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The Jimmy Wales interview (Part 1): The future of the Internet

ITProPortal spoke to co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales in a rare interview away from the cameras and microphones of the traditional conference circuit.

Jimmy told us about the journey he's been on to bring Wikipedia to the world, what's lying in store for the online encyclopaedia, and what the future of the Internet could mean for the developing world, the Earth and everyone on it.

So how has wiki addressed security?

Inside companies, people are using Wikis a lot to handle pretty sensitive stuff. I mean, even the CIA has a Wiki – I think it’s called “Intellipedia” – so those kinds of issues can be managed. With any kinds of documents there are those kinds of challenges: how do you stop it leaking? So it’s hard in today’s world.

Going back a bit, you started off with Nupedia, which was totally peer-moderated. What were the lessons drawn from that?

I think the biggest shift came when we went from a gatekeeper model to an accountability model. So in a gatekeeper model, which is the traditional encyclopaedia, you make sure the people who are writing it are qualified, and that’s it. That’s the end of your controls. There can be a little bit of oversight by an editor or something like that, but you just trust that this person does the right thing. And that doesn’t always work. It often works. You know, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

But in the accountability model, everything is open. You can see all the past versions of the articles, you can approach the authors and complain and ask them why it’s not different – you can even join the authors and change it yourself. It’s about constant improvement and always changing. So it has a lot of advantages over the traditional models, but some disadvantages of course.

Is that more collaborative approach important when advancing debate in areas like China for instance?

Speaking very broadly, I think we don’t get anywhere in society without democratic dialogues and debates, hopefully grounded as much as possible in reason, rather than just screaming at each other. That’s something that I think is an important value, and it’s a value that the Internet makes possible on a much larger scale than in the past. Of course, it also makes screaming at each other possible on a much larger scale too, so we have to guard against that.

So what are the trends you see in content and open content that you expect to see in the future?

One is increasing global diversity. The next billion people are coming online in the next 5-10 years. They’re coming online from places we don’t hear much from, so that’s going to be really super interesting: when I see the ongoing mix of cultures – people having musical influence, for example, from different places. The other thing I would say is the increasing percentage of total Internet traffic that’s on mobile devices. And that’s going to have a lot of impact on content.

If you want to read Wikipedia on your phone, for example, it’s actually pretty good – but if you want to edit it, it’s not trivial, and it will never be trivial. I do edit sometimes on my iPad, and it’s okay – it’s not easy, but it’s doable. So one of the things that’s interesting, if we think of something like Wikipedia, and we think of it coming to people for the first time on a mobile device, most of those people will be pure consumers. They won’t be able to produce content.

I think that’s very interesting, and it’s a challenge for us. We want to make sure we’re supporting readers by supporting writers.

And what about the next generation of mobility? Do you have an opinion on wearable technology and what effect that will have?

Well I’m very intrigued by it, but very sceptical – but then I’m usually wrong about these things. My initial caveat is that when the iPad came out, I was like “why do I need this? I have Internet on my computer, I have my phone.” And then I got one, and I’m like “Oh my God, it changed my life.” It’s the most amazing thing. So we have to be careful.

I just recently got a chance to try Google Glass. It’s intriguing. Nobody trained me in it, I just played with it for ten minutes. It didn’t really understand me – I just said “OK Glass”, because that’s what you’re supposed to say, but I couldn’t work out how to get to any of the apps or do anything. It didn’t immediately take away my scepticism. I’m not completely dissing it, but I didn’t put it on and go “wow, it’s a whole new world.”

There are other things, though. I do think there’s some cool stuff. I don’t have it on at the moment, because it broke, but I have a Jawbone Up. I think it’s really cool. It’s the third one I’ve had, because they seem to break a lot. But I think there’ll be a huge market for that kind of technology for monitoring your body. It’s really fun, actually, to see how much sleep you’re getting, measure your jet lag and that kind of thing.

How do you see the Internet of things and the new wave of data impacting the content landscape?

I don’t know! That’s really interesting. I think of a lot of different weird ideas, some of which would work, and some of which won’t.

So what’s one of your weird ideas?

So something like Jawbone Up in a community – so I share my data with a few friends, but it’s not like Twitter or Facebook. So if I have conversations about my exercise, maybe I’d share that data with you, but it’s not something I want to generally share. I can imagine something like people wanting to share information, but only under a pseudonym. We've seen this trend towards using real names, like in Facebook for instance, but I think actually there are some things that are really personal but that I still want to be social with. It’s a weird paradox: I want to be part of a community, but I also want to be anonymous.

Suppose I'm wearing a device that monitors my heart rate and so on, and I want to be part of a diet community. I want to lose weight, I want to lose 30lbs, and I want to talk to people about that, but I don’t want my friends to see that, for instance, but I still want to talk about it.

So have we become an over-sharing society in that respect?

Yeah, I think so – but it’s hard to put a finger on it. I think everybody’s struggling with what to share and what not to share. We’re struggling with it on a really personal level, but there’s also a lot of commercial pressure on people now to share more and more.

I was recently chatting with a friend on Facebook, and they knew exactly where I was. I didn’t realise I had a location beacon turned on. She was like “Jimmy, I know you’re always obsessed with you privacy and security – but I can literally tell you your address now.” So I think people are legitimately worried about that kind of data leakage.

But there are some apps where you want to be tracked. Cycling apps, for instance, have distance and location and speed and so on – which is really cool, but I also want to be anonymous on there.

Is there a role for locational data in the future of Wikipedia?

Yeah, there’s already a small amount. There’s a new feature that’s kind of in beta right now, called “What’s new?”

Literally millions of articles have already been tagged with geo-coordinates. People were doing that before it was even remotely practical. I think someone uploaded the coordinates of the Eiffel Tower or something. But now it’s really coming to fruition with mobile devices and things like that. I can load up where I am now, and it’ll tell me what’s new in Barcelona. I think that’ll be part of the future: you know, I’m in this city and I’ve got 30 minutes – what can I see?

There’s also been some interesting stuff done to help us realise our limitations. There are density maps showing what we cover in Wikipedia. You can see that people cover things in their home countries and less outside. More than that, the real issue is that if you go global, there’s tons in Europe, the US, Japan – but in Africa, there’s very little geo-tagged there. That obviously shows some content holes.

So what can we do about that?

At the foundation we can do a lot, but it’s also a long slog. It’s things like addressing editor diversity by addressing the technical limitations. That’s a big part of our strategy. Trying to bring in more diverse editors from more mixed backgrounds. Some of those [programmes] had more success than others.

But I also think these problems are going to fix themselves as the Internet becomes ubiquitous. Which I would say in about 25 years’ time will be about as ubiquitous as television – which is not, actually, as ubiquitous as radio. Nearly 100 per cent of the planet has access to radio, but once that starts to happen, and it’s easier to count the number of people who aren’t connected than who are, we’ll start to see more local coverage in places where it’s currently weak.

So is that where comes in? Do you agree with Bill Gates that Internet isn’t a priority for the developing world?

You know, I can see exactly where Bill Gates is coming from. He’s talking about access to clean water, vaccines, and that kind of thing – and he’s absolutely right. But I also think that Bill Gates quite famously underestimated the Internet once, and it’s really important not to underestimate the impact it can have in terms of local empowerment.

A lot of the kids in these areas have phones, and phones that are powerful enough to access the Internet – but they can’t pay the data charges. What is the social, political, medical, scientific impact of people having access to not just Wikipedia, but Facebook, Twitter and so on? This is how people can start a petition or get in contact with a reporter. It’s the ability to organise, and ponce you’ve got that, you can start to demand some of these fundamentals.

If I were Bill Gates, and I were thinking about how to spend my money, I think I completely agree with him. If that’s what he can do to help, he should do that.

Are there any particular threats you see facing the future of the digital society?

I think one risk we face is balkanisation, so the breaking up into multiple Internets. I don’t think that would veer happen in so stark a way as we’d say “well, we can no longer talk to Germany because they’ve walled off the Internet,” but I do think there are a lot of subtle ways where there’s a risk of that kind of thing, for regulatory, for privacy reasons. I think all the recent revelations about the NSA spying are going to have an enormous effect, and specifically on cloud services.

I think we’ll see a reluctance – you know, if I’m the CEO of BMW, I already know that I’d be stupid to put open data in China, because the Chinese will steal it for corporate espionage purposes.

Now I have to wonder to what extent does that go on in the US – to what extent my data will be safe from NSA spying. Maybe I should just keep all my data here in Germany, with its strong privacy laws and so on.

If the West loses the moral leadership for openness and freedom of speech, and protection of dissidents and people with a political critique and so on, the world will be in big trouble. I’m not a doom-sayer about this, I’m just sounding a cautionary note.

Stay tuned for the second half of our exclusive interview - coming soon!