Peter John Meiklem meets Jimmy Wales, GCU honorary graduate and Wikipedia founder, to find out just how the Wiki revolution has impacted on his life and others’.
The sight of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in an academic hat and gown is a curious mix of the old and the new. The public face of the website credited with the biggest democratisation of knowledge in the modern age dressed in finery which has its roots firmly planted in hundreds of years of university tradition. For Jimmy, though, there is little contradiction: both are expressions of the same faith in the power of knowledge and information.
“I want to talk about the incredible explosion of informal learning,” he says. “Once you’ve completed your formal learning – in the old days that was the end of it – now people go on using resources on the internet to continue their education for their whole lifetime.”
Jimmy Donal “Jimbo” Wales – as his own Wikipedia entry would have him – visited GCU for last summer’s graduation ceremony, receiving an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his outstanding achievement within the field of internet entrepreneurship.
Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, was founded in 2001. Mr Wales went on to found other wiki-related organisations, including the charitable Wikimedia Foundation, and the for-profit company Wikia, Inc. The wiki sites are among the top five most visited sites on the web. Jimmy says he hopes the story, particularly that of Wikipedia, will inspire GCU students.
“There’s a lot we can all learn; it shows an enormous capacity for generosity. People devote so much of their time and their love to building Wikipedia that it’s a simple gift for the rest of us. That’s quite an uplifting message.”
Which is not to say Wikipedia has always enjoyed a blemish-free reputation in academic circles. It’s a brave or foolish student who will cite the website without using further sources and broadcaster
Gavin Esler, who also received an Honorary Doctorate in the summer, was quick to highlight the pitfalls for a professional communicator relying solely on the site.
Gavin and Jimmy may have buried the hatchet before it was lifted, bonding merrily over their mobile phones minutes after meeting, but the concerns about the accuracy of the site continue to dog Wikipedia’s use. As its founder and main spokesman, how does Jimmy address them?
“We have overcome the negative reputation around quality and it continues to improve, which is a big help,” he says. “The best academic studies we’ve seen say that it’s comparable to a traditional encyclopaedia. “But we say that Wikipedia is not always a reliable source. You need to ask, how do we know? And if we’ve done our job well there will always be a source or a reference included.”
Meeting Jimmy is an interesting experience. You expect a driven ideologue, a high-priest technocrat totally cognisant of the role he and his like have in the shaping of our everyday lives. Jimmy is nothing of the sort. Softly spoken, polite, laid back in extremis − he’s more likely to deflect a difficult point with a ‘what-you-gonna-do’ shrug than a blistering invocation.
Even the idea of free information for all, the central tenet behind Wikipedia, is a product of circumstance, he says. “We can make information free. We are able to do so. We are a charity and we get donations from the general public to help us with our work. That’s a very effective and efficient model for us.
“It’s too simplistic to say information should be free. I don’t have any problem with people creating information and selling it. I think that’s perfectly fine, but I don’t think that’s the right model for an encyclopedia in the modern world.”
A quick scan of his honours, awards and positions – on Wikipedia again, of course, time being too short to ask the man himself to list them – reveals he has accepted few honorary titles from universities, one of the others being Università della Svizzera Italiana in Switzerland. Given his position, one doubts he’s struggled for offers. So why GCU? The fact the University had honoured his friends Professor Yunus and Lily Cole carried some weight. So much so, Jimmy wanted to investigate GCU’s social mission for himself.
Although Wikipedia is a charity, raising money from millions of donors around the world, rather than a social business, which generates profit so that it can reinvest, Jimmy sees parallels between its work and the social business tradition for which Chancellor Professor Yunus is renowned. “A lot of the same ideas are there. I am a really strong believer that NGOs which depend on the infinite patience of a large philanthropic organisation, or on a single set of very wealthy donors, are often not as focused on performance as they could or should be.
“With something like Wikipedia, we don’t rely on a single set of donors; we rely on small contributions from millions of people. It creates a kind of a market pressure on us. We have to do things the reader likes or they won’t donate to us. That’s an important concept. It’s a sign that we’re moving into an era when the old divisions between charity on the one hand, and money-making business on the other, are starting to break down; they are going to be a lot of hybrid models.”
One of the most famous internet entrepreneurs of the 21st Century dressed in the style of robes graduates have worn for generations. You don’t get much more hybrid than that.