Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 11:54 UK

Wikipedia takes business approach

By Maggie Shiels
BBC News, San Francisco

Jimmy Wales, head of Wikipedia
Jimmy Wales has faced criticism over direction of organisation

Wikipedia started as a hobby with noble aims and in just six short years has turned into a global brand headed by a founder who is both a guiding light for devotees and a lightning rod for critics.

While Wikipedia goes from milestone to milestone in its quest to provide every person with a free encyclopaedia, Jimmy Wales's efforts to shift the organisation towards a more business like approach has put him firmly back in the firing line.

Over the last few months the charismatic leader has been lambasted for his use of expenses, his love of the limelight, his seemingly partial editing on some Wikipedia postings and his private life.

Fallout over the latter lead to headlines such as "Wiki Quickie" and gossip sites having a field day when his ex auctioned Mr Wales's clothes on eBay.

Personal attacks aside, Mr Wales has also been accused of damaging the core fabric of the organisation by moving to Silicon Valley, cosying up to venture capitalists, and appointing an executive director.

While all this would be in the normal course of things for most charities trying to stay afloat, in the world of the Wiki community there is concern about the organisation becoming too corporate and reliant on venture capitalists.

Keeping the faith

Jimmy Wales, head of Wikipedia
Getting as wide an audience for the encyclopaedia remains the focus

At the new offices in San Francisco, Mr Wales is surrounded by a staff of just 16 people. The breeze block interior is strewn with white boards and photos of some of the 75,000 people who write, edit and police Wikipedia's millions of entries.

The personal attacks are shrugged off with a certain level of nonchalance. "Most people see through it for what it is. My spending habits are audited. There are no jets or Porches. It's sort of silly you know."

When it comes to talking about the future direction of the organisation, Jimmy is more animated. He says putting it on a more professional footing is about ensuring a stable future for Wikipedia.

The business relies mostly on small donations averaging $30 from its tens of thousands of supporters. It recently won a $3m grant from the Sloan Foundation.

"We are really focusing on beefing up the infrastructure of the foundation itself and where we go from here. The core values of my work are about getting a free encyclopaedia of good quality into the hands of every single person on the planet. It's a huge public project and I just have to ignore what people say about me."

From little acorns

I was just a guy sitting home in my pyjamas playing on the internet like everybody else but I did feel it was a big important idea
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia
Today Wikipedia is one of the world's largest reference websites attracting nearly 700 million visitors a year. It is written in more than 250 languages with over 2.3 million articles in its English edition.

With a degree of modesty Jimmy concedes "I thought if we are really successful we might make the top one hundred websites and now we are like number eight on the internet and much bigger than I would have ever thought."

The speed of growth meant the organisation was more than due a degree of business direction says Executive Director Sue Gardner.

"When I came to the organisation I was surprised to find there was no one whose job it was to do fund raising and that is unheard of for a non profit. And it's a remarkable tribute that this could be as successful as it is with literally not one person charged with going out and looking for money to keep it all going."

Wikipedia is now actively looking for a full time fund raiser and is unabashed about courting vac's for their contributions despite concern from the Wiki community.

"For the first time we are actively going out and cultivating people and asking them for money. The terms are the same as they have always been. It doesn't get you a voice at the table particularly though if you have interesting things to say we are interested to hear them."

Ms Gardner says they are also looking at cashing in on the Wikipedia brand and are open to suggestions some of which have included TV programmes and a board game.

"Our bottom line is that if it helps the mission of free knowledge that's a big step up for an idea. If is hurts it, it's a deal breaker, but of course there is a whole world in between."

Future vision

With Wikipedia just recently notching up its ten millionth page article Jimmy says he always knew he would do something that would make a difference.

"I was just a guy sitting home in my pyjamas playing on the internet like everybody else but I did feel it was a big important idea. I always had this feeling that you're here so you might as well do something useful."

Proof of that came on a recent trip to India where Jimmy says he met a young man in the streets of Delhi who used Wikipedia to pass his 11th grade exam. "Wow, that's like really something. Here I am standing in a street with mud and a cow and we had touched his life in a positive way. That was pretty cool."




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