The Unconventional Innovator Who Created Wikipedia

A series of detours and reversals, and an openness to unconventional thinking, culminated in Jimmy Wales’s best-known invention.

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of homebound schoolchildren and university students have benefited from a valuable resource that most take for granted. Today, anyone with a desktop or mobile device can instantly utilize — for free — an easily searchable database that grants them “access to the sum of human knowledge” in over 300 languages. That resource is Wikipedia.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of its launch on Jan. 15, 2001, it’s worth recalling that before Wikipedia, many people had limited (if any) access to the knowledge provided by publishers such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Even in industrialized nations such as the United States, the cost of an encyclopedia set was prohibitive for many lower-income families. The final 32-volume print edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica — which weighed 129 pounds (58.5 kilograms) — cost nearly $1,400.1

With the benefit of hindsight, it may seem inevitable that someone, at some point, would have invented a platform like Wikipedia. But in truth, the creation of this online marvel was not predestined. Its creation required the determined efforts of an unconventional, original thinker: Jimmy Wales.

The digital advances of the past two decades have enabled a much broader population than ever before to express creative intelligence.2 Unconventional thinkers the world over have unprecedented access to distributed knowledge, talent, capital, and consumers. Yet, breakthrough solutions remain hard to come by. Here’s an outline of the counterintuitive steps that Wales took to create Wikipedia.

Looking with fresh eyes. To come up with original ideas, you must pay attention in new ways, which means focusing closely on a certain context or population to understand its dynamics and latent needs. Wales was not a computer scientist or technology specialist, though he did learn to code. As an undergraduate and graduate student, he studied finance but spent his spare time using his computer to focus on his real passions. Through his involvement with user-generated content, two developments really caught his attention.

First, the possibilities of mass participation: While playing the first generation of online fantasy games — such as Zork and Myst — Wales saw the power of computer networks to fuel large-scale, collaborative projects. Second, he saw the possibilities of idea exchange within communities. As email usage grew, Wales became a frequent contributor to early online discussion forums.

Wales continued to watch the internet from the sidelines while trying to write a web browser. But then Netscape went public in 1995, and its stock more than doubled on the first day of trading. Wales realized that investors were seeing what he’d already foreseen — that the internet would change the world — and decided it was time to get involved.

The following year, Wales and two partners launched a website called Bomis, which enabled people to find and share articles on popular topics (among more controversial content). Though unremarkable as a search engine, Bomis attracted enough traffic and advertising revenues to allow Wales to spend time figuring out what else might be possible in this space.

Stepping back to understand. To become an unconventional innovator like Jimmy Wales, you must set aside your preconceptions and open your mind to alternative forms of reality. To see differently, you need to switch focus and redirect your attention to the signals coming from fringe sources — people and things you might normally perceive as marginal. To think more deeply and objectively about what you’ve noticed, it’s important to pause and rise above the details and confusing information.

Wales spent a lot of time thinking about online communities and collaboration, not just programming. He was particularly intrigued by the success of the open-source software movement responsible for much of the complex software that runs the internet. Much of this software was developed by volunteers coming together to collaborate, but Wales’s previous exposure to game theory told him that without incentive structures, this kind of mass collaboration would not work.

What drove such collaborative efforts, he realized, was ideology and intrinsic motivation rather than tangible rewards. This caused him to wonder whether such collaborative efforts could extend beyond software to all kinds of cultural works.

To continually innovate, it is important to make time for pauses. These thoughtful breaks help us overcome framing and action biases, prompting us to question our initial assumptions, redefine the problems we want to solve, uncover new insights, reflect on what is (and isn’t) significant, and distinguish noise from important (but sometimes weak) signals.

Joining the dots. Breakthroughs often stem from making unlikely connections between disparate concepts to propose something that does not exist.

In fall 1999, Wales envisioned connecting the internet with human knowledge to produce a freely licensed, online encyclopedia built by unpaid collaborators. Fired up by this vision, Wales was impatient to see if it could be done.

Within weeks of hatching the idea, Wales persuaded Larry Sanger to get the project moving. In January 2000, Sanger became editor-in-chief of the new online venture, Nupedia. Although the new encyclopedia would be free, Nupedia was established as a for-profit venture.

From the start, the quality of the contributions was on par with academic publications, but so was the speed of production, thanks to the multistage editorial process. Even with 100-plus articles under review and several dozen more assigned, the output was frustratingly slow. Nine months into the venture, Wales and Sanger both realized that Nupedia was not growing fast enough. They needed to try something different.

Research shows that outsiders often find it easier to think differently and develop novel solutions. In many cases, outsiders are able to better connect disparate thoughts because they come to the table with fewer preconceptions than insiders. Organizations can spark imaginative connections by assembling teams that offer diverse knowledge bases and perspectives.

Testing to improve. The big risk, once you start testing your cherished idea, is that you will stop exploring your options and challenging your assumptions. It is important to continue to test and experiment, not just to prove but to improve.

As Wales and Sanger sought ways to make it easier for people to contribute to Nupedia, they came across a potential solution: a new technology called a wiki used by software developers for radical collaboration. It enabled multiple users to create, edit, and hyperlink pages simultaneously, while also keeping track of all the changes and earlier versions.

Wales and Sanger decided to test the wiki to see if content could be created faster and at scale. But the experiment quickly met resistance from the Nupedia advisory board, which was uncomfortable with the subversive idea of letting “just anyone” contribute to the encyclopedia.

The experimental site was spun off into a separate project called Wikipedia, which quickly eclipsed Nupedia in size and reach. Within two weeks, the new site had 600 articles. In less than a year, by the end of 2001, users had created over 20,000 entries.

A commitment to experimentation lets you proceed in a more deliberate and systematic way to discover the truth of what works — or, more precisely, what works when. A big risk, once you start testing your idea, is that well-established confirmation biases and sunk cost effects will deaden your responsiveness to corrective feedback. Experimentation should be used to validate and to investigate.

Maneuvering to gain traction. Once you have a workable solution, you need to mobilize supporters and steer past obstacles. The instant appeal of Wikipedia could easily have been derailed by mismanaging the volunteer community or the funding challenge. But Wales made two counterintuitive moves that ensured Wikipedia’s growth and success.

First, managing without a manager. Sanger soon found that Wikipedia was “essentially unmanageable.” And Wales, realizing that a top-down approach was unsuited to dealing with volunteers, sensed that Wikipedia would be better off without centralized management. He decided that the best way to proceed would be to delegate power to the community. As it turned out, harnessing the power of the crowd made it easier to eliminate errors and vandalism. And as the user base grew, Wikipedia became a self-healing system.

Second, prospering as a nonprofit. Without a paid staff, Wikipedia could run on a shoestring. But Wales still had to find a way to cover the operating costs to keep expanding. He floated the idea of putting advertising on the site, but the mere thought of accepting ads prompted the core group of volunteers at Spanish Wikipedia to revolt.

Realizing that this business model might alienate content creators and jeopardize the whole venture, Wales pivoted, and in 2003, he switched the ownership of Wikipedia to a charitable foundation. Ultimately, this proved to be a winning proposition.

Since then, Wales’ business model has proved to be remarkably stable, enabling Wikipedia to steer past threats to its integrity and propel it into the ranks of the most-visited websites in the world. By 2016, Wikipedia had more than 18 billion page views per month, 20,000 new articles per month, and 27 million registered users.3

When it comes to mobilizing support, innovators often delude themselves in two ways: They overestimate the ability of their breakthrough solution to speak for itself and succeed on its own merits, and they underestimate the potential hostility of the environment. Success is often achieved through a combination of both managing risk and gaining traction among key stakeholders.

No Single Best Way

The steps described above do not normally occur as an orderly sequence. In practice, you can start anywhere, proceed in any direction, and switch focus as required, looping back or working two fronts in parallel. Yet, while the order is flexible, you do need to pass through all of the steps at least once, because each one neutralizes different biases. Neglecting even one can cause you to focus on the wrong problem, idea, or solution.

By considering all the steps, you will maximize your chances of producing a truly game-changing solution by journey’s end — just as Jimmy Wales did.

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References

1. E. Peralta, “After 244 Years in Print, Encyclopaedia Brittanica Goes All-Digital,” NPR, March 13, 2012, www.npr.org.

2. A. Meige and J.P.M. Schmitt, “Innovation Intelligence: Commoditization. Digitalization. Acceleration. Major Pressure on Innovation Drivers.” (Absans Publishing, 2015).

3. M. Anderson, P. Hitlin, and M. Atkinson, “Wikipedia at 15: Millions of Readers in Scores of Languages,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 14, 2016, www.pewresearch.org.

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