Walk into any room, and you're unlikely to find two more unassuming-looking men than Jimmy Wales and Craig Palmer.
Yet both are responsible for services that have completely changed the way the world works – and which employ the talents of hundreds of thousands to bring information free of charge to a global audience.
It's a prospect that would have felt unimaginable until Wikipedia, launched 15 years ago, came along. Wales was co-founder of the revolutionary online encyclopedia, which created waves and ballooned thanks to its ability to let users edit pages. What might have seemed a recipe for disaster instead saw it become a resource fêted for its breadth and accuracy, and ranked among the 10 most-visited websites.
As well as driving its continued success and development, Wales co-founded free hosting service Wikia in 2004 (then called Wikicities), which is headed by Palmer as CEO. It launched its entertainment news service Fandom earlier this year.
They spoke at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna about the "New Golden Age of Media", and we caught up with them to find out about their thoughts on how the internet will develop, as well as advice for anybody wanting to start their own life-changing ventures.
Why do you think there’s a golden age of media?
Craig: With video games you have a massive amount of console games, PC games, literally tens of thousands of mobile games, VR technology, eSports coming into the mix. With television and movies there’s never been as many high-quality, really deep TV shows or movie franchises as there are today. Then if you marry with that the whole world of user-generated content, the creativity that you find on YouTube and other places like that, I really think it is the golden age of media – and consumers have way too many choices nowadays, and not enough time.
In a world of five, six billion connected people, with platforms like Wikia and Wikipedia, you can have your knowledge and share it with the world.Craig Palmer
Why create user-generated content and open platforms like Wikia and Wikipedia, and what sparked the idea for Wikipedia?
Jimmy: Wikipedia was originally sparked by the growth of open-source software, so you could collaborate to build all the great software that runs the web. I realised that this kind of collaboration on the internet could go beyond the software into all kinds of cultural work. Wikipedia was the first stage of that, creating an encyclopedia in all the languages of the world.
Wikia was the second phase: what else can we do, let’s push this platform further and see the kinds of innovations we can do to empower communities of people to do other things. So that’s what we do.
Craig: I think if you drew the hands of the clock back a decade or more pre-internet, you didn’t have a platform to be an expert. You might know something, but unless you were a professional writer, or teacher, or critic, or somehow you had a platform to make your knowledge known – if you didn’t, no one would know. In a world of five, six billion connected people, with platforms like Wikia and Wikipedia, you can have your knowledge and share it with the world.
I think there are a lot of opportunities for communities to come together and build amazing things.Jimmy Wales
What were the main challenges it faced since it began?
Jimmy: I always saw that I’m a pathological optimist so I’m definitely looking at things on those terms. Everything seems fine to me, always! Obviously coping with the growth, there was a lot of work involved with that. Obviously we’re thinking about community and how to ensure they’re happy and healthy, and all of that.
Where do you see the future of UGC platforms heading?
Jimmy: I think we’ve still got a long way to go. I think there are a lot of opportunities for communities to come together and build amazing things. We’ve done the encyclopedia, we’ve done encyclopedic fansites, now at Wikia we’re moving into more news and current-event reporting by fans. I think there’s still a lot of interesting things happening.”
Where do you think that Wikipedia, Wikia and Fandom fit into this?
Craig: One of the themes that Jimmy Wales and I talk about is the democratisation of content. Fans of something who love something so much that they take the time to learn everything about it and have a platform to be able to make their knowledge known. Whereas Wikipedia is one community, with Wikia we have 360,000 communities now – pretty much everything in pop culture. The depth of content that’s created is astounding. Our Star Wars community has about 130,000 pages of content, Marvel 160,000 pages of content, so the passion of fans and the knowledge they bring to the table is unmatched today. In a world of complex media it’s almost becoming something that you have to have along with the show itself, to allow people to understand and experience it properly.
What would you be your advice to anybody who wants to try and change the world?
Craig: The world is almost limitless now, in terms of the way that technology can be efficiently applied to many problems. The amount of money and time and people it takes to build a company… You could be one person at home and build a mobile app that scales to 100 million people. It’s possible today. So the way in which companies can be efficiently scaled is way different than it was 20 years ago. When you have a platform of five to six billion users via the internet going to seven, eight, 10 billion connected users over the next few years, the possibilities are limitless. If you see something you think is an opportunity or problem to be solved, go for it. That’s my advice.
For more about Wikipedia and Jimmy Wales check out this interview (in German) in The Red Bulletin.