At the British Academy’s 2017 Prizes & Medals ceremony on Wednesday night (27 September), Jimmy Wales, 51, received a President’s Medal for "facilitating the spread of information through his work creating and developing Wikipedia, the world's largest free online encyclopedia." In his speech, he praised the Wiki community – in whose honour he accepted the award – and paid tribute to the academics and “great minds” without whom, he said, his work would be impossible.
We caught up with Jimmy after the ceremony to discuss receiving an award from the British Academy, his new venture into community journalism and the dangers of 'post-truth' politics.
Congratulations on receiving your award, Jimmy. Are you surprised by how far Wikipedia has come?
Well, no. It is very pleasing to see how far we’ve come but I’m always a very optimistic person and I’ve always had faith in the amazing community of Wikipedia, in their passion for getting things right and making improvements. But we still have a long way to go.
Wikipedia has come under fire for being, at times, unreliable. What do you say to your critics and what steps have you taken to address their criticisms?
First and foremost, I’d say we’re very passionately committed to getting it right and we have a whole set of processes and procedures for this – we require reliable sourcing for everything that goes on Wikipedia. But it’s always a work-in-progress. One of the things that I’ve learned is that creating high-quality reference material is quite difficult. We do our best.
Your newest venture is the WikiTribune, which you’ve described as "a news platform that brings journalists and a community of volunteers together." Can you explain some of the reasons for launching the Wiki tribune, how it will work and what you hope to achieve?
There have been a lot of very difficult times for journalism and the news media in recent years and I think it’s time to explore new models of production, particularly peer production and collaborative efforts by many people to improve news. At the same time, I don’t believe you can do journalism completely from your armchair so we want to combine the efforts of paid professional journalists and let them do what they do best and let the community do what they do best to find a way to do something new.
And where did the idea come from? Was it, by any chance, inspired by a certain man in the White House?
(Laughs) Well I’ve been thinking about the idea for many years but I will admit that I was spurred to action by a President who seems to have utter contempt for facts and truth, plus a real sense that the public is hungry for factual information. Of course, this is not to say anything political, left or right. It’s just to say that whatever political decisions people want to make, I want them to make those decisions based on knowledge.
How dangerous is that 'post-truth' attitude towards facts and expertise?
These things always go in waves. The pendulum swings back and forth. But that doesn’t mean that really bad things can’t happen. I’m really concerned by the rise of an irrational and none-fact-based fear of ‘the other’, whoever that might be and wherever you might be. We’ve sign the rise of 'America first', we’ve seen the rise globally of increased nationalism and isolationism – we’ve been there before and it ends very badly. And we have nuclear weapons now. We really can’t afford to let it end badly again.
How confident are you that online resources such as Wikipedia can remain free and free from government and corporate interests?
I’m reasonably confident. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and the public responds very well with its support. It’s always been really important to us that we have a lot of small donors because that gives the community a real intellectual independence. We’re not dependent on one or two huge donors and I think that’s vital.