you mean?
Wales: The key is that if people are thinking in terms of "crowdsourcing"--a vile concept--they will misunderstand why people are doing this stuff. So on the search project, we just announced the hire of Jeremie Miller, the founder of Jabber. And we are actively discussing how to go about it.

But because it is me, there was already a magazine cover calling it "Google's Worst Nightmare." That was nice. My mom bought 10 copies. But it was a little much.

We are trying to build a full open-source search engine of high quality. If that works, then Google will have a lot of competitors in search.

You're saying it is too early for such declarations? Or is it not even appropriate to draw comparisons?
Wales: Sure. Google can sleep well at night for the time being. I think it can be fine to draw the comparison. We are trying to build a full open-source search engine of high quality. If that works, then Google will have a lot of competitors in search. But if they dominate the ad business and treat those competitors as partners for ad sales, then we will look back on the days when we thought Google was a search engine instead of the central ad marketplace of the planet and chuckle.

Let's talk about user-created/generated content, which is a big part of both Wikipedia and Second Life. What are some other industries and technologies that can benefit from user-generated content that haven't seen the benefit of it yet?
Wales: I would anticipate in the future that we will see some amazing community-built projects in documentary filmmaking, where people collectively film all over the world for some topic or event or day, and come together in an open process to edit the result into something compelling.

Kellie Amiga (from the audience) asks, "What do you see as the role of Wikipedia in academics? I am an MBA student, and while some professors encourage us to use Wikipedia as a source, others forbid it. Is the role of Wikipedia changing over time?"
Wales: We are glad that universities are finally following our recommendations. What I mean is, Wikipedia is a great starting point but problematic, in many cases, as a source for academic work. I would say the same about Britannica, by the way. Used appropriately, it is great. But you have to be careful and sane about it.

How do you think this "Web 2.0" moment is going to be seen in 10 years?
Wales: I think it will sound funny. I think it is such an easy joke for people to turn it from Web 2.0 into Bubble 2.0. So as soon as we have a market correction of any kind, pundits will have a field day. But I think the fundamental trend is important: a trend to beginning to realize the potential of community participation. But there is always something new, and eras always come to an end.

I wonder what your thought is on the MacArthur Foundation's having put up $10 million to help --and the prospects for such a project, and how it might affect Wikipedia?
Wales: That's a lot of moola. I am sure a lot of it will be wasted. But the project sounds valuable and good. It could benefit the entire free-culture movement. Free content can be reused by anyone for any purpose. So if they use an appropriate license, people can repurpose the content for Wikipedia. Could be huge.

I have to ask: Wikipedia has 1.7 million entries. How did you write them all?
Wales: Lots of coffee!

An anonymous audience member wants to know who came up with the term "Wikipedia?"
Wales: (Wikipedia co-founder) Larry Sanger came up with the word. It derives from "wiki" which derives from "wikiwiki", a Hawaiian term for "quick." The first wiki was invented in 1995 by Ward Cunningham. The first person to ever propose the use of a wiki for the encyclopedia project was (Bomis employee) Jeremy Rosenfeld.