Friday, May 04, 2007

Jimbo Wales thinks that professional journalism still has a place on the web

Wikipedia takes on the world

Jimbo Wales thinks that professional journalism still has a place on the web

Andrew Clark in New York Friday May 4, 2007 Guardian Unlimited

Jimbo Wales: 'If you compare the quality of search products -
Google, Yahoo! and Ask - they're very similar'.

Slim, bearded and slightly fidgety, the Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales
is known as the "god king" to his online followers. He seems to quite
enjoy the adulation.

"I'm not really such a businessman - I'm a revolutionary trying to
destroy an entire industry," he declared at a talk in New York this
week, before hastily adding: "I'm joking, of course."

Since its creation six years ago, Wales' online encyclopedia has
become an internet sensation. It is one of the 15 most visited
websites worldwide and has 7m entries in 251 languages.

The simple idea behind the site is that any visitor can edit, or
extend, Wikipedia's entries and the ultimate outcome will be a
gravitation towards accuracy. It works, albeit with the odd flaw:
recently, wags kept altering the entry on Kazakhstan to say that the
nation was ruled by Borat.

Irrespective of the glitches, Wales reckons Wikipedia's democratic,
free access, principle is central to the internet's culture. He is
working on a new project - Wikia - which is intended to challenge the
online establishment and will be properly up and running by the end of
the year.

Wikia is a hosting site for online communities to read, discuss and
share information. It is intended to be a more leisurely,
magazine-style format to complement the reference material on

Central to his plan is the creation of a "democratic" search engine -
Wiki Search - in which users will collaborate to produce good quality

Wales, the 40-year-old son of a grocery manager from Alabama, reckons
the internet needs an alternative to the like of Google and Yahoo!.

"If you compare the quality of search products - Google, Yahoo! and
Ask - they're very similar," he told reporters at New York's Foreign
Press Centre this week.

"No one has clear leadership. Five years ago this wasn't the case but
the production of good quality search results is getting very close to
being a commodity - any mid-size company can do it."

His idea is for the results of any search to be controlled by a broad
community of sensible people without any commercial interests. As he
puts it, "thoughtful people coming together and developing
'compromise' results".

A search for a hotel in a particular city, for example, could then
throw up genuine recommendations of promising places to stay rather
than the glut of accommodation booking services delivered by Google.
It sounds a good idea - but can it work?

Open source

The code behind Wiki searches, he says, will be open and available for
others to copy - along the lines of the co-operatively developed web
browser Firefox, which is available for free tinkering and download.
Firefox is a big success - according to research firm NetApplications,
it has snatched a global market share of 15% from establishment rivals
such as Internet Explorer since its creation in 2004.

A big difference between Wikia and not-for-profit Wikipedia is that
Wales wants to make money out of his new project. Wikia has venture
capital funding and has attracted an investment from the online
bookseller Amazon.

He is a little vague about exactly what his business plan is, except
that revenue will come from advertising. It is not entirely clear,
however, just how many advertisers will be attracted to Wikia's own
site if the search concept is freely lifted and copied on other sites
widely around the web.

Insistently, Wales professes his lack of business knowledge. When
asked whether Google's $500-a-share stock price is over the top, he
replies: "I have no idea or opinion on what Google's stock price is."

As for the idea that he is snapping at the search giant's heels, he
says: "It's just funny. Google's huge and enormous. I'm just me."

This doesn't quite ring true. Wales used to work as a futures and
options trader in Chicago. He has a master's degree in finance and
worked towards a doctorate in the same subject - although he never
completed a dissertation.

Indeed, Wales' suggestion that Wikia is "just me" is a bit misleading
- he already has 33 full-time employees and is opening a programming
centre with 15 people in low-cost Poland.

Nevertheless, the project is just a start, he hints broadly.

"There's a major movement just beginning to get underway - the
democratisation of media, the democratisation of knowledge. I believe
people can collaborate together freely and produce very, very good
quality work - I want to push that forward."

The establishment shouldn't worry too much. He is friendly with
Google's founders and says he admires their work. And he doesn't see
democratisation as wiping out the professional world - newspapers, he
points out, cannot entirely be replaced by casual bloggers.

"Everybody tells jokes," says Wales. "But we still need professional

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