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

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iMedia: Wikipedia became a huge social force and is, arguably, one of the most important results of the open-source movement, along with Linux. Can you think of some examples of how the Wikipedia ethos has influenced other aspects of society or business?

Wales: We're beginning to see a changed understanding about the quality of work that communities are able to do by working together. For a long time, we had a false dichotomy between the top-down editing model versus wild-and-crazy bloggers that nobody was editing. We're now starting to realize hybrid models into a radical free-speech platform that's thoughtful and responsible. That ethos is starting to spread into other media areas.

iMedia: Wikipedia is user-generated content that is carefully edited and managed on a non-profit site. Wikia is more of a mass content play. Why do we need both?

Wales: They're completely different. If you imagine walking into a library, the encyclopedia is a set of 30 volumes, a very specific type of reference work. Now imagine all the other types of books in the library. That's Wikia.

iMedia: Hasn't Wikipedia, as well as social media in general, made the encyclopedia model irrelevant?

Wales: Not at all. If you look in Wikipedia under Muppets, you'll find about 300 different categories, whereas Wikia has nearly 20,000 articles about the Muppets. For example, there's an article about Ford Motors in Wikipedia that covers the company history, current management, sales, etc. It doesn't talk at all about the fact that once Kermit was on a commercial; that's the only thing the Muppets Wikia people care about.

iMedia: If you were starting Wikipedia today, would you do anything different?

Wales: No. Obviously, we learned a lot over the last eight years. But by and large, I'm very pleased with how it turned out.

iMedia: What learning from Wikipedia translated to Wikia?

Wales: We hired people from Wikipedia who have deep community expertise and understand how to help people function well in the wiki environment. You have to be really sincere about giving the community control. If you do that, it empowers people to do great things.

iMedia: What things are very different?

Wales: We have a lot more programmers, more staff -- we're able to hire because we have investment money. We're pushing for tools to make it easier for people to edit, in order to bring in a wider audience of editors. Also, because we are very much topic-based, if, for example, there's going to be a release of a new video game that we know will be a great wiki, we'll start feeding it and give very strong support to that young community. Wikipedia doesn't have that.

iMedia: This kind of feeding would be for wikis that have strong ad potential?

Wales: Sure. We're an ad-supported website. We depend on page views, and to do that we need to foster community in things people are very interested in.

iMedia: What's the set-up for selling ads on Wikia?

Wales: We have a direct sales force selling ads. On some sites we don't have enough volume, so we partner with Google. We're just beginning the process of working on some of the sponsorship concepts. Some areas we've seen to be effective are doing skins, takeovers, things that are a little bit more about engaging the core community. We have a big proportion of the influencer community, especially games.

iMedia: Are you considering any of the ad models from Facebook or MySpace?

Wales: That's an interesting question. The model for those companies is still very much emerging. I believe that one of the problems we've had on the internet is we've gone down the rat hole of direct response marketing and ignored possibilities of branding. Part of the reason is, because internet advertising is measurable, we focused way too much on those kinds of metrics. We're more interested in branding. I believe Facebook and most internet platforms that are not search will increasingly turn to brand advertising and brand experience.

We're also considering the idea of having [advertisers] sponsor features of the software on the site. We always introduce new features. For example, we've been working on a better printing functionality. So that could be sponsored by a printing company.

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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:


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):


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.