Jimmy Wales


Huntsville native Jimmy Wales (1966- ) is the founder of the Internet Web site Wikipedia, a groundbreaking open-forum online encyclopedia, is president of Wikia, Inc., and is chair of the Wikimedia Foundation. Wales is credited with transforming the way people share, use, and create information on the World Wide Web with his innovative concept of an encyclopedia created by a community of contributors and readers that is self-organized and self-governed. Wales has earned both criticism and praise for his project and was named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine in 2006. Wikipedia currently includes more than 16 million articles in more than 260 languages.

Jimmy Donal Wales was born in Huntsville, Madison County, on August 8, 1966, to Jimmy Wales, a grocer, and Doris Ann Dudley Wales, an educator who co-owned the private Montessori-based House of Learning Elementary School with her mother. Wales and his brother were educated at the school by their mother and grandmother. Wales credits his early exposure to the Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedia as well as the less structured teaching style of the school for his later entrepreneurial creativity.

Jimmy WalesRaised in Huntsville, a center of the space industry, Wales was instilled with the optimism that surrounded innovation and science at that time, greatly affecting his love of technology. Recognizing this early interest, Wales's parents enrolled him in 1979 in the Randolph School, a private college preparatory institution in south Huntsville that offered computer science courses, unlike typical public schools at the time. Wales entered Auburn University at the age of 16 and earned a B.A. in finance in 1986; that same year he married his first wife. He then completed a master's degree in finance from the University of Alabama in 1988. While there, Wales became interested in the Internet through his participation in fantasy role-playing games, which contributed to his later views on non-hierarchical, group-created and run Internet entities. He then entered the doctoral program and also taught courses in finance at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. An avid follower of philosopher Ayn Rand, he founded and served as moderator of the Ayn Rand Philosophy Discussion List, an e-mail-based forum that was an early form of social media. Wales has often stated that he subscribes to Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, a worldview based on radical individualism, completely unregulated capitalism, and a belief in an objective reality that exists outside of human consciousness.

In 1992, Wales left Indiana University before completing his degree when he lost interest in graduate school. He moved to Chicago, Illinois, and became a futures and options trader; he and his first wife divorced the following year. In 1997, he married fellow trader Christine Rohan, with whom he had one daughter. The following year, the couple relocated to San Diego, California, after Wales had made enough money to leave his job as a trader and try his hand at running his own Internet-based company, a content aggregator and service provider that he named Bomis. The site presented links to content and advertising, some of which promoted pornography, aimed at men. Wales frequently has defended himself from critics for providing this type of service.

In 2001, Wales used profits from Bomis to launch his first free online encyclopedia, which he named Nupedia. He hired Lawrence M. "Larry" Sanger, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at The Ohio State University and participant in Wales's Ayn Rand group, to oversee the editorial side of the enterprise. Unlike its later incarnation Wikipedia, Nupedia was modeled largely on the academic journal structure, at Sanger's prompting, and featured articles written by scholars that were peer reviewed and then edited by Sanger. The process was much slower than the men had hoped, and Wales was displeased with the lack of openness in the structure. A fortuitous lunch with a friend who worked on wiki software gave Sanger the idea for an additional open encyclopedia project based on the wiki model, which allows multiple users to access a site and add to, change, and manage its content, while keeping track of all the changes. This concept appealed to Wales, who had been schooled during his undergraduate and graduate career in free-market economics and the libertarian views of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek. Wales and Sanger agreed to explore the wiki model as a way to create their encyclopedia.

Wikipedia, a Web-based encylopedia, has more than 16 WikipediaWales and Sanger expected Wikipedia to be little more than an interesting side project to Nupedia when it launched on January 15, 2001. By the end of that year, however, the site boasted more than 15,000 entries by some 350 contributors. The rapid expansion forced Wales and Sanger to establish ground rules to structure the wide-ranging entries and content and to determine what would and would not be considered appropriate, stressing neutrality and fact-based writing as the guiding principle. The addition of a discussion page for each article provided a forum for disagreements outside the confines of the entry itself. By the end of 2001, however, the open structure of Wikipedia had brought Sanger, with his greater need for structure, into conflict with some of the more vocal volunteer contributors and editors, who viewed themselves, with Wales's encouragement, as equal partners in the venture. As a result, Wales asked Sanger to leave, although he initially cited financial difficulties as the reason for the "downsizing." There is continuing dispute about who is the creator of Wikipedia, but Sanger generally is credited with bringing in the wiki concept and the name. Wales is most often given credit for the concept of the open and free concept behind Wikipedia and has been accused of erasing Sanger from the company's history. After leaving the project in 2002, Sanger founded Citizendium, a free online encyclopedia that aims to address concerns about Wikipedia's reliability by requiring authors to use their real names, forbidding instant editing by anyone, and employing experts to review entries.

In 2002, Wales moved from San Diego to St. Petersburg, Florida. There, he founded the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to oversee the operations and finances and set policies for Wikipedia and also transferred control of the site from himself to WMF. Initially planning to fund Wikipedia through advertisements, by 2003 Wales had decided that a nonprofit foundation should be its fiscal agent. During this time, Wales was accused of misusing foundation funds, but both he and the board's director deny any wrongdoing. The following year, Wales and WMF board member Angela Beesley founded Wikia, a for-profit company that hosts sites that use the wiki model created by others; they include Wookieepedia (a Star Wars-themed wiki) and Memory Alpha (a Star Trek-themed wiki). WMF oversees the operations of a number of collaborative online projects, including Wikiquote, Wiktionary, Wikimedia Commons, and Wikiversity. Wales served as CEO of Wikia until 2006, and he continues to serve as emeritus chair of WMF and holds the appointed "community founder" position on WMF's board of trustees. Also in 2006, Wales was awarded an honorary doctorate from Knox College in Illinois. In 2008, he co-chaired the World Economic Forum. Wales serves on the boards of Internet open-source licensing company Creative Commons and the collective-intelligence decision-making system Hunch.

Recently, Wales has been crtiticized for introducing new editorial regulations that will require changes to a living person's entry to be reviewed before publishing, a departure from the open editing policies that has outraged many Wikipedia users and participants. The policy change was implemented to combat increasing levels of vandalism on the site. Additionally, several analysts have noted that Wikipedia's  growth and participation rates have begun to decline, although Wales counters that the site has stabilized now that it is well known and popular, being among the top 50 Internet sites in terms of daily usage. He has also said that most topics have been covered by now and that foreign language sites are expanding; only 20 percent of Wikipedia articles are in English.

Additional Resources 

Pink, Daniel. "The Book Stops Here." Wired 13.3 (March 2005), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.03/wiki.html

Poe, Marshall. "The Hive." The Atlantic, April 20, 2010, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/09/the-hive/5118/1/?

Claire M. Wilson
Auburn University


Published July 13, 2010
Last updated October 19, 2010