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Jimmy Wales: The internet's shy evangelist

Millions of people have seen his face, but Wikipedia's co-founder is still a backroom geek at heart. Emily Dugan meets Jimmy Wales
  • @emilydugan

For a man who runs one of the most powerful websites in the world, Jimmy Wales is not getting much attention. Admittedly, the co-founder of Wikipedia has chosen to meet in a west London private members' club where famous media figures are part of the furniture, but it is still notable that not even the waitresses give him a second glance.

Unlike Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs, Wales manages to pass through the world largely unnoticed, despite his face appearing on a website used by 365 million people a year. The day the site began to use his headshot in its fundraising campaign, the self-confessed backroom geek left the house with trepidation.

"I was really worried about it. I thought: 80 million people a day are going to see my picture, and four hundred million in a month. I took my daughter to Disneyworld in Florida the first day we were running it, and I was just as anonymous as ever so that was good."

Since the 45-year-old set up his online encyclopaedia 10 years ago, almost 20 million articles have been posted on the site in 282 languages. It is one of the world's most-read websites, but as it is written and edited by volunteers – many of whom have an agenda of their own – its content has often been controversial.

"I never feel it's reliable enough," he admits. "We're always the first to criticise, and I think people should be quite careful about how they use Wikipedia."

This kind of self-criticism is typical of Wales, who is verging on evangelical in his fervour to improve the site and never seems that interested in turning a profit from the venture. Unlike many business figures, he broadly supports the protesters who have occupied Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange.

"You don't have to be a socialist to say it's not right to take money from everybody and give it to a few rich people. That's not free enterprise," he says. "There are heroic aspects if somebody made a great business, a great invention, did something really well that the public likes, and made some money – great, that's what makes the world work. That's very different from what I feel is a real sickness that's crept into the system."

Last year Wikipedia raised more than £11m through fundraising to keep the non-profit website going and establish worldwide networks of writers and editors. Next month, it will start another campaign, with a target of £18m. Some of this will be spent on attracting a new type of contributor by making the site easier to edit for the less computer-literate.

Wales admits those editing and writing the site are still mostly nerdy males in their early twenties. "They're all a bunch of computer geeks and gadget freaks, and so on. That's very good in some ways because they're very technically savvy, but it's also bad in other ways because we know quality is much helped by diversity of experience... We want to double female participation to 25 per cent."

He's keen to expand the site's reach internationally and his latest target is India. "We're opening our first office outside the US in India, to help the Indian language versions of Wikipedia to grow faster. We chose India because it's in transition... Hindi Wikipedia has sixty thousand entries, but with 280 million people speaking the language, that's still quite low."

The organisation is establishing such "chapters" in about 20 countries. These volunteer networks, headed by paid staff, will encourage academics and experts to contribute. Another new chapter is in London, where he has just hired a CEO and is about to recruit more staff. Wales has a new baby with his British fiancée, Kate Garvey, Tony Blair's former diary secretary who is now a director at Freud Communications, and is settling here. The pair met in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, after they were both made "Young Global Leaders", a title that he admits, with an un-American lack of self-promotion, is "ridiculous and pompous".

Originally from Huntsville, Alabama, Wales now plans to make the UK his main home. He says he is worn out after spending the past few days frantically house hunting in central London. Every fortnight he flies to Florida to see his daughter from his second marriage and he is constantly dashing between countries to work on expanding the website. "I'm trying to cut down on my travels," he says, guiltily.

His addiction to the internet is ferocious. "I'm on it pretty much all the time. I edit Wikipedia every day, I'm on Facebook, I'm on Twitter, I'm reading the news. During one of the US elections, I actually went through my computer and I blocked myself from looking at the major newspaper sites and Google News because I wasn't getting any work done."

So far, he has not been tempted to create ties with sites such as Facebook and Twitter, though. "Some people would like us to do the little 'share this' links, share on Twitter, share on Facebook... [But] I would never want to have any software feature at Wikipedia where people might be reading something and accidentally share it, when they didn't intend to... If I want to share that's fine, but if I'm just reading, it's my business and people can draw the wrong conclusions."

In the frantically competitive world of internet start-ups is he not worried about being left behind? His answer – like his business opinions – shows his unwillingness to follow the crowd: "No," he says, "I never worry about anything."

Additional reporting by Lucy Fisher

Jimmy Wales appears at BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival on Friday 4 November