Founder explains impact of Wikipedia

Speech seeks to address theme of ‘Democracy and the Internet’

| Executive Editor

Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, addresses the Washington University community in a mostly filled Graham Chapel on Friday evening. Wales delivered the keynote address of the Global Leadership Conference, a speech that was also part of the Assembly Series.

Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, addresses the Washington University community in a mostly filled Graham Chapel on Friday evening. Wales delivered the keynote address of the Global Leadership Conference, a speech that was also part of the Assembly Series.

The keynote address of the first Global Leadership Conference at Washington University turned into a joke-telling session very quickly.

“I’m basically some guy on the Internet who spent the whole day today completely geeking out in my hotel room editing Wikipedia,” Jimmy Wales said to open his address. He launched the online encyclopedia in 2001 along with co-founder Larry Sanger.

Wales’ speech, titled “Democracy and the Internet,” began with an explanation of Wikipedia’s mission of spreading the sum of human knowledge worldwide.

The remainder of the speech addressed how Wikipedia developed into the fifth most visited site in the U.S. from a humorous angle. Wales addressed a mostly full Graham Chapel on Friday evening in a speech that was also part of the Assembly Series.

The site currently offers more than 16 million articles in more than 270 languages. Posts in English account for more than 3.5 million articles, and more than a million posts have also been created in French and German. The encyclopedia receives more than 408 million unique visits a month, according to comScore, a company that monitors internet traffic.

“Wikipedia tends to be very similar in all of the languages. There is a certain geek culture that transcends national culture, so we are really strong in ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ everywhere in the world,” Wales said. “Things that geeky, smart people are into tend to be very well covered.”

Initial studies into the workings of the encyclopedia revealed that popular culture, geography, sex and local news are the most researched topics on Wikipedia.

“The Germans are the most interested in geography. Just saying,” Wales said. “Sex is in the top topics in every language here except for in French and Spanish, and I thought this was kind of puzzling until someone explained to me that it’s because the French and Spanish are actually having sex, and everyone else is just reading about it.”

The world’s most popular encyclopedia is written and edited by hundreds of thousands of users worldwide while internal operations of the site are managed by around 70 employees that staff the Wikimedia Foundation’s office. The nonprofit foundation is set to open a second office in India to assist users in developing posts for the various languages spoken there.

The editors of Wikipedia are 87 percent male and have an average age of 26, both of which Wales acknowledged were an area of concern.

“There are barriers to editing Wikipedia that exclude not just women but exclude all kinds of people who are not as tech savvy,” Wales said. “We are plagued a little bit with young males sort of hollering at each other, but we do try to have a very friendly, welcoming culture….Wikipedia is written in a very authoritative style, and men have no problem speaking in an authoritative style about things they know nothing about.”

Toward the end of the speech, Wales addressed the growing role of Wikipedia as a news source.

“[For] people today who are coming up in the next generation, Wikipedia is going to be something that is always there and is the default standard way we go to get information. That means that we have an enormous responsibility at Wikipedia within our community to be open, to be transparent, to be accountable, and above all, to be very high quality, to be as good as we possibly can be,” he said.

In order to ensure this quality, volunteers filter through posts to identify any unsubstantiated information.

The website is rarely asked to censor any of its content, according to Wales, though the site has been completely blocked in China three times since 2004. The Chinese government currently blocks posts to issues that it deems controversial to the regime, such as Taiwanese independence and the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize by Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist who has called for a transition to democracy.

Wales sees Wikipedia as a portal for collecting verifiable information, and he sees a need for future collaboration between professional journalists and Wikipedians as society shifts to online news markets. Wikipedia currently receives more visits per month than readers of the world’s 20 most popular newspapers combined.

Wales, 44, received a bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University and enrolled in two Ph.D. programs but never finished his dissertation. He previously worked as a financial trader before making the transition to website development.

His first project,, launched in 1996 and became a search engine frequented by male users to search for “adult material.” Wales then launched Nupedia, an encyclopedia with articles written by professionals, before launching Wikipedia in 2001. Wikipedia was first managed through Bomis but has been run by the Wikimedia Foundation since 2003.

As Wikipedia continues to grow, the site hopes to reach more than a billion people per year and hopes that it is used more in developing markets like China, where “Wikipedia” may be more well known for being listed as an ingredient on translated Chinese menus in Beijing than as a source of information.

“We think they just had somebody translating who just said, ‘How do we such and such in English?’ Look at Wikipedia,” Wales said. “Even if we may not ever make it into the top 10 of websites in China, maybe we do have a business model there. Maybe we should open a restaurant.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.