Jimmy Wales: Why the recession won't kill digital media

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Jimmy Wales, the self-made guru of mass content and co-founder and chair of Wikia, Inc., is many things: A founding father of the open-source movement, a visionary internet entrepreneur, a tech pundit, and a media darling. The founder of Wikipedia has managed to -- for the most part -- stay above the backbiting that characterized the online encyclopedia as it mushroomed into the unstoppable arbiter of truth, usurping the mantle of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Save the date! Hear more from Jimmy Wales during his keynote presentation at ad:tech San Francisco. April 21-23. Register today for ad:tech San Francisco.

With a bundle earned through options trading, Wales became a very early dot-com player, co-founding Bomis, an internet portal, in 1996. Bomis found its niche in erotica and adult content, making enough revenue from ads and paid subscriptions for premium X-rated content to support a few more intellectual sites.

One of those Bomis-funded projects was Nupedia, a stab at an online encyclopedia that Wales founded in 2000 with a single employee, Larry Sanger. At first, Nupedia followed the principles of academic journals, with an author submitting work that was then passed around for peer review, a process that seemed glacial in the dot-com boomtime. Things took off in 2001, when they launched Wikipedia, an experimental version using the wiki platform, which lets multiple people write and edit a page at the same time.

Jimmy Wales is co-founder and chair of Wikia, Inc.

In fact, Wikipedia was an early example of what has become the dominant model for internet content: Provide free tools for user-generated content, let the public have at it, and automatically place ads everywhere. However, Wikipedia, known for its snooty approach to contributions, has remained pure, forgoing advertising revenue and relying on donations. In 2003, Wales set up the Wikimedia foundation, a not-for-profit organization, and gave the foundation full and sole interest in Wikipedia.

Next, Wales co-founded Wikia, a venture-funded, for-profit company that's a more wild and wooly version of Wikipedia. If Wikipedia was a controlled experiment in user-generated content, with Wikia, Wales now aims to enable personal publishing on a similarly grand but less rigid scale.

On Wikia, individuals or groups can own their own wikis -- and ads appear all over the place. Wikia has more than 1 million pages of content in 70 languages, created by 350,000 or so registered users.
In 2008, the company launched WikiaSearch, a user-edited search platform. In February 2009, it got serious about ad sales, hiring Bob Huseby for the new position of senior vice president and publisher. He's tasked with creating sponsorship packages for consumer brands to integrate their messaging into the various Wikia communities.

Much-recognized for his contributions to internet culture and the information economy, Wales remains chief spokesman for Wikia, as he helps guide the future direction of the information economy. He's a fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and a member of the board of directors of Creative Commons.

At the same time, as chair of Wikia, he's grappling with the same business-model conundrums as thousands of other publishing executives.

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Comments

Gregory Kohs
Gregory Kohs March 31, 2009 at 3:08 PM

Susan, we need to revisit the "standards of business reporting", such as not swallowing hook, line, and sinker the tall tales that profiteers may tell.

Jimmy Wales told you:

iMedia: Any updates on WikiaSearch?

Wales: I have my team focused on the front end, working on the user experience, and making sure we have all the wiki-like tools people need to work on the site. We're just cranking away.

CNET (today) tells me that Wikia Search is shutting down:

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-10207896-2.html

I told you on Page 1 of this column that you've been had. You replied with nods to the "standards of business reporting and the ethos of capitalism". Are you beginning to see the light? Are you able to see the light?

Gregory Kohs
Gregory Kohs March 28, 2009 at 11:12 AM

It occurs to me that some further reading might help people interested in this subject learn more about the "ethos of capitalism" that Kuchinskas mentions in the comment above. The piece appeared in The Guardian (and was editorially reviewed, so it is to be trusted):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/sep/25/wikipedia.internet

Gregory Kohs
Gregory Kohs March 27, 2009 at 2:47 PM

Or that we have higher standards than liars and frauds...

Susan Kuchinskas
Susan Kuchinskas March 27, 2009 at 12:24 PM

Hi, Gregory. First, neither Wales nor his PR handler said anything about his title to me, let alone demanded anything. I am aware that there is controversy about the founder designation and credit for Wikipedia. According to the standards of business reporting and the ethos of capitalism, the fact that Wales started and funded the project makes him the founder.

This article is about advertising, not about the origins of Wikipedia -- which has been beaten to death. I did credit Sanger as employee #1, and moved on.

Re things like Wikipedia taking the place of professionally authored content, as someone who makes their living as a journalist, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I too prefer information that is carefully prepared according to standards -- and I'd like to continue to get paid for such. Which may just be tough luck for me and you.

We can bemoan the supremacy of user-generated content, but that just makes us oooold. Or at least, old-fashioned.

Gregory Kohs
Gregory Kohs March 27, 2009 at 11:57 AM

It's kind of tough to read past words #2 and #3, "Wikipedia founder". Laughable. Did Jimbo demand that you label him as such? Did he ask that Dr. Larry Sanger's name (you know, the guy who brought the wiki software to the encyclopedia table, the guy who named "Wikipedia", and the guy who acted as its editor-in-chief for the formative period) be firmly tied to the label "employee"?

As millions of dollars and thousands of jobs are disappearing at encyclopedias and newspapers, and we lose our professionally-rendered culture of information, what has it been replaced with? Wikipedia? Wikia? How much have they added to the economy?

When journalists have their blinders on and their star-struck spectacles focused on their subjects, the readers are not served. Sorry to be a wet blanket, Ms. Kuchinskas, but...

You've been had.