Wikipedia co-founder and Internet Hall of Fame member Jimmy Wales is being honored in 2020-21 by the Imagining the Internet Center, an initiative of Elon University, for decades of leadership as a change agent, humanist innovator and global leader in the early days of the digital age
April 8, 2021 – Jimmy Wales is the co-founder of the world’s foremost online, non-profit, platform for informing and educating the world – Wikipedia – and is a leader of and advocate for its related organizations, including the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts and funds it.
Wikipedia, which was launched in 2001, is the sole non-commercial, ad-free site that has consistently ranked among the worldwide top 100 most-viewed sites; it has been ranked among the top five most-viewed for nearly its entire history. Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation in 2003 to gain public funding in support of Wikipedia.
Over the years since then, the Wikimedia community has also added to its portfolio a dictionary – Wiktionary; a quotation search engine – Wikiquote; an online repository of free-use media – Wikimedia Commons; a collection of free textbooks and annotated texts – Wikibooks; a citizen journalism site – Wikinews; and Wikiversity, a project for the creation of free learning materials and the provision of online learning activities; Wikispecies, a catalogue of species; and Wikivoyage, an editable travel guide. His most-recent effort with the Wikimedia team is the launch of an ad-free alternative to Facebook and Twitter called WikiTribune Social. It launched in October 2019 and has about a half million users. In addition, Wikimedia recognizes 179 “Wikimedia model affiliates” as part of the Wikimedia movement – chapters, thematic organizations and user groups.
In 2004 Wales, seeking to create a space that enables groups of people to share information and opinions that fall outside the scope of an encyclopedia project like Wikipedia, also co-founded Wikia, a for-profit company. Wikia became attractive to investors and was rebranded as Fandom Inc. in 2018. As of 2021 it provides hosting services for more than 200,000 wikis on topics ranging from Star Wars to Call to Duty. Fandom also operates Wikia.org, a platform that hosts groups organized in support of social causes, local history, politics and religion.
As we celebrate Wales with this honor, we also celebrate the Wikipedia creators, editors and supporters globally whose sustained contributions continually make these public-knowledge resources possible.
A passion project that is for the people and by the people
Wales entered college at 16, earning a finance degree from Auburn University and a finance master’s at the University of Alabama and then working on his Ph.D. During those years and over the next decade he became fascinated with the ways in which networked computers allow for non-hierarchical, community-operated organizations. In 2001, he co-led the launch of Wikipedia, just such an organization. It went live January 15, 2001 with a handful of articles written and published by the public on his platform. He was pleased and surprised when it grew to nearly 20,000 entries written by 350 contributors in its first year.
Wales is being honored with the Areté Medallion of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center as Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary. Approximately 280,000 people edit it monthly and it includes more than 56 million articles in 319 languages. In 2021 Wikipedia’s English-version pages are viewed by more than 1.7 billion visitors a month, and there are more than 17 million monthly edits and additions to its content. The English Wikipedia alone has more than 6.2 million articles, 41 million registered editors and 144,000 active editors.
Wales helped create and continues to inspire a constantly evolving, world-changing non-profit movement that allows people everywhere to instantly access, co-create and share knowledge. For instance, Wikimedia’s Wikidata project has coded and tagged Wikipedia’s massive, organized data set of global information to allow developers of artificial intelligence tools to train neural networks efficiently for free. Thanks to Wikidata, when you ask Google, Alexa, Siri or other digital assistants a question, the instant answer you get is often snagged from Wikipedia.
While Wikipedia’s openness to new entries and ongoing edits and updates also opens it to misinformation or hoaxes, its editing community has become fairly adept at keeping a close eye out for and correcting such inputs.
In fact in recent years, in the fight against fake news and the posting of other false or misleading information, Facebook and YouTube have both turned to the most-reliable Wikipedia postings to help their users evaluate, report and reject misinformation and disinformation.
Wales told the New York Times in 2008, “To create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language, that’s who I am. That’s what I am doing. That’s my life goal.”
This was a restatement of a description he’d written in a 2005 posting on the Wikipedia mailing list in which he also wrote:
“I do not endorse the view – a view held as far as I know only by a very tiny minority – that Wikipedia is anti-elitist or anti-expert in any way. If anything, we are *extremely* elitist but anti-credentialist. That is, we seek thoughtful intelligent people willing to do the very hard work of getting it right, and we don’t accept anything less than that… I’m 100% committed to a goal of Britannica or better quality for Wikipedia, and all of our social rules should revolve around that. Openness is indispensable for us, but it is our *radical* means to our radical *ends*”
An expert working group formed as a part of the Stanford University-based One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence project referred to Wikipedia in a report released in 2016 as “the best-known example of crowdsourcing … that far exceeds traditionally-compiled information sources, such as encyclopedias and dictionaries, in scale and depth.”
A community, a library, a constitution, an experiment, a political manifesto and the closest thing there is to an online public square
As Wired magazine noted in a 2020 article titled “Wikipedia is the Last Best Place on the Internet”:
“Like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, it broadcasts user-generated content. Unlike them, it makes its product de-personified, collaborative and for the general good. More than an encyclopedia, Wikipedia has become a community, a library, a constitution, an experiment, a political manifesto – the closest thing there is to an online public square. It is one of the few remaining places that retains the faintly utopian glow of the early World Wide Web. A free encyclopedia encompassing the whole of human knowledge, written almost entirely by unpaid volunteers.”
Jimmy Wales has continued his focus on spreading access to information and the opportunity to participate in building and updating Wikipedia to every person in the world. One such effort was the Wikipedia Zero project, establishing partnerships with telecommunications companies to provide mobile phones preloaded with Wikipedia to more than 800 million people in developing countries.
He has appeared regularly as a speaker, panelist and consultant on crowdsourcing and open-source policymaking over the past decade. He advocates for the reinvention of social media to bring positive social change and publicly condemns government suppression of the internet as a human rights violation.
He founded the Jimmy Wales Foundation, a UK-based non-profit initiative for the public benefit that aims to fight against human rights violations in the field of freedom of expression, particularly online.
The 4 billion-plus people online today can freely tap into Wikipedia and the other projects of the Wikimedia Foundation to find reliable, ongoing, ever-growing knowledge resources to enhance their lives
Jimmy Donal Wales has been recognized many dozens of times globally for his contributions to the positive evolution of knowledge-sharing in the new era of digital life. Among the many honors: In 2006 Wales was listed among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. He has also earned the 2006 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Economist’s 2008 Business Process Award, the 2009 Monaco Media Prize and the 2009 Nokia Foundation Award “for his contributions to the evolution of the World Wide Web as a participatory and truly democratic platform.”
In 2014 Wales shared the inaugural $1-million Mohammed bin Rashid Knowledge Award with World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. In September 2017, he was awarded the President’s Medal of the British Academy.
He is a fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and he serves on the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and on the board of directors at Creative Commons.
The Areté Medallion: Jimmy Donal Wales
- Since 2001 Jimmy Wales has made significant contributions in the development and positive evolution of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, co-creating and fostering a world-changing non-profit movement that allows people everywhere to instantly access and add to vast troves of human knowledge.
- He inspired wiki-based enterprises that inspire globe-spanning communities of contributors who are self-organized and self-governed as they constantly create the world’s most-reliable open-source, regularly updated information collections.
- He continues to work toward a free and open internet and web, and works and speaks globally in support of the continued openness of the world’s digital communications network as a human right.
* Photos of Wales shown on this page were taken at the Global INET conference in Geneva in 2012 by Daniel J. Anderson of Elon University. No use of these photographs is permitted without prior written permission.
About Imagining the Internet
The mission of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center is to explore and provide insights into emerging network innovations, global development, dynamics, diffusion and governance. Its research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. It works to illuminate issues in order to serve the greater good, making its work public, free and open.
The center is a network of Elon University faculty, students, staff, alumni, advisers and friends working to identify, explore and engage with the challenges and opportunities of evolving communications forms and issues. They investigate the tangible and potential pros and cons of new-media channels through active research.
Among the spectrum of issues addressed are power, politics, privacy, property, augmented and virtual reality, control and the rapid changes spurred by accelerating technology. It exposes future possibilities while simultaneously providing a peek back at the past.