Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia. We talked to him about fake news, new trends in philanthropy and about what museums can learn from the experiences of the online encyclopaedia, with its community-based approach.
Jimmy Wales, let's talk about your latest project, WikiTribune. How would you describe this project to someone who's never heard of it?
WikiTribune is a real pilot project. It is an attempt to combine the idea behind the Wiki community with professional journalism. Journalists and volunteers work jointly and on an equal footing to create something new in journalism. We launched the platform in October 2017, so we’ve been there for almost exactly a year now. The members of our community check facts, but also write articles themselves – just like the professional journalists.
How many supporters do you currently have?
We've already mobilised several thousand people to support us financially, and there are about as many people who have an account. However, the core community is most important to me. Because I don't think it's the number of people who occasionally leave comments that matters, but rather those who are very active on WikiTribune when it comes to contributing, discussing, working and planning.
If we have understood it correctly, WikiTribune is also an answer to fake news and to the general crisis of quality journalism.
Yes, that's exactly what it is. Low-quality media are on the rise, and traditional media are under enormous economic pressure. What needs to change? I see two aspects: First, media houses should recognise the value of communities for their work, rather than seeing them as a cost factor, and actively involve them in their own processes. At WikiTribune we try to do just that.
And the other aspect?
This concerns the actual business model of media. I have always joked that we at WikiTribune have made a lot of bad business decisions. For example, we have no advertisments and no paywalls. But that's what we also did at Wikipedia, and we did quite well, after all (laughs). We, in fact, depend on our readers to support us voluntarily month after month.
In Germany, and certainly in other parts of the world, there is a very interesting discussion about the extent to which foundations can contribute to the promotion of quality journalism. How do you see this?
I think this is very important. In the USA, for example, there is the Knight Foundation, which supports journalism. This foundation has given reasons for its commitment, which I can only agree with.
What are these reasons?
Take, for example, a community foundation that works against the pollution of a lake in its community and finances its cleaning. If local journalism is not also supported, then the lake will be polluted again very soon. That is why we need a vibrant, healthy, local journalism that keeps an eye on what is happening in the community or region. Foundations should think about these things, out of their own interest.
Because local journalism is currently in a crisis. The subject of fake news is currently dominating the headlines, and we are all concerned about the poor quality of some media. What is often forgotten in this discussion is that the majority of local newspapers have been destroyed in recent years. And this is causing a lot of social problems as people do feel no one is speaking for their interests anymore and nobody is looking after their interests.
A totally different topic: Recently it became known that the Wikimedia Foundation will cooperate with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Can we infer from this news a general change in the attitude of more traditional institutions like museums towards community-based projects like Wikipedia?
Yes, basically we have seen a very large change, a change in understanding, a change in attitude. In the old days, many institutions were hostile towards us. I remember a complaint from a large museum in London, because we had published a photograph of a painting from their collection on Wikipedia. It was a photograph of a four-hundred-year-old painting and therefore free of any copyright.
Obviously, the museum saw it as its task to prevent us from spreading culture and letting many people participate in it. This is hardly imaginable today. Today, many museums see Wikipedia and other digital platforms as another opportunity to do their job, which is to educate the public and make culture a vivid part of people's lives.
And how does Wikipedia benefit from this collaboration?
Of course, it helps us to improve our quality because it allows highly qualified people to participate in Wikipedia – whether as authors or in other ways. So I’m really glad we have partnerships like the one with the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Wikipedia is probably the most prominent example of a project run by a community. What can cultural memory institutions like museums and archives learn from Wikipedia’s experience with communities?
I think what is really hard for traditional institutions – and I mean not only cultural institutions, but also companies with a traditional organisational and hierarchical structure – is the idea of trusting people and through that losing control. Our experience at Wikipedia is that if you let people do what they care about and you trust them, you get a lot of good will and quality work back. But for many, this very letting go is a very difficult process. Take a look at traditional media houses: most people find the idea of including communities in their work horrible, because the word "community" immediately makes them think of the many trolls that currently fill their comment columns. That’s why it’s so hard for many of them to see the positive sides of communities.
How do you handle giving up control yourself?
So these are hard lessons to learn but I think fundamentally for me the real human core is to find good people and then trust them. Strangely enough, there are still people today who believe that I make all editorial decisions at Wikipedia. And then they complain to me because of something they read on Wikipedia. So I have to explain to them that I am not responsible for what is written there.
Wikipedia is based on a very Western concept of dealing with knowledge – the word encyclopaedia is contained in the name. It works well to capture and convey a specific kind of knowledge, that which is mainly handed down in writing. But what about other types of cultural memory which are mainly handed down orally, such as sagas, narratives or songs?
That is a good question and I wish I knew the answer, how one can succeed to collect orally handed down traditions and experiences and make them accessible. Of course, Wikipedia, in everything that makes it great and endearing, is a particular type of thing, because any statement published there must be supported by written sources. So how do you capture poetry, dance, and so on? I don’t know. But however it will be done, I think we would benefit immensely by learning from the fundamental principles that made Wikipedia successful: bring people together, trust them, let them do things they find interesting. I think that’s what it’s all about.
But that would require a truly global community, wouldn't it?
Yes, and there is still a long way to go. However, one of the problems that can be solved, albeit not as quickly as I had hoped in my dreams, is the question of access to the Internet. A great many people in the world do not yet have access to the digital world. But to participate in culture, the ability to go online is crucial. It is therefore very important to ensure that more people in the non-Western world have this opportunity.
There doesn't seem to be a viable business model for doing just that. Does this require philanthropic commitment in order to launch certain online projects in non-Western countries?
Yes, I agree with that. I think this is a really interesting and important area to look at. It is perhaps a bit of a chicken and egg problem, especially with regard to people who speak languages that are barely present on the Internet. Because for these people there is no practical reason to go online, since almost everything on the Internet is in a language they cannot read. This is why Wikipedia's approach of being open and welcoming is so important. Anyone who is online for the first time can join Wikipedia and share their knowledge, in their own language. And that's an incentive for people to go online. This could perhaps lead to a business model for providing connectivity. Be that as it may, the question of how more people can access the Internet is an issue that philanthropic institutions should think about.
You founded the Wikimedia Foundation in 2003, so you've been a philanthropist for 15 years. In your opinion, how has philanthropic engagement changed during this time?
I see many positive trends – for example, the importance of measurable outcomes and metrics to evaluate the impact of projects. This is incredibly important, even if the path to it may sometimes seem a little brutal. We all know that in the past there was a lot of feel-good philanthropy, with beautiful brochures and pictures of happy children – so a lot of marketing to raise money. The focus was more on making the donors happy than on measurable results. But that can’t be the goal. I think that focus on outcome has a positive impact on philanthropy.
Do you think that communities – whether online or offline – should play a greater role in the philanthropic endeavours? For example, the local people to whom a foundation’s project is directed should be more involved in its decision-making processes?
Absolutely. I think that is really the key, and it goes in the direction I mentioned earlier: trust in people. That’s one of the criticisms people make at grassroots level: what a foundation believes, what we need, doesn't necessarily correspond to our own experience. And that’s why you should trust the local people who say: ‘look, we know what our needs are; we are intelligent people, so you don't have to tell us what to do. We know that best ourselves.’ Trust in people, by losing control.
About the dialogue partner
In 2001, Jimmy Wales founded the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia and two years later he founded the Wikimedia Foundation, which stands behind it. The 53-year-old American lives in London.
Nicole Alexander is the chief editor of Stiftungswelt, the magazine of the Association of German Foundations in which this interview was published first.
Pavel Richter has been Head of Digital Strategy and Administration at the Association of German Foundations since August 2018. From 2009 to 2015 he was managing director of Wikimedia Germany.