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Wikipedia's Cultural Weight Beats Big Bucks, Founder Wales Says

Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales told DW why Google's Knol isn't a competitor, why Jimmy Carter has his respect, and why he doesn't envy Google's wealthy founders. Wanna know his favorite German word? Read on.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia's Wales says he doesn't miss the millions; he is content to have made history

Jimmy Wales is a founder of Wikipedia, the free online portal that is considered to be the largest encyclopedia in the world . He co-founded Wikipedia in 2001 and now is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. He is also a founder of the commercial Wikia company, and was named one of the world's most influential people by Time in 2006.

DW-WORLD: Google announced a few weeks ago that their Wikipedia competitor Knol crossed the threshold of 100,000 entries and that it keeps growing. How seriously do you take Knol as a rival?

Jimmy Wales: I don't think Knol is a competitor at all. Knol is nothing like Wikipedia and doesn't have the potential to become anything like Wikipedia.

The very design of the site is really more of a blogging platform. They say very explicitly that they want people to post their own opinions and have more of a quirky commentary style. They have no editorial structure the way that we do to push for quality.

Other more traditional encyclopedias, like Brittanica and Germany's Brockhaus, are moving online as well. Stiff competition?

I think it's a good thing. I think it's very very difficult for them to compete with us considering that we are a charity, we don't have any advertising on the site. The cost basis of what we are doing is tiny and there doesn't seem to be any demand for their product, so they got a tough job ahead of them.

On the other hand we welcome anyone and everyone. We are not a competitive organisation, we are collaborative and cooperative. We give away everything for free, so for us we don't really think about competition much.

Could you see a cooperation between Wikipedia and say, Encyclopedia Britannica or Brockhaus in the future?

Yes. I actually think that one of the kinds of cooperations that they should take a look at is the reuse of a lot of the images of Wikipedia. ... As I understand it, the amount of money they have to pay to license images is a significant portion of their budget and they need to cut costs. And we give all our images away for free and they would be welcome to use them.

Giant Brockhaus encyclopedia constructed for Frankfurt Book Fair

Germany has a history of loving encyclopedias

After a recent incorrect post on Wikipedia that said Senator Ted Kennedy had died, you called for new control mechanisms to filter content. Doesn't that violate one of the core missions of Wikipedia -- to allow the unhindered flow of information?

We have always had controls. We always had the ability to completely lock articles, and we used to do that; it was called protection. We didn't like to do that, though, so we introduced something called semi-protection instead of protection.

When an article is semi-protected you can only edit it if you have had an account for at least four days. When we announced semi-protection a few years back there was a big hullabaloo in the press. But we felt like, 'No, we are actually loosening controls. People who weren't able to edit before were now able to edit.'

So it is really a subtle change.

What is currently your favorite entry or topic on Wikipedia and why?

I always enjoy quirky articles that are about funny different things. There is one that I really like called "inherently funny words," which is only in the English Wikipedia.... many famous comedians have talked about how, if you're telling a joke, some words are just funnier to use than others. They say that German words are actually quite funny to English speakers.

As you say on your Wikipedia and your Facebook pages, you have been learning German for quite some time now. Do you have a favorite German word?

Glockenspiel. (tower bells)

Why is that?

I don't know. It just sounds good and it made you smile....

Why is German the second most important Wikipedia language after English? Why not Spanish, Chinese or Japanese?

There are a couple of reasons. For one, Germans have long had a love for encylopedias. Also .... I think Germans are better English speakers than the French, so they learned of Wikipedia earlier and were able to interact with the international community a lot more.

Is Wikipedia thinking about partnership with commercial companies like iTunes or Youtube?

It's unlikely. We do video, we have the ability for people to do video, but it's not a primary focus and certainly we would have no interest in simply growing our traffic by having a lot of funny cat videos like Youtube. Nothing against funny cat videos, it's just not what we do.

Mark Zuckerberg headshot, as Facebook.com founder

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Children growing up in the West today won't have any experience of life without instant access to information via the Internet. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I just think it's the world. You know, we didn't remember a time when there were no telephones and that's just the way the world is.

I do remember a time when there weren't really cell phones or they were sort of giant bricks. And my daughter gets very frustrated if she opens up her computer somewhere and she gets no Wi-Fi. I think it's fine, I think it's progress.

The founders of Google and Facebook have made hundreds of millions or billions of dollars with their companies. Do you wish sometimes you would have founded a commercial site, instead of Wikipedia?

No, no. The thing about Wikipedia is, I feel like it has a certain cultural importance. 500 years from now when people look back at the beginning of the Internet, they'll point to Wikipedia and say: 'That was something really important that happened, something really good. People came together on a voluntary basis in a non commercial framework just to share their knowledge and built something amazing.' And I'm proud to be a part of that.

Is Barack Obama the first president to really grasp and understand the Internet? What does that say about him and the time we live in?

I have a couple of things to say about that. I know Jimmy Carter and he is really good at the Internet. When I met him I thought, 'Oh how exciting to meet Jimmy Carter, I'll have to explain my work to him, he's an older gentleman, he probably won't know.'

He knows everything about Wikipedia, he uses it all the time, he understands how it is edited, an amazing guy. But that's Jimmy Carter, he's a really unique person. I doubt if George Bush knows anything about the Internet at all.

But recently I had a phone call with the Obama transition team and I was just super happy after that. They sort of reached out to me because they wanted to talk about the website just to get some basic advice and ask if I had any ideas for them. That's impressive to me.

A lot of traditional media companies are in severe difficulties right now. How do you feel about the possible demise of many long established newspapers?

I think it's a problem and I don't know the answer to it. The area I'm most worried about is in the cutback of journalism. We need people to go out there, getting the stories and gathering facts. And we can't rely that it will just sort of randomly bubble up on the Internet.

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