Why Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is the good guy of tech

Richard Godwin

Jimmy Donal Wales, born 7 August, 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama, also known as Jimbo Wales, is an American internet entrepreneur. He is the co-founder of Wikipedia, an online non-profit encyclopedia, and the for-profit web hosting company, Wikia.

I cribbed that from Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia page — I’m sure he won’t mind. Wales is unusual among founders of unfathomably popular websites (Wikipedia is the fifth most visited on the web) in that he is a) incredibly nice, b) not a billionaire, and c) presides over a website that doesn’t produce paroxysms of disgust and derision whenever you mention it. ‘We make the internet not suck,’ is how he likes to put it. Those three qualities might be linked, you see.

While the open-source, community-created encyclopedia that he launched in 2001 has its faults, it is open about them. ‘When most websites talk about community, they just mean the general public,’ he tells me, while busying himself with a plate of eggs and avocado. ‘With Wikipedia, the community actually know each other: they get in fights, they make up, they keep each other in check in a kind and thoughtful way over a long period of time. It requires a lot of nurturing. And it requires that you forget about the way you’re supposed to build a website.’

So it is not perfect but it works. He cites one particular example that always makes him laugh, which is that the Wikipedia entry for ‘poor Jemima Goldsmith’ features a supremely unflattering picture for someone so glamorous. ‘She just thinks it’s funny. I keep telling her, just give us another photo.’

Jimmy Wales

We’re talking over breakfast at The Ivy Kensington Brasserie, not far from the Notting Hill home Wales shares with his wife, Kate Garvey, and their two daughters, four and six. Wales also has a 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Garvey used to be Tony Blair’s diary manager and now works for Freuds, the PR company founded by Matthew Freud. Wales has described his wife as ‘the most connected woman in London’ and that was certainly the impression you might have had from their 2012 wedding. Alastair Campbell played the bagpipes, the Blairs, David Miliband, Lord Adonis, Mick Hucknall and Lily Cole were guests, as was another Siliconminster power couple: Steve Hilton (David Cameron’s former advisor) and Rachel Whetstone (currently vice-president of communications at Facebook, who formerly held senior lobbyist roles with Uber and Google). Wales likes to cook and they regularly hold dinner parties.

Indeed, Wales and Garvey are so at home among the international elite, they met at the Piano Bar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It remains a romantic place for them both. ‘Now we stay in the same room in the same hotel every year — it’s like coming home,’ Wales says between forkfuls. (The eggs are ‘unexpectedly delicious!’ he exclaims.) His voice is less Alabama and more business American with a few Anglicisms thrown in. He’s forthright and funny, a little rough around the edges, like Wikipedia, but this is part of the charm. And no, the other tech CEOs don’t tease him about not being a billionaire. (An old section of his Wikipedia page, since revised, pinned his fortune at less than $1 million.) ‘Launching Wikipedia with no ads, no paywall, was a series of bad business decisions, but that’s how I’ve built my career so far,’ he smiles. ‘I said that to [Google co-founder] Larry Page and he just laughed and said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing”.’

An open book: Jimmy Wales

Wales is freshly back from Davos, where he spoke about his new site, WikiTribune, which he hopes will harness Wikipedian principles of transparency, community and neutrality for the era of misinformation and alternative facts. ‘I had a stomach bug for the first days so it was kind of grim,’ he says of this year’s conference. ‘And then the President spoke and we all had stomach aches. Ha ha…’

In the event, Donald Trump didn’t declare nuclear war or call anyone a pussy. ‘He stuck to the script and didn’t say anything new. Here are his positions, you can agree with some and disagree with others. If he behaved like that all the time, it would be significantly less frightening.’

It was the rise of Trump — as well as Brexit — that prompted the launch of WikiTribune in October. Wales is concerned about the collapse of local journalism and a click-based online advertising model which results in stories going unreported.

‘In the past, if you were a boat manufacturer and you wanted to sell boats you’d say: “Well, who buys boats?” It’s men in their early 50s who are having a midlife crisis. So you’d work out what publications we read. But now they can just follow that demographic around the internet. I can be on the spammiest website or message board and I see boats. That means quality newspapers aren’t just competing with each other, they’re competing with everything.’ The idea of WikiTribune is to allow a Wikipedian ‘community’ worldwide to suggest stories, collate information, crunch data, write and edit articles. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, he has taken on 10 journalists full-time. ‘It’s a start,’ he says.

Love hearts: Jimmy Wales and Kate Garvey on their wedding day (Dwayne Senior /eyevine)

Since Trump’s election, the public mood has turned against the tech giants: Esquire recently characterised the ‘big four’ tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple) as a ‘tax-avoiding, job-killing, soul-sucking machine’. Wales doesn’t appear to disagree with that characterisation, but isn’t sure what to do about it. He isn’t necessarily in favour of breaking down the monopolies. ‘I’m not sure what that means,’ he says. ‘But never mind what I think ought to happen, they are under a lot of pressure and there’s going to be a lot of hard public policy questions around this.’ He notes that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg becoming President ‘might not be a bad idea, by the way, if we’re going to have a billionaire president’.

What?! I say. That’s a terrible idea. Awkward laughter from Wales. You’ve probably met him a bunch of times, right? ‘I have. He’s a very sweet guy. But anyway, he’d be a better President than Trump — I’m not exactly going out on a limb there.’

Wales has now been in London for about seven or eight years and will be eligible for a British passport next year — ‘just when it will become useless because of Brexit!’ And he feels very much at home here. Indeed, it all seems very cosy, this tech-politics love-in. Are people right to be suspicious of this?

He laughs. ‘I’m not really on the inside of lots of things, but I do know all these people. Often, people have some kind of conspiracy mindset about the elite. They literally have no idea how incompetent we all are.’ Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Wales puts in a word for Jeremy Corbyn. ‘Whatever you may think of him — and I’m not a fan, I’ve never bumped into him at a dinner party in London — he is not part of a Westminster bubble.’ Neither, he points out, is Theresa May. But he suggests that the fact that members of opposing parties might occasionally meet over dinner isn’t such a bad thing. ‘There is a Westminster set, people who know each other socially and so on — and that helps with a bipartisan approach. It’s not as completely broken down as it is in the US.’

Wales and Lily Cole (Frankowski/REX/Shutterstock)

Regulating the sector, he says, is ‘an ongoing problem’. He feels that things went downhill in this country when Second Home co-founder Rohan Silva left No10 (that’s David Cameron’s former tech advisor, now an Evening Standard columnist). He believes Government debates about removal of encryption are ‘insane’: ‘It’s the dumbest thing ever. It makes zero sense. It’s an incredibly important barrier against cybercrime. The truth is, they had a brief golden era when they could spy on everyone they wanted — and now it’s become significantly harder again.’

Overall, he sees plenty of reasons to be cheerful. He struggles with smartphone addiction — who doesn’t? — but sees an elegant solution in Arianna Huffington’s new app, Thrive, which limits your usage. ‘I think I need to download that and try it. And I’m thinking about going on to Twitter and just unfollowing everyone. And completely rebooting.’ Lately, he’s been finding solace in Instagram. ‘You never get sucked into a black hole. It’s just pictures. Friends. Kids. It’s nice.’

And perhaps you have to see the best side of people in his business. ‘What is interesting is that in 2017 there was the lowest percentage of people in poverty in history. The lowest infant mortality rate in history. It was by a lot of measures the greatest year in history. I’ve been as guilty as anyone of saying the world is doomed. But it’s not all bad.’