“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” Jimmy Wales, 2004.
“We must instil in our lawyers their role in fighting for truth.” Anthony Julius, 2017.
In June 2017 we welcomed Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales for a conversation with Mishcon de Reya’s Deputy Chairman Anthony Julius to tackle one of the core themes of the Mishcon Academy: the defence of truth. WikiTRIBUNE, a new, ‘neutral, high quality news platform’, is Wales’ response to not only the growing phenomenon of fake news but the paucity of quality journalism in an internet age.To kick off the discussion, Julius wanted to rewind to the beginnings of cultural staple Wikipedia, and to understand how it had led to Wales’ foray into the news. Wales grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, near where NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre is based and where they built the scientific development for the space programme. It is, he says, an unusual place, where astronauts were like ‘hometown sports heroes’ and there was a focus on technology and science. His uncle set up the areas first local PC store, where Wales worked part time as his first job. He moved to Chicago to be a futures and options trader when the internet was in its infancy and, recognising it would be ‘big and important‘, spent his spare time writing a web browser.
Wales originally launched Nupedia in1999, which had the same vision as Wikipedia – to be a free encyclopaedia for everyone in their own language, but its seven stage review process and academic approach was intimidating. Wales realised he needed something more lightweight, open and community driven, so he stripped it back and in 2001 Wikipedia was born. Wiki is a group collaboration tool that anyone can edit. It uses open source software, which was low cost and easy to set up, and has the goal of providing high quality, neutral information. Wikipedia was something Wales simply felt ‘should exist‘.
Today, those using Wikipedia can have a realistic expectation of accuracy, with sources of information cited throughout its articles. As Wales puts it, ‘we’ve moved on from a period in which Wikipedia was a joke. People don’t trust it to be 100% accurate, but they trust it isn’t driving some particularised agenda.’ But how does a resource so vast monitor its content? Behind Wikpedia sits a diverse community of writers, admins and hundreds of pages of editorial rules and guidelines designed to make content as fact-based and neutral as possible.
The Wikipedia community is easy to join and adopts an accountability rather than a gatekeeping model. ‘We say, come and write, but we’re watching you’, explains Wales. Wikipedia has exposed a wealth of expertise widely distributed throughout society, and embraces ‘amateur talent’ – people who are passionate versus qualified, and willing to participate for sheer enjoyment alone.
Policing the neutrality of what is written is an ongoing process and the source of much discussion within the community ‘with no magic answer’, says Wales. However neutrality is firmly instilled as a value and its pursuit is obvious within the rules. In fact, Wales believes the explicit pursuit of neutrality is in itself valuable and he concedes that it is a goal upon which it will always be possible to improve. In the meantime, Wikipedia attempts to ‘marshal different views’ and is careful to ‘remove the rough edges, not to state fact in a contentious way and not to say something that isn’t in the source.’
Wales likens the community to British democracy – with no written constitution, they observe trends in how they operate and write them down as a kind of code of conduct. Wikipedia, as Julius puts it, has the ‘character of a movement, with no power seeking objective – just the goal of distributing knowledge’. It’s not prescriptive or political, asserts Wales, but there are certain principles: ‘if it’s well sourced and properly written then, sorry, we’re not going to take it down.’
WikiTRIBUNE will harness a similar community to work alongside paid professional journalists and generate a news platform which is led by that community, launched without advertising and voluntarily supported by its readers. Wales set up a crowdfunding campaign and the resulting funds indicate no shortage of public appetite for his idea: ‘there’s a real desire for good quality journalism‘.
In a world where there is a growing perception that the mainstream media is not to be trusted and there is an increasing amount of alternative ‘news’ sources available, people have become more receptive to lower quality, less policed journalism that speaks to their agenda. It is in these separate bubbles that people inhabit that fake news may be seen to thrive – bubbles that Wales hopes to burst through providing free access to an open, community driven news platform: a source of truth for those in pursuit of it.
Written by Jessica Hart.