SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Is it possible for any of us to get through the day without looking up something on Wikipedia? We've all gotten used to this whole idea of knowledge at our fingertips. What's the capital of Pakistan? Google it. Need a thorough article on the life of George Washington? Go to Wikipedia. The encyclopedia began as a community project. And in those early days, it was plagued by factual errors and charges of bias. That was 15 years ago. Wikipedia now has millions of articles tended to by largely anonymous writers and editors. It's grown up. Jimmy Wales is one of the founders of Wikipedia. He's the man who keeps asking us for $3. He joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.
JIMMY WALES: Oh, thanks for having me on.
SIMON: What's changed in 15 years?
WALES: Well, obviously, things are a lot bigger. I would say things are much more global. We're seeing a lot of growth in the languages of the developing world, which is something that's very near and dear to my heart because our goal is to have a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet. But on the other hand, some things haven't changed at all. The central concept of Wikipedia is just the same as it always ever was.
SIMON: And that is?
WALES: What we've always said is the vision statement is imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. And that's what we're doing. That's what we're working.
SIMON: You don't have advertising, though.
WALES: No advertising. We're a charity. We're a nonprofit organization. We get money from all those $3 out there. Over two million people donate every year. The backbone, the vast majority of the money, is the small donors.
SIMON: You must have been tempted over the years to run a few ads. I can't imagine how much money that might be for you.
WALES: No, I mean, we've never really considered it. You know, people say do you ever think about it? And I say, only 'cause reporters ask me all the time. But in terms of our internal board meetings and things like that, it's not even a topic that comes up. We're very happy being who we are.
SIMON: According to Wikipedia's Wikipedia page, hundreds of thousands of visitors add and/or edit content every day. No qualifications necessary. How do you keep that from going horribly wrong?
WALES: (Laughter) Well, it really does depend on having a strong community of people who know each other and who monitor things and vet things. We're always open to new people coming in. We're always looking for good writers. But a lot of people have the idea of Wikipedia as, you know, 100 million people adding one sentence each. But really the bulk of the work is done by the core community. And these are people who, by now, some of them have more than a decade of experience writing an encyclopedia, working in this community environment. And they do a great job.
SIMON: I have tell you, Mr. Wales, this week, just to be puckish, one of our producers went into my Wikipedia entry and said I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. I, rather famously, was born in Chicago. Now, I know this is a stunt, but it's still there.
WALES: Well, it won't be as soon as we air this.
WALES: And we always say...
SIMON: But does that demonstrate something that should concern you?
WALES: Yeah, I mean, we don't like it when that happens. We like it when things are monitored very quickly. Things do sometimes slip through the cracks. They're normally corrected quite quickly. I always do slightly chastise journalists. If you - being from Chicago, if you heard about this amazing neighborhood in a rough part of Chicago where the community had decided to get together and clean the streets every morning on their way to work and you wanted to write a story about that or broadcast about that, you probably wouldn't go into the neighborhood and dump some trash around just to see what they do, so tisk, tisk.
SIMON: Oh, oh, I think I consider myself reprimanded then.
SIMON: I know you've been concerned about the fact that - I believe the figure I've seen is 9 out of 10 of the contributors to Wikipedia are still men.
WALES: Yeah, I think 85 percent. Different surveys - you know, we don't really have 100 percent reliable numbers, but we do know that it is the vast majority. And it is something that we consider a problem. One of the things we know is that people tend to write about things that they're really passionate about, things that they know about. And the fact that our community is largely made up of tech geek-oriented men means that there are a lot of types of entries that don't get enough attention. And we really want to have more diversity in the community because we believe that it brings more quality.
SIMON: I have a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old. And we tell them to be careful about using Wikipedia for their homework. I wonder what you tell your children.
WALES: I mean, that's exactly right. I mean, I think we've moved beyond the error when people would say to the kids don't use Wikipedia. It's, you know, it's not very good. It's full of errors. And now we say, look, here's how to use Wikipedia. First thing - particularly ages 9 and 12 - I think one of the first lessons you want to say is you can't just copy your homework out of Wikipedia because your teacher reads Wikipedia too and you're going to get caught. (Laughter) So, look, there's sources at the bottom. Wikipedia follows, you know, traditional academic traditions of citing their sources. And if something seems a little suspect, you should go and check and read the sources. There's a lot that kids can learn from Wikipedia, including, I think, what is one of the most important moral lessons of Wikipedia, which is that we all have a right to participate in the public conversation and in the, you know, the grand project of understanding the world. And, you know, knowledge isn't always just handed down from on high. We can all participate in it.
SIMON: Jimmy Wales, who co-founded Wikipedia 15 years ago, thanks so much for being with us.
WALES: Thanks for having me.
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