Interview with Jimmy Wales

wikipediaOpenBusiness interviewed Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, which is perhaps the best example for what Yochai Benkler calls commons based peer production. Thousands of volunteers have contributed in building the biggest encylcopledia on planet earth. Interestingly so a small core of contributors of less than ten percent produce the majority of articles. It seems that also collaborative models re-produce some forms of hierarchy. OpenBusiness spoke to Jimmy as part of its interview series with thinkers about emerging open forms of doing business. Even though Wikipedia is not a business Jimmy transferred his experiences into starting a business called Wikia which relies also entirely on volunteers, but attracts advertising revenue. OpenBusiness will follow up on this when it meets Jimmy Wales at the iCommons Summit in Rio de Janeiro in two weeks.

OpenBusiness looks at how free services emerging on the internet
and free content distributed can be sustained. Wikipedia is built
through volunteers – so the production is costless – but you have
other costs (for servers etc) – how can you finance those?

Jimmy: The vast majority of our support come from donations of $50-$100 or
50€-100€. This has proven to be adequate for our needs.

There is lots of talk about web 2.0 services – many of them do not
seem to have a business model – what advise would you give those
people to build a service that can survive?

Jimmy: If you build something useful, you can find a way to survive. :)

If I look at WP it seems to me that a relatively large project can
survive through extreme decentralization and reduce its running costs
enormously, yet it can actually support the living of a small number
of employees. Does WP pay any employees?

Jimmy: We have 3 full-time employees and one part-time employee. We have 2
fulltime programmers, and I have a fulltime assistant. We also have an
intern in the office working part time.

Would you think this is a sort of business model? You
create a platform which supports a useful service – for free – to a
large number of people, yet you find ways to either support through
the community, or donations the living of a small core of employees?

Jimmy: It is a business model which applies to Wikipedia, but which probably
does not apply to many other things. We are unique in our charitable
mission.
If yes, would you think that this heralds a new form of business,
which in many regards does not resemble old business models at all?
Look at something like GoogleMaps – it again provides a platform, but
is free to use….

I view such services as GoogleMaps as being similar to “branding” for
Google. It brings people to google who will then like the Google brand
and use their other services (search) which are highly lucrative.

Could you tell us what you have learned through Wikipedia about
management styles, which are conducive to such a project and are
presumably very different to industrial type organization management
styles?

Jimmy: Working with volunteers is entirely unlike management in the traditional
sense. I can not tell anyone to do anything, I can only encourage,
motivate, guide. But at the same time, I do not need to do much
managing, because the volunteers are extremely smart and motivated and
manage themselves!

It seems that you have found an excellent model for the production
of high quality content – which certainly challenges, or might even
destroy the publishing model used for the Encyclopedia Britannica -
where will this leave the publishers? Are you destroying thousands of
jobs?

Jimmy: I have no idea, nor do I care.

I just spoke to publishers and authors – they are afraid of new
ideas such as Wikipedia and GooglePrint. Its a real question: what
happens if we move further into a world of free content – how do these
people get paid? Any ideas?

Jimmy: I have no opinion about this. If the old firms cannot compete, they
need to find something else to do.

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