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Jimmy Wales

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Jimmy Wales
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Wales in January 2011
Born Jimmy Donal Wales
(1966-08-07) August 7, 1966
Huntsville, Alabama, US
Residence London, England, UK
Other names Jimbo
Alma mater Auburn University
University of Alabama
Indiana University Bloomington
Occupation Internet entrepreneur, formerly a Financial trader
Title President of Wikia, Inc. (2004–present)
Chairman of Wikimedia Foundation (June 2003 – October 2006)
Chairman Emeritus, Wikimedia Foundation (October 2006–present)
Successor Florence Devouard
Board member of Wikimedia Foundation
Creative Commons
Sunlight Foundation (advisory board)
MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence (advisory board)
Awards see below

Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales (pron.: / ˈ d n əl ˈ w l z /; born August 7, 1966) is an American Internet entrepreneur best known as the co-founder and promoter of the online non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia and the for-profit Wikia web-hosting company. Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, United States, where he attended Randolph School, a university-preparatory school, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in finance.

While in graduate school, he taught at two universities, but left before completing a Ph.D in order to take a job in finance and later worked as the research director of a Chicago futures and options firm. In 1996, he and two partners founded Bomis, a male-oriented web portal featuring entertainment and adult content. The company would provide the initial funding for the peer-reviewed free encyclopedia Nupedia (2000–03) and its successor, Wikipedia.

On January 15, 2001, with Larry Sanger and others, Wales launched Wikipedia, a free, open content encyclopedia that enjoyed rapid growth and popularity, and as Wikipedia’s public profile grew, he became the project’s promoter and spokesman. He is historically cited as a co-founder of Wikipedia, though he has disputed the "co-" designation, declaring himself the sole founder.

Wales serves on the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit charitable organization he helped establish to operate Wikipedia, holding its board-appointed "community founder" seat. In 2004, he co-founded Wikia, a for-profit wiki-hosting service. His role in creating Wikipedia, which has become the world’s largest encyclopedia, prompted Time magazine to name him in its 2006 list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World".

Early life and education

Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 7, 1966. His father, Jimmy, worked as a grocery store manager, while his mother, Doris, and his grandmother, Erma, ran the House of Learning, a small private school in the tradition of the one-room schoolhouse, where Wales and his three siblings received their early education. As a child, Wales was a keen reader with an acute intellectual curiosity. During an interview in 2005 with Brian Lamb, in what he credits to the influence of the Montessori method on the school’s philosophy of education, Wales said he had "spent lots of hours poring over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias". There were only four other children in Wales’ grade, so the school grouped together the first through fourth grade students and the fifth through eighth grade students. As an adult, Wales was sharply critical of the government’s treatment of the school, citing the “constant interference and bureaucracy and very sort of snobby inspectors from the state” as a formative influence on his political philosophy.

After eighth grade, Wales attended Randolph School, a university-preparatory school in Huntsville, graduating at sixteen. Wales said that the school was expensive for his family, but that "education was always a passion in my household... you know, the very traditional approach to knowledge and learning and establishing that as a base for a good life." He received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University. Wales then entered the PhD finance program at the University of Alabama before leaving with a master's degree to enter the PhD finance program at Indiana University. He taught at both universities during his postgraduate studies but did not write the doctoral dissertation required for a PhD, something he ascribed to boredom.


Chicago Options Associates and Bomis

The staff of Wales' internet company Bomis photographed in Summer 2000. Wales is third from the left in the back row, with his then-wife Christine.

In 1994, Wales took a job with Chicago Options Associates, a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, Illinois. Wales has described himself as having been addicted to the Internet from an early stage and he wrote computer codes during his leisure time. During his studies in Alabama, he had become an obsessive player of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs)—a type of virtual role-playing game—and thereby experienced the potential of computer networks to foster large-scale collaborative projects. Inspired by the remarkable initial public offering of Netscape in 1995, and having accumulated capital through "speculating on interest-rate and foreign-currency fluctuations", he decided to leave the realm of financial trading and became an Internet entrepreneur. In 1996, he and two partners founded Bomis, a web portal featuring user-generated webrings and, for a time, erotic photographs. Wales described it as a "guy-oriented search engine" with a market similar to that of Maxim magazine; the Bomis venture did not ultimately turn out to be successful, however.

Nupedia and the origins of Wikipedia

Though Bomis had struggled to make money, it provided Wales with the funding to pursue his greater passion, an online encyclopedia. While moderating an online discussion group devoted to the philosophy of Objectivism in the early 1990s, Wales had encountered Larry Sanger, a skeptic of the philosophy. The two had engaged in detailed debate on the subject on Wales' list and then on Sanger's, eventually meeting offline to continue the debate and becoming friends. Years later, after deciding to pursue his encyclopedia project and seeking a credentialed academic to lead it, Wales hired Sanger—who at that time was a doctoral student in philosophy at Ohio State University—to be its editor-in-chief, and in March 2000, Nupedia ("the free encyclopedia"), a peer-reviewed, open-content encyclopedia, was launched. The intent behind Nupedia was to have expert-written entries on a variety of topics, and to sell advertising alongside the entries in order to make profit. The project was characterized by an extensive peer-review process designed to make its articles of a quality comparable to that of professional encyclopedias.

The idea was to have thousands of volunteers writing articles for an online encyclopedia in all languages. Initially we found ourselves organizing the work in a very top-down, structured, academic, old-fashioned way. It was no fun for the volunteer writers because we had a lot of academic peer review committees who would criticize articles and give feedback. It was like handing in an essay at grad school, and basically intimidating to participate in.
—Jimmy Wales on the Nupedia project New Scientist, January 31, 2007

In an October 2009 speech, Wales recollects attempting to write a Nupedia article on Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert C. Merton, but being too intimidated to submit his first draft to the prestigious finance professors who were to peer review it, even though he had published a paper on Option Pricing Theory and was comfortable with the subject matter. Wales characterized this as the moment he realized that the Nupedia model was not going to work.

In January 2001, Sanger was introduced to the concept of a wiki by extreme programming enthusiast Ben Kovitz after explaining to Kovitz the slow pace of growth Nupedia endured as a result of its onerous submission process. Kovitz suggested that adopting the wiki model would allow editors to contribute simultaneously and incrementally throughout the project, thus breaking Nupedia's bottleneck. Sanger was excited about the idea, and after he proposed it to Wales, they created the first Nupedia wiki on January 10, 2001. The wiki was initially intended as a collaborative project for the public to write articles that would then be reviewed for publication by Nupedia's expert volunteers. The majority of Nupedia’s experts, however, wanted nothing to do with this project, fearing that mixing amateur content with professionally researched and edited material would compromise the integrity of Nupedia’s information and damage the credibility of the encyclopedia. Thus, the wiki project, dubbed "Wikipedia" by Sanger, went live at a separate domain five days after its creation.


While Sanger saw Wikipedia primarily as a tool to aid Nupedia development, Wales felt that Wikipedia might have the potential to become the truly collaborative, open effort of knowledge building he dreamed of. Initially, neither Sanger nor Wales knew what to expect from the Wikipedia initiative. Wales feared that at worst, it might produce "complete rubbish". To the surprise of Sanger and Wales, within a few days of launching the number of articles on Wikipedia had outgrown that of Nupedia, and a small collective of editors had formed. Many of the early contributors to the site were familiar with the model of the free culture movement, and, like Wales, many of them sympathized with the open-source movement. Wales has said that he was initially so worried with the concept of open editing, where anyone can edit the encyclopedia, that he would awake during the night and monitor what was being added. Nonetheless, the cadre of early editors helped create a robust, self-regulating community that has proven conducive to the growth of the project.

Sanger developed Wikipedia in its early phase and guided the project. The broader idea he ascribes to Wales, remarking in a 2005 memoir for Slashdot that "the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy's, not mine, and the funding was entirely by Bomis", adding, "the actual development of this encyclopedia was the task he gave me to work on." Sanger worked on and promoted both the Nupedia and Wikipedia projects until Bomis discontinued funding for his position in February 2002; Sanger resigned as editor-in-chief of Nupedia and as "chief organizer" of Wikipedia on March 1 of that year. In the early years, Wales had supplied the financial backing for the project, and entertained the notion of placing advertisements on Wikipedia before costs were reduced with Sanger's departure and plans for a nonprofit foundation were advanced instead.


Wales with journalist Irina Slutsky at SXSW 2006, taken from her program Geek Entertainment TV

Wales has asserted that he is the sole founder of Wikipedia, and has publicly disputed Sanger’s designation as a co-founder. Sanger and Wales were identified as co-founders at least as early as September 2001 by The New York Times and as founders in Wikipedia's first press release in January 2002. In August of that year, Wales identified himself as "co-founder" of Wikipedia. Sanger assembled on his personal webpage an assortment of links that appear to confirm the status of Sanger and Wales as co-founders. For example, Sanger and Wales are historically cited or described in early news citations and press releases as co-founders. Wales was quoted by The Boston Globe as calling Sanger’s claim "preposterous" in February 2006, and called "the whole debate silly" in an April 2009 interview.

In late 2005, Wales edited his own biographical entry on the English Wikipedia. Writer Rogers Cadenhead drew attention to logs showing that in his edits to the page, Wales had removed references to Sanger as the co-founder of Wikipedia. Sanger commented that "having seen edits like this, it does seem that Jimmy is attempting to rewrite history. But this is a futile process because in our brave new world of transparent activity and maximum communication, the truth will out." Wales was also observed to have modified references to Bomis in a way that was characterized as downplaying the sexual nature of some of his former company’s products. Though Wales argued that his modifications were solely intended to improve the accuracy of the content, he apologized for editing his own biography, a practice generally discouraged on Wikipedia.


In a 2004 interview with Slashdot, Wales outlined his vision for Wikipedia: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we're doing." Although his formal designation is board member and chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales' social capital within the Wikipedia community has accorded him a status that has been characterized as benevolent dictator, constitutional monarch and spiritual leader. He was also the closest the project had to a spokesperson in its early years. The growth and prominence of Wikipedia made Wales an Internet celebrity. Although he had never traveled outside North America prior to the site's founding, his participation in the Wikipedia project has seen him flying internationally on a near-constant basis as its public face.

Despite involvement in other projects, Wales has denied intending to reduce his role within Wikipedia, telling The New York Times in 2008 that "Dialing down is not an option for me ... Not to be too dramatic about it, but, 'to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language,' that's who I am. That's what I am doing. That's my life goal." In May 2010, the BBC reported that Wales had relinquished many of his technical privileges on Wikimedia Commons (a Wikipedia sister project that hosts much of its multimedia content) after criticism by the project’s volunteer community over what they saw as Wales' hasty and undemocratic approach to deleting sexually explicit images he believed "appeal solely to prurient interests".

Wikia and later pursuits

In 2004, Wales and then-fellow member of the WMF Board of Trustees Angela Beesley founded the for-profit company Wikia. Wikia is a wiki farm—a collection of individual wikis on different subjects, all hosted on the same website. It hosts some of the largest wikis outside Wikipedia, including Memory Alpha (devoted to Star Trek) and Wookieepedia (Star Wars). Another service offered by Wikia was Wikia Search, an open source search engine intended to challenge Google and introduce transparency and public dialogue about how it is created into the search engine’s operations, but the project was abandoned in March 2009. Wales stepped down as Wikia CEO to be replaced by angel investor Gil Penchina, a former vice president and general manager at eBay, on June 5, 2006. Penchina declared Wikia to have reached profitability in September 2009. In addition to his role at Wikia, Wales is a public speaker represented by the Harry Walker Agency. He has also participated in a celebrity endorsement campaign for the Swiss watch maker Maurice Lacroix.

On November 4, 2011, Wales delivered an hour-long address at The Sage Gateshead in the United Kingdom to launch the 2011 Free Thinking Festival on BBC Radio Three. His speech, which was entitled "The Future of the Internet", was largely devoted to Wikipedia. Twenty days later, on November 24, Wales appeared on the British topical debate television program Question Time.

In May 2012, it was reported that Wales was advising the UK government on how to make taxpayer-funded academic research available on the internet at no cost. His role reportedly involved working as "an unpaid advisor on crowdsourcing and opening up policymaking", and advising the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the UK research councils on distributing research.

Political and economic views

Wales in June 2008

Wales is a self-avowed Objectivist, referring to the philosophy invented by writer Ayn Rand in the mid-20th century emphasizing reason, individualism, and capitalism. Wales first encountered the philosophy through reading Rand's novel The Fountainhead while an undergraduate, and in 1992 founded an electronic mailing list devoted to "Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy". Though he has stated that the philosophy "colours everything I do and think", he has said "I think I do a better job—than a lot of people who self-identify as Objectivists—of not pushing my point of view on other people." When asked by Brian Lamb about Rand’s influence on him in his appearance on C-SPAN's Q&A in September 2005, Wales cited integrity and "the virtue of independence" as important to him personally. When asked if he could trace "the Ayn Rand connection" to having a political philosophy at the time of the interview, Wales labeled himself a libertarian, qualifying his remark by referring to the United States Libertarian Party as "lunatics" and citing "freedom, liberty, basically individual rights, that idea of dealing with other people in a matter that is not initiating force against them" as his guiding principles. An interview with Wales served as the cover feature of the June 2007 issue of the libertarian magazine Reason. In that profile, he described his political views as "centre-right".

In a 2011 interview with The Independent, he expressed sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London protesters, saying, "You don't have to be a socialist to say it's not right to take money from everybody and give it to a few rich people. That's not free enterprise."

The January/February 2006 issue of Maximum PC reported that Wales had refused to comply with a request from the People's Republic of China to censor "politically sensitive" articles in Wikipedia. Other big business Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft had already yielded to Chinese government pressure. Wales let it be known that he would rather see companies such as Google follow suit on Wikipedia's policy of freedom of information. In 2010, he criticized whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its editor in chief Julian Assange, saying that their publication of Afghan war documents "could be enough to get someone killed", and he expressed irritation at their use of the name "wiki": "What they're doing is not really a wiki. The essence of wiki is a collaborative editing...".

Wales cites Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek's essay " The Use of Knowledge in Society", which he read as an undergraduate, as "central" to his thinking about "how to manage the Wikipedia project". Hayek argued that information is decentralized – that each individual only knows a small fraction of what is known collectively – and that as a result, decisions are best made by those with local knowledge rather than by a central authority. Wales reconsidered Hayek's essay in the 1990s, while reading about the open source movement (which advocated that software be free and distributed). He was moved in particular by " The Cathedral and the Bazaar", an essay and later book by one of the founders of the movement, Eric S. Raymond, which "opened [his] eyes to the possibilities of mass collaboration." From his background in finance and working as a futures and options trader, Wales developed an interest in game theory and the effect of incentives on human collaborative activity, a fascination to which he credits enabling much of his effort with Wikipedia. He has rejected the notion that his role in promoting Wikipedia is altruistic, which he defines as "sacrificing your own values for others", stating "[t]hat participating in a benevolent effort to share information is somehow destroying your own values makes no sense to me".

Wales petitioned the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom against the extradition of Richard O'Dwyer to the USA. After an agreement was reached to avoid the extradition, Wales commented, "This is very exciting news, and I'm pleased to hear it... What needs to happen next is a serious reconsideration of the UK extradition treaty that would allow this sort of nonsense in the first place."

Personal life

Wales with his second wife Christine

Wales married Kate Garvey in London on 6 October 2012. She is Tony Blair's former diary secretary, whom he met in Davos, Switzerland. It is his third marriage. Wales has two daughters: one with his second ex-wife and one with Garvey.

At the age of 20, Wales married Pam, a co-worker at a grocery-store in Alabama. He met his second wife, Christine Rohan, through a friend in Chicago while she was working as a steel trader for Mitsubishi. The couple were married in Monroe County, Florida in March 1997, and had a daughter before separating. Wales moved to San Diego in 1998, and after being dissuaded by the housing market there, relocated in 2002 to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived as of 2007.

Wales had a brief relationship with Canadian conservative columnist Rachel Marsden in 2008 that began after Marsden contacted Wales about her Wikipedia biography. After accusations that Wales' relationship constituted a conflict of interest, Wales stated that there had been a relationship but that it was over and claimed that it had not influenced any matters on Wikipedia, a claim which was disputed by Marsden.

Wales is an atheist. In an interview with Big Think, he said his personal philosophy is firmly rooted in reason and he is a complete non-believer.

Honours, awards and positions

Wales at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Awards Show, 2011

Wales is a member of the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and the advisory board of the MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence, the Board of Directors at Creative Commons, Socialtext, and, and former co-chair of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2008.

Wales was listed in the "Scientists & Thinkers" section of the Time 100 in 2006 and number 12 in Forbes "The Web Celebs 25". Wales has also given a lecture in the Stuart Regen Visionary series at New Museum which "honours special individuals who have made major contributions to art and culture, and are actively imagining a better future" and by the World Economic Forum as one of the "Young Global Leaders" of 2007. In April 2011, Wales served on the jury of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Wales has received a Pioneer Award, the Gottlieb Duttweiler Prize and the Leonardo European Corporate Learning Award in 2011, the Monaco Media Prize, the 2009 Nokia Foundation annual award, the Business Process Award at the 7th Annual Innovation Awards and Summit by The Economist, the 2008 Global Brand Icon of the Year Award, and on behalf of the Wikimedia project the Quadriga award of Werkstatt Deutschland for A Mission of Enlightenment. Wales has also received honorary degrees from Knox College, Amherst College, Stevenson University, Argentina's Universidad Empresarial Siglo 21, and Russia's MIREA University.

Published work

  • Brooks, Robert; Jon Corson, Jimmy Donal Wales (1994). "The Pricing of Index Options When the Underlying Assets All Follow a Lognormal Diffusion". Advances in Futures and Options Research 7. 
  • Wales, Jimmy; Andrea Weckerle (December 31, 2008), "Foreword", in Fraser, Matthew; Dutta, Soumitra, Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World (1st ed.), Wiley, ISBN  0-470-74014-0, OCLC  233939846. 
  • Wales, Jimmy; Andrea Weckerle (January 8, 2009). "Commentary: Create a tech-friendly U.S. government". CNN. 
  • Wales, Jimmy; Andrea Weckerle (February 10, 2009), "Foreword", in Powell, Juliette, 33 Million People in the Room: How to Create, Influence, and Run a Successful Business with Social Networking (1st ed.), Financial Times Press, ISBN  0-13-715435-6, OCLC  244066502. 
  • Wales, Jimmy; Andrea Weckerle (March 3, 2009), "Foreword", in Weber, Larry, Marketing to the Social Web: How Digital Customer Communities Build Your Business (2nd ed.), Wiley, ISBN  0-470-41097-3, OCLC  244060887. 
  • Wales, Jimmy (March 17, 2009), "Foreword", in Lih, Andrew, The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia (1st ed.), Hyperion, ISBN  1-4013-0371-4, OCLC  232977686. 
  • Wales, Jimmy; Andrea Weckerle (March 30, 2009). "Most Define User-Generated Content Too Narrowly". Advertising Age 80. 
  • Wales, Jimmy; Andrea Weckerle (December 28, 2009). "Keep a Civil Cybertongue". The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company). 
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