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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 02:38 GMT
Wikipedia founder takes on Google
By Matt Wells
BBC News, New York

Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales helped drive the information society
Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has helped transform the way people use the net to seek out information and now the founder Jimmy Wales is hoping to do the same in the search field.

The bearded and softly-spoken founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, describes himself as "pathologically optimistic".

Bearing in mind that he recently revealed the development of a new "open source" search engine to compete for eyeballs with the mighty Google, he is going to need every ounce of optimism he can get.

"Search has become a fundamental part of the infrastructure of society," said the 40-year-old, talking to a group of mainly media professionals at a recent event in downtown Manhattan, organised by The Glasshouse, a trans-Atlantic entrepreneurs' support group.

"The way that things are sorted and ranked and presented to us, really does shape our view of the world.

"I think it is important that we say, there really should be an alternative that is completely open and transparent," he added, before going on to criticise the culture of secrecy surrounding the cloistered algorithms of the leading search empires.

There is a paradox surrounding Wales's position in the first-rank of internet movers and shakers, which he freely acknowledges.

The Wiki boss has often said that his free, not-for-profit online encyclopaedia - that now gets seven billion page views each month with in-excess of five million multiple-language entries - was either the "smartest thing, or the dumbest thing that I ever did".

Extraordinary statistic

The total number of Wikipedia employees is five; an extraordinary statistic when you consider that it is the 10th most visited site in the world.

He told a wry anecdote about being offered a recent ride in the Google jet as the online superstars converged on the World Economic Forum in Davos - since at this point, there is no Wiki-jet.

But his cultural-hero status as the man who aims to bundle all the world's knowledge together and give it away free, is formidable.

The new "transparent" search venture is in its early infancy, and also a project that is being shepherded by the very much for-profit sister company of Wikipedia, Wikia.

His idea is to Wiki-fy the process of internet search, so that human beings decide openly how to rank and organise information, not the huge private servers of Google and Yahoo.

In an online message at the end of the year, Wales labelled the project "Search Wikia" and referred to it as an attempt to create "the search engine that changes everything".

'People powered'

He went on to ask for volunteers to step forward in the name of "people-powered" search, to help move the project forward. There was no mention of any possible profit-sharing.

Far from seeking to confront Google in conventional business terms, Wales - ever the optimist - believes that there may be ways of working with what he calls the "second tier search players" on the web.

Google has between 40 and 50% search market share, according to analysts
"(Google) have hired all the geniuses... they're saying, 'gee, if this alternative could succeed, and make good quality search results a commodity, then we can compete on other things... on vertical search, on brand, on user-interface'."

His philosophical approach to challenging Google, has drawn some criticism inside the blogosphere.

The web veteran Dave Taylor, who writes The Intuitive Life Business Blog, wrote a sceptical post, questioning Wales's ability to influence the search market on any level.

"My belief - based on talking to thousands of internet users - is that the only time someone switches search engines is when their current system begins to fail them," he wrote.

"Far from being able to steal market-share from Google, the reality will be that it will be only if Google fails to produce good search results that another firm will even have a ghost of a chance of succeeding."

Wales describes his politics as "libertarian with a small l" and having become used to travelling the world to meet Wikipedia's amateur army of administrators and contributors, he says he no longer cares who wins the next presidential election in the US.

'Open societies'

"Within the broad framework of open societies, of liberal democracies, things aren't so horrible, right?"

He added: "There are horrible places in the world - these are much more important - corruption in Africa, and things like that."

Wikipedia's idealism, that some would argue is essentially flawed in that verifiability and not "objective" truthfulness is the standard by which entries are judged, has been heavily lampooned on American television in the last few months, by the satirist Stephen Colbert.

In his persona as a polemical and bombastic news anchorman, Colbert lampooned the idea of allowing enthusiasts to form a consensus amongst themselves on what is fact, or not, coining the word "Wikiality".

It has become a running joke, and the site's administrators have intervened to stop some of the show's fans from altering entries.


Wales himself is unfazed by how easy it is for unregistered readers to make instant changes on Wikipedia - sometimes for the good, but often out of mischief. Constant upheaval and occasional "vandalism" of the site, is a price worth paying, he believes.

"If you have a web environment where the software assumes everyone's going to do something bad, and where the community isn't given the tools to make corrections... you actually encourage hostile behaviours."

He is convinced that Wikipedia's success is down to simple software and mutual respect, combined with the minimum amount of censorship and policing possible.

Ultimately however, some wonder whether the collectivist world of Wiki, might not become more and more untrustworthy and cultish as the web expands. It is a danger that Wales himself seems to be aware of.

Speaking at the University of Pennsylvania in June last year, he reportedly said that Wikipedia should not be used by college students to conduct serious research, and if students continue to believe in the objectivity of Wikipedia, they only have themselves to blame.

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