Why Wikipedia co-founder isnt an internet billionaire despite websites $5-bn value

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jun 29 2013, 07:57am hrs
According to Wikipedia, the Tampa International Airport is a public airport six miles west of downtown Tampa, in Hillsborough County, Florida. Its also where Jimmy Wales flies in and out of a couple times a month, in coach, to visit his 12-year-old daughter, Kira, who is named after the protagonist in Ayn Rands anti-communist novel, We the Living. Kira lives with Waless ex-wife in a ranch-style home not far from the strip mall where Wales, along with a handful of colleagues he generally no longer speaks to, ran Wikipedia a decade ago. The original Florida address for one of the internets most life-changing innovations is now a UPS store with a faded red awning.

That was Wales old life. In his new one, he lives in London with Kate Garvey, his third wife, whom he often describes as the most connected woman in London. Garvey doesnt have a Wikipedia page, but if she did, it would probably note that she was Tony Blairs diary secretary at 10, Downing

Street and then a director at Freud Communications, the public relations firm run by Matthew Freud, a great-grandson of Sigmund Freud, who is also Rupert Murdochs son-in-law. And that Blair, in his 2010 memoir, wrote that Garvey ran his schedule with a grip of iron and was quite

prepared to squeeze the balls very hard indeed of anyone who interfered.

Wales has a complicated time balancing his new life with his old one. That was evident one morning this winter as he bounded into the lobby of the West End building where he rented office space and hurriedly signed himself in at the front desk. Wales was 45 minutes late, dishevelled and a little frantic. He had left the keys to his and Garveys Marylebone apartment at his place outside Tampa; the nanny, here in London, was stranded with the couples 2-year-old daughter. I forgot to drop off the key, he said. Just when Wales thought he might have to run home, his assistant, who is based in Florida, texted that a building manager had let the nanny in. Global child-care crisis averted.

Wikipedia is built as a wiki a website that allows users to collectively create, add and edit content and more than a million people have edited at least one entry. But the veracity and updating of its more than 24 million encyclopedia entries relies largely on an army of more than 80,000 dedicated volunteers known as the community. This global collection of grass-roots volunteers makes for a collectively brilliant creation, but it can also lead to online hysteria and edit wars over minutia like how to categorise hummus. They love it in Israel, so shouldnt it be in Category: Israeli cuisine one editor wrote on a Wikipedia page called Lamest Edit Wars. Or is it a purely Arab food that Zionists have illegally occupied

Though Wales no longer runs the day-to-day operations of Wikipedia travelling the world giving talks on free speech and internet freedom he still spends an inordinate amount of time interacting with, and thinking about, the community. Wales, or Jimbo as he is called, is the person the community turns to when disputes are not settled in their online arbitration committees. Wales may not speak Turkish or know much about Turkey, but he is the BDFL, or the Benevolent Dictator for Life.

Wikipedia, which is now available in 285 languages, gets more than 20 billion page views and roughly 516 million unique visitors a month. It is the fifth-most-visited website in the world behind Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook; and ahead of Amazon, Apple and eBay. Were Wikipedia to accept banner and video ads, it could, by most estimates, be worth as much as $5 billion. But that kind of commercial sell-out would probably cause the members of the community, who are not paid for their contributions, to revolt. The paradox, says Michael Wolf, managing director at Activate, a technology consulting firm in New York and a member of the Yahoo board, is that what makes Wikipedia so valuable for users is what gets in its way of becoming a valuable, for-profit enterprise.

Wales suffers from the same paradox. Being the most famous travelling spokesman for internet freedom brings in a decent living, but its not Silicon Valley money. Its barely London money. Wales total net worth, by most estimates, is just above $1 million, including stock from his for-profit company Wikia, a wiki-hosting service. His income is a topic of constant fascination. Type Jimmy Wales into Google and net worth is the first pre-emptive search to pop up. Everyone makes fun of Jimmy for leaving the money on the table, says Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia.

One of the amazing things about Wikipedia is how it has emboldened anonymous volunteers with the same power as established experts. In many ways, Wales has been similarly emboldened. He grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of a teacher and a retail manager, before he left to study finance at Auburn University. At 20, he married Pamela Green, whom he met when he worked at an Alabama grocery store. Later, he worked briefly as a trader in Chicago where he met his second wife, Christine Rohan, a steel trader.

In 1996, he co-founded Bomis, a search engine that came with a Bomis Babe Report, a blog with photos of scantily clad celebrities and porn stars. He and Rohan moved to San Diego to get in on the internet boom. (In 2005, Wales objected on his Wikipedia page to an entry that said Bomis peddled porn. The mature audience [NOT pornography] portion of the business is significantly less than 10% of total revenues, he told the community.) Porn or not, Bomis profits financed Wales side project, Nupedia, an online encyclopedia with peer-reviewed entries by experts and academics that served as the predecessor to Wikipedia.

Wales was obsessed with the idea of an online encyclopedia that anyone could edit. He had grown up reading his parents collection of World Book encyclopedias with stickers that marked updated entries, and in graduate school he developed an interest in the burgeoning open-source software movement that allowed programmers to collaborate. As Nupedia floundered and his business partners tried to expand Bomis, Wales saw a potentially larger cultural experiment in a free open-sourced encyclopedia and devoted almost all of his attention to it. In January 2001, he registered the domain names www.wikipedia.org and www.wikipedia.com. The project went live on January 15, 2001, henceforth known as Wikipedia Day.

At first, Wikipedia was a hand-to-mouth operation. Wales, who relocated with Rohan to St Petersburg, Florida, for cheap real estate, would hand deliver a cheque from Bomis to keep Wikipedias servers running. In those early days, Wales still thought he could turn his free encyclopedia into a billion-dollar idea.

The internet bubble had burst before Wales could implement a revenue-generating business model for Wikipedia. After the crash, he was stuck with an oddity a popular but penniless online encyclopedia run by volunteers likely to reject the idea of advertising. But as Wikipedia grew, Wales undertook a shrewd branding transformation. In June 2003, he set up a non-profit foundation to run the operation.

Wikipedia expresses the very essence of the internet, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, said. Used to be the victors wrote history. Now everyone gets a chance.