Jimmy Wales on Wikipedia's Governance

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Jimmy Wales C-SPAN interview

URL = http://www.q-and-a.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1042


From a very lengthy and interesting CSPAN interview with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. It goes into his personal evolution ,the history of the project, conflict resolution and peer governance. You can watch the program online.

"LAMB: So somebody in the community, who you probably don`t know, will tell that person we`re not ready for you, you`re out? WALES: Yes, yes. LAMB: But what if the person wants to appeal that?

WALES: Well, there are within the community there are various social processes so we have - you know, for the deletion there`s a page - it used to be called votes for deletion but we just changed the name of it the other day and that`s sort of in flux. They`re changing the process. But there`s the deletion process. And then if it goes beyond that then there`s an arbitration committee, partly elected, partly appointed by me - within the community which basically tries mostly to deal with behavioral issues. To say, you know, it`s - you can`t continue repeatedly doing the same thing over and over, that`s annoying the community because eventually you just - you have to stop we have work to do.

So and then ultimately beyond that they could appeal to me. But that`s very rare, it hasn`t happened in ...

LAMB: So you`re the ultimate authority? WALES: Yes, yes. LAMB: In the end you can change things if you want?

WALES: Yes, yes. And that`s an - that`s an interesting role because the way I - the way I like to explain it is within the free software world where a group of volunteers is collaboratively writing software there is a long tradition in that world of having a benevolent dictator.

And so - and this isn`t because programmers love tyranny or anything like this. It`s just because when you`ve got a small group of volunteers trying to get work done you don`t really want to get into a whole system of voting on every change that goes into the program and things like that. So it just makes sense. It seems to be a viable model to have a trusted person who listens. You have to have the right personality that will listen to the different sides about what should be in the program and then make a decision and everybody can say well, OK, you know - in the Linux Kernel it`s Linus Torvalds and he decides ultimately. The community of programmers around him makes all the tough decisions but if there`s a real conflict he decides. I was talking about the benevolent dictator model and I don`t want to leave the impression that that`s our model because what I was going to say is I don`t feel it`s appropriate for any one person to be the dictator of all human knowledge. And so we`re moving from that model which was necessary when we had a small group of people to a model - I make the comparison of the British monarchy. That my power should decrease over time and become more symbolic. And it`s more my job is to defend the community not rule over the community. And so that`s just - that was one thing I wanted to throw in.

LAMB: Well, and I also shouldn`t jump ahead too far because you had other rules that we didn`t go over.

WALES: Yes, there`s a lot of rules. No personal attacks is one of the rules in Wikipedia that`s served us very, very well. A lot of Internet communities are quite hostile and rough. I think almost everybody has had the experience of signing up for a mailing list that sounded interesting and realizing after a little while that it is dominated by people who like to scream at each other. And we try to make Wikipedia a safe space for the broad middle of reasonable, thoughtful people. And that`s one of the reasons we`re successful on controversial topics is we really discourage people from, you know, competitive, argumentative behaviors. And we try to say really we should be cooperating, we should be trying to find common ground. And that`s - it`s very successful. And I don`t mean to paint it as a utopia. Obviously it`s a human project with lots of internal squabbling and so forth. But on average I think we have a really - we`ve achieved something in the community in terms of getting together thoughtful people from a broad spectrum of political and religious and different ideological backgrounds but are which still willing to give some space for other people.

LAMB: Who sets the rules?

WALES: Some of the core rules were - have been set by me from the very beginning: neutrality policy that Wikipedia shouldn`t take a stand on controversial issues but just report on them, that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia as opposed to a joke book or a compendium of random facts and things like that.

But the day-to-day rules within the community are set by the community through a process that no one really understands, it`s quite complicated. It`s a process of discussion, debate, consensus, some voting, some aristocracy, you know, people who are well respected in the community can make decisions and they`ll be respected. It`s quite a - it`s quite a confusing mix.

LAMB: Again go back, let`s say the C-SPAN stuff again, let`s say there`s a personal attack in there and that there`s new information, new research which violates your rules and nobody see it. Does it just sit there? WALES: Yes, it could - it would just sit there until somebody sees it. LAMB: ... and ask you about those people, you know them, why do they do it? Give us a profile of somebody you know and how much they`re involved in all of this.

WALES: Well, I think there`s - there are many different types of people and so it`s hard to boil it down to any one. But a typical type of person is really smart, really friendly - because if you`re not friendly you have a hard time in Wikipedia because it`s a social process. So having social skills is really important. And then I think the people really enjoy the process of engaging with other smart people and a dialog that`s productive and building something. And so you may have an interest in some area - lots of people report this, now I`m interested in birds so I wrote this little article. And then they came back three days later and it just got huge and big and interesting and all these other people - there`s a whole group of people who write articles about trains, the history of trains in unbelievable detail that for me I know nothing about trains and I was shocked to find. But there`s a little subculture of people who are really hobbyists and very interested in trains. So that`s the type of people. And they - there`s - so there`s the immediate fun of the process but then there`s the bigger picture thing. The people feel it`s freely licensed meaning anyone can copy, redistribute, modify commercially, non-commercially, you can do anything you like with our work. And people really feel that this is something that`s very important. That this idea of an information commons in an era when most of the - say the copyright debate is about kids stealing music, right, that`s the way it`s usually framed. But for us the whole - the whole concept of free culture and sharing on the Internet, it`s not a - it`s not a concept of consumers trying to get something for free. In our case it`s a concept of producers, people who are actually creating something trying to use - to share it. And so that big-picture vision really motivates people through the boring bits.

LAMB: Nupedia was what?

WALES: Nupedia, I had the vision for a free encyclopedia and in 1999 I founded and funded Nupedia. And what we didn`t understand at that time is how to build a community and how to empower a community to do good work. So we had a lot of people really interested in the project because the vision of a free encyclopedia in every language was quite appealing to lots of really smart people.

But our software it was a very traditionally designed review process. There were seven stages and you had to submit your article and then it was reviewed by professors. And it was really not much fun.

I knew it wasn`t going to work when I personally sat down to write an article about Robert Merton, who was - won a Nobel Prize for option pricing theory. So I said, oh well, I have a published paper in the area, I know something about this, and I sat down to write the article and I felt like I was back in graduate school because they were going to give my paper to professors to review and I was going to get comments and, you know, I might get a C grade or a B grade or something. It was a very different feel from Wikipedia where you just plunge in and, you know, if it isn`t that great that`s fine, somebody else will pick it up and take it on. And you know it doesn`t have to be a full complete article. You can just write one paragraph and you start off by saying it is. And in French Wikipedia they came up with a fantastic phrase, they call it the piranha effect which is you start with a little tiny article and it`s not quite good enough so people are picking at it and sort of a feeding frenzy and articles grow."

More Information

  1. Other webcasts by Jimmy Wales are filed under: Jimmy Wales on Cooperation in Wikipedia
  2. Wikipedia - Governance