The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia Foundation

February 03, 2021

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales joins us for a thrilling chat about what we can learn from social media and what’s anti-social about a lot of social media today. Jimmy has recently launched the the social network WT.Social, designed to as a non-addictive, thoughtful online space, and has lots of thoughts about the type of communities that we might be able to start cultivating online.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I'm Ethan Zuckerman. With me is Jimmy Wales. He's a man who really needs no introduction, but I'm going to try to do a little bit. Jimmy is best known for Wikipedia and the Wikimedia foundation, an extraordinary set of projects celebrating their 20th anniversary. He's worked on a number of projects since then, including Wikia, including Wiki Tribune, and now WT Social, all of which in many ways, I think, we can think of as ways to address underlying challenges of what's going on on the internet. Jimmy is one of my heroes. I think he's a hero to a lot of people who care about the open internet. Jimmy, we are so glad that you were able to join us from your house in the English countryside.

Jimmy Wales:

Thank you very much. I'm a little embarrassed by that introduction, but it's very kind of you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, it's wonderful to have you with us. As we've been talking on the show, we're really talking about alternatives to the standard commercial model that runs so much of the internet, and you really are one of the people who've pioneered an alternative model. Wikipedia celebrated its 20th anniversary just a couple of days ago. Can I get you to reflect for a moment on what are you proudest of? What do you feel the best about, looking at that remarkable milestone?

Jimmy Wales:

Well, there's a few things that I think I'm really proud of. Obviously, the result of Wikipedia, i.e. the encyclopedia itself, is pretty remarkable. We're one of the most popular websites in the world and famous all over the world with millions and millions of entries of generally okay quality, and some of them quite excellent, and some of them need some work. That's the nature of Wikipedia. I'm also very proud of the community. I'm proud of my role in that community in the sense of, I didn't write this encyclopedia, but I did play a part. I'm happy about that community and the values that we put in place in the early days of thoughtfulness, kindness, quality. One of the oldest rules of Wikipedia, which I remember writing, was no personal attacks, which is quite rare on the internet, as we know. That's kind of amazing.

Then there's also the business model, so to speak, in the sense not just that we're a nonprofit organization, because I think that that's a piece of it, but also that we don't get money by selling data, we don't get money by having ads. We just ask people to support us, and that's it, and it works. That's kind of an amazing thing. I'm sure we'll get into this in great detail, but it has a lot of implications that people might not have thought about, and in fact, indeed from the early days of Wikipedia, I didn't think of all of the implications of what an advertising only business model meant. I just knew I didn't want that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah, I think almost no one thought, about at that point, what we were buying into when we were buying into the advertising business model. A lot of what I want to talk with you today is about WT social, but I want to run something past you because I actually think it's one of the more extraordinary things that Wikipedia and Wikimedia more broadly have accomplished. If we were having this conversation 10 years ago, we would be talking about accuracy. We would be talking about, is it dangerous that anyone can write whatever they want on Wikipedia? We're now at a point where YouTube uses Wikipedia to try to provide neutral factual content to counter disinformation that's spreading on their service. In other words, in a world where everything appears to be in dispute, where you have fights over reality within politics, the Wikipedia model has somehow emerged as one of the few ways to make things genuinely knowable. Are you at all surprised by that? You were right in the middle of a ton of those debates a decade ago. Am I over-hyping it, or does that line up with how you think about it?

Jimmy Wales:

No, it's certainly the case. What I've taken to saying is that we were never as bad as they said we were, and we are not as good as they think we are. There was kind of a hype cycle around Wikipedia. I always used to remind fellow Wikipedians when we get some really bad press about some error in Wikipedia to say, look, I remembered a few years prior when eBay was first a thing ... eBay, of course, is very different, but also faced this question of, I'm going to send my money and somebody is going to actually send me the Pez dispenser? Is that insane? I said, look, there was a brief period of time when it was very fashionable, mainly because it was easy and lazy to do as a journalist, to write a story that said, oh my God, someone's selling their baby on eBay. Someone's selling their gun on eBay. Look at this horrible thing that's happening on eBay.

Then after a little while people realize, you know what? You can go on eBay and you can list your baby for sale, somebody is going to flag it and they're going to take it down. It's not that exciting. It's really not that interesting, but it seemed interesting for a little while. Similarly at Wikipedia, yeah, you can go and click edit and change an entry to be something ridiculous, and then somebody is going to fix it in five minutes, and that's kind of okay. It's not great, but it's just part of the process, and in fact, that process yields something quite good over a long period of time. There was that blip in time when it was just like ... Well, gosh, I remember when Anna Nicole Smith died, she was a famous sort of actress, model? I'm not exactly sure what she was, but ... Reality celebrity.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Those terms all apply.

Jimmy Wales:

She died of, I think, some sort of drug problems or whatever, and somebody vandalized Wikipedia to say bad things about her. Then I got calls from eight journalists that day. It was tabloid papers that I didn't normally hear from, because of that, and one of them said to me, does this show a fundamental flaw in the Wikipedia model? I couldn't help myself. I said, it's a fundamental flaw with tabloid newspapers that Anna Nicole Smith dies and I get eight phone calls about it. Honestly, it's not that interesting. None of this is. By the way, there's actual news somewhere in the world, I'm sure. That's changed. But again, we try to be humble about where we are today. Yes, of course. People do trust us more than they used to, but yes, we know there are errors and Wikipedia, there are problems, there's things that we could improve. It is better than it used to be, because, well, that's the whole point. We're always trying to make it better. But there's still a lot of work to do, and we can't be complacent about that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It feels to me like the process is one that, actually, we could learn a lot from, which is that the first article is not necessarily very good. As people keep adding to it, it's going to get better and better over time, and at a certain point, when we're at a point of near stability, we then get into a sort of vandalism prevention mode. I think one of the things I've marveled about is that Wikipedia seems really, really good at some things, and then has had a harder time with other things. For instance, WikiTribune, which was a focus of yours for a while, and tell me if I'm not being fair, was taking something of a Wikipedian approach to news. It always felt to me in some ways like Wiki Tribune's toughest competition was Wikipedia, which actually does news surprisingly well. Has it been hard to bring this process that seems to work so well in the encyclopedia into other spheres?

Yeah. It's really interesting, because the encyclopedia as a genre is unique in certain ways. One, it's supposed to be neutral. That's really important, because it does allow people of different ideas to find a way to work together harmoniously. Maybe you and I are going to edit a piece about some politician and we disagree. I think they're good and you don't like them so much. Well, we both know we're going to try to be neutral, so if we're reasonable people, we can find ways to say, the person was criticized for this, but the response was that, and we can present the issue to people.

It's also evergreen, which means ... That was one of the earliest problems. Of course, the Wikimedia foundation has Wiki News, which was an early attempt to news. I remember a case, and you can date this from when it happened. When George W. Bush was reelected, Colin Powell resigned soon after, and all media were reporting it an expected resignation, that he was ready to retire. It was not really a big scandalous story. Wiki News was reporting it as, everybody's jumping ship on the Bush administration now, in a slightly different way. I thought, I think that's slanted and I think it's a little bit biased, and I should fix it. But of course, it's a news story and I didn't have time that day, and by three days later, it didn't matter anymore. Whereas if you go to the article on Colin Powell, which is going to be there for, if I have anything to do with it, a hundred years, it's slowly refined ...

Ethan Zuckerman:

You can fix it. Yes.

Jimmy Wales:

Then if I don't have time today to fix it, I'll go back in a week and I'll figure out what to do, and that will be fine. Those are some of the things that make it easier to do an encyclopedia. Then for news, for me with WikiTribune, and actually WT social is the kind of continuation and a modification of it, is really to ask ourselves the question, we've got a lot of great people in the world, and you wouldn't know it from looking at Twitter or something like that. You can find great people anywhere, but a lot of the systems out there seem to be designed to amplify the loudest and most inflammatory voices. Where are the quiet, thoughtful people who are wanting to engage with journalism and news in new ways, and what can they actually contribute to the process? Sometimes I think that journalists don't have the right idea about this, because they don't really know Wikipedians.

Many good journalists think that they're the only ones who can actually be neutral and interpret the world in that kind of journalistic way. I know that's wrong. But they do have certain advantages that most people don't have, which is the institution behind them that gives them access. If you're the new treasury secretary and you get a call that says the New York Times would like to speak to you, you take that call. If you get that some rando from some website wants to talk to you, you just don't have time. That's just practical. Right? Sometimes it's unfortunate because then we know there's a lot of access journalism and things that come bad with that. But the truth is, there's not much you can do about that. Ordinary people are never going to have access. That's a tricky problem, but I still think there's there's room for new ways of thinking and new systems. This is where we are at WT Social, to say, how can people engage with news, engage with journalism in a way that isn't just yelling at each other, and is constructive and positive? I haven't figured it out yet, but we're working on it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Let's talk about the logic of WT Social. You just gave us a big clue on it, which is that it's about meaningful conversation about events in the news. You talked a little bit about this idea of being calmer, of being slower, not necessarily being as emotional about it. What are the affordances of WT social? How is WT social being built? What are the norms that you're trying to establish that that change the conversation that way?

Jimmy Wales:

Yeah. There are a few things that are going on, and in fact it's kind of an ongoing journey, because I also think about ... maybe if I could step back one step ...

Ethan Zuckerman:

Please.

Jimmy Wales:

... And talk about kind of some of the more theoretical grounding. I've become convinced that there's something deeply wrong with the advertising only business model for social media, and it's not necessarily the problems I would have predicted. As an example, as a piece of it, one of the things that's problematic today is programmatic advertising. This is the ads that follow you around on the web because they've used cookies and they figured out who you are and they give you ads that are more relevant. Let's just say at the outset, I think it's really great in certain ways. One of the ways that's really great is, wherever I go on the web, I get ads that are actually meaningful to me. I always joke it's, I get ads for boats all the time because I like boats and I read boating magazines. It's boats I can't afford, so it's like boat porn, but I click anyway.

That's fine. That's actually very good. It means that the publishers are making more money from those ads than they would if they were giving me completely random ads, which is what I used to see. There's certain things that are good about that.

However, there is something very bad about it, which is if I go to a long form piece in the Guardian, we've got some fantastic reporting that the Guardian did about Ed Snowden. I go to read a long form piece there, I see the exact same ad as if I go on Reddit, which is a very cheap to produce giant message board, which means every piece of content is competing with every other piece of content, which makes doing expensive journalism really hard. So that model isn't working.

But then there's another layer as well, which is that it means that for the social media companies, their incentives are really all about engagement, time on site, how to keep me there, keep me clicking as long as possible. You can really talk about some very simple ideas, and I'm definitely not a neuroscientist, but I don't think this is completely absurd to say: there's the monkey brain or the reptilian brain, and then there's my Aristotelian brain. My Aristotelian brain says, oh great, I've got an hour. I'm going to sit down on the internet. I'm going to do something and I'm going to become a better person ever so slightly in the next hour. Then there's the monkey brain that goes, ooh, what's that? I've got to click on that. Pretty soon the hour has been wasted, and that's a problem.

That's really driven by the business model, and I think it's very hard. When we talk about things like Facebook's efforts to rid the platform of misinformation and so forth, which I do think there are good people there who are sincerely trying to do that. I think they will find it very hard, because fundamentally it's not clear to me that their business model wants them to do that. That, in fact, the things that people ... There's the famous, I think it's XKCD comic: come to sleep, dear. I can't, someone is wrong on the internet. Somebody posting something completely ... You and I have been on the internet for a little while, and don't feed the trolls. I remember the Usenet days. But now it turns out that the algorithms are feeding the trolls, and in fact they're feeding the trolls to us, to deliver them up for us to be offended so that we click and stay longer.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right, feeding the trolls is the business model at this point. Whether or not we want it to be, it's probably the engine that drives much of the engagement on many of these social networks.

Jimmy Wales:

And whether the people in charge of it really want it to be, they're going to find it hard to break. Actually, I think about this in the context of Google, as an example. Google, I think, has many different businesses even within just the website, nevermind Alphabet and all their other projects. But YouTube suffers from this difficulty because they struggle to make sure that their algorithm doesn't just lead people to Qanon videos, because it turns out, like rubber necking at a traffic wreck, people do that. Whereas search doesn't really have this problem, because search isn't about viral, it isn't about hang time. People go there ... Also, it's very profitable because you searched for candid camera and you get an ad. that totally makes sense, and it doesn't involve the same kind of incentives that YouTube gives them that problem.

With WT social, one of the concepts is to say, well, look, we're not going to have ads, and we're not going to have a paywall. I joke, a series of bad business decisions, but that's how I've built my career so far. But the main reason for that is to say, now that totally resets my thinking. A lot of the metrics that you would normally really care about, you still have to think about. Let me be a little nuanced here. It's not like ... When people come to the site, my incentive is I have to give you an experience that, over a long period of time, you enjoy enough that when we say, would you chip in? You go, you know what? This something to me.

Because that's what people do at Wikipedia. They say, oh yeah, you don't have to pay. But people are like, you know what? This is meaningful. I'm going to chip in, because I think this is worth it. It's a tough business model. But the incentive is then not to make you click every day, it's to make sure that when you come, you leave going, you know what? That was good experience. Now, I'm not sure I've achieved that yet. Part of the issue is, once you've said that, you also can't just completely ignore some basic metrics. If people are like, wow, Jimmy, this is fantastic. I heard you on Ethan's podcast and I'm going to go and sign up because this is the vision of the world I like, and then you come to the site and you're like, okay, but this is boring. It's not addictive, that's for sure, and I'm not coming back. Then that's a problem, and I think we're slightly on that front right now.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of the things that I've been spending a lot of time on, because like you, I'm looking at what could we do differently in this space? I have a project that I've been working on over at the Knight First Amendment Institute over at Columbia, trying to sort of map different types of social networks. It's funny, we always talk Facebook and Twitter. They're the two that we come back to all the time. The truth is, there's a huge wealth of things that we call social networks that are actually quite different. The third most popular category we found are question and answer networks. Things like Quora, all these different programming boards where people will put up questions and give answers, and it's a very different form of conversation, actually can be a very rich type of conversation. Social media these days also seems to include content creators, which are really sort of micro broadcasters, someone who is creating a YouTube channel. This is my 11 year old's sincere aspiration, is to be a successful YouTube creator.

It's not actually that social. It's really more that you're producing something and you're sort of looking for this patron, its relationship with it. It's almost as if everything that involves a user profile, the ability to follow, and as you pointed out, an ad based support model, we're calling all of these things social media. The truth is, there's sociability, which covers a huge, huge range of activities. There's media, including the Zoom medium that we're using here, and there's all sorts of interesting, different ways to intersect. I love the fact that you're looking at WT social and essentially saying, look, here are some things we want. We're not doing the ad model. We're not doing a paywall, which means it's not a traditional subscription. We're going to get people to chip into it, and we're going to try to have slower, more serious conversations.

I love that your current response is to say, yeah, it isn't quite working yet. Which, my observation as well. I joined early on; I'm trying to spend more time with it. But I love this idea, that we can take this giant universe of possibility and say, we don't have to build another Twitter, we don't have to build another Facebook. Here's Instagram, it's Twitter that's image centric. Here's TikTok, it's Twitter that's video-centric. We could actually do this very, very differently. What are some of those things that you're thinking about pushing WT Social in the direction of? How do you get it to be more addictive?

Jimmy Wales:

Here's a concept I have, and this is something we will be building this year once we've ... We're learning to do the video stuff. It's actually quite cool these days. But anyway, one of the groups that I found on WT Social that I thought was quite cool and interesting is the group on beekeeping. Beekeeping is a hobby that is requires quite a bit of knowledge, and apparently if you're new at it, the bees die a lot, and you need people to help you. It's a great community, because people who are doing it, it's their hobby and their passion, and they also worry about, there's a problem with the bees and we need to look after them and so on. It's got all those wonderful community elements.

My idea is to say, well, look, that beekeeping group, it got several posts. It's kind of died down now. It's got, I don't know, a hundred or so members. A hundred or so people thought, oh great, beekeeping. I want to know about that. Probably some of them are beekeepers. Probably some of them want to be beekeepers. I said, well, look, what if you had a lovely beekeeping person and she wants to host a weekly salon about beekeeping. Once a week, she's going to get on a Zoom call, only it won't be Zoom, it'll be on our platform, and she's there and just like, ask me anything. They can get together, that group, and they can talk about their bees, and they can even walk outside with the camera, go look, I don't know what's going on. Oh, your bees have this mold. I don't know anything about bees. That's community. That's actually social. That's a healthier, richer form of interaction than clicking "like" on a bee picture.

Talking about the advertising model and why I didn't want ads in Wikipedia in the early days, I didn't really have this sort of abstract notion of, well, it's going to lead to this culture of pushing addiction and hang time on the site and all that. It was just more aesthetic. What I would say is ... I love this example. When I go to a grocery ... This example makes more sense to Americans because you see this in America more than here. You go to the grocery store and there's someone there giving out a sample of some new product. They're always people cooking chicken, and would you want to try the new chicken thing?

Ethan Zuckerman:

This is all in the pre COVID days. We don't do samples these days, nowadays. We're masked up. Even in the US we've gotten that far. Yeah.

Jimmy Wales:

But I always thought, you know what? That seems completely socially normal and fine to me. I'm here to buy some groceries. You've got a new product and you want to offer me a sample to see if I like it, and maybe I'll buy it. Absolutely fine. That is proper commerce. There's nothing bad about that at all. If I'm at my mom's house for chicken dinner on a Sunday, and you knock on the door and say, would you like to try this new chicken product? I'm like, what are you doing here? It's Sunday afternoon. I'm with my mom. This is not the time to market to me.

With Wikipedia, let's take the easiest one. If I go to Google and I type in "cheap flights to Las Vegas" and lo and behold, I get a lot of ads for cheap flights to Las Vegas, that seems normal to me. That's completely what I'm here for. But if I go to Wikipedia and I'm reading the history of the Fibonacci sequence, which somehow might have something to do with gambling, I don't want to see ads for Vegas there. That's not what I'm here for. That's not what I'm doing at this moment in time.

There's all the more direct things like, how would you feel if you were reading about a Tesla ... About the car, the car company, and there's a big ad for Tesla at the top, would you say this is going to be a neutral encyclopedic explanation of the history of Tesla with all the good and the bad? Or would you be like, is this sponsored by Tesla? That seems kind of weird to me. I always thought that is problematic, and now I think, similarly, if it's a beekeeper chat or an intellectual salon, I don't really want, right now there's going to be a pause and there's an ad in the middle. That's weird. That doesn't seem like socially the right thing. That model doesn't work. Maybe that's ... The ability to pay for things online is actually quite important.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We need different revenue models for different contexts. Maybe it's one thing if we think of social media as pure entertainment, maybe having that sort of advertising intrusion is fine, but a lot of social media, as you said, is ... For me, it's keeping up with my sister who I don't get to see in person because of COVID, but instead I try to comment on every photo of her kids. Frankly, I don't really want to be interrupted at that moment. You described yourself as an inventor. I think it's a great way to think about your relentless creativity, and particularly your willingness to try things and fail. How do we encourage invention and creativity in this space? We have so many people trying to do bad derivatives of the same products. We have so many people trying to create the cryptocurrency based Reddit or Twitter, and we have so-

Jimmy Wales:

Wikipedia on the blockchain.

Ethan Zuckerman:

That's a terrific idea. That's what the world needs now. How do we encourage more people to experiment really broadly with this idea of social?

Jimmy Wales:

One of the things that I think is really important is changing people's model of entrepreneurship, and what does it mean. Everybody's got this model ... Not everybody, but many, many people have this model, which is, I would say, it's the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg model, where when you're 22 years old you get one genius idea and it shoots straight to the moon and you become the richest person in the world. That is a model which is true for some people, rare people at rare points in time. But if you look outside of those most famous tech companies and so forth, it's not a normal model for entrepreneurship.

You've got to think about, where is the equivalent of, I started a small business. My small business is a restaurant and I made a successful local restaurant. You know what? It was so successful, I opened up two more locations, and we've grown into this local treasured institution. That's what I want to see on the web as well. I want everyone to value that. I want people not to sit down and say, okay, I've learned some technology, I'm going to a great school, I'm going to be an innovator, I'm going to be a creator, my objective is to be Mark Zuckerberg, because that's going to lead you down some really not that interesting paths. That's a piece of it, I think, is to say, no, I actually appreciate ... You can be very successful doing something that isn't a platform that is going to scale to the moon. If you can do that, great. Why not? Hopefully you don't break the world while you're doing it, but ...

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that's a lovely idea, because I think everyone can get their head around the treasured neighborhood institution that is not a national restaurant chain, and frankly would be awful if it were a national restaurant chain. I also think we need to get good at terrific failures. I find myself talking again and again about a short-lived social network called This, which allowed you to post a single interesting link a day. It was very thoughtfully curated, and it was very manageable because you were only reading one thing a day from people, and it only lasted about nine months, but people still miss it and still talk about it. I guess what I would say for that is, I wish for you that WT Social becomes that cherish neighborhood institution, or that it fails in a really interesting and educational and creative way.

Jimmy Wales:

Yeah. Great, brilliant. Love it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, Jimmy, it's always a pleasure. Thank you for your time, and thanks for being with us. We're going to keep a close eye on what's going on there.