Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Ballad of Jimmy Wales

So, the big news is that Wikipedia's celebrated founder, Jimmy Wales, had an "affair" with a conservative commentator (Rachel Marsden).

Juicy gossip, fading into boring intrigue (was his girlfriend's wikipedia article inappropriately edited? Quell horreur!). The real point is that Wales's aura is smeared with dirt, so insiders who would otherwise have been ignored can share stuff that's actually concerning.

Former treasurer Danny Wool talks about the receipts Jimmy sent back to Wikimedia for reimbursement:

Subway ticket in Moscow: $0.50. Massage parlor in Moscow: priceless. Some were accepted; others were not, like the $650 spent on two bottles of wine during a dinner for four at Bern's—I remember that one because he submitted it twice, once with the tip scratched out. I wonder if the students who gave up their lunch money to donate to Wikipedia would have approved of that expense. In the end he reached a deal with Brad [Brad Patrick, former foundation lawyer] —details unknown—and paid the Foundation about $7000 in two checks. I don't know what happened with the rest, but the checks can be found in the list of donors.

I remember how, in Mexico City, Bono explained to us how the band leaves the arena after a concert by running through a long plastic tunnel stretching from the stage to their limos. "I need one of those," Jimbeau responded, "because I am like a rockstar too."

Ouch. That's, um, not going to encourage donations. (Update: even if the allegations are false or obsolete.)

Before we raise the pitchforks, though, step back a second.

Jimmy's story is interesting and strange. He was a standard california entrepreneur in the first dot-com boom, running a sort of low-brow portal called Bomis. In the anything-goes atmosphere of the boom, he decided to start a web encyclopedia (Nupedia).

Then he and the guy he hired to edit the encyclopedia (Larry Sanger) thought up a tiny publicly-editable mini-encyclopedia to act as an incubator for nupedia: Wikipedia.

Wales and Sanger have fought bitterly over who gets credit, but this is worth underscoring in boldface magic marker: neither Sanger nor Wales had any idea that Wikipedia would even be robust enough to become a stand-alone project — let alone a successful project, let alone one of the most popular websites in the world (and a new form of social organization to boot). It was just a little gadgety spinoff for their business, a silly idea like thousands that people come up with in brainstorming.

Imagine if your boss said, "hey Ben, why don't we upload that smiley-face generator you made, maybe it'll draw some traffic". And then 5 years later it's grown into the biggest website in the world, and there's a whole society of smiley-face adherents, and a smiley-face school of art, with museum exhibitions and gallery openings and skinny hipsters drinking pabst, all of them centered on your creation.

That's what happened to Jimmy Wales.

I think Jimmy, being a web entrepreneur, realized that thousands of ideas like Wikipedia had been tried — different permutations of user-editable content dating back to the beginning of the web, all of which ran into speedbumps and fatal flaws at one point or another. He realized that the holy spark wasn't the act of using wikis, but the combination of wiki and encyclopedia, which spoke deeply to aspects of human nature like the construction of knowledge.

That was an important insight — a vital insight. It's the reason he didn't drive wikipedia into the ground (make no mistake, it could have happened). Jimmy's ceaseless talk about peace, love, and knowledge went right to the center of the human instincts that allow wikipedia to function and in themselves keep the demons at bay. He realized that Wikipedia is an inherently utopian endeavor. (People don't spend hours cleaning vandalism for nothing.)

And all of those things are true even if, in sustaining wikipedia's mythology, Jimmy's ultimate aim was pussy, and even if, after he'd given up ownership of Wikipedia, he cashed in his mystique for a giant hot tub filled with caviar.*

When studying anything big that hasn't been around forever — the U.S., animal life, Wikipedia — everyone wants to hone in on first mute instant, the tiny speck of time when it all began.

It's like in high school history, when you spend a year learning about the pilgrims — and it's boring, because nothing happened in 17th century america**, because there was nobody there. There are more people in my town than there were citizens of the 13 colonies, and students don't spend a semester talking about Ann Arbor.

In Wikipedia's case, the moment of conception was just another day in an officepark, and the flourescent lights were just as neutral as they always are. The real amazing stuff happened when people started editing articles together.

* Though it might explain the murmurs that the board was trying to push him out a couple years ago.

** There were native americans before smallpox, but we didn't talk much about them.


Anonymous said...

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Ben Yates said...

Damn, I was hoping I got lucky.

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