“Don’t be sneaky,” says Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. That’s his advice to public relations people who try to get client messages onto the open-content website that sprang to life and straight into controversy 11 years ago. The nonprofit online encyclopedia — which, its founder admits, “has had some verification issues in the past” — currently houses nearly four million articles.
“It’s made me unhappy when we’ve made an error,” Wales tells me. “But it’s never made me cry. It’s motivated us. We always go back and figure out what we did wrong — and more to the point, how to make sure we never do it again.”
Wales is wearing a black mock-turtleneck sweater, black slacks, black shoes, and a formless grayish blazer. He looks stylish (if truth be told, I dress very much the same way) but also as though he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to looking fashion-forward (ditto!) He sports black horn-rimmed glasses, dark, receding hair, and, perhaps to appear au courant but more likely because he’s exhausted from traveling, a 5 o’clock shadow — or at least it was 30 minutes before our 5:30 p.m. chat at the Fairmont Hotel, immediately prior to his speech to roughly 100 eager students at Hult International Business School’s San Francisco campus.
I ask Wales if he thinks that Wikipedia’s recent publicity-grabbing blackout did any good. You’ll recall that many websites, including Wikipedia, shut down for 24 hours on Jan. 18 to protest Congress’ latest and typically over-the-top bid to institute anti-piracy laws on the web. (I should point out here that Vice President Joe Biden, who’s president of the U.S. Senate, has plagiarized speeches and been caught doing it; it’s not all that relevant to this issue but, as a writer who’s been pilfered from more than a few times, I never want anyone to forget it. Thank you for your patience.)
The two bills that Wales and his compatriots were protesting, on the grounds that they were what Wales and others call “draconian,” were the Senate’s Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the House of Representatives’ Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA. This may be the only time you’ve seen the words “congress” and “intellectual” in the same story.
“I think it was a huge success,” Wales says. “SOPA and PIPA have been completely shelved. Darrell Issa says the issues are radioactive now.” Issa, a Republican, is the U.S. Representative for California’s 49th congressional district which includes Vista, a city in North San Diego County. I know this because I looked it up on, yes, Wikipedia. My fact checkers are standing by.
As a parting shot, I ask Wales — whose cool name makes him sound like a Scottish rock star — if he’ll ever launch a blackout again. “Oh, I hope not,” he says calmly. Then he shrugs. “But then again, history has yet to be written.” Now, that’s sneaky.
Read the full Sacramento Business Journal article.