Jimmy Wales does not stand out in a crowd. For a man who has created one of the websites that has most influenced our experience of the internet, he is remarkably anonymous. So much so, in fact, that when he forgot to fill in his occupation on his landing card when arriving in Britain earlier this summer and explained to an immigration official that he was "the founder of Wikipedia", she dropped her pencil in surprise. "WikiLeaks!" she exclaimed. He smiled. "No, no, no. Different guy. Not wanted in Sweden."
Just more than ten years ago, Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. Now viewed by more than 400 million people a month, the site is the first port of call for anyone wanting to find out about just about anything and consists of more than 20 million articles. Wikipedia is written and maintained by volunteers from all over the world, all busily contributing their knowledge, endlessly correcting, updating and improving. In an average month they make more than 11 million edits between them. There are Wikipedia articles in as many as 280 languages, although Wales only counts the 200 that have more than 1,000 entries.
While plenty of people make an edit or two, roughly 100,000 people regularly make changes. This community consists largely of male computer geeks. "They are overwhelmingly male — about 85 per cent," Wales explains. "In our five-year strategic plan, one of the things we want to do is double the participation of women to 25 per cent. There are a lot of geeks who aren't computer geeks and we want those people to contribute. My father knows everything about Sixties'-era muscle cars and he would contribute to Wikipedia, but he doesn't because it's intimidating."
Throughout our conversation Wales is very careful to speak in the plural, positioning himself as part of the Wikipedia community rather than its frontman. His neat, white shirt, chinos and frameless glasses underline his position as an affluent, well-educated, 45-year-old American everyman. He is tucked in.
Wikipedia has come a very long way since 2001, when the entry for physics simply read "a very broad subject". Despite the site's remarkable success, Wales keeps returning to things he would like to improve. "Within our community there is no crazy relativist view that every opinion is just as valid as everybody else's," he explains. "We're very keen on reliable sources and verifiability, making sure that whatever's in Wikipedia [has] a good source to back it up, and when it doesn't we consider that something that needs to be fixed or improved. We're quite old-fashioned about this sort of thing."
"Old-fashioned" standards of sourcing and neutrality hold the site together. "Those kinds of standards are really what makes it possible for people to participate and collaborate. Otherwise it would be complete chaos," Wales says. But surely there are always going to be vandals? Don't people have their own agendas and disregard the rules?
"There's always vandalism — people coming in and inserting curse words or whatever," he concedes. "People in the community have developed automated tools, for example, so they'll detect curse words and revert them within seconds. Then you have more complicated and difficult problems of people who come in with a particular agenda, trying to push a certain perspective on a topic. People have conflict, discussion, debate — but that's the healthy part of the process. "
Wales is tirelessly optimistic. His optimism about man's capacity to play fair and find compromises is accompanied by the firm belief that technology — and specifically its ability to open up access to information — is a force for good. "Right now there are about 2 billion people online and that's essentially the bulk of the developed world. In five to ten years the next billion people are going to come online. Last summer they dropped a cable from Europe into Nigeria that overnight increased the bandwidth to Nigeria by a factor of 10," he said. "Suddenly people's access to information explodes. And the possibilities for political change are enormous. It means they're connected, that they can organise revolutions, they can learn what's going on in other countries. "
But free-flowing information needs someone to pay for it. Wikipedia, which Wales started after a successful career as a financial trader, is funded by donations. Earlier this year, a fundraising campaign carrying a message from Wales and his photo raised more than £9 million (Dh51 million) from 500,000 donations. Wales also runs Wikia, a separate, for-profit company that brings together enthusiasts with shared passions, such as television shows, food or events, and is funded by advertising.
As with his own ventures, Wales predicts that various business models will coexist successfully on the web: "I think the apps model is really interesting — allowing people that impulse purchase. What The New York Times has done is quite interesting, because in a very transparent, easy way, you can view 20 articles a month without even noticing that there's a paywall, and then you start bumping into the paywall [only] in certain circumstances. What's interesting is it allows The New York Times to stay part of the digital discourse, to maintain its influence as a newspaper of record. Contrast that with The Sunday Times, which has basically dropped off the face of the Earth, as far as I can tell."
Even while Wales, the polished, rational philosopher, grapples with the problems technology presents, he is discovering new inventions — nowadays with his 10-year-old daughter. She lives in Florida with Wales's second wife while he is moving to London with Kate Garvey, Tony Blair's former diary secretary, and their new baby. Father and daughter keep in touch by doing the same things while they are apart. "I've started learning Ruby on Rails, a web programming language, with my daughter. Kira and I are working through the Ruby book. It's the right book for her — I know how to program but I'm learning the Ruby."
Kira has also got him addicted to Doctor Who and to reading Lord of the Rings. As a child he read constantly, and particularly loved World Book encyclopaedias.