Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.
Jimmy Wales co-founded Wikipedia in 2001. In the years since, users have contributed more than six million articles, and the online encyclopaedia has become one of the most-visited sites on the web. Gizmodo recently sat down with Wales to discuss how the site — and the internet at large — have changed over the last two decades. The following excerpts from that conversation are edited for length and clarity.
Gizmodo: What was your thinking, and what was the state of things on the Internet, when you decided to launch Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales: I thought it would be great to have an open source, freely licensed encyclopaedia. We’d started, with the Nupedia project, to think about getting volunteers to write an encyclopaedia, but we didn’t know how to do that. We didn’t know about wikis and the whole wiki model. Everything was very top down, set the stage, process and publish. And at that time, I’d been engaged in some really long email conversations with random professors who I met on the internet. I sort of realised we practically could have written a book together, because we were writing back and forth very long emails. What was interesting was that people are very generous with their time, and any random person can write to a professor at Harvard and ask an interesting question. You are probably going to get an answer. And so I thought, ok, that’s interesting, maybe people can contribute to a global encyclopaedia.
Gizmodo: Do you feel like there was there a more of a sense at the time that the Internet was a collaborative thing, something we could build together?
Wales: Maybe. Just just thinking of the specific example of Usenet, a lot of the better news groups would have a FAQ… they were updated over time collaboratively, different people would contribute, there was normally a moderator who put it all together. And it was about sharing useful information. So that’s really powerful. There was always an element of collaboration in things like the old concept of “rough consensus and running code” as an early mantra for how the Internet works.
We still see a lot of that type of thing. Even in the cryptocurrency space, when there are big forks and changes to the fundamental software, it’s like, who decides that? Well, it’s rough consensus and running code. You can scream and yell all you want, but if you haven’t actually implemented code nothing’s going to happen. And even if you can implement in code, if nobody agrees, they’re not going to pick it up. So it’s kind of a bit of both.
Gizmodo: Did you have any sense at the time of the scope of what Wikipedia would become?
Wales: I always say I am pathological optimist, so I always though it was going to be great, or big and important. We launched in English, but even from the beginning there was this idea that it should be in every language. In terms of the scope of the content, that was very much an open question early on, and of course it’s still publicly debated. Things like there’s a Wikipedia entry in English for every single Pokémon character. That seems excessive, right? But it’s fine. I think what people came to understand over time is it’s not hurting anything if we have very poor coverage of Polish mayors in the 18th century, and I’m not sure those Pokémon fans are going to be converted into writing about that, they’re writing what they know.
Gizmodo: There’s a lot more talk about “fake news” now then there was twenty years ago. That’s obviously always been an issue for Wikipedia. Have we gone from things being done in good faith, and now there are more vandals?
Wales: I think what we see at Wikipedia is we’ve always had vandalism. We always have people coming with an agenda, who have to be dealt with. We haven’t always had fake news as we understand it today. There’s always been lower quality and better quality sources. But the ecosystem that we operate in has definitely changed.
When Donald Trump was first running for president, there was a fake news story where the headline was something like “Pope Endorses Trump.” It went viral, but you could never get something like that into Wikipedia because all the Wikipedians are going to go, “Yeah, right. Sure.” If that were true, it would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world… so, you can’t get very far with that kind of thing.
Where I do see a deeper problem is in the decline of local quality journalism. In some ways, it’s easier to write the history of my hometown, Huntsville, Alabama, during the seventies, then it is to write the history of the last five years, because there used to be two local newspapers, now there’s one, and it only comes out three times a week. It’s largely the AP newswire, and it’s edited from 161 km away. They may have two journalists locally when there used to be ten. So I think that is a real problem. It’s not as exciting as fake news, but it’s deeply important to society.
Gizmodo: If you were building Wikipedia from scratch in 2022, would it look different? Or it would still be basically a hypertext document?
Wales: I think it’d be very similar. I mean, the text works very well. It is an encyclopaedia, so we wouldn’t be, I don’t know, like TikTok. In terms of the back end tech, I think there probably would be some things that are different.
One of the things that I find really interesting is that when I launched Wikipedia, as it grew I had to buy servers. Like have them physically delivered to me. I’d put them in my car, I would drive over to the data centre, and screw them into the racks myself. Whereas nowadays, with cloud services, you just spin up another instance on Amazon Web Services.
The fact that you can scale like that is interesting, because we had to make a commitment. I remember when we realised… we need a big honking database server that is going to cost ten grand. That’s a commitment. Whereas if it’s all [on the cloud], if we’re not using it it scales to zero. That’s a real opportunity: If your idea turns out to be fantastic, great, you can take a huge spike in traffic. If your idea turns out, as most of them do, to be stupid, the scale is on zero, and you’re not stuck paying a huge server bill.
Gizmodo: In the early days of the Internet, the whole point was that it’s decentralized. Information is shared between different places. But now we’re at a place where, like you said, everybody is on Amazon Cloud Services. But what happens when Amazon goes down? Or Cloudflare goes down? Have we gone in the wrong direction?
Wales: I don’t know. That’s one of the intriguing things, for example, about all the blockchain stuff going around, it’s pretty decentralized. But I do think the world dodged a bullet: There was a moment in time when the Internet [was dominated by] AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, all these enclosed party platforms… It’s not hard to imagine a world where one of those got just enough of an edge to become the default platform for everything. And then you would suddenly have this one centralised monolith.
Gizmodo: Twenty years from now, is Wikipedia still going to look the same? Do you think it’s going to change?
Wales: I think it will be very much the same. I mean, I assume that we’ll have slightly modernised. Certainly the editing experience will continue to improve. But we’re not going to become TikTok.