Jimmy Wales talks on the future of Wikimedia

In an interview, the co-founder of Wikipedia discusses modeling the Wikimedia Foundation after the Red Cross and content licese frustrations

The role Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, plays at the organization that supports the user-generated and user-edited encyclopedia is changing as he shifts more of his time to activities in the wiki and open source communities and shares time with his for-profit venture, Wikia Inc.

Despite a much busier schedule, he believes he'll be able to keep up with the new changes and that they'll give more people in the community a chance to step up and shine. The organization that collects the donations that support Wikipedia and other wiki projects, the Wikimedia Foundation, in fact, plans to double in numbers over the next year or so as it tries to build itself into a model organization similar to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Wales talked about his changing role at the Wikimedia, plans for the future, and other topics during an interview with IDGNS in Taipei.

IDGNS: Wikia has been up and running for a few years now, how are you splitting time between the company and the foundation?

Jimmy Wales: My main role in the for profit company is really sort of high-level vision, a design of where we're going. Gil [Penchina, CEO of Wikia] takes care of a lot of the day-to-day stuff at Wiki, so that frees me up to take care of community stuff.

On the foundation side, it's been great. In the early days, I used to literally do everything. There's always been this idea of Wikimedia being like the Red Cross of information. It needs to be a real organization (like the Red Cross) that is sustainable without me, and this transition has really helped make that happen. It's allowed others to come in and fill new roles, and I'm not in the limelight as much as before. But it's been a lot of work.

IDGNS: How close do you see the Wikimedia Foundation to becoming more like a Red Cross, a foundation that the open source and free software communities can use as a model for building sustainable organizations?

Wales: The foundation as an organization, in two or three years, we think will be a "model" organization that people can look to. In the past, I would say that is not the case. Wikipedia (by contrast) has been very well run. The foundation behind it has not been nearly as on top of things. We've had a lot of growing pains.

It was a purposeful decision to make the foundation as lean and mean and efficient as we could, because that way we don't have this enormous overhead expense to worry about. Particularly in the early days, we didn't know how funding was going to go. Now that we're a little more financially comfortable and we have a bit more experience with fundraising, we are reaching out to major donors, we are getting the capacity to write grant proposals. We're getting more comfortable to say OK, we can add more staff to actually do more things and become a more professional organization, which is a great relief to a lot of people in the community because traditionally, it's been difficult to get the foundation to do things because there isn't anyone to do things.

IDGNS: Does that mean the foundation plans to expand?

Wales: The foundation currently has 10 full-time positions, and that will probably double in the next year or so.

IDGNS: What will the new people do? I mean, how will Wikimedia change as new people join?

Wales: We'll be able to do a lot more. I'll give you an example. We were approached by a mobile phone company from Portugal about having an advert that shows Wikipedia on a phone and what you can do with it. The point is that Wikipedia is well known enough by the general public that a mobile phone company can sell more phones if people think they can use Wikipedia on their phone. In the past we'd just get these kind of offers, and there was just nobody there to deal with it. With more people on board, the foundation can look into these kinds of things, can write more grants, can do more.

IDGNS: Switching gears a bit, there was some talk at Wikimania 2007 in Taipei about frustration over content licenses, the GNU Free Documentation License versus the Creative Commons License. Is there anything coming up to resolve the differences between these two licenses?

Wales: We have delightful religious wars over terminology (chuckling). It's difficult to sort out the religious battles. Wikia tries to use the GNU Free Documentation License everywhere, but sometimes we can't because some of these communities we've acquired may have already existed under a Creative Commons License.

In Wikipedia, when they've had a Creative Commons License that's incompatible with Wikipedia, then people can't move content back and forth, like you can't take a Wikipedia article and use it on Creative Commons Wikia, and you can't take our stuff and put it back on Wikipedia.

A core principle of Wikipedia itself is to be neutral and try to write neutrally and try to avoid battles that result in acrimony. The foundation has always been correctly very principled about the licenses that we use, but we don't try to shun similar licenses. We really work for license compatibility and to solve those issues. In a way, the foundation has taken a very extreme position, but in a very non-activist attitude.

I believe that in the future a lot of these license issues will be worked out. The GNU Foundation and Creative Commons are trying to reduce incompatibilities, particularly when you have license incompatibility on licenses that have the same spirit. In principle, everybody agrees on some kind of revision to one or both kinds of licenses to ensure compatibility. The devil is in the details. The outcome could be a change in one or both of the licenses, or a new license.