What’s your proudest moment?
Seeing hundreds of volunteer Wikipedia editors come together at a conference we had last summer in Frankfurt. Three years ago I was just this guy in my pajamas typing on the Internet, so seeing all these people brought together was pretty great.
What’s your deepest regret?
When I started Wikipedia I had no idea it was going to get so big, so I registered the domain under my home address. I got lots of threats and weird mail until I moved recently.
What’s your worst fear?
The main thing I worry about is that as the Wikipedia grows we preserve the values that got us where we are: quality, reliable sources, and trust.
You talk a lot about trust, but can a culture of trust really work?
We already trust each other in all kinds of scenarios and for the most part it works. I think it works as long as people know each other. It starts to break down if you get too many people and nobody knows each other.
Is there a God?
No, there isn’t. I’m a pretty hardcore atheist, but it’s not something I talk about much.
Which historical figure would you most like to meet?
Thomas Jefferson, he’s an enigmatic figure. He owned slaves yet he put forth ideas and values that today are considered essential to democracy and human rights.
What would you say to him?
There’s no simple one thing to say. I’d want to have a long conversation.
Growing up in Alabama, your mom and grandmother were your primary teachers. What was that like?
I was given the freedom to study as I liked, so it was great because I had plenty of time to read, read, read.
What’s your favorite curse?
How would you define Wikipedia?
It’s a freely licensed encyclopedia written by thousands of volunteers in many languages.
Can we trust it?
The overall quality is very high, but any given page at any given moment could be sort of a mess. So if you want to be sure about something, use Wikipedia for broad background knowledge, then check the references and check the sources.
You’ve said Wikipedia makes the Internet not suck. What sucks about the Internet?
When you do a search and get tons and tons of random non-information. You get a lot of commercial websites that are highly biased. The Internet’s chock-full of junk.
Not counting your own, what’s your favorite website?
LEO’s German dictionary (dict.leo.org). I’m trying to learn German and the dictionary is so comprehensive it even includes slang.
How much money do you have?
Right now I’ve got 7 dollars in my pocket for lunch today.
How do you make money from this?
I don’t. I have a for-profit company, Wikia.com, and I have a salary from that. What we’re doing is expanding the Wiki community model to create political sites, hobby sites, fan sites, etc.
What are your hobbies?
Travel—I’ve been to about 30 countries in the past year and a half—and reading with my little girl, who’s five.
What do you, Spider-man cocreator Steve Ditko, and Rush drummer Neil Peart, have in common?
I happen to know the answer to that: we are all fans of Ayn Rand.
What’s so great about Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy?
It’s a philosophy focused on reason, purpose, and self esteem. That’s the short answer.
Wikipedia has been punked a few times. What was the most imaginative prank?
There was a great parody article called “European Toilet Paper Holder.” It’s still online in somebody’s blog. It’s quite funny, right down to parodying our style and pictures.
You’ve said that people who post and edit on Wikipedia are smart and social, but shouldn’t they get out more?
It’s an interesting thing about our culture that you can sit at home all weekend and watch sports, and nobody says anything about it. But we’re considered nerdy. But, yeah, having said that, we should probably get out more.
The editor of Encyclopedia Britannica compared Wikipedia to a public toilet. What did he mean by that?
Maybe he read the European toilet paper article. Or maybe he meant that it may or not be clean and you may not know who was in there before you.
Do you envision a day when we’ll have to pay to use the “public toilet” or will Wikipedia always be free?
I don’t anticipate it will ever be a pay site. It doesn’t cost that much to keep it online, and it’s supported by donations to the Wikipedia foundation.
I tried to correct a couple of pages on Wikipedia, but the changes weren’t accepted. Why not?
It could have been due to editorial judgment, or maybe the material was repeated somewhere else. Or maybe the other editor wasn’t as smart as you.
Have you written any articles in Wikipedia?
Yes, but I try to stay away from anything controversial. The one I always remember is the article I wrote about the scientist who helped rediscover the ivory-billed woodpecker. I met the scientist, took pictures of him, everything. Then I learned it’s a very controversial topic in the bird world.
So what does a person have to do to get a page about them in Wikipedia? (I definitely pass the Google test.)
It’s a very haphazard process and a lot of discussion takes place. We’ve got bios on 80,000 living people, but the trouble with living people is that they come and read their bios, and if they get upset, we have to deal with them.
I promise not to get upset, unlike the Chinese government, which has blocked Wikipedia. Is there anything you can do about that?
Our position is that it must be a mistake. We’ve never been contacted. We’re into neutrality but maybe that’s something they can’t handle. I’m hoping to persuade them to go back to what they used to do, which was only filter pages they’re not comfortable with.