By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
You might not know who Jimmy Wales is, but there’s a good chance he’s won or lost a bet for you. Or told you everything you ever wanted to know about DNA sequencing. Or instantly identified that actress you never can seem to remember. All while admitting he’s not a completely reliable source.
In today’s dizzying technocosm where game-changers seemingly materialize every time you refresh your browser, Wales’s Wikipedia has remained perhaps the most comprehensive, collaborative and ecumenical.
And persistent. After nearly 20 years, it’s now a given that his little Florida-born brainchild will pop up on your screen just about every time you go a-googling — to the tune of being the world’s fifth-most-visited website.
Wales, the Wiki wunderkind who on March 12 will kick off this year’s Broward College Speaker Series, is either Wikipedia’s founder or co-founder — depending on whether or not you accept his argument (more on that later). There is no argument, however, about how closely the internet visionary’s venture has come to realizing his vision for it.
“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” Wales has said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
“As with any encyclopedia, you should go to Wikipedia for background knowledge only,” he cautions. “It is a work in progress and subject to change, but for the most part, people find it reasonably accurate.”
Reasonably accurate or not, Wikipedia is the world’s largest encyclopedia. With at least 52 million articles in 309 languages, including well over six million in English, it holds over 85 times as many words as the online Encyclopædia Britannica. It continues to resist advertising, and despite recent in-site appeals for donations, it’s completely free.
It wasn’t that way back in 1996 when Wikipedia’s embryonic journey began in St. Petersburg with Wales’s for-profit startup, Bomis, which he euphemistically describes as a “guy-oriented search engine.” Bomis begat Nupedia, a free online encyclopedia minus the Wiki crowdsourcing component. Wikipedia was created to be Nupedia’s for-profit content-provider before evolving into the open-sourced, free format run by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, formed in St. Pete in 2003.
Wales’s online phenom dwarfed his under-the-radar, offline persona in the Tampa Bay area, and Wikimedia moved to San Francisco four years later.
“They keep asking me if the tech community here did something to offend me, but I don’t know any of them,” Wales said before the move. “I know more people in London than I do here. Like the great artists Jerry Lewis and David Hasselhoff, I’m only appreciated overseas.”
Since then, the 53-year-old Wales has become a bona fide Web celeb who’s accrued quite a bit more appreciation — and, yes, critics — as well as an encyclopedic CV’s worth of accomplishments, accolades, causes and controversies. Now, in our efforts here to become better acquainted with the man, it’d be downright rude of us to ignore his own, voluminous Wikipedia entry, wouldn’t it? So, pull on your boots and let’s go foraging for fun facts in the dense wordscape of the Wiki world of Jimmy Wales:
— Wales’s real name is Jimmy, not James. He’s known to Wikipedians as “the God-King,” but prefers to be called Jimbo, his moniker on his separate Wikipedia User Page. There he exclaims the Wiki ethos: “You can edit this page! Really, you can! If you would like to, please feel free to do so. Make an edit – or even several! After all, that’s what Wikipedia is all about! I trust you.”
- Historically credited with co-founding Wikipedia in 2001 with Larry Sanger, Wales has disputed this and declared himself the sole founder.Sanger is credited, however, with coining the name — a fusion of the Hawaiian word for “quick”and “encyclopedia.”
- Born in Huntsville, Ala., little Jimmy enjoyed reading — especially the World Book Encyclopedia his mother bought from a door-to-door salesman. Wales eventually realized there was a lot his revered World Book lacked. The encyclopedia would send out stickers for owners to paste on its entries, and Wales would comply. “I joke that I started as a kid revising the encyclopedia by stickering the one my mother bought,” he says.
- As the site’s public face, Wales earned a spot in the “Scientists & Thinkers” section of Time’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2006. He was still being recognized for his Wiki work 11 years later, receiving the President’s Medal of the British Academy.
- Initially unsure of the concept by which anyone could edit the encyclopedia, Wales says he’d awaken during the night to monitor what was being added.
- “The news is broken,” Wales said in 2017. “But we figured out how to fix it.” The fix was among the most recent of Wales’s litany of enterprises: an ad-free global news platform called WikiTribune that was a blend of traditional journalism and crowdsourcing. But most of WikiTribune’s staff was laid off a year later, and last year WikiTribune was made a redirect to Wales’s new social network, WT: Social.
- Wales has lived in London since 2012, when he married his third wife, Kate Garvey. He has three daughters.
- The last line of Wales’s Wiki entry offers a rare personal glimpse into his analog side: “Privately, Wales is a passionate cook. He cooks often, and, by his own account, quite well.”
IF YOU GO
Wales will speak at 7:30 p.m. March 12 in the Amaturo Theater at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $55-$65 and can be purchased at BrowardCollegeSpeakerSeries.com