Wikipedia, the 21-year-old “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” went from being a weird online experiment to a mainstay of the modern internet with astonishing speed. Even as the rest of the social internet seems hellbent on tearing itself apart, it has largely maintained its reputation and functionality.
As Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have become consumed by controversy over moderation, governance, and the definition of free speech, Wikipedia quietly continues to grow in utility, trustworthiness, and comprehensiveness. There are now nearly 6.5 million articles on the English version alone, and it has held its place in the top 15 most-visited sites on the web for well over a decade.
In 2007, Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward profiled Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and the site’s “simple yet seemingly insane” concept. The question then: “Will traditional reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica, that great centralizer of knowledge, fall before Wikipedia the way the Soviet Union fell before the West?”
The answer is mostly yes. The site still has its share of controversy, including a squabble in July over the definition of recession that spilled over from other platforms and made headlines. But those fights have limited impact on the user experience; only the most devoted followers of online tech controversies had any idea they were happening at all. There are also external battles, including a recent conflict with the Russian government over demands that the encyclopedia censor information about the conflict in Ukraine. But Wikipedia still seems to be a signature success in the turbulent social media space.
In April, Mangu-Ward spoke again with Wales over Zoom for a video and podcast about what he got right—and what he’s worried about as politicians all around the globe push for more control of online content.
A key ingredient to Wikipedia’s success, says Wales, is its high degree of decentralization. After this interview was conducted, Elon Musk made a bid to buy Twitter and became embroiled in controversy over the sale, bringing new salience to the battle over who controls the flow of information online.
Reason: Last time we talked was 2007. We hung around in Florida. We had some Indian food. On that day you said “there’s a certain kind of dire anti-market person who assumes that no matter what happens, it’s all driving toward one monopoly—the ominous view that all of these companies are going to consolidate into the Matrix.” You said radical decentralization will win out. Were you right?
Wales: I think so. We still have a pretty radically decentralized web. Obviously, we have some big players—Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. There’s a few players who dominate. The online digital advertising space is a handful of players.
For the consumer internet, there’s still a huge amount of choice. I worry about some of the bigger companies like Facebook becoming regulation-friendly in a way that I suspect has more to do with consolidating their position than being happy about being regulated. I think there’s a lot to keep an eye on.
We’re at a point where not just broad swaths of the internet but our whole politics are being consumed with the debate over content moderation and misinformation. It seems to me that Wikipedia quietly got a bunch of those things right a really long time ago.
It’s weird that those lessons haven’t been generalized. Is that because they aren’t generalizable? Is there something special about the Wikipedia project of building an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit?
I do think there are a lot of lessons from Wikipedia that could be applied more broadly. At the same time, we do have to acknowledge that when there’s a little box that says, “What’s your opinion? Tell us what you think,” that generates a lot of controversial commentary by its very nature. People are going to say things that are offensive to other people. You end up needing to draw certain kinds of lines in a way that is really hard to do.
Whereas, with Wikipedia, the purpose [is to] write an encyclopedia article or talk about the articles. If you go to the discussion page for the entry on Donald Trump, it’s not really a place to go and rant about Donald Trump. It’s a place to talk about the article and how we could improve it. Obviously, those discussions can get quite heated, but it is within a framework of saying, “We’re actually here with a particular task in front of us,” versus a little box that says, “Tell me what you think.”
The social media companies do have a very hard task. I don’t think the answer, currently being bounced around in some quarters, [is] that they should be required to basically apply First Amendment standards as what they think is OK to have on the platform. I’m like, well, gosh, no, because things that are absolutely legal to say don’t make for a nice online experience. There’s groups and places where that would be deeply inappropriate. You can just imagine a Bible study group that’s being infiltrated by raging atheists. Maybe it’s OK for people to say: Actually, a part of the spirit of the First Amendment is not just being able to say anything you want, anywhere you want, but actually being able to create some spaces, like an online group, where you can talk to people of a like mind and have a civil discussion and kick people out if they’re being rude.
Where I see real opportunity for change for the social networks, applying some of the lessons of Wikipedia, is to put more control in the hands of the users. [The] model [of] almost all social networks—I call it the feudal model. We’re all serfs on the master’s estate, in a sense. If you go to YouTube or Facebook or Twitter, the boundaries of what you’re allowed to say and do are set in a very opaque way by moderators who work for the company. They do as good a job as they can, but it’s kind of a hopeless, impossible job. In fact, it’s quite a terrible job because they’re forced to look at the worst content to make very hard decisions.
Whereas, if we had designs that were really more about small-group collaboration, about giving people the ability to control their space, there’s lots of interesting ways forward. There’s lots of lovely places online that are like that.
There’s a lot of hype right now about decentralized autonomous organizations [DAOs]. Wikipedia is not on the blockchain, but is that the kind of thing you’re talking about when you say it should be more about the users? Is Wikipedia a proto-DAO?
I wasn’t really thinking about DAOs, but I do think it’s an interesting area to think about. Lots of people from the DAO world say Wikipedia was like the first DAO, in a weird kind of way.
I’m not sure that’s an accurate analogy, but it’s an interesting analogy, because there are certain concepts of people being participants, and having control, rather than just being a customer on a platform. I think that ability for people to come together in a very lightweight way, to form partnerships, to divide up money, is actually super interesting.
One of the old concepts I see bandied around sometimes in the pro-market literature [is] this concept of a “friendly society.” This is a precursor to big insurance, where people come together and they, in a small group, all contribute to a pot of money. If somebody falls on hard times, they can access that pot of money. The group makes the rules and decides what to do about it, which doesn’t necessarily scale to tens of millions of people.
You end up basically with an insurance company, which is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but there’s something potentially powerful about a group of people coming together, using the DAO as a mechanism, to say: “We’re all going to contribute a certain amount to this pot. If someone’s house burns down, or somebody gets COVID or something like that, this is a pot of money that we’re going to share out,” in a way that then makes a very lightweight structure for doing something that traditionally we had found very hard to do; or it’s highly regulated, like insurance; or the government does it.
Now whether any of that actually is about to happen, I’m not sure. But it certainly seems that there’s a possibility for using technology—smart contracts—to do something interesting.
There are a lot of people who are very worried about the future of online speech: What are we going to do about disinformation, and how are we going to preserve spaces for heterodoxy? What’s the thing you’re worried about? Are you worried that we have too much speech? Are you worried we have the wrong speech? Or is there something else that debate itself is missing?
When politicians are worried about too much speech or wrong speech, they’re probably up to no good.
There are some really tough problems. Online harassment; threats; vicious, horrible trolling. None of that is what we want. We want to make sure we’re building spaces that people can enjoy.
I think the current business model—which is pure advertising, for social media—is problematic. It drives certain outcomes that I think other business models would be better at dealing with. The way I think about this came from a book called Everything Bad Is Good for You. There was an example in there of the move from pure advertising television. The example is a little awkward now: The Cosby Show, written to be broadly appealing to almost everybody. It’s a good quality show. It’s a family show. Everybody can watch it. It’s good.
We began to move toward paid programming, things like HBO. You had Sex and the City and you had The Sopranos, stuff that wouldn’t be suitable for all audiences. In fact, [it was] deliberately designed to appeal to certain narrow audiences. The incentive for HBO was, they wanted to have at least one show that at least one person in every household would pay for. They might have really good children’s programming, because they knew maybe some people will pay for children’s programming, and so forth. Because their incentives were different, they made different kinds of shows.
Obviously, today, we see this exponentially. We’re in this golden age of television with so many fantastic series on Netflix, Amazon Prime. It’s not ad-supported.
The point is not to bash advertising as a business model. But when you’ve got advertising as a business model, it drives your incentives in a slightly different way than people paying you for content.
Are there other ways of financing things? Obviously. Wikipedia is a huge exception. No ads whatsoever. It’s funded by donations, by the general public largely, so small donations, but you can imagine other business models where it’s some sort of a partnership. All the people who are joining the site are part owners of the site, and are paying for the site, that sort of thing. You can start to think about beginning to do those things at scale, using some of the ideas from DAOs.
I don’t know if people are going to do that. But to me, it’s a fertile area for potentially resolving some of the real problems we see.
Sometimes this conversation starts out in the same place you started, which is to say, “Hey, there are some unintended consequences of an advertising model,” and then goes right to, “The problem must be profits.” That’s not what you’re saying here.
Exactly. I do think there are good and robust reasons why Wikipedia is and should be a nonprofit, but it’s not the only possibility.
One of my favorite little places online, there’s a Lord of the Rings message board [TheOneRing.net]. Lovely place. They have been somewhat active about copyright law. It’s a discussion board. People post things. If they’re forced to do pre-upload filtering, they won’t be able to afford it. They’re probably going to need to move their entire community onto Facebook groups or something, which would be a huge tragedy, because it is a small, sweet place online that’s been there for many years now.
I don’t even know if they have ads. But if they do, it’s just a few. You begin to think, OK, well, couldn’t that group finance themselves somehow as a partnership, or a DAO, where they come together and they all contribute money? Then maybe they can do extra special fun things with the money. Fund scholarships for people to come to conventions and things like that. Who knows what they might want to do with it. It could be quite interesting, and a more positive outcome than everything moving to Facebook.
Let’s talk about Section 230. It’s 1996. Congress put these words into the Communications Decency Act, this very small number of words that turns out to be very powerful, that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Nowadays, people blame Section 230 for a lot of what they don’t like about the internet. What are people misunderstanding?
A big part of it is the tension we always have around freedom of expression. People get very eager to fight misinformation or disinformation through some legal process, which in the U.S. is typically very hard to do because the First Amendment is very strong. It doesn’t stop people from being tempted.
A lot of the time, when you see people advocating for it, if you dig a little deeper, is they really want to see the speech they don’t like banned, and the speech they do like not banned. They often think they’ve got some clever formula that makes that work. But then if you talk to Donald Trump, he would like to have Section 230 repealed so that he could force Twitter to let him back on Twitter. Other people are like: No, Donald Trump is the problem.
People should just take a deep breath and say, “Actually, if the issues are that there is disinformation and misinformation, Section 230 isn’t where you need to look.” It is a very simple rule that makes content moderation possible at all.
I don’t think anybody serious thinks that it should be illegal for a Bible study group to kick out unbelievers if they want to. A big part of freedom of expression is having your own private space for a conversation without trolls coming in. That sort of thing, there’s no simple solution. And certainly, Section 230 isn’t the problem.
Just in the last few days, Elon Musk tweeted that he might start his own social media network. Now he’s trying to buy Twitter. He’s not the only person who has had this thought. You have a social media venture of your own.
The concept of WikiTribune Social, or WT.Social, is it’s a small community. We’re working on the software. We’re thinking through things with the community and seeing what people are liking and doing. The fundamental concept is to pursue a different business model. No ads, no paywall. You just pay if you want to. That’s the Wikipedia model.
It’s not lucrative at all. We’re not making money. But the purpose of that business model, and of the experiment, is to think in a really hands-on and deep way about how incentives shift. If we ran ads, our incentives would end up being exactly the same as every other social platform, which is to get as many page views as possible. One of the ways to do that is to have controversy on the site.
If I want to have a more thoughtful, slow, and reflective place, if the business model is you only pay if you really want to, then you really have to say, “OK, we need to build a place that people are like, ‘I actually love this enough that I want to pay for it. It’s worth paying for it. It’s meaningful to me.'”
How to do that? I’m not sure yet. We’re working on it. I barely ever look at things like time on site and how to increase people being on the site. Obviously, you can’t ignore that completely. [If] I made a great show but nobody even wants to watch it, [it] isn’t a successful recipe for a Netflix series. You can’t completely ignore audience—it’s more [that] I want to get people who actually care, who think this is worth supporting.
You seem to be emphasizing the freedom of assembly side of things, rather than the freedom of speech side of things.
That is one way of thinking about it. These days, people don’t talk as much about freedom of assembly as they talk about freedom of expression. You can go on Twitter anytime and see where somebody’s claiming that Twitter is violating their First Amendment rights. Of course, if you know the law, it starts out with “Congress shall make no law.” It literally doesn’t apply to Twitter. But freedom of assembly is a super interesting way of thinking about it, and the relationship between freedom of assembly and freedom of expression is super interesting.
I can have a Bible study group. Everybody understands that it’s a pretty peaceful activity. In real life, no one says, “Yeah, I tried to go down to the church and stand in the front row and scream against the teachings of Jesus and they violated my rights by kicking me out.” No, they actually have a right to be in their own space and talk about what they want to talk about without you bothering them.
Talk to me briefly about your politics these days. Do you have a label you like right now?
No, I don’t really. In the past, I used the label libertarian, but even when I did, it was in a very cautionary way, because there’s a lot that might go under that heading that I wouldn’t agree with. For the most part, I avoid talking publicly about politics, except on the narrow issues where I feel like I have a responsibility and a voice.
You won’t hear me pontificating about Obamacare, for example, because nobody really cares what Jimmy Wales thinks about health care policy. I’m not an expert. It’s not my field. But if you ask me about Section 230, I’m like, “OK, I can tell you all about it. I have a strong view that I’m very happy to talk about.”
We certainly have more speech than ever now, right? We have more ways to talk to each other. One theory could be that we are better at getting more truth, that we are better at getting to real answers or important underlying principles. Do you think we are closer to knowing what’s true?
I think we have the potential to do that. I’m not sure we are doing it, in general.
It’s a stereotypical example: your cranky, racist uncle. We all know the type. This is someone who, 40 years ago, might show up at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with really stupid and offensive opinions and spout off about them. That’s a family problem, if anything. It’s not a huge deal.
Where I do think it’s problematic is that, today, [if that] crazy racist uncle goes on Facebook and starts ranting, then the algorithm picks up that everybody’s responding to that, that it’s a lot of page views. Then crazy racist uncle ends up with 5,000 followers on Facebook that are generated not because Facebook thinks, “Oh, there’s a view we’d like to promote,” but just because their algorithm is like, “Oh, there’s noise. Let’s turn that volume up so we can have more page views.”
I’m not criticizing the profit motive there. I’m just saying the business model is a bit broken. If that’s what you’re incentivized to do, I don’t want to be a customer of that.
What trend are you most excited about in tech or anywhere in the world?
An ongoing rise in subscription models for journalism, because I do think that, for all the reasons I’ve talked about before, a pure advertising model can lead you down a very tempting path of clickbait headlines, because it gets more page views. Whereas, if people are going to pay you, you have to think about what it is that makes them love you enough to pay for it. I would hope that we see more success in magazines and newspapers being able to actually get people to pay [for] them.
This magazine editor isn’t going to argue with you about that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.intern
This article originally appeared in print under the headline “What Wikipedia Can Teach the Rest of the Internet”.