Last spring, the Communications Office received a call from the BBC. They were working on a feature of Randolph alumnus Jimmy Wales ’83 for an episode of Profile. They wanted to speak with friends or teachers from his time at Randolph. We contacted Wales directly for some guidance as to who we should put in touch with the producer.
Former Randolph teacher Jim Palmer, now English Chair at The Altamont School, told us, “I have many fond memories of Randolph and some of the best students I ever taught. Part of me is still in Room 23 and running around the gravel track.”
Mr. Palmer was not able to be interviewed but shared this with the BBC: “I vividly remember Jimmy Wales sitting in one of my early classes at Randolph, with wire-rim glasses and always smiling. I tell current students that he probably was thinking ‘I have a great idea.’ He was kind, enthusiastic and a fine student. I am thrilled by his success.”
Wales said his favorite math teacher was Lucy Gross. We were unable to contact her in time for the BBC interview, but when we spoke with her later, she was delighted to have been remembered. “He was a good student,” she said. “He must have been absorbing everything.”
Classmate Todd Chambers '83 was interviewed, and helps to paint a portrait of Wales and of Randolph, which you can listen to online. What follows is a transcript made by our office.
Profile, BBC Radio 4, March 18, 2012, by Claire Bolderson
Claire Bolderson: If you want a free thinker for a radio debate, there’s really only one person you can call.
Radio 3: “There can be few better people to help us understand this world of perpetual change than Jimmy Wales. He’s here to talk to us this evening.”
CB: Jimmy Wales is an information evangelist. His belief in the power of shared knowledge has driven the remarkable success of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. With entries on more than 20 million subjects looked at by more than 450 million people per month, Jimmy Wales’ creation is one of that handful of Internet successes that really have changed our lives.
Brad Patrick: “I think that what is unique about Jimmy in fact is that he is driven by a real purity of spirit and a purity of vision.”
Brad Patrick was recruited as an executive at Wikipedia in 2005 and stayed for two years. “I think what separates him from many people is that his ideas are what guide him, purely so. Wanting to share the world’s knowledge with everyone in their own language is something that he’s taken from being, you know, nothing to being a brand new idea. I think he’s rather the Pied Piper who turned around one day and found a million people behind him and quite innocently was piping away.”
CB: Of course the Pied Piper was anything but innocent. His Wikipedia entry says he caused the departure or death of a great many children. Jimmy Wales describes his goals as rather more benign: “To create a free and high-quality encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. I think there’s a lot of potential for these technologies to have some impacts on society in some fundamental ways, where you get much more direct and flat democracy with more people involved.”
So where does that passion for egalitarian access to information come from?
Jimmy Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama 45 years ago, one of four children whose father managed a grocery store. Their mother was a teacher in the tiny primary school run by their grandmother where the Wales children were pupils.
A few years ago, journalist Katherine Mangu-Ward spent a day interviewing Jimmy Wales. “He describes an unconventional education of his own. I think he even says it’s a sort of Abraham Lincoln one-room schoolhouse type of thing. He was left to his own devices for much of his education and he spent a lot of time reading the World Book Encyclopedia. You can tell that it was a formative experience to have this access to what seemed, I suppose, at the time almost an unlimited amount of information, the idea that there would be this set of books and you could find out anything.”
When Jimmy Wales was born, Alabama was a troubled Southern state, fiercely resisting racial desegregation, but Huntsville was a long way from the redneck image of the Deep South. It was at the center of the booming space industry, attracting academics and skilled professionals from all over the world. As Wales himself has said, growing up there gave him an optimistic view of the future and of technology.
As a teenager at the fee-paying Randolph High [sic] School he met a similarly minded group of friends. Todd Chambers was one of them. He describes a fairly precocious bunch. “We kind of had a small group of friends in high school. We used to talk about philosophy. We also used to discuss literature, which included the writings of Kurt Vonnegut and the ideas of Vonnegut regarding free will versus determinism, etc.; that was a major topic of conversation.”
It’s reassuring to know that the boys also played football and hung out at the shopping mall. But this was a school full of high achievers in which Jimmy Wales stood out and not just academically. Todd Chambers remembers one particular lesson with maths teacher Mr. Harshbarger.
“He would write something on the board and then he would turn around to the class and ask ‘Why did I do that?’ And one day Jimmy looked back at him and said ‘I don’t know,’ in exactly Harshbarger’s tone. He was never shy about not just blurting things out.”
“Did he get in trouble for that?”
“No, everyone found Jimmy quite delightful and amusing.”
After school came a degree in finance, studying to the sound of They Might Be Giants. Then came a Master’s at the University of Alabama and plans for a Ph.D.
He didn’t see it through. Instead he joined a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, making enough money to keep him comfortably for some years and learning in his spare time to write computer code. It wasn’t long though before he returned to his first love, encyclopedias, but this time online, first with a project called Nupedia.
Journalist Katherine Mangu-Ward again: “Nupedia was to be written by experts. It was to be written by lots of experts. It was going to be online. The notion of throwing open the doors and not worrying too much about credentials, but instead just letting people judge each other on the usefulness of the information they can provide came later.”
That notion came once Jimmy Wales discovered wikis, websites whose users can add, delete or modify content themselves. It was the perfect tool for his dream of sharing information. He had never been completely happy with the Nupedia model, where the experts held sway. With Wikipedia anyone could come on board.
Danny Wool was one of the first to join the Wales crusade. “It was a little hectic. It was chaotic. I don’t know if I would say anarchic, but definitely chaotic. Everybody was really trying. But we were experimenting. There was this whole new world coming into being.”
But there were casualties in the chaos. When he first planned an online encyclopedia, Jimmy Wales had brought in philosopher Larry Sanger to oversee the entries, but the two parted company soon afterwards, leading to a dispute over who exactly created the Wikipedia we know today.
And Wales himself made that dispute much worse. He edited his own Wikipedia entry to change his description from co-founder of Wikipedia to simply founder. He admits now it was a mistake. “I edited my own biography and caused a bit of a scandal when the press found out. It didn’t cause any scandal within the community because I did it openly under my own name, very publicly, but it was a very unpleasant experience.”
In fact, the Wikipedia community, the volunteer editors and members of the charitable foundation that runs the site, were furious. Editing your own entry is a no-no in Wikiland. Expunging the genius of Larry Sanger was almost as bad.
Florence Devouard was a member of the Foundation’s board at the time. “The community did not agree with that, so we restored the fact that Larry was the co-founder of Wikipedia. He was not happy with that of course there was an argument there were many, many arguments but after a while he admitted that the community was right.”
Jimmy Wales had had to bow to his own philosophy. Openness and collaboration were the guiding principles of Wikipedia, based on the idea that left to their own devices human beings are essentially good and will do good things.
That’s how David Gerard sums up the Wales vision. He started writing and editing Wikipedia entries in 2004 and he met Jimmy when he came to London to join Wiki volunteers at the pub. “He had this power of a niceness field. When you’re around him, he projects niceness and everyone just acts very nicely
CB: “Is it just by being nice to people?”
DG: “Basically, yes”
CB: “Setting a good atmosphere?”
DG: “The whole thing about the way Wikipedia works is that it works on a radical assumption, which is that mostly people are okay.”
And French volunteer Florence Devouard agrees that Jimmy Wales sets that tone. She says that’s why the collaborative model has been so successful. “At that time, as a French person, it was tough for me to participate because of the language issue and it would rather push me forward so that I would feel I had the right to participate and that my advice, my participation was valuable.”
That approach echoed through Wikipedia’s business model: no bosses, nobody making money. Because, unlike other online giants, Wikipedia has no ads, which is as it should be according to former Wikipedia executive Brad Patrick. “People have been critical of him for years and said, by god, you could have been a billionaire if only you’d tacked on some ads. The response, though, is that would have killed the golden goose. It’s the purity of its being ad free, its not having a commercial bent at all. That’s what gives it its force and its power.”
But what’s all this niceness, collaboration and easily accessed information actually for? Jimmy Wales’s influences include the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek. He argued that decentralized knowledge aids the free market. A notion much loved by American libertarians. So, is Jimmy Wales a libertarian? Well, he homeschooled his daughter and he argues strongly against gun control. Yet, as he told Katherine Mangu-Ward, of Reason magazine, he prefers the label center-right.
KM: “What he seemed to mean mostly is that he wasn’t too keen on the social agenda of the American right but that the focus on free markets and on personal liberty as interpreted by the right was important to him. He talked about when he lived in San Diego being a big fan of going to the shooting range but that in California gun laws are actually quite strict. If you move to Florida, most of those restrictions go away. Florida’s a much more gun-friendly state.”
There’s a Facebook campaign in Florida trying to draft Jimmy Wales to run for senate for the Republican party this year. It’s not clear whether he even knows about it and, according to former Wikipedia executive Brad Patrick, he’d be very unlikely to sign up to any party’s cause. “He’s certainly not what you’d identify as a party striper, by any stretch. I think he cares deeply about the policies that are in play. As far as Jimmy’s concerned, his perspective will always tilt towards freedom.”
It was that commitment to freedom that led Jimmy Wales into a political firestorm in the United States. In January, Congress was considering SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, intended to give the authorities more powers to curb foreign online theft of intellectual property. Jimmy Wales argued furiously that it curbed free speech and Wikipedia led several thousand websites in threatening to close down for a day in protest. The Motion Picture Association of America was just one of the groups pushing for the bill to pass. “A so-called blackout is yet another gimmick albeit a dangerous one designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals. It’s our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this blackout to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.”
But the protest went ahead and SOPA was shelved, a triumph for Jimmy Wales who, thanks to the rapid success of Wikipedia, has become another of that handful of Internet rock stars. Former Wikipedia editor Danny Wool watched the transformation of the website and the man. “The phone calls were incredible. People were calling him and I remember the Thai royal family’s butler called to correct something. Celebrities galore. And it’s inevitable that that would have an impact on anyone.”
In the early days, Jimmy Wales would get stuck in to the corrections himself, but as he became the public face and proselytizer for Wikipedia, he found himself traveling for up to 300 days in the year and traveling to a whole different world.
DW: “I was talking to him on the phone and he was on Richard Branson’s island. There was some business we had to deal with and he said, ‘Oh, I have to go now, Desmond Tutu is here. I want to pour him orange juice.’ All these celebrities were talking to him and consulting with him, you know, which is a big thing for someone from a small town in the US.”
Given how much he is committed to Wikipedia and to traveling it is perhaps not surprising that both of Jimmy Wales’ marriages have ended in divorce. He’s about to get married again, to Tony Blair’s former diary secretary with whom he has a baby. That means he’s living mostly in London now. So how will this hardworking freedom fanatic work with David Cameron’s government to open up policy to the public? If that question and answer session at that Radio 3 debated last year is any indication, it might not be a completely smooth ride.
[Wales on Radio 3] “I think it was just a simple misstatement, but David Cameron suggested we should shut down Twitter during the riots. The Chinese minister couldn’t have said it better. And I will say that, in his defense, I think it was just an off-hand remark that went astray. I don’t think, if you asked him to sit down for five minutes and think about it, I don’t think that was an actual policy proposal, but still, things like that shouldn’t even come out of the mouths of politicians. It’s absurd.”
CB: As the ferocity of his arguments over the online piracy law in the US showed, Jimmy Wales fights for what he believes in and what he believes in is simple. If the government asks him about the public making policy his answer is likely to be, “Trust the people.”