James Altucher interviewed Jimmy Wales (@Jimmy_Wales) to talk about his history and daily role as the co-founder of Wikipedia, gamification, and how Wikipedia might expand.
Wales joined Altucher after listening to a session on women leadership at the UN. He mentions some charitable work he heard about, and said that this charity is a “global issue that everybody can get behind.”
No doubt that is true, but do you ever wonder what the best ways to spend charity money? Well, it turns out the Freakonomics team did, and published an episode recently called, “Fixing the World, Bang-for-the-Buck Edition”. The episode features an interview with Bjørn Lomborg who runs the Copenhagen Consensus Center which brings “together lots of economists and seven Nobel Laureates to think about where do we spend money and do the most good per dollar spent.” Podcast host Stephen Dubner asks about which of the many (many!) aims of the UN prove to be the most desirable after a cost-benefit analysis, and Lomborg says, “mostly it needs to be something that we know how to do and we know how to do fairly cheaply and it will do a lot of good.” One example he shares is to get malnourishment to 2 or 3% (rather than “ending” as the UN phrases it). This, Lomborg says, has a big pay off. The younger the child, the more the effect, and you only need about $96 per child. If kids are fed better, their brains develop more, they stay in school longer, and so on. The interview is interesting throughout and Lomborg has given a TED Talk.
Back to the interview, Altucher mentions that Wikipedia is one of the largest sites in the world. According to Alexa it trails only Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, and Baidu. True to form, and a question I wished more people asked, Altucher inquires about Wale’s origin story. Wales is from Huntsville Alabama where he grew up to the sound of the Saturn V rockets, where “sometimes the windows would rattle from the rockets going by.”
Wales goes on to talk about growing up in Huntsville and mentions that it was different from the rest of Alabama, and maybe not what most people (me included) think. On my first pass, this comments about the diversity in Huntsville slipped by me and I made nothing of it, but the story is so much richer than that. It turns out that the history of the Saturn V rocket really begins with Operation Paperclip, the program which brought Nazi and German scientists to America. Of course it wasn’t that easy, President Truman had to be duped after ordering that no one with Nazi affiliations would be allowed in the country. Consequently the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency created new employment and biographies for the scientists. A cursory glance at Wikipedia doesn’t suggest that any of these scientists were in Huntsville, but it’s an interesting vein no less. There was also the book, Operation Paperclip released earlier this year. It’s on my to-read list now.
Part of the ethos of Wikipedia comes from the “southern hospitality” that Wales grew up with and he says that he’s happy to make money, but with Wikipedia “it’s more like an artistic statement” and he’s pleased that rather than written by the winners, history is now written by everyone.
Part of Wikipedia’s history were early contributors, one of who Wales said was great in certain areas of the site, but when he got to Israel-Palestine issues he “couldn’t control himself.” Nassim Taleb (a past Altucher guest) writes about this attitude Antifragile. Taleb terms this “domain dependence,” where we are able to see solutions in one area but not transfer them to another. Altucher solves this by the less elevated term, idea sex.
For disputes, Wales says that most people are akin to a priest and personal rights person coming to a compromise of agreeing to disagree, so long as all the facts are there. Wales says the hardest people to get to settle down are those least convinced of their ideas, because they are most afraid of having their minds changed. This, as Wales points out, brings cognitive dissonance, the mental equivalent of a rock in your shoe.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress we have while holding two contradictory beliefs. We can’t both like Wal Mart and the environment so we change our thinking to align with one. If however, we hear a story about how Wal Mart’s advanced logistics reduces transportation pollution, we can again hold both beliefs.
The most famous – or enjoyable – story of rectifying cognitive dissonance is the Ben Franklin effect. Dave McRaney does a much better job with the story, but the tl:dr version is that Franklin had an adversary he needed to turn into an ally. To do so he asked to borrow a rare book the man owned, the man acquiesced, lent the book, and then became Franklin’s friend. The theory goes that because this man lent the book to Franklin, and he only lends books to friends, that Franklin must be a friend. We don’t like the state of dissonance and avoid it, on Wikipedia or elsewhere.
Back in the interview Altucher asks what contributed to the initial viralness of Wikipedia. Wales says that from the start, the site was useful and a good use of a person’s time. Even only a single article about a polar bear would be useful to someone needing to know about polar bears. The second part was a feeling of goodwill that people can “geek out” on.
Wales says he has “A lot of beef with what goes on under the title of gamification” in part because it doesn’t work well on him. I agree, gamification done poorly is like a lot of other things done poorly, not good. Good gamification though is something that enhances the experience. In his book, For The Win, How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, Kevin Werbach writes that gamification is using game elements and game-design techniques in non game settings. For Professor Werbach this means finding a good mesh between game “stuff” and your business “stuff.” Even though he admits gamification doesn’t work on him, Wales admits it would be cool to be a mayor on Foursquare. That’s good game integration. It’s not just leaderboards, badges, and points. Done well it’s much more psychologically rich than that.
Altucher and Wales turn the conversation to what numbers generally say about us and Wales asks the question, “what if you went to work with a number?” If you think the days of grades, GPA, and SAT scores are behind you, then you aren’t applying for a job at Salesforce, who in 2012 listed a Klout score of 35 or higher as “desirable.” I found this out from the fantastic Dataclysm by Christian Rudder. The book is a combination of Malcolm Gladwell and John Stewart. Rudder’s guess is that beyond past experience we give more through our public tweets and posts. These will be hashed, bashed, and smashed into a single number. Greater than 80 and you’re hired.
While Salesforce is asking for numbers, Tyler Cowen is projecting their arrival in all fields. Klout may serve as a good indicator for Salesforce but Cowen suggest all service providers will have a ranking. It may be Yelp style reviews for everything from doctors to accountants to school district, building, grade, and teacher scores. Whatever number you end up with, make sure you look out for number one.
Wales mentions he is active on Quora where his profile says is a “very small” investor. There he answers questions, like “how did Jimmy Wales learn to code and what is the sequence in which he learned languages?” To which he replies that he’s not a good programmer but began in Basic and most recently learned some Ruby. Some of his other answers include thoughts on Che Guevara, great shows with horrible endings, and how to hack (or not) sleep.
Altucher asks about what the most intense battles on Wikipedia are, and I expected something big. Anything short of a possible cause for World War III would surprise me, and I was surprised. Wales said that recently there was a “big debate about emdash versus dash.” Another recent issue was that the rivers in Poland, which are known by their German names, are now being referred to by their Polish names. How Wikipedia handles this change is something he has been working on.
Altucher then brings up a point about people optimizing their sites for Wikipedia. He’s brought this idea up in past podcast episodes, suggesting the education model if a framework were to exist and Wales is open to the idea, to some extent. “On that first point is something we struggle with a lot. Because there is a lot of that type of behavior that goes on that is quite unethical. Including a lot of lying and pretending to be someone you’re not.”
An ethical suggestion that Wales has is to just start by taking good photos of your staff and releasing them under the Creative Commons guidelines and pinging Wikipedia about them. Here for example is Altucher’s Wikipedia photo.
Wales says that most of the people in the business of helping others with Wikipedia are “selling snake oil” and all you need to really do is email Wikipedia and say “hey there is something wrong with my entry.”
To Altucher’s point about Wikipedia and MOOC, Wales envisions something where Wikipedia entries serve as the reading to be prepared for the lecture and caught up to speed and then watch the video. This doesn’t exist verbatim, but Wikipedia does have articles part of a series.
Wales thinks the growth for Wikipedia will come in non-English speaking language. When the site began it was 100% in English but now 4.5 million pages of the 30 million total pages are in English.
Altucher asks about what the next open-source area will be. According to Jane McGonigal and her book, Reality is Broken, it’ll look a lot like Wikipedia. McGonigal makes the case that the online world does a lot of things better than the real world and – despite our domain dependence – we should take those ideas and apply them there. In Reality is Broken she writes about Wikipedia and the success it’s had. Another example McGonigal gives is the 2009 investigation of members of parliament and their illegal expense claims. The problem with the situation was that there were over 450,000 documents so the Guardian set up a crowdsourcing situation. This “game” led to 28 members of parliament resigned or declared their intention to resign. Another crowdsourcing example was in 2009 when DARPA launched ten red weather balloons in unannounced US locations and offered a $40,000 prize to the first team that could identify the locations. It took a team from MIT less than nine hours to find them all. Their secret, was a social network of only about 5,000 people. From entries on Saturn V rockets to research for rocket scientists, crowdsourcing has a bright future.
Wales seems pretty comfortable in Facebook serving some of the gaps that open source projects may have been part of. For example, he has no problem with Facebook being a login option rather than OpenID. But he goes on to say, “When I think of that question, what are the next things that can be done in an open source way, one of the ones I’m really interested in is production of video, particularly animation.” Can a community of people who can write, draw, and produce a video get together to make something that rivals Pixar? It hasn’t been done yet but Wales is hopeful.
Wales says that the systems for Wikipedia existed in 1996 but it took 6 years for the social constructs to come through so people would work together to create it. All the pieces for making a movie to rival Pixar are there, but not how the people will do it. For example, who gets the rights, the money, and so on? A current example of this is Slender Man.
Slender Man as created by “Victor Surge” who added the character and captions to a pair of photos. Things were well and good in the community from inception in 2009 until 2010 when “Surge” registered a copyright but a third party “holds the options to any adaptations into other media, including film and television.” Basically, you can make Slender Man art, but not money. This is the next hurdle.
Before he has to go, Wales turns the table on Altucher asking him about the waiter’s pad he has in front of him. Like in other instances, he explains that the waiter’s pad serves to constrain what he can write, leaving room for only the important stuff and focusing his thinking on just that.
Wales wraps the interview by telling Altucher he is working on The People’s Operator; where 10% of your phone bill goes to the cause of your choice and 25% of the company’s profits to charity.
Thanks for reading. This post took 4 hours for the listening, writing, and direct research. If you like what you read and would like to make a donation, you can do so here.
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