The Sum of All Human Knowledge
Jimmy Wales is the co-founder and promoter of Wikipedia and chair emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation.
September 8, 2016
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I wasn’t aware of the mission statement of Wikipedia until recently: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” And a conversation with Jimmy Wales – one of the architects of that philosophy and the project and global community that has grown up around it – is full of surprises. What Wikipedia has been learning for 15 years now – about communally navigating facts and truth while honoring the integrity of many points of view — feels relevant right now. And I’ve never interviewed anyone who uses the word “kindness” more naturally and insistently than Jimmy Wales.
MS. TIPPETT: Seth Godin used this phrase when he talked about what he sees in Wikipedia, “The insane power of the well-organized crowd.”
MR. JIMMY WALES: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Which — again, it’s like — it takes the language of democracy to a slightly new 21st-century place.
MR. WALES: I like that, “organized,” because a lot of what people refer to as online community in various places is not organized, and it’s atomistic is what I call it. So, an organized crowd is a group of people who are working together under a set of agreed principles for a common end, and hopefully doing that with a certain modicum of kindness to each other and thoughtfulness. And that is very special and has to be nurtured. It doesn’t happen automatically.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Jimmy Wales worked as a future and options trader early in his career and has created for-profit companies, but Wikipedia remains passionately non-profit. He lives between Florida and London, and grew up in Alabama.
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve seen you referred to a few times that you grew up an atheist in Alabama, which is kind of poetic. And also a little counterintuitive.
MR. WALES: A little, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And your mother ran a two-room schoolhouse. Is that right?
MR. WALES: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s so interesting.
MR. WALES: Yeah, it was a very unusual, I would say, educational upbringing. Two-room schoolhouse, so like Abraham Lincoln or something. And we had four grades in each room — first through fourth grade, and then fifth through eighth grade. We also had a kindergarten, so it was technically a three-room. And yeah, I went there the whole time. And in my grade, there were four kids, so very small school. So we had a lot of flexibility and time to explore activities at our own choosing.
MS. TIPPETT: So I’m always interested in this question, whoever I’m speaking with, of how they would describe the spiritual background of their childhood. And it seems to me that there are these virtues and values that run through your work about a kind of — there’s a kind of faith in community, and in human kindness, and kind of a trust in the goodness of people. I’m curious about where the roots of that are in this earliest life of yours.
MR. WALES: Yeah, I do think there is something to that. I mean, certainly growing up in the South, my parents were very, very nice people, and we were always taught to be very nice people. And there is that kind of community sensibility I would say.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: And yeah, and so that was, I would say, a big part of how I was brought up. I mean, I just remember my father lamenting, because we lived in the big city of Huntsville, which was around 200,000 people, that unlike where he grew up in the countryside, when you met people driving down the street, they didn’t wave at you, which is sort of funny. I’m like, “Well, Dad, there’s a lot of them driving by, so…”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.
MR. WALES: But it was that kind of thing. Like, people should be nice. And my father was a grocery store manager. And as such, he had had many, many, many people had worked for him over the years, young people. And everywhere we would go, people would come up to Dad, and they knew him and so forth, and always joked that he should run for mayor. But he never did.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And where do you trace the roots of your imagination about what an encyclopedia is and what it does in the world? I mean, did you have World Book Encyclopedia when you were growing up?
MR. WALES: Yeah, yeah. We had the World Book at home from a very young age. My mother, in the classic style, bought it from a door-to-door salesperson when I was a baby.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ll have to tell our kids those stories, and they won’t believe us, right? [laughs]
MR. WALES: [laughs] Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: Yeah, there’s a great thing I show in my speeches. It’s a tweet from a school librarian who said, I asked one of my students if she knew what an encyclopedia was. And she said, is it something like Wikipedia?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right.
MR. WALES: So, for kids today, Wikipedia is ubiquitous. But yeah, in terms of growing up with the encyclopedia — and later on, of course, we had Britannica — it was something that I really loved as a child and read a lot. I can’t say I read it cover to cover, although I did have that ambition at times. But I read a lot of things in the encyclopedia. And I always liked, anything I wanted to know, to go and get a summary of it.
And along with the annual book, they would send you stickers. And you could open up the original encyclopedia, and say there was an updated entry about the moon — people have landed on the moon — they update the moon entry. And then you would go and you would stick the sticker in the main book. So you’d look up moon, and it was say, “Oh, this article is out of date. Go and look in the 1976 edition.” And so now I think back on that, and that was the sort of the first editing the encyclopedia, by sticking stickers in it. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right. But they were stickers that somebody else had crafted, had written.
MR. WALES: Someone else had crafted, exactly. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And so, you started Wikipedia in 2001. I just wanted — that’s the date you use as well? 2001?
MR. WALES: Yeah, mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: And I’m just curious about — just in terms of being something that is just woven into the fabric of life, and that kids grow up knowing about and using. And when you reflect on it, it’s really a very short time. And so, what was the germ of the idea? Like, what came first? What set this off to become the thing it became?
MR. WALES: Yeah. So, I had been really impacted by the explosion of the internet. My family had a computer when I was — very early. Before the IBM PC came out, we had a TRS80 from Radio Shack computer, and the Commodore PET computer, and so forth. And one of the things that I saw in graduate school was the growth of open-source software, free software. And this is software that’s created primarily by volunteers, and they release on the internet under a completely free license.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALES: And one thing that a lot of people don’t know unless you work in the industry is that a lot of the really fantastic software that runs the internet, GNU Linux, Apache Pearl, MySQL, PHP, all of the programming languages and things are open source projects that are created by volunteer programmers collaborating online. So I was watching that thing grow. And of course, when I first heard about it, I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting idea, but obviously that’s just going to be a small hobby thing.”
But as it became more and more impactful, and it was more and more becoming a fundamental part of the internet, I thought, “Gee, that kind of collaboration could extend beyond just software into all kinds of cultural works.” And it sort of makes sense that it would start with software, because programmers who wanted to share their work with each other could build the tools that they needed to do that. So they could build their own tools, and they have version control software, so they can check in and out their changes and work together collaboratively. And for the rest of us, if we wanted to collaborate on some kind of a document, the best you could do is email a Word document or something like that, which is a nightmare.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALES: And so, I thought, basically, we need some tools. We need to figure out how to make this work. And I had the idea of an encyclopedia. And I got very excited about it. And thought it’s the kind of thing that people could collaborate on. It’s fairly straightforward to understand what it should look like. And that was how we got started. But of course, in the initial version, called Nupedia, we didn’t have all the ideas of how to do it, and how to build a community, and what kind of software they needed, and so forth.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you have, from the beginning, this kind of mission statement that you’re providing “free access to the sum of all human knowledge for all people?” Was that there at the beginning or did it evolve?
MR. WALES: Well, yeah, that concept was there at the beginning. The actual sort of famous tagline, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” — that I came up with in about — I don’t remember exactly — 2004, 2005. Maybe a little earlier, maybe 2003.
Anyway, I know where I was. I was in Berlin. It was my first time out of the U.S. I’d been invited to a conference to speak in Berlin, which was mind-boggling to me that anybody would want me to come all the way to Europe, and give a talk, and sort of had to sort of sum up what it was we were doing. But the concept, that mission statement, was with us from the very beginning.
MS. TIPPETT: And it’s very straightforward and simple on one hand, and it’s grand and audacious on the other, “the sum of all human knowledge.”
MR. WALES: Yeah. And I do think that is part of why it’s been successful, I think had I set out to sort of — “Let’s write an encyclopedia article about every state in the U.S.” — right? It’s not that inspiring of a goal. It’s just a small little thing. And I think the fact that it’s a big idea for everyone on the planet is part of what motivates the volunteers. And when we talk to the volunteers and say, “Well, why do you do this?” one of the things they point to is that it’s being part of something that is — it feels good. You’re doing something productive for the whole world, and it’s meaningful. And I do think that people really — they want to spend their time doing something meaningful.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and that in itself is — I’m so with you on that. And yet, it’s also kind of a bold statement in the 21st century for a public figure to make.
MR. WALES: Yeah. I mean, it is. The idea of free access to the sum of all human knowledge is a controversial statement in places that actively practice censorship and an attempt to forcibly control the flow of information.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: But I think other things about Wikipedia are perhaps, not controversial, but I think unusual in our current environment. We unfortunately live in a media culture that’s very, very different from the calm neutral style of Wikipedia — I mean, we try really hard to be calm and neutral. Obviously, we’re human beings. We don’t always do it.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. But — right.
MR. WALES: And instead, we have, in many parts, quite an inflammatory and divisive media culture. That’s unfortunate, I think. And leads to…
MS. TIPPETT: And bad for us. Bad for all people.
MR. WALES: Yeah. Bad. Yes, very bad.
MS. TIPPETT: And so, yes. You are quite a champion globally now when it comes to censorship. But I also see something somewhat subversive — or let’s use the word “counter-cultural” — in the insistence on people wanting to do something meaningful, that this is a space in which people engage as volunteers to do something meaningful, a digital space. And I wonder if — it’s not that meaningful things don’t happen on all kinds of digital spaces. They do. But this has kind of a — in the DNA of the ethos, I just I don’t think that could have been possible if you had shifted from being a non-profit to be a commercial enterprise. I just don’t know if a commercial enterprise could have retained that commitment to that experience for people.
MR. WALES: Well, I mean, I certainly think it would be difficult.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. WALES: And it’s something I have — I co-founded Wikia, which is now a top-20 website. And it’s mostly fan sites about entertainment, and gaming, and so forth. And it’s very passionately community-oriented, but it’s an ad-supported website. And in terms of the community, the community’s engaged in it because they’re passionate about the topic. It doesn’t have that same kind of charitable public service feel about what they’re doing. Although it is community-minded.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: I mean, people, they’re doing it because they want to help out other people who like the same game they like or whatever it might be. But I do think it’s hard. And I do think, certainly, one of the great benefits for Wikipedia of being a charity is that we care as much about the next million readers in Africa as we care about the next million readers in California.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. WALES: And so it’s one of the things that people say, “Well, why don’t you put ads in Wikipedia? Why keep having to raise money as a charity?” And one of the things I say is, no matter how much I believe that we would continue, or that I would want us to continue, just in the DNA of the organization, organizations always tend to follow the money. And it’s not that Wikipedia would turn evil, but it would certainly turn less interested in the developing world. It would become more interested in what you’re reading at Wikipedia. So if everybody’s reading about Elizabethan Poetry, there’s nothing to sell them. We really want you to read about hotels in Las Vegas and things that have good ad revenue. And so suddenly you do. No matter how hard you try, it would change the incentives of the organization to try to change the shape of Wikipedia rather than being this really pure, community-driven public service mission.
[music: “Lullaby” by El Ten Eleven]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with internet entrepreneur and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales.
MS. TIPPETT: I do this big expansive conversation about this question of what it means to be human, how we want to live, and how all kinds of modern people are exploring that and reframing it in all of our fields. And quite a few people across the years have used Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia as an example, not just of what Wikipedia does, but of changing models of how the internet — and this model in particular that it’s made possible — is shifting the way these basic human endeavors, like making, and leading, and learning, and belonging. And I want to talk about that with you, but I actually want to start with — the other thing that happens when people talk about Wikipedia is they explain it, right? [laughs]
MR. WALES: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: And I’d kind of like to ask you to just give a basic explanation of what happens because I’m not sure. People use Wikipedia. I’m not really sure they know, but the numbers are staggering. And I’m not sure if the numbers I wrote down this morning are today’s numbers: more than 15 billion page views a month, 7,000 new articles every day, 80,000 unpaid volunteers worldwide. I wonder if you would just — let’s say, someone from Mars met you. Just giving a straightforward explanation of what Wikipedia is, what happens? How would you start to do that?
MR. WALES: Yeah, I mean, I think we can think of this in a couple of different ways. So one, we can talk about what Wikipedia is, the end result, the encyclopedia. But that, as you say, lots of people who are readers already understand that, and then that’s pretty straightforward. I think what’s harder is the Wikipedia community and understanding how that works and who they are. And it’s a really remarkable and amazing group of people.
I think one of the things that people should understand is that it’s not about the software. The software is important and how the software works, but it’s really about the culture in the community. It’s about people having the right spirit, about people taking responsibility. So the way it works is Wikipedia is very open. Anybody can come and edit. But every time someone makes an edit, other people will review it.
They either review it very quickly, and that would be people who are patrolling recent changes. Or lots of people have on their watch list the things they’ve edited in the past or areas that they’re interested in, and they’ll log in and they’ll review changes over the last few days. And when people disagree about an edit, then they have a discussion. And the talk pages are really one of the most interesting places on Wikipedia. And this is an area where people often don’t understand. So if we have an entry on Barack Obama, then the discussion page is not a general chat room about Barack Obama.
All the discussions should be focused around, “How do we improve this article?” And so if you like Barack Obama, or you don’t like Barack Obama, that’s more or less irrelevant to the discussion because this is about improving the article. And indeed, if you’re a good Wikipedian, hopefully, even in the debates about what should be included, people can’t tell if you like Barack Obama or not because it’s about the quality of the article.
And there’s a lot of mechanisms in the community. So people get elected to be administrators, and the administrators have additional powers to block people or temporarily lock entries. But even those powers are subject to checks and balances. And everything that an administrator does is publicly visible. So if an administrator blocks someone, there’s very strict rules. You can’t block someone just because you’re having an argument with them. That’s a really terrible faux pas as an administrator.
And then we have further things. We have the arbitration committee, which — they handle the more longer-term and intractable disputes. And so if people can’t get along, and they can’t figure out what to do, and there’s been a series of page-locking, unlocking, and a big brawl, then the arbitration committee will hear a case regarding what to do about this entry. And they can impose binding solutions. And sometimes, the solution is basically a topic ban for 10 people on both sides to say, “All of you people are just too excitable about this topic. You can’t edit here for one year.”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah.
MR. WALES: And getting in other Wikipedians who are maybe less emotionally invested in the topic. But it’s an imperfect process. But it’s like most democratic processes, i.e. it’s been designed to have checks and balances, it goes wrong sometimes, and there’s always some kind of drama going on.
MS. TIPPETT: Again, because it’s the human condition involved. Yeah.
MR. WALES: Because it’s the human condition. Yeah. Exactly. So we can describe the proper functioning of a municipal police force, and a municipal government and we can think about, OK, yes, well, the police do need to have special powers to arrest people. But we know police don’t always do the right things, and then we have to have trouble about that and so and so forth. So, it’s a messy kind of world behind the scenes, but it more or less works and certainly it’s been incredibly productive to push all the decision-making out into the community about these kinds of things.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And you use the word democratic, and it is democratic, but it’s a new way of being democratic. And it’s actually not the way our most visible democratic political processes work these days.
MR. WALES: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that we say at Wikipedia, one of our many sort of mysterious slogans is that “Wikipedia is not a democracy.” And what we mean by that is a simple vote doesn’t always carry the day.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: There are certain principles that are about improving the quality of the encyclopedia. The reason we say this is sometimes people in some sub community out there on the internet, they get very upset about something, and they say, “Oh, we’ll all rush into Wikipedia, and we’ll vote that the article should be the way we say it is.” And so suddenly you have 100 people show up to vote in a little mini-vote or a poll that people are taking, and then we say, yeah you know what? That’s not the way it works, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. WALES: At the end of the day, this is a dialogue and a discussion, and we need to stop and have a conversation about it. And yeah, it’s very different from our somewhat broken democratic process.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It’s so interesting. I mean, one thing — Seth Godin used this phrase when he talked about what he sees in Wikipedia, “The insane power of the well-organized crowd.”
MR. WALES: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Which — again, it takes the language of democracy to a slightly new 21st-century place.
MR. WALES: Well, yeah. I mean, I like that, “organized,” because a lot of what people refer to as online community in various places is not organized, and it’s atomistic is what I call it. So the classic kind of example is YouTube commenters because it’s just random people firing off whatever thought comes to their head, often abusive and not very nice. And an organized crowd is a group of people who are working together under a set of agreed principles for a common end, and hopefully doing that with a certain modicum of kindness to each other and thoughtfulness. And that is very special and has to be nurtured. It doesn’t happen automatically.
[music: “Brothers” by City of the Sun]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Brothers” by City of the Sun]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, who co-founded Wikipedia and has helped form it as a global community as much as a business venture. It’s a living organism with a mission statement to make “the sum of all human knowledge available to every person in the world,” and its core values include thoughtfulness, kindness, and mentoring. As I speak with Jimmy Wales, I’m intrigued by what Wikipedia has been learning in its 15 years that has resonance for our wider public life — about the imperfect but gratifying work of navigating truth amidst difference, ongoing learning, and dynamic belonging.
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about how kindness gets nurtured. And I love it that you call out that word, and the spectre that’s always in front of us now are the kind of cesspools comment sections, right?
MR. WALES: Mm.
MS. TIPPETT: Which I think lack any kind of nurturing or — I mean, it’s one of the issues about them. But talk about what it is that allowed you to create this ethos of a well-organized — it’s not just that it’s well-organized, right? It’s well-organized and it’s self-correcting, right? So how would you talk about what the ingredients are that has made Wikipedia such an open place? And yet, the level of discourse and even the ethos of kindness is such a contrast to a lot of other places where people comment and weigh in.
MR. WALES: Sure. Well, I mean, a piece of it is — and I don’t think we can minimize this — is software design because the design of software interacts with behavior in interesting ways. So, if I go to most newspaper comment sections, as a member of the community, I can’t join and gain any kind of longer-term say over how things are done. And indeed, if somebody posts an inflammatory comment there, the only thing I can really do is complain to the newspaper, which generally takes a long time. Unless it’s actually abuse, they aren’t going to be able to do anything about it.
Or I can yell back at the person and say, “Shut up, you’re being an idiot.” And then I’m accidentally joining in the nasty behavior. And so when you’ve got these kind of unmoderated forums, or slowly moderated places where the community doesn’t have genuine control of their environment, the software doesn’t let me do anything other than yell at people.
And if, as we have at Wikipedia, there’s a lot of different options. So if somebody posts an inflammatory comment, because our comment pages are just Wiki pages — they’re editable pages — anyone can come and delete a comment. And that happens quite often. If somebody comes and says something incredibly nasty, somebody else will just come along and just say — delete it and remark “removing personal attack.”
And that’s a public act itself. So again, if you’re not doing the right things, people will say, “Hey, you’re going around deleting perfectly nice comments. Why are you doing that?” And that kind of openness, the transparency about the actions, but also giving real control into the community. So at most websites, the only people who can ban people are employees. So employees of the newspaper read all the comments, and if somebody’s being really vile and abusive, they’ll block them.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALES: Well, in our case, that isn’t done in the main by employees at the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s done by the community, by trusted community members who’ve been elected and who are held accountable for how they do it. So it’s a lot of things like that that mean that, in addition to having a culture that says we want to have goodwill, we want to achieve quality work here, we also have the tools, that we have other options other than just yelling at people.
And hopefully, when we’re doing our job well, we do these things in good humor. So a classic kind of example of this is, it is very common for somebody who’s never edited a Wikipedia before to show up and replace an entire entry with a single curse word or something like this. Just because they can’t — their friend said, “Oh, did you know you can do this?” And they’re like, “Oh, no. What if I just did this? What would happen?”
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. WALES: And then hopefully instead of being blocked, what ideally happens — and it’s not always perfect — but somebody will say “revert your edit,” and then say, “Oh, thank you for your experiment. However, if you want to learn how to edit a Wiki, here’s some Sandbox pages where you can go and practice.” So, approaching people with a bit of good humor and saying, “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t really mean to replace the entire entry with a curse word. Maybe you’d like to join us and do something productive.” And oftentimes, that works. Newcomers — and in fact, lots of people say to me, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been a Wikipedia editor for a year.” “Oh, how’d you get started?” “Oh, well, I was a vandal.” [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MR. WALES: “I vandalized a page, and then people were nice to me, so I decided actually that wasn’t fun. So I thought I would just edit Wikipedia.”
MS. TIPPETT: Gosh, I knew this before I spoke with you, but it is really this kind of living — very living dynamic model of — it is a model of something, right? Of cultivation? Of growth? Of, like, mentoring? All these things.
MR. WALES: And it’s dynamic.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. WALES: And the thing is, it is a genuine community.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: Which with all of that means good and bad. And I think this is something that’s easy to miss, because as a reader, when you read Wikipedia, of course it’s written in this very authoritative, dry style, and you don’t get the sense that you’re interacting with a noisy and vibrant community. Until you dig in a little further, and then you go behind the scenes, and you see the people editing, and their discussions. And you go, “Oh, actually, I get this. There’s a lot of different people here and they’re having discussions, and that’s how it works.”
MS. TIPPETT: Mm. I was looking at Wikimedia just yesterday. It’s a really interesting collection of kinds of ways that this is out there in the world, impacting physical spaces, right? And lives. The teacher whose students can write a Wikipedia entry in lieu of a mid-term exam, which as you talk, I realize what that means is not just — it’s not just a writing exercise, right? Then they enter into this community of cultivation and really mentorship.
MR. WALES: Mm. Yeah, and sometimes that’s a really fantastic thing. And other times it’s actually been…
MS. TIPPETT: A pain?
MR. WALES: …problematic.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: So if a teacher wants to do that, we really encourage them to come and speak to the community, and we can help design the program. Because otherwise, it ends in tears. I remember there was a case where a university professor assigned all the students to go out and edit Wikipedia. And we sort of had this flood of entries about the garbage can on the corner of the street at the university campus and things like that. And then they were deleted immediately and blocked. And all the students felt sad because Wikipedians hated them.
But on the other hand, if it’s done well, and the students are given some training and explanation of — here’s the things that Wikipedians care about: they want you to use sources. They want you to be kind in your interactions. Don’t get upset. Have a good debate. Then I think it’s an incredibly valuable exercise.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s also one that caught my eye. It was an article by a community member on why I proofread poetry at Wikisource. And she used this language of it. “Poetry is the stuff of the soul. It speaks to the body, the mind, and the spirit alike.” And she had had some some hardship, and this process literally had been part of her healing. I don’t know, I wonder if you would have anticipated something like that when you started this.
MR. WALES: No, I wouldn’t have. And I think a lot of things like that, I hadn’t thought of. I mean, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have said, “Oh, no, that will never happen.”
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. WALES: It just didn’t occur to me.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: But I have seen it now many times, that people — they edit about a topic that is very personally meaningful to them, but also they edit and make new friends. And we’ve got a handful of Wikibabies these days.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] What does that mean?
MR. WALES: People who have met through editing Wikipedia and have gotten married and have babies.
MS. TIPPETT: Wow.
MR. WALES: So, there’s a few of those out there, and that’s kind of fun because that is a community. That’s people who know each other. And we have — people meet up. Sometimes, like, once a month they meet up in a bar, and have a few drinks, and discuss the latest things going on in their language. And so, yeah, it’s really something else to see.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And isn’t it interesting? Our media project is very, very tiny compared to yours, but my colleagues who’ve created the ethos in our digital space has also been able to create a, I say, a kind, generous, self-correcting — a place with an ethos. And — which a lot of people don’t think is possible, right? I’m sure you get this. People just don’t think that’s — they have the worst images in mind of digital spaces, and they think that it’s always going to be the lowest common denominator.
MR. WALES: Well, exactly. And this is where I think software design is so important. Because, in the main, if you go and read newspaper comments, you just weep for the future of humanity because it seems horrible. And you can really — people who work in those organizations, it can be very poisoning, because you think, “Right. Well, we’re here trying to write a quality newspaper, and it’s like a seething mass of idiots out there.”
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: Even though, at another level, they know that isn’t true. But just the online can bring out the worst in people. But it also — there’s still most people are perfectly decent. I mean, we all know this intuitively. You walk into any room anywhere, a restaurant, and you look around, and you just think basically these are all pretty nice people. And some of them will be annoying, but very rarely are people actively malicious. And yet online, you can get this sense of like, “Wow, this is really bad.”
MS. TIPPETT: But I also think there’s kind of a paradox that happens that when it works, when these digital communities are good and kind of calling people to their better selves, then this paradoxical thing happens that the people then do actually want to get together in the flesh. So I’m not sure we’re charting this, but all of these digital communities are also creating physical spaces and experiences in flesh and blood in the world.
MR. WALES: Mm. Yeah. I mean, it’s a great thing and I think there’s great possibilities for the future if we work hard to harness these tools, and to think about design, and to think about community and culture to encourage more of this kind of thing, more helpfulness, more usefulness, move away from the kind of, I would say, purely divisive and argumentative culture, which we see too often online, but also in the media and elsewhere.
And I see things — I mean, just some wonderful stories. I was in Kiev, Ukraine, during actually the worst of the conflict, and people there were very upset. Russia had just taken Crimea. And I did a little meet-up with the local Wikipedians, one of whom had been shot and killed in the protest on the Maidan. And they said to me, “Yeah, we’re having a lot of trouble. We’re half Russian language speakers, some people from Russian Wikipedia, a lot of the entries relating to the current situation. It’s very tense, and very emotional and difficult for people.”
And I suggested, “Well, why don’t you — can you visit each other? Can you talk to each other?” And so they did. They held a little mini-conference. And a bunch of Russian Wikipedians came down and met the Ukrainian Wikipedians. And it helped. Obviously, it didn’t solve the problems completely, but for me, those are the people, those are the heroes there who are saying — and their interest, actually, is not about resolving the broader conflict.
I mean, I think they do have an interest in that, but really, like, how do we write about this conflict in a way that is neutral, that is constructive, that helps people understand wherever they come down on the sides? That’s the kind of thing that I think is fantastic and heroic, and the kind of thing that we need more of in the world.
[music: “Perth” by Amiina]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with internet entrepreneur and Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales.
[music: “Perth” by Amiina]
MS. TIPPETT: As I said, you are invoked a lot in my life conversation. And then when I really decided, when I came back into the office on Monday and said, “OK, we have to try to get Jimmy Wales,” is when I heard you on NPR. It wasn’t that long ago. And the person who was interviewing you told you that one of their producers, in preparation for the interview, had planted some falsehoods on a Wikipedia page and that it was still there at the time of this interview. [laughs]
MR. WALES: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: And you had such a great response. Do you remember what you said?
MR. WALES: I think I said please don’t do that. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] But you also…
MR. WALES: Behave — go and fix that. Come on.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, you also said…
MR. WALES: What did I say?
MS. TIPPETT: You said something like — I don’t think it was the first time that it happened, and you said you always want to hold journalists accountable. You said it would be like reporting on a neighborhood that’s especially clean and orderly, and that — would you go in and create a mess? [laughs]
MR. WALES: To see if they cleaned it up.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, to see if they cleaned it up.
MR. WALES: Exactly. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But I do want to ask you about what you’ve learned through this adventure about truth. And so, I read one musician, and I know there are a million variations on this comment, somebody saying about his biography on Wikipedia, “I can say to you these are the facts, but they are not true.” And I wonder, what are you learning, what questions have arisen for you about this big philosophical question, the nature of truth, how it is discerned, how we tell it?
MR. WALES: Well, I mean, I think there’s a few things. So, one of the things that I think is interesting about Wikipedia is that I believe that truth is the recognition of the facts of reality. That it’s an objective theory of truth and that it’s really hard to get to. To do a good job of thinking, and a good job of sorting through fallacies, and sifting the evidence, and coming to truth is very hard.
But it is something that human beings can do, albeit imperfectly. And what’s interesting is that my view of truth actually doesn’t matter. A person who edits Wikipedia who thinks truth is highly a social construct or something, we can still edit together, as long as they agree that the social contract has to do with making noises about reliable sources and evidence. So then we’re OK.
And then the other thing that I think is really interesting about this is that how often it is possible for people who disagree fundamentally on some important issue, if they’re kind and thoughtful and they take a deep breath, can work together productively to describe that issue. So I always invite people to imagine a very kind and thoughtful Catholic priest and a very kind and thoughtful Planned Parenthood activist. And they’re working together on an entry about abortion, about which clearly they’re never going to agree.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: But yet, they can both agree to say, let’s present this fairly. So, the priest will understand Wikipedia can’t say abortion is a sin, but it can say the Catholic church position on abortion is this and such. And the Pope has said this. And critics have responded that. And together, they can work together to have something that they’re both proud of, where they can both point to it and say to people, “If you want to understand in a deep way the issue of abortion and where all the sides come down and what the debate is about, come and read this. We’ve worked together to produce this, and we both agree that it’s quite good.”
Like, that’s possible and is easier than you would have ever thought. Certainly, if we go back to internet commenting style or head-to-head talk show style, basically, people are in sort of violent disagreement, and they yell at each other, and nothing is resolved. But actually, if you step back a notch, or as we say, go meta, go one level higher — so don’t try to prove your side in the debate, just describe the debate — and do that in a fair way. It actually works. And in fact, that’s really what you want from an encyclopedia. I don’t want to go to an encyclopedia and hear one side of a contentious issue, even if it’s the side I agree with. I want to understand very deeply what the different parties have to say.
MS. TIPPETT: So, if I ask you this, how do you think about the relationship between facts and truth?
MR. WALES: Well, facts, meanings are what metaphysical states of affairs that exist in the world. And truth, meaning statements about those facts. And a true statement will correspond to those facts. So it’s very old fashioned and straightforward.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. But facts alone don’t necessarily create truth.
MR. WALES: No.
MS. TIPPETT: Right?
MR. WALES: Because I think truth, in this sense, truth meaning truth or falsity as an attribute of statements of other world of propositions, is inherently cognitive. If there were no minds attending to the facts of reality, there would be no truth or no falsehood because there’s no statements. And so that is complicated, isn’t it? [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I like that there are facts and — but then there’s the work of attending to the facts. And that discernment, that willingness to observe and put together becomes — is the move towards truth.
MR. WALES: And it’s a great human responsibility to think, and to really focus your mind and pay attention to the facts and understand the facts. And I think it’s important to do that with passion, but not on a primary basis of emotion because emotion can certainly cloud your ability to correctly identify what’s going on in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm. That’s great. So it’s interesting to me, on Wikimedia also there was a — I guess you have the “Extraordinary Picture of the Year” every year.
MR. WALES: Mm. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And so this year, it was — there were 1,300 pictures that had been considered. And of course, they were all stunning photographs. It was interesting to me because I do think of Wikipedia as a community of people and very kind of people-oriented. And that’s also what you’ve been talking about.
I noticed that all of these pictures are very transcendent in a way. They’re vast expanses of space, or just buildings that are transcendent like the interior of a mosque in Shiraz, Iran. There’s the old library of Trinity College, Dublin, which is almost like a cathedral of books, right? A metro station in Stockholm that looks like it’s kind of built into a cave. But — a sunrise, the Milky Way. [laughs]
MR. WALES: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: The Milky Way was a picture — there’s a woman, I think, and then the title is “Heavens Above Her.” I don’t have really a question to that. I just wanted to say I found that fascinating, the kind of transcendent, vast expanse of the images that came out of this process of Wikipedia. And I wondered if it says anything to you about what it is or what happens there.
MR. WALES: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because we do these photo contests, and they’re always amazing. And people submit amazing work. And I think it’s quite — what I would say about it is it’s quite aesthetic work. And what’s interesting about that is that you might think that the Wikipedians, being very obsessed with references and facts and very, very matter of fact and so on in our style and our thinking, might miss the poetry of the universe. And yet, these are the kinds of people, very intellectual, very passionate people who really appreciate amazing art and amazing work of photography, for example. Which is wonderful.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. WALES: It’s great. It’s exactly what you’d hope for.
MS. TIPPETT: I guess it also — and I may be completely projecting here — but I wonder if you’ve been describing a community that aspires to the good, essentially. That honors and actually resides on virtues like kindness, and generosity, and a willingness to listen. And I felt like these images also were all very aspirational, like it’s a grand vision of the larger context that we inhabit of space, and time, and our great art and architecture, and the natural world. I don’t know.
MR. WALES: Mm. Yeah. Well, I mean, I think, as you said in the beginning, it’s quite a grand idea — a free encyclopedia for everyone. So I think maybe the kinds of people who think in that way think globally, think about if every single person on the planet could have access to knowledge are also going to be quite moved by sort of grandiose imagery.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I would globally and cosmologically, really.
MR. WALES: [laughs] And cosmologically. Yes, exactly. And of course, within our community, we’re a bunch of geeks, a lot of science fiction geeks, so loving an amazing photo of the Milky Way obviously makes sense.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah. So, one way I think about the internet and I discuss it with people is everything it is that we talk about and fret about, and get excited about — essentially, it is, on some level, merely a new canvas for the old human condition. But we’re evolving on that canvas, right? It’s also taking us new places. So how do you think about what it is telling us about ourselves from where you sit, and where it might be taking us?
MR. WALES: Well, I mean, for me, I think one of the mistakes that people make is assuming that somehow that cyberspace, the digital world, is somehow fundamentally different and a break from the past. And in some ways, of course it is, just in the fact that we all have a piece of glass in our pockets, a phone, where we can communicate with the world and see everything. But we’re still human beings.
And we’re still effectively the same organisms as our predecessors 1,000 years ago, 2,000 years ago. And all of the kinds of problems and solutions that have evolved over those times still remain the same. And so we should think about, as a political example that we’ve been involved in, is mass surveillance. And the idea being put forward that, gee, now that we have the tool of the internet, that it’s somehow OK for the government to have mass surveillance of every single person, and all of their most intimate thoughts, and their details of their lives would be astonishing to people who fought so hard in the era of McCarthy, and who fought so hard for the civil liberties around privacy.
Because we’re still the same people. We still have the same rights that we’ve always had, to be treated as non-criminals, to be respected in our personal lives and personal space. And it is a mistake to say “Oh, well, yes. But now we have the internet. Everything’s different. Terrorists can use the internet to plan crimes.” Well, they could also plan crimes in the old days too, and they did.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s right.
MR. WALES: So we have to say the same kind of trade-offs that we’ve had to figure out painstakingly over a very long period of time still matter today.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So, here’s another kind of large, well, impossibly large question, but I just wonder how you would start to think about it today. How would you start to answer the question through this frontier you walked on, this thing you helped bring into the world, what have you learned — what are you learning about what it means to be human that you didn’t know before? That you’re only now being able to articulate or see?
MR. WALES: Well, I think one of the things that I — it’s not that I had it wrong, but that it had just never occurred to me, and now is incredibly obvious to me — is that people all over the world are in many, many, many, most fundamental ways, in the most fundamental ways, the same.
And a lot of what goes on in an environment where we’re concerned about terrorism, and we’re concerned about clashes of cultures, can overlook that fact that I’ve met ordinary Wikipedians from all around the world, and they laugh at the same kind of jokes, and they do the same kinds of things. They care about the same kinds of things. Everybody wants safety. Everybody wants security. Everybody wants to have some fun. Everybody wants to have a meaningful work to do in their lives. All of these things are the same. And that’s not to say that the differences are nonexistent, or unimportant.
And in fact, they are different and important. And we do have to deal with that and cope with the ways that ideology cause people to behave in ways that are violent and so forth. But we shouldn’t do it by imagining that great swathes of the planet are just the other, and the unreformable, and so different from us that we can never get along because that’s just not true.
[music: “Initiate” by GoGo Penguin]
MS. TIPPETT: Jimmy Wales is the co-founder of Wikipedia and chair emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation.
[music: “Initiate” by GoGo Penguin]
STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Kloecker, and Selena Carlson.
MS. TIPPETT: And this week, we say goodbye to our wonderful colleagues Aseel Zahran, Annie Parsons, and Annie’s beloved dog, Foxy.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners are:
The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at Fordfoundation.org.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build a spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined
And, the Osprey Foundation – a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.