Thar She Wikis: Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia

jimmy wales

(This is my second look at Truth in Numbers. Click here for the first one).

Apple had Steve Jobs. Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg. And Wikipedia has Jimmy Wales.

And just like The Social Network and Jobs, Wales has a film about him.

However unlike Jobs and Zuckerberg, the film about the Wikipedia co-founder is not a major motion picture starting Hollywood actors. (Though I think Paul Giamatti would be perfect). Instead, Wales appears as the protagonist of the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia. The documentary, co-directed by Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill interviews dozens of Wikipedians as well as authors, journalists and critics who have mixed views on the site, such as the late historian Howard Zinn, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, and former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey. But Wales is without question the central character.

Not surprisingly almost everything Wales himself does and says in the film casts Wikipedia in a good light. Indeed, the film starts with him visiting Varanasi, India where he teaches a local how to edit Wikipedia. That transitions into him speaking before an American crowd saying “Imagine a world where everyone on the planet is given free access to the sum of human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” From this start you get a sense that the documentary will focus on how Wales and Wikipedia is changing the world for the better. And there certainly is some of that. Glosserman and Hill show the international bonding of the Wikipedia community, as Korean, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, Dutch, Taiwanese, Arabic, South African, English and American Wikipedians of both genders are interviewed. (Compare this to the “critics,” all but one of whom are men, and most of whom are old and white.) In one of the best lines of the film, a Taiwanese Wikipedian who earlier is depicted meeting a Chinese Wikipedian with whom he had collaborated on an article, says “Through Wikipedia it’s unbelievable I could make friends with a communist.” The other interviews with members of the Wikipedia community aren’t as touching, but they all do share a sincere sense of optimism about the site.

Yet, there is balance. As I mentioned in my first post, the documentary mirrors the Wikipedia site’s “Npov” mission to balance all articles. Glossmerman and Hill don’t really build any specific narrative, except that “Wikipedia is good but it also is bad.” The target of a lot of this criticism is Wales himself. About halfway through the movie, internet critic  Andrew Keen says that Wales possesses the Libertarian suspicion of external authority first espoused by Ayn Rand. These comments frame clips of Wales talking about how Rand’s novel The Fountainhead influenced him (“My motivation is not altruism”), clips of Rand expounding her own philosophy (“I say man is entitled to his own happiness, and he must achieve it himself”) and clips of the 1949 movie version of The Fountainhead (“He served no one and served nothing. He lived by himself.”) Taken together, these clips depict Wales not as a man providing access to human knowledge for the benefit of humanity, but for his own ego.

Some of the other criticisms of Wales are less blatant, or even underdeveloped. Just like Facebook, there is controversy over who “founded” Wikipedia. The film describes how Larry Sanger and Wales came up with the idea of an open-source encyclopedia, eventually using Ward Cunningham’s “wiki” technology as a platform, and that the two had a falling out. Unfortunately, this story about the site’s early origins is brushed over. Sanger gets his moment to criticize Wales, stating that  “When [Wales] first started leaving me out the story, it was extremely disappointing to me. It wasn’t something I would have thought Jimmy capable of.” However, instead of actually having to defend actions, Wales gets left off the hook. Right after Sanger’s jab, a nameless journalist interviews Wales, mentions that Sanger, “co-founded” the site, and Wales interrupts saying “he says” with a smile. And that’s it! It’s possible this story isn’t as juicy as the The Social Network. But by not letting Wales discuss his vision of the founding of the site, Glosserman and Hill lose a great opportunity to delve into their central character’s mind and better illuminate the foundation of the site they document.

In the end, I came away from the film feeling sorry for Wales. Keen points out that Wales — who doesn’t make any money directly off of the main Wikipedia site — is like someone who found a winning lottery ticket, but instead of cashing it in, donated it to the world. And clearly his personal life suffered from all this too. About a quarter into the movie Wales is interviewed in his Florida home, with his wife and daughter in surrounding him. It’s a very weird situation where he’s explaining how busy he’s been, and how he’s barely home anymore because he travels so much. Meanwhile, his wife is nervously laughing about this and how great it was to share an apartment in Japan for 30 days recently when Wales was working there (their last “vacation”). It’s clear the Wikipedia efforts are taking a toll on this marriage. Lo and behold, in a postscript at the end of the film, Wales admits that since that previous interview he separated from him wife. (He’s since divorced and remarried).

So while Truth in Numbers ends with all the interviewees reading their own Wikipedia page (Howard Zinn is quite impressed with the accuracy of his), I think a more fitting ending would be Wales staying up late, editing his own Wikipedia page, just like the last scene of The Social Network.

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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

2 responses to “Thar She Wikis: Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia”

  1. drdankerr says :

    Interesting — clearly a problematic personality!

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