Gizmodo turns 20! To celebrate the anniversary we look back at some of the most significant ways in which 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 encyclopedia has become one of the most visited sites on the web. Gizmodo recently sat down with Wales to discuss how the website – and the internet as a whole – has changed over the past two decades. The following excerpts from that interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Gizmodo: What were you thinking and what was the state of things on the internet when you decided to start Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales: I thought it would be great to have a freely licensed open source encyclopedia. We had started thinking about getting volunteers to write an encyclopedia with the Nupedia project, but we didn’t know how to do it. We knew nothing about wikis and the whole wiki model. Everything was very top down, staged, processed and published. And at that time I was engaged in some really long email conversations with random professors I met on the internet. I kind of realized that we could have practically written a book together because we exchanged very long emails back and forth. What was interesting was that people are very generous with their time and anyone can write to a professor at Harvard and ask an interesting question. You will likely get an answer. And so I thought, ok, that’s interesting, maybe people can contribute to a global encyclopedia.
Gizmodo: Did you feel more at the time that the internet was a collaborative thing, something that we could build together?
Wales: Maybe. Just think of the specific example of Usenet, many of the better newsgroups had a FAQ… they were updated together over time, different people contributed, usually there was a moderator who put it all together. And it was about sharing useful information. So this is 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 worked.
We still see a lot of things like that. Even in the cryptocurrency space, when there are major forks and changes to the basic software, who decides? Well it’s rough consensus and running code. You can yell and yell all you want, but if you haven’t implemented any code, nothing will happen. And even if you can implement it in code, if no one agrees, it won’t be accepted. So it’s a bit of both.
Gizmodo: Did you have any idea at the time what would become of Wikipedia?
Wales: I always say I’m a pathological optimist, so I always thought it was going to be great or big and important. We started in English but from the beginning there was the idea that it should be in any language. As far as the scope of the content is concerned, it was a very open question early on and is of course still being discussed publicly. For example, there is an English Wikipedia entry for each individual Pokémon character. That seems exaggerated, doesn’t it? But it is okay. I think what people have come to understand over time is that there is no harm if we write very bad coverage of Polish mayors in the 18th, what you know.
Gizmodo: There is a lot more talk about “fake news” today than twenty years ago. This has obviously always been an issue for Wikipedia. Have we moved away from doing things in good faith and now there are more vandals?
Wales: I think what we’re seeing on Wikipedia is that we’ve always had vandalism. We always have people with an agenda that needs to be done. We didn’t always have fake news as we understand it today. There have always been better and lower quality sources. But the ecosystem we operate in has definitely changed.
When Donald Trump first ran for president, there was a fake news item with the headline saying something like “Pope supports Trump.” It went viral, but you could never get something like that on Wikipedia, because all Wikipedians will say, “Yeah, right. Sure.” If that were true, it would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world… so that’s not going to get you very far.
Where I see a deeper problem is the decline of quality local journalism. In a way, it’s easier to write the history of my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, during the 1970’s than the history of the last five years, because there used to be two local papers, now there’s one, and it’s only out three times a week. It’s mostly the AP newscast and edited from 100 miles away. You might have two journalists on site when there used to be ten. So I think that’s a real problem. It’s not as exciting as fake news, but it’s of great importance to society.
Gizmodo: If you were to build Wikipedia from scratch in 2022, would it look any different? Or would it still be essentially a hypertext document?
Wales: I think that would be very similar. I mean, the text works very well. It’s an encyclopedia, so we wouldn’t be, I don’t know, like TikTok. In terms of back-end technology, I think there would probably be some things that are different.
One of the things that I find really interesting is that when Wikipedia Server started I had to buy it as it grew. For example, that they are physically delivered to me. I would pack them in my car, I would drive to the data center and screw them into the racks myself. Whereas nowadays with cloud services you just set up another instance on Amazon Web Services.
Being able to scale like this is interesting because we had to commit to it. I remember when we realized we needed a big honking database server that’s going to cost ten grand. It’s an obligation. Whereas if it is everything [on the cloud], when we don’t use it, it scales to zero. This is a real opportunity: if your idea turns out to be fantastic, great, you can take in a huge increase in traffic. If, like most of them, your idea turns out to be stupid, the scales will tip to zero and you won’t have to pay a huge server bill.
Gizmodo: In the early days of the internet, it was all about being decentralized. Information is exchanged between different places. But now we’re at a point where, as you said, everyone is using Amazon Cloud Services. But what happens when Amazon goes under? Or Cloudflare is down? Did we go in the wrong direction?
Wales: I do not know. For example, that’s one of the fascinating things about all the blockchain stuff that’s going around, it’s pretty decentralized. But I think the world dodged a bullet: there was a moment when the internet [was dominated by] AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, all those closed party platforms… It’s not hard to imagine a world where one of them has just enough head start to become the standard platform for everything. And then you suddenly have this one centralized monolith.
Gizmodo: Will Wikipedia still look like this in 20 years? Do you think it will change?
Wales: I think it will be very similar. I mean, I assume we’ve modernized something. Surely the editing experience will continue to improve. But we’re not becoming TikTok.