Transcript for Jimmy Wales: Wikipedia | Lex Fridman Podcast #385

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #385 with Jimmy Wales. The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in the main video. Please note that the transcript is human generated, and may have errors. Here are some useful links:

Table of Contents

Here are the loose “chapters” in the conversation. Click link to jump approximately to that part in the transcript:


Jimmy Wales (00:00:00) We’ve never bowed down to government pressure anywhere in the world, and we never will. We understand that we’re hardcore, and actually, there is a bit of nuance about how different companies respond to this, but our response has always been just to say no. If they threaten to block, well, knock yourself out. You’re going to lose Wikipedia.
Lex Fridman (00:00:21) The following is a conversation with Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, one of, if not the most impactful websites ever, expanding the collective knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom of human civilization. This is Lex Fridman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. Now, dear friends, here’s Jimmy Wales.

Origin story of Wikipedia

Lex Fridman (00:00:47) Let’s start at the beginning. What is the origin story of Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales (00:00:51) The origin story of Wikipedia, well, so I was watching the growth of the free software movement, open-source software, and seeing programmers coming together to collaborate in new ways, sharing code, doing that under free license, which is really interesting because it empowers an ability to work together. That’s really hard to do if the code is still proprietary, because then if I chip in and help, we have to figure out how I’m going to be rewarded and what that is. But the idea that everyone can copy it and it just is part of the commons really empowered a huge wave of creative software production. I realized that that kind of collaboration could extend beyond just software to all kinds of cultural works.
(00:01:38) The first thing that I thought of was an encyclopedia and thought, “Oh, that seems obvious that an encyclopedia, you can collaborate on it.” There’s a few reasons why. One, we all pretty much know what an encyclopedia entry on say, the Eiffel Tower should be like. You should see a picture, a few pictures, maybe, history, location, something about the architect, et cetera, et cetera. So we have a shared understanding of what it is we’re trying to do, and then we can collaborate and different people can chip in and find sources and so on and so forth. So set up first Nupedia, which was about two years before Wikipedia.
(00:02:18) With Nupedia, we had this idea that in order to be respected, we had to be even more academic than a traditional encyclopedia because a bunch of volunteers on the internet getting it right out of an encyclopedia, you could be made fun of if it’s just every random person. So we had implemented this seven-stage review process to get anything published, and two things came of that. So one thing, one of the earliest entries that we published after this rigorous process, a few days later, we had to pull it because as soon as it hit the web and the broader community took a look at it, people noticed plagiarism and realized that it wasn’t actually that good, even though it had been reviewed by academics and so on. So we had to pull it. So it’s like, “Oh, okay. Well, so much for a seven-stage review process.”
(00:03:07) I was frustrated, “Why is this taking so long? Why is it so hard?” So I thought, “Okay.” I saw that Robert Merton had won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on option pricing theory. When I was in academia, that’s what I worked on was option pricing theory, had a published paper. So I’d worked through all of his academic papers, and I knew his work quite well. I thought, “Oh, I’ll write a short biography of Merton.” When I started to do it, I’d been out of academia, I hadn’t been a grad student for a few years then. I felt this huge intimidation because they were going to take my draft and send it to the most prestigious finance professors that we could find to give me feedback for revisions. It felt like being back in grad school. It’s like this really oppressive, like, you’re going to submit it for a review and you’re going to get critiques.
Lex Fridman (00:03:59) A little bit of the bad part of grad school.
Jimmy Wales (00:04:01) Yeah, yeah, the bad part of grad school. So I was like, “Oh, this isn’t intellectually fun, this is like the bad part of grad school. It’s intimidating, and there’s a lot of potential embarrassment if I screw something up and so forth.” So that was when I realized, “Okay, look, this is never going to work. This is not something that people are really going to want to do.” So Jeremy Rosenfeld, one of my employees had brought and showed me the Wiki concept in December, and then Larry Sanger brought in the same, said, “What about this Wiki idea?” So in January, we decided to launch Wikipedia, but we weren’t sure. So the original project was called Nupedia. Even though it wasn’t successful, we did have quite a group of academics and really serious people.
(00:04:45) We were concerned that, “Oh, maybe these academics are going to really hate this idea, and we shouldn’t just convert the project immediately. We should launch this as a side project, the idea of here’s a Wiki where we can start playing around.” But actually, we got more work done in two weeks than we had in almost two years because people were able to just jump on and start doing stuff, and it was actually a very exciting time. Back then, you could be the first person who typed Africa as a continent and hit Save, which isn’t much of an encyclopedia entry, but it’s true, and it’s a start and it’s kind of fun, like put your name down.
(00:05:20) Actually, a funny story was several years later, I just happened to be online and I saw when, I think his name is Robert Aumann, won the Nobel Prize in economics. We didn’t have an entry on him at all, which was surprising, but it wasn’t that surprising. This was still early days. So I got to be the first person to type Robert Aumann, won Nobel Prize in economics and hit Save, which again, wasn’t a very good article. But then I came back two days later and people had improved it and so forth. So that second half of the experience where with Robert Merton, I never succeeded because it was just too intimidating. It was like, “Oh, no, I was able to chip in and help, other people jumped in. Everybody was interested in the topic, because it’s all in the news at the moment.” So it’s just a completely different model, which worked much, much better.
Lex Fridman (00:06:03) Well, what is it that made that so accessible, so fun, so natural to just add something?
Jimmy Wales (00:06:09) Well, I think, especially in the early days, and this, by the way, has gotten much harder because there are fewer topics that are just greenfield available. But you could say, “Oh, well, I know a little bit about this, and I can get it started.” But then it is fun to come back then and see other people have added and improved and so on and so forth. That idea of collaborating where people can, much like open-source software, you put your code out and then people suggest revisions. They change it, and it modifies and it grows beyond the original creator, it’s just a fun, wonderful, quite geeky hobby, but people enjoy it.

Design of Wikipedia

Lex Fridman (00:06:51) How much debate was there over the interface, over the details of how to make that, seamless and frictionless?
Jimmy Wales (00:06:57) Yeah, not as much as there probably should have been, in a way. During that two years of the failure of Nupedia where very little work got done, what was actually productive was, there was a huge long discussion; email discussion, very clever people talking about things like neutrality, talking about what is an encyclopedia, but also talking about more technical ideas. Back then, XML was all the rage and thinking about shouldn’t you have certain data that might be in multiple articles that gets updated automatically? So for example, the population of New York City, every 10 years there’s a new official census, couldn’t you just update that bit of data in one place and it would update across all languages? That is a reality today. But back then it was just like, “Hmm, how do we do that? How do we think about that?”
Lex Fridman (00:07:47) So that is a reality today where it’s-
Jimmy Wales (00:07:48) Yeah-
Lex Fridman (00:07:49) … there’s some-
Jimmy Wales (00:07:50) Yeah, so Wikidata-
Lex Fridman (00:07:50) … universal variables? Wikidata.
Jimmy Wales (00:07:56) Yeah, Wikidata. From a Wikipedia entry, you can link to that piece of data in Wikidata, and it’s a pretty advanced thing, but there are advanced users who are doing that. Then when that gets updated, it updates in all the languages where you’ve done that.
Lex Fridman (00:08:07) That’s really interesting. There was this chain of emails in the early days of discussing the details of what is. So there’s the interface, there’s the-
Jimmy Wales (00:08:14) Yeah, so the interface, so an example, there was some software called UseModWiki, which we started with. It’s quite amusing actually, because the main reason we launched with UseModWiki is that it was a single Perl script, so it was really easy for me to install it on the server and just get running. But it was some guy’s hobby project, it was cool, but it was just a hobby project. All the data was stored in flat text files, so there was no real database behind it. So to search the site, you basically used Grab, which is just the basic Unix utility to look through all the files. So that clearly was never going to scale. But also in the early days, it didn’t have real logins. So you could set your username, but there were no passwords. So I might say Bob Smith, and then someone else comes along and says, “No, I’m Bob Smith,” and they both had it. Now that never really happened.
(00:09:10) We didn’t have a problem with it, but it was obvious, you can’t grow a big website where everybody can pretend to be everybody. That’s not going to be good for trust and reputation and so forth. So quickly, I had to write a little login, store people’s passwords and things like that so you could have unique identities. Then another example of something you would’ve never thought would’ve been a good idea, and it turned out to not be a problem. But to make a link in Wikipedia in the early days, you would make a link to a page that may or may not exist by just using CamelCase, meaning it’s like upper case, lowercase, and you smash the words together. So maybe New York City, you might type N-E-W, no space, capital Y, York City, and that would make a link, but that was ugly. That was clearly not right. So I was like, “Okay, well that’s just not going to look nice. Let’s just use square brackets, two square brackets makes a link.”
(00:10:04) That may have been an option in the software. I’m not sure I thought up square brackets. But anyway, we just did that, which worked really well. It makes nice links and you can see in its red links or blue links, depending on if the page exists or not. But the thing that didn’t occur to me even to think about is that, for example, on the German language standard keyboard, there is no square bracket. So for German Wikipedia to succeed, people had to learn to do some alt codes to get the square bracket, or a lot of users cut and paste a square bracket where they could find one and they would just cut and paste one in. Yet. German Wikipedia has been a massive success, so somehow that didn’t slow people down.
Lex Fridman (00:10:40) How is that that the German keyboards don’t have a square bracket. How do you do programming? How do you live life to its fullest without square brackets?
Jimmy Wales (00:10:48) It’s a very good question. I’m not really sure. Maybe it does now because keyboard standards have drifted over time and becomes useful to have a certain character. It’s same thing, there’s not really a W character in Italian, and it wasn’t on keyboards or I think it is now. But in general, W is not a letter in Italian language, but it appears in enough international words that it’s crept into Italian.
Lex Fridman (00:11:12) All of these things are probably Wikipedia articles in themselves.
Jimmy Wales (00:11:17) Oh, yes. Oh, yeah.
Lex Fridman (00:11:17) The discussion of square brackets-
Jimmy Wales (00:11:17) That is a whole-
Lex Fridman (00:11:17) … in German-
Jimmy Wales (00:11:19) … whole discussion, I’m sure.
Lex Fridman (00:11:20) … on both the English and the German Wikipedia. The difference between those two might be very-
Jimmy Wales (00:11:27) Interesting.
Lex Fridman (00:11:27) … interesting. So Wikidata is fascinating, but even the broader discussion of what is an encyclopedia, can you go to that philosophical question of-
Jimmy Wales (00:11:37) Sure.
Lex Fridman (00:11:37) … what is an encyclopedia?
Jimmy Wales (00:11:39) What is an encyclopedia? So the way I would put it is an encyclopedia, or what our goal is is the sum of all human knowledge, but sum meaning summary. This was an early debate. Somebody started uploading the full text of Hamlet, for example, and we said, “Mmm, wait, hold on a second. That’s not an encyclopedia article, but why not?” So hence was born Wikisource, which is where you put original texts and things like that, out of copyright text, because they said, “No, an encyclopedia article about Hamlet, that’s a perfectly valid thing. But the actual text of the play is not an encyclopedia article. “So most of it’s fairly obvious, but there are some interesting quirks and differences. So for example, as I understand it, in French language encyclopedias, traditionally it would be quite common to have recipes, which in English language that would be unusual. You wouldn’t find a recipe for chocolate cake in Britannica. So I actually don’t know the current state, haven’t thought about that in many, many years now.
Lex Fridman (00:12:44) State of cake recipes in Wikipedia, in English, Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales (00:12:47) I wouldn’t say there’s chocolate cake recipes. You might find a sample recipe somewhere. I’m not saying there are none, but in general, no, we wouldn’t have recipes-
Lex Fridman (00:12:55) I told myself I would not get outraged in this conversation, but now I’m outraged. I’m deeply upset.
Jimmy Wales (00:13:00) It’s actually very complicated. I love to cook. I’m actually quite a good cook. What’s interesting is it’s very hard to have a neutral recipe because [inaudible 00:13:12]
Lex Fridman (00:13:12) Like a canonical recipe for cake-
Jimmy Wales (00:13:13) A canonical recipe is-
Lex Fridman (00:13:14) … chocolate cake.
Jimmy Wales (00:13:15) … is kind of difficult to come by because there’s so many variants and it’s all debatable and interesting. For something like chocolate cake, you could probably say, “Here’s one of the earliest recipes,” or, “Here’s one of the most common recipes.” But for many, many things, the variants are as interesting as somebody said to me recently, 10 Spaniards, 12 paella recipes. So these are all matters of open discussion.

Number of articles on Wikipedia

Lex Fridman (00:13:44) Well, just to throw some numbers, as of May 27, 2023, there are 6.6 million articles in the English Wikipedia containing over 4.3 billion words. Including articles, the total number of pages is 58 million.
Jimmy Wales (00:14:05) Yeah.
Lex Fridman (00:14:06) Does that blow your mind?
Jimmy Wales (00:14:08) Yes, it does. It doesn’t, because I know those numbers and see them from time to time. But in another sense, a deeper sense, yeah, it does. It’s really remarkable. I remember when English Wikipedia passed 100,000 articles and when German Wikipedia passed 100,000, ’cause I happened to be in Germany with a bunch of Wikipedians that night, and then it seemed quite big. We knew at that time that it was nowhere near complete. I remember at Wikimania in Harvard when we did our annual conference there in Boston, someone who had come to the conference from Poland had brought along with him a small encyclopedia, a single volume encyclopedia of biographies, so short biographies, normally a paragraph or so about famous people in Poland, and there were some 22,000 entries. He pointed out that even then, 2006, Wikipedia felt quite big.
(00:15:12) He said in English Wikipedia, there’s only a handful of these, less than 10%, I think he said. So then you realized, yeah, actually, who was the mayor of Warsaw in 1873? Don’t know. Probably not in English Wikipedia, but it probably might be today, but there’s so much out there. Of course, what we get into when we’re talking about how many entries there are and how many could there be, is this very deep philosophical issue of notability, which is the question of, well, how do you draw the limit? How do you draw what is there? So sometimes people say, “Oh, there should be no limit.” But I think that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny if you really pause and think about it. So I see in your hand there you’ve got a BIC pen, pretty standard. Everybody’s seen billions of those in life.
Lex Fridman (00:16:05) Classic though.
Jimmy Wales (00:16:05) It’s a classic, clear, BIC pen. So could we have an entry about that BIC pen aisle? I bet we do, that type of BIC pen because it’s classic. Everybody knows it, and it’s got a history. Actually, there’s something interesting about the BIC company. They make pens, they also make kayaks, and there’s something else they’re famous for. Basically, they’re a definition by non-essentials company. Anything that’s long and plastic, that’s what they make.
Lex Fridman (00:16:33) Wow, that’s very-
Jimmy Wales (00:16:34) If you want to find the common ground-
Lex Fridman (00:16:36) … platonic form, the platonic form of a BIC.
Jimmy Wales (00:16:37) But could we have an article about that very BIC pen in your hand, so Lex Fridman’s BIC pen as of this week?
Lex Fridman (00:16:45) Oh, the very, this instance-
Jimmy Wales (00:16:45) The very specific instance, and the answer is no, there’s not much known about it. I dare say, unless it’s very special to you and your great-grandmother gave it to you or something, you probably know very little about it. It’s a pen. It’s just here in the office. So that’s just to show there is a limit. In German Wikipedia, they used to talk about the rear nut of the wheel of [inaudible 00:17:10] bicycle [inaudible 00:17:11] a well-known Wikipedian of the time, to sort of illustrate, you can’t have an article about literally everything. So then it raises the question, what can you have an article about? What can’t you? That can vary depending on the subject matter. One of the areas where we try to be much more careful would be biographies. The reason is a biography of a living person, if you get it wrong, you can actually be quite hurtful, quite damaging.
(00:17:38) So if someone is a private person and somebody tries to create a Wikipedia entry, there’s no way to update it. There’s not much done. So for example, an encyclopedia article about my mother, my mother, school teacher later, a pharmacist, wonderful woman, but never been in the news, other than me talking about why there shouldn’t be a Wikipedia entry, that’s probably made it in somewhere, standard example. But there’s not enough known. You could imagine a database of genealogy having date of birth, date of death, certain elements like that of private people. But you couldn’t really write a biography. One of the areas this comes up quite often is what we call BLP1E. We’ve got lots of acronyms. Biography of a living person who’s notable for only one event is a real danger zone.
Lex Fridman (00:18:27) Oh.
Jimmy Wales (00:18:28) The type of example would be a victim of a crime, so someone who’s a victim of a famous serial killer, but about whom really not much is known. They weren’t a public person, they’re just a victim of a crime, we really shouldn’t have an article about that person. They’ll be mentioned, of course, and maybe this specific crime might have an article. But for that person, no, not really. That’s not really something that makes any sense because how can you write a biography about someone you don’t know much about? It varies from field to field. So for example, for many academics, we will have an entry that we might not have in a different context because for an academic, it’s important to have sort of their career, what papers they’ve published, things like that.
(00:19:13) You may not know anything about their personal life, but that’s actually not encyclopedically relevant in the same way that it is for member of a royal family where it’s basically all about the family. So we’re fairly nuanced about notability and where it comes in. I’ve always thought that the term notability, I think, is a little problematic. We struggled about how to talk about it. The problem with notability is it can feel insulting. Say, “Oh no, you’re not noteworthy.” Well, my mother’s noteworthy. She’s a really important person in my life, so that’s not right. But it’s more like verifiability. Is there a way to get information that actually makes an encyclopedia entry?

Wikipedia pages for living persons

Lex Fridman (00:19:56) It so happens that there’s a Wikipedia page about me as I’ve learned recently, and the first thought I had when I saw that was, “Surely I am not notable enough.” So I was very surprised and grateful that such a page could exist and actually, just allow me to say thank you to all the incredible people that are part of creating and maintaining Wikipedia. It’s my favorite website on the internet. The collection of articles that Wikipedia has created is just incredible. We’ll talk about the various details of that. But the love and care that goes into creating pages for individuals, for a BIC pen, for all this kind of stuff is just really incredible.
(00:20:43) So I just felt the love when I saw that page. But I also felt just because I do this podcast and I just through this podcast, gotten to know a few individuals that are quite controversial, I’ve gotten to be on the receiving end of something quite … to me as a person who loves other human beings, I’ve gotten to be at the receiving end of some attacks through Wikipedia. Like you said, when you look at living individuals, it can be quite hurtful, the little details of information. Because I’ve become friends with Elon Musk and I’ve interviewed him, but I’ve also interviewed people on the left, far left, people on the right, some would say far right, and so now you take a step, you put your toe into the cold pool of politics and the shark emerges from the depths and pulls you right in.
Jimmy Wales (00:21:41) Yeah, the boiling hot pool of politics.
Lex Fridman (00:21:43) I guess it’s hot, and so I got to experience some of that. I think what you also realize is there has to be, for Wikipedia credible sources, verifiable sources, and there’s a dance there because some of the sources are pieces of journalism. Of course, journalism operates under its own complicated incentives such that people can write articles that are not factual or are cherry-picking all the flaws they can have in a journalistic article-
Jimmy Wales (00:22:18) For sure.
Lex Fridman (00:22:18) … and those can be used as-
Jimmy Wales (00:22:20) For sure.
Lex Fridman (00:22:21) … as sources. It’s like they dance hand-in-hand. So for me, sadly enough, there was a really concerted attack to say that I was never at MIT, never did anything at MIT. Just to clarify, I am a research scientist at MIT. I have been there since 2015. I’m there today. I’m at a prestigious, amazing laboratory called LIDS, and I hope to be there for a long time. I work on AI, robotics, machine learning. There’s a lot of incredible people there. By the way, MIT has been very kind to defend me. Unlike Wikipedia says, it is not an unpaid position. There was no controversy.
Jimmy Wales (00:23:03) Right.
Lex Fridman (00:23:03) It was all very calm and happy and almost boring research that I’ve been doing there. The other thing, because I am half-Ukrainian, half-Russian-
Jimmy Wales (00:23:14) Oh.
Lex Fridman (00:23:15) … and I’ve traveled to Ukraine and I will travel to Ukraine again, and I will travel to Russia for some very difficult conversations. My heart’s been broken by this war. I have family in both places. It’s been a really difficult time. But the little battle about the biography there also starts becoming important for the first time for me. I also want to clarify personally, I use this opportunity of some inaccuracies there. My father was not born in Chkalovsk, Russia. He was born in Kiev, Ukraine. I was born in Chkalovsk which is a town not in Russia. There is a town called that in Russia. But there’s another town in Tajikistan, which is the former republic of the Soviet Union. That town is now called B-U-S-T-O-N, Buston, which is funny because we’re now in Austin, and I also am in Boston, it seems like my whole life is surrounded by these kinds of towns.
(00:24:13) So I was born in Tajikistan, and the rest of the biography is interesting, but my family is very evenly distributed between their origins and where they grew up between Ukraine and Russia, which adds a whole beautiful complexity to this whole thing. So I want to just correct that. It’s like the fascinating thing about Wikipedia is in some sense, those little details don’t matter. But in another sense, what I felt when I saw a Wikipedia page about me or anybody I know is there’s this beautiful saving that this person existed, like a community that notices you that says, “Huh.” You see a butterfly that floats, and you’re like, “Huh?” That it’s not just any butterfly, it’s that one. “I like that one,” or you see a puppy or something, or it’s this BIC pen. “I remember this one, it has this scratch. You get noticed in that way and I know it’s a beautiful thing. Maybe it’s very silly of me and naive, but I feel like Wikipedia, in terms of individuals, is an opportunity to celebrate people, to celebrate ideas-
Jimmy Wales (00:25:26) For sure. For sure.
Lex Fridman (00:25:26) … and not a battleground of the kind of stuff we might see on Twitter, like the mockery, the derision, this kind of stuff.
Jimmy Wales (00:25:35) For sure.
Lex Fridman (00:25:36) Of course, you don’t want to cherry-pick. All of us have flaws and so on, but it just feels like to highlight a controversy of some sort, when that doesn’t at all represent the entirety of the human, in most cases, is sad.
Jimmy Wales (00:25:50) Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a few to unpack and all that. So first, one of the things I find really, always find very interesting is your status with MIT. Okay, that’s upsetting, and it’s an argument and can be sorted out. But then what’s interesting is you gave as much time to that, which is actually important and relevant to your career and so on to also where your father was born, which most people would hardly notice, but is really meaningful to you. I find that a lot when I talk to people who have a biography in Wikipedia is they’re often as annoyed by a tinier that no one’s going to notice like this town in Tajikistan’s got a new name and so on. Nobody even knows what that means or whatever, but it can be super important. So that’s one of the reasons for biographies, we say human dignity really matters. So some of the things have to do with, and this is a common debate that goes on in Wikipedia, is what we call undue weight. So I’ll give an example.
(00:26:59) There was a article I stumbled across many years ago about the mayor, or no, he wasn’t a mayor, he was a city council member of, I think it was Peoria, Illinois, but some small town in the Midwest. The entry, he’s been on the city council for 30 years or whatever. He’s frankly, a pretty boring guy and seems like a good local city politician. But in this very short biography, there was a whole paragraph, a long paragraph about his son being arrested for DUI, and it was clearly undue weight. It’s like, “What has this got to do with this guy if it even deserves a mention?” It wasn’t even clear had he done anything hypocritical, had he done himself anything wrong, even was his son, his son got a DUI.
(00:27:44) That’s never great, but it happens to people, and it doesn’t seem like a massive scandal for your dad. So of course, I just took that out immediately. This is a long, long time ago. That’s the sort of thing where we have to really think about in a biography and about controversies to say, “Is this a real controversy?” So in general, one of the things we tend to say is any section, so if there’s a biography and there’s a section called controversies, that’s actually poor practice because it just invites people to say, “Oh, I want to work on this entry.” It’s either seven sections. “Oh, this one’s quite short. Can I add something?”
Lex Fridman (00:28:23) Right?
Jimmy Wales (00:28:24) Go out and find some more controversies. Now that’s nonsense, right?
Lex Fridman (00:28:24) Yeah.
Jimmy Wales (00:28:26) In general, putting it separate from everything else makes it seem worse, and also, it doesn’t put it in the right context. Whereas, if it’s a live flaw and there is a controversy, there’s always potential controversy for anyone, it should just be worked into the overall article, ’cause then it doesn’t become a temptation. You can contextualize appropriately and so forth. So that’s part of the whole process. But I think for me, one of the most important things is what I call community health. So yeah, are we going to get it wrong sometimes? Yeah, of course. We’re humans and doing good, quality reference material is hard. The real question is, how do people react to a criticism or a complaint or a concern? If the reaction is defensiveness or combativeness back, or if someone’s really in there being aggressive and in the wrong, like, “No, no, no, hold on, we’ve got to do this the right way.” You got to say, “Okay, hold on. Are there good sources? Is this contextualized appropriately? Is it even important enough to mention? What does it mean?”
(00:29:40) Sometimes one of the areas where I do think there is a very complicated flaw, and you’ve alluded to it a little bit, but it’s like we know the media is deeply flawed. We know that journalism can go wrong. I would say particularly in the last whatever, 15 years, we’ve seen a real decimation of local media, local newspapers. We’ve seen a real rise in clickbait headlines and eager focus on anything that might be controversial. We’ve always had that with us, of course, there’s always been tabloid newspapers. But that makes it a little bit more challenging to say, “Okay, how do we sort things out when we have a pretty good sense that not every source is valid?” So as an example, a few years ago, it’s been quite a while now, we deprecated the MailOnline as a source and the MailOnline, the digital arm of the Daily Mail, it’s a tabloid.
(00:30:46) It’s not fake news, but it does tend to run very hyped-up stories. They really love to attack people and go on the attack for political reasons and so on, and it just isn’t great. So by saying deprecated, and I think some people say, “Oh, you banned the Daily Mail? No, we didn’t ban it as a source. We just said, “Look, it’s probably not a great source. You should probably look for a better source.” So certainly if the Daily Mail runs a headline saying, “New Cure for Cancer,” it’s like probably there’s more serious sources than a tabloid newspaper. So in an article about lung cancer, you probably wouldn’t cite the Daily Mail. That’s kind of ridiculous. But also for celebrities and so forth to know, “Oh, well, they do cover celebrity gossip a lot, but they also tend to have vendettas and so forth.” You really have to step back and go, “Is this really encyclopedic or is this just the Daily Mail going on a rant?”
Lex Fridman (00:31:39) Some of that requires a great community health.
Jimmy Wales (00:31:41) It requires massive community health.
Lex Fridman (00:31:43) Even for me, for stuff I’ve seen that’s kind of, if actually iffy about people I know, things I know about myself, I still feel like a love for knowledge emanating from the article. I feel the community health, so I will take all slight inaccuracies. I love it because that means there’s people, for the most part, I feel of respect and love in this search for knowledge. Sometimes, ’cause I also love Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange for programming-related things. They can get a little cranky sometimes to a degree where it’s like it’s not as … you could could feel the dynamics of the health of the particular community and sub communities too, like a particular C Sharp or Java or Python or whatever, there’s little communities that emerge. You can feel the levels of toxicity, ’cause a little bit of strictness is good, but a little too much is bad because of the defensiveness, ’cause when somebody writes an answer and then somebody else says, “We’ll modify it,” and then get defensive, and there’s this tension that’s not conducive to improving towards a more truthful depiction of that topic.
Jimmy Wales (00:33:02) Yeah, a great example-
Lex Fridman (00:33:00) … truthful depiction of that topic.
Jimmy Wales (00:33:02) Yeah, a great example that I really loved this morning that I saw someone left a note on my user talk page in English Wikipedia saying it was quite a dramatic headline saying racist hook on front page. So we have on the front page of Wikipedia, we have little section called Did You know? And it’s just little tidbits and facts, just things people find interesting. And there’s a whole process for how things get there. And the one that somebody was raising a question about was, it was comparing a very well known US football player, Black. There was a quote from another famous sport person comparing him to a Lamborghini. Clearly a compliment. And so somebody said, “Actually, here’s a study, here’s some interesting information about how Black sports people are far more often compared to inanimate objects. And given that kind of analogy, and I think it’s demeaning to compare a person to a car, et cetera, cetera.”
(00:34:01) But they said, “I’m not pulling, I’m not deleting it, I’m not removing it. I just want to raise the question.” And then there’s this really interesting conversation that goes on where I think the general consensus was, you know what, this isn’t like the alarming headline racist thing on the front page of Wikipedia, holy moly, that sounds bad. But it’s sort of like, actually yeah this probably isn’t the sort of analogy that we think is great. And so we should probably think about how to improve our language and not compare sports people to inanimate objects and particularly be aware of certain racial sensitivities that there might be around that sort of thing if there is a disparity in the media of how people are called.
(00:34:40) And I just thought, you know what, nothing for me to weigh in on here. This is a good conversation. Like nobody’s saying people should be banned if they refer to, what was his name, The Fridge, Refrigerator Perry. Very famous comparison to an inanimate object of a Chicago Bears player, many years ago. But they’re just saying, hey, let’s be careful about analogies that we just pick up from the media. I said, “Yeah, that’s good.”
Lex Fridman (00:35:06) On the deprecation of news sources is really interesting because I think what you’re saying is ultimately you want to make a article by article decision, use your own judgment. And it’s such a subtle thing because there’s just a lot of hit pieces written about individuals like myself for example, that masquerade as an objective thorough exploration of a human being. It’s fascinating to watch because controversy and hit pieces just get more clicks.
Jimmy Wales (00:35:41) Oh yeah, sure.
Lex Fridman (00:35:41) This is, I guess, as a Wikipedia contributor, you start to deeply become aware of that and start to have a sense, a radar of clickbait versus truth to pick out the truth from the clickbaity type language.
Jimmy Wales (00:35:58) Oh, yeah. I mean it’s really important and we talk a lot about weasel words. And actually I’m sure we’ll end up talking about AI and ChatGPT.
Lex Fridman (00:36:10) Yes.
Jimmy Wales (00:36:10) But just to quickly mention in this area, I think one of the potentially powerful tool, because it is quite good at this, I’ve played around with and practiced it quite a lot, but ChatGPT-4 is really quite able to take a passage and point out potentially biased terms, to rewrite it to be more neutral. Now it is a bit anodyne and it’s a bit cliched, so sometimes it just takes the spirit out of something that’s actually not bad. It’s just like poetic language and you’re like, okay, that’s not actually helping. But in many cases I think that sort of thing is quite interesting. And I’m also interested in… Can you imagine where you feed in a Wikipedia entry and all the sources and you say, help me find anything in the article that is not accurately reflecting what’s in the sources? And that doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to be good enough to be useful to community.
(00:37:17) So if it scans-
Lex Fridman (00:37:19) Beautiful.
Jimmy Wales (00:37:19) … an article and all the sources and you say, oh, it came back with 10 suggestions and seven of them were decent and three of them it just didn’t understand, well actually that’s probably worth my time to do. And it can help us really more quickly get good people to review obscure entries and things like that.
Lex Fridman (00:37:41) So just as a small aside on that, and we’ll probably talk about language models a little bit, or a lot more, but one of the articles, one of the hit pieces about me, the journalist actually was very straightforward and honest about having used GPT to write part of the article.
Jimmy Wales (00:37:59) Interesting.
Lex Fridman (00:37:59) And then finding that it made an error and apologized for the error, that GPT-4 generated. Which has this kind of interesting loop, which is the articles are used to write Wikipedia pages, GPT is trained on Wikipedia, and there there’s like this interesting loop where the weasel words and the nuances can get lost or can propagate, even though they’re not grounded in reality. Somehow in the generation of the language model, new truths can be created and kind of linger.
Jimmy Wales (00:38:35) Yeah, there’s a famous web comic that’s titled cytogenesis, which is about how an errors in Wikipedia and there’s no source for it, but then a lazy journalist reads it and writes the source, and then some helpful Wikipedia spots that it has no source, finds a source and adds it to Wikipedia, and voila, magic. This happened to me once it, well, it nearly happened. There was this, it was really brief. I went back and researched it, I’m like, this is really odd. So Biography Magazine, which is a magazine published by the Biography TV channel, had a pressor profile of me, and it said, “In his spare time,” I’m not quoting exactly, it’s been many years, but, “In his spare time he enjoys playing chess with friends.” I thought, wow, that sounds great. I would like to be that guy. But actually, I play chess with my kids sometimes, but no it’s not a hobby of mine.
(00:39:31) And I was like, where did they get that? And I contacted the magazine and said, where did that come from? They said, “Oh, it was in Wikipedia.” And I looked in the history, there had been vandalism of Wikipedia, which was not damaging, it’s just false. And it had already been removed. But then I thought, “Oh gosh, well I better mention this to people because otherwise it’s somebody’s going to read that and they’re going to add it, the entry, and is going to take on a life of its own. And then sometimes I wonder if it has, because I’ve been… I was invited a few years ago to do the ceremonial first move in the world chess championship. And I thought, I wonder if they think I’m a really big chess enthusiast because they read this Biography Magazine article.
(00:40:10) But that problem, when we think about large language models and the ability to quickly generate very plausible but not true content, I think is something that there’s going to be a lot of shakeout and a lot of implications of that.
Lex Fridman (00:40:25) What would be hilarious is because of the social pressure of Wikipedia and the momentum, you would actually start playing a lot more chess. Not only the articles are written based on Wikipedia, but your own life trajectory changes because of the Wikipedia, just to make it more convenient. Aspire to.
Jimmy Wales (00:40:45) Aspire to, yes. Yeah, aspirational.


Lex Fridman (00:40:48) If we could just talk about that before we jump back to some other interesting topics in Wikipedia. Let’s talk about GPT-4 and large language models. So they are in part trained on Wikipedia content. What are the pros and cons of these language models? What are your thoughts?
Jimmy Wales (00:41:07) Yeah, so I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going on. Obviously the technology has moved very quickly in the last six months and looks poised to do so for some time to come. So first things first, part of our philosophy is the open licensing, the free licensing, the idea that this is what we’re here for. We are a volunteer community and we write this encyclopedia. We give it to the world to do what you like with, you can modify it, redistribute it, redistribute modified versions, commercially, non-commercially. This is the licensing. So in that sense, of course it’s completely fine. Now, we do worry a bit about attribution because it is a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License. So attribution is important, not just because of our licensing model and things like that, but it’s just proper attribution is just good intellectual practice.
(00:42:02) And that’s a really hard complicated question. If I were to write something about my visit here, I might say in a blog post I was in Austin, which is a city in Texas, I’m not going to put a source for Austin as a city in Texas. That’s just general knowledge. I learned it somewhere, I can’t tell you where. So you don’t have to cite and reference every single thing. But if I actually did research and I used something very heavily, it’s just proper, morally proper, to give your sources. So we would like to see that. And obviously they call it grounding. So particularly people at Google are really keen on figuring out grounding.
Lex Fridman (00:42:48) It’s such a cool term. So any text that’s generated trying to ground it to the Wikipedia quality-
Jimmy Wales (00:42:57) A source.
Lex Fridman (00:42:57) … a source. The same kind of standard of what a source means that Wikipedia uses, the same kind of source-
Jimmy Wales (00:42:57) The same kind.
Lex Fridman (00:42:57) … would be generated but with a graph.
Jimmy Wales (00:43:05) The same kind of thing. And of course, one of the biggest flaws in ChatGPT right now is that it just literally will make things up just to be amiable. I think it’s programmed to be very helpful and amiable and it doesn’t really know or care about the truth.
Lex Fridman (00:43:21) Can get bullied into… it can be convinced into…
Jimmy Wales (00:43:25) Well, but this morning, the story I was telling earlier about comparing a football player to a Lamborghini, and I thought, is that really racial? I don’t know, but I’m mulling it over. And I thought, oh, I’m going to go to ChatGPT. So I sent to ChatGPT-4, I said, “This happened in Wikipedia. Can you think of examples where a white athlete has been compared to a fast car inanimate object?” And it comes back with a very plausible essay where it tells why these analogies are common in sport, blah, blah. I said, “No, no, could you give me some specific examples?” So it gives me three specific examples, very plausible, correct names of athletes and contemporaries and all of that could have been true. Googled every single quote and none of them existed. And so I’m like, “Well, that’s really not good.”
(00:44:14) I wanted to explore a thought process I was in. First I thought, how do I Google? And it’s like, well, it’s kind of a hard thing to Google because unless somebody’s written about this specific topic, it’s large language model, it’s processed all this data, it can probably piece that together for me, but it just can’t yet. So I think, I hope that ChatGPT 5, 6, 7, three to five years, I’m hoping we’ll see a much higher level of accuracy where when you ask a question like that, I think instead of being quite so eager to please by giving you a plausible sounding answer, it’s just like, I don’t know.
Lex Fridman (00:44:55) Or maybe display how much bullshit might be in this generated text. I’m really would like to make you happy right now, but I’m really stretched thin with this generation.
Jimmy Wales (00:45:07) Well, it’s one of the things I’ve said for a long time. So in Wikipedia, one of the great things we do may not be great for our reputation, except in a deeper sense for the long term I think it is. But we’ll all be on notice that says the neutrality of this section has been disputed or the following section doesn’t cite in these sources. And I always joke, sometimes I wish the New York Times would run a banner saying the neutrality of this has been disputed. They could give us a… We had a big fight in the newsroom as to whether to run this or not, but we thought it’s important enough to bring it to. But just be aware that not all the journalists are on board with it. Ah, that’s actually interesting, and that’s fine. I would trust them more for that level of transparency. So yeah, similarly ChatGPT should say, yeah, 87% bullshit.
Lex Fridman (00:45:51) Well, the neutrality one is really interesting because that’s basically a summary of the discussions that are going on underneath. It would be amazing if… I should be honest, I don’t look at the talk page often. It would be nice somehow if there was a kind of summary in this banner way of like, this, lots of wars have been fought on this here land for this here paragraph.
Jimmy Wales (00:46:16) That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. Because one of the things I do spend a lot of time thinking about these days, and people have found it, we’re moving slowly, but we are moving. Thinking about, okay, these tools exist, are there ways that this stuff can be useful to our community? Because a part of it is we do approach things in a non-commercial way, in a really deep sense. It’s like it’s been great, that Wikipedia has become very popular, but really we’re a community whose hobby is writing an encyclopedia. That’s first, and if it’s popular, great. If it’s not okay, we might have trouble paying for more servers, but it’ll be fine.
(00:46:53) And so how do we help the community use these tools? One of the ways that these tools can support people, and one example I never thought about, I’m going to start playing with it, is feed in the article and feed in the talk page and say, can you suggest some warnings in the article based on the conversations in the talk page? I think it might-
Lex Fridman (00:46:53) That’s brilliant.
Jimmy Wales (00:47:12) … be good at that. It might get it wrong sometimes. But again, if it’s reasonably successful at doing that, and you can say, oh, actually, yeah, it does suggest the neutrality of this has been disputed on a section that has a seven-page discussion in the back that might be useful, don’t know, worth playing with.
Lex Fridman (00:47:30) Yeah, I mean some more color to the, not neutrality, but also the amount of emotion laden in the exploration of this particular part of the topic. It might actually help you look at more controversial pages, like on a page on the war in Ukraine or a page on Israel and Palestine. There could be parts that everyone agrees on and there’s parts that are just like-
Jimmy Wales (00:47:58) Tough.
Lex Fridman (00:47:59) … tough.
Jimmy Wales (00:47:59) The hard parts.
Lex Fridman (00:48:00) It would be nice to, when looking at those beautiful long articles to know, all right, let me just take in some stuff where everybody agrees on.
Jimmy Wales (00:48:09) I could give an example that I haven’t looked at in a long time, but I was really pleased with what I saw at the time. So the discussion was that they’re building something in Israel and for their own political reasons, one side calls it a wall hearkening back to Berlin Wall, apartheid, the other calls it a security fence. So we can understand quite quickly if we give it a moment’s thought like, okay, I understand why people would have this grappling over the language. Like, okay, you want to highlight the negative aspects of this and you want to highlight the positive aspects, so you’re going to try and choose a different name. And so there was this really fantastic Wikipedia discussion on the talk page. How do we word that paragraph to talk about the different naming? It’s called this by Israeli, it’s called this by Palestinians. And how you explain that to people could be quite charged. You could easily explain, oh, there’s this difference and it’s because this side’s good and this side’s bad and that’s why there’s a difference. Or you could say, actually, let’s just try and really stay as neutral as we can and try to explain the reasons. So you may come away from it with a concept. Oh, okay, I understand what this debate is about now.
Lex Fridman (00:49:26) And just the term Israel- Palestine conflict is still the title of a page in Wikipedia, but the word conflict is something that is a charged word.
Jimmy Wales (00:49:41) Of course.
Lex Fridman (00:49:42) Because from the Palestinian side or from certain sides, the word conflict doesn’t accurately describe the situation. Because if you see it as a genocide one way, genocide is not a conflict because to people that discuss the challenge, the word conflict, they see conflict is when there’s two equally powerful sides fighting.
Jimmy Wales (00:50:05) Sure, yeah, yeah. No, it’s hard. And in a number of cases, so this actually speaks to a slightly broader phenomenon, which is there are a number of cases where there is no one word that can get consensus. And in the body of an article, that’s usually okay, because we can explain the whole thing. You can come away with an understanding of why each side wants to use a certain word, but there are some aspects, like the page has to have a title, so there’s that. Same thing with certain things like photos. It’s like, well, there’s different photos, which one’s best? Lot of different views on that. But at the end of the day, you need the lead photo because there’s one slot for a lead photo. Categories is another one. So at one point, I have no idea if it’s in there today, but I don’t think so. I was listed in American entrepreneurs fine.
(00:51:03) American atheist, and I said, that doesn’t feel right to me, just personally it’s true. I mean, wouldn’t disagree with the objective fact of it, but when you click the category and you see a lot of people who are, you might say American atheist activist because that’s their big issue. So Madalyne Murray O’Hair or various famous people who… Richard Dawkins, who make it a big part of their public argument and persona. But that’s not true of me. It’s just my private personal belief, it doesn’t really… it’s not something I campaign about. So it felt weird to put me in the category, but what category would you put? And do you need that? In this case I argued that doesn’t need that. I don’t speak about it publicly, except incidentally, from time to time, I don’t campaign about it. So it’s weird to put me with this group of people.
(00:51:54) And that argument carried the day, I hope not just because it was me. But categories can be like that where you’re either in the category or you’re not. And sometimes it’s a lot more complicated than that. And is it, again, we go back to, is it undue weight? If someone who is now prominent in public life and generally considered to be a good person was convicted of something, let’s say DUI when they were young, we normally in normal discourse, we don’t think, oh, this person should be in the category of American criminals because you think, oh, a criminal. Yeah, technically speaking, it’s against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol and you were arrested and you spent a month in prison or whatever. But it’s odd to say that’s a criminal.
(00:52:45) So just as an example in this area is Mark Wahlberg, Marky Mark is what I always think of him as, because that was his first sort of famous name, who I wouldn’t think should be listed as in the category, American criminal. Even though he did, he was convicted of quite a bad crime when he was a young person, but we don’t think of him as a criminal. Should the entry talk about that? Yeah, it’s actually an important part of his life story that he had a very rough youth and he could have gone down a really dark path and he turned his life around. That’s actually interesting. So categories are tricky.
Lex Fridman (00:53:20) Especially with people because we like to assign labels to people into ideas somehow, and those labels stick. And there’s certain words that have a lot of power, like criminal, like political left, right, center, anarchist, objectivist. What other philosophies are there? Marxist, communist, social democrat, democratic socialist, socialist, and if you add that as a category, all of a sudden it’s like, oh boy, you’re that guy now. And I don’t know if you want to be that guy.
Jimmy Wales (00:53:58) Well, there’s definitely some really charged ones like alt-right, I think it’s quite complicated and tough. It’s not completely meaningless label, but boy, I think you really have to pause before you actually put that label on someone, partly because now you’re putting them in a group of people, some of whom are quite, you wouldn’t want to be grouped with.

Wikipedia’s political bias

Lex Fridman (00:54:20) Let’s go into some, you mentioned the hot water of the pool that we’re both tipping a toe in. Do you think Wikipedia has a left leaning political bias, which is something it is sometimes accused of?
Jimmy Wales (00:54:31) Yeah, so I don’t think so, not broadly. And I think you can always point to specific entries and talk about specific biases, but that’s part of the process of Wikipedia. Anyone can come and challenge and to go on about that. But I see fairly often on Twitter, some quite extreme accusations of bias. And I think actually I don’t see it. I don’t buy that. And if you ask people for an example, they normally struggle and depending on who they are and what it’s about. So it’s certainly true that some people who have quite fringe viewpoints and who knows the full rush of history in 500 years, they might be considered to be pathbreaking geniuses. But at the moment, quite fringe views. And they’re just unhappy that Wikipedia doesn’t report on their fringe views as being mainstream. And that, by the way, goes across all kinds of fields.
(00:55:36) I was once accosted on the street outside the TED Conference in Vancouver by a guy who was a homeopath who was very upset that Wikipedia’s entry on homeopathy basically says it’s pseudoscience. And he felt that was biased. And I said, “Well, I can’t really help you because we cite good quality sources to talk about the scientific status, and it’s not very good.” So it depends, and I think it’s something that we should always be vigilant about. But in general, I think we’re pretty good. And I think any time you go to any serious political controversy, we should have a pretty balanced perspective on whose saying what and what the views are and so forth. I would actually argue that the areas where we are more likely to have bias that persists for a long period of time are actually fairly obscure things, or maybe fairly non-political things.
(00:56:40) I just give, it’s kind of a humorous example, but it’s meaningful. If you read our entries about Japanese anime, they tend to be very, very positive and very favorable because almost no one knows about Japanese anime except for fans. And so the people who come and spend their days writing Japanese anime articles, they love it. They kind of have an inherent love for the whole area. Now they’ll of course, being human beings, they have their internal debates and disputes about what’s better or not. But in general, they’re quite positive because nobody actually cares. On anything that people are quite passionate about, then hopefully there’s quite a lot of interesting stuff.
(00:57:20) So I’ll give an example, a contemporary example where I think we’ve done a good job as of my most recent sort of look at it, and that is the question about the efficacy of masks during the COVID pandemic. And that’s an area where I would say the public authorities really jerked us all around a bit. In the very first days, they said, “Whatever you do, don’t rush on and buy masks.” And their concern was shortages in hospitals, fair enough. Later it’s like, no, everybody’s got to wear a mask everywhere. It really works really well. And then now I think it’s, the evidence is mixed, right? Masks seem to help, in my personal view, masks seem to help. They’re no huge burden. You might as well wear a mask in any environment where you’re with a giant crowd of people and so forth.
(00:58:13) But it’s very politicized, that one, and it’s very politicized, where certainly in the US, much more so. I live in the UK, I live in London, I’ve never seen on the streets the kind of the thing that there’s a lot of reports of people actively angry because someone else is wearing a mask, that sort of thing in public. So because it became very politicized, then clearly if Wikipedia… No, so anyway, if you go to Wikipedia and you research this topic, I think you’ll find more or less what I’ve just said. Oh, actually after it’s all to this point in history, it’s mixed evidence like masks seemed to help, but maybe not as much as some of the authorities said. And here we are.
(00:58:56) And that’s kind of an example where I think, okay, we’ve done a good job, but I suspect there are people on both sides of that very emotional debate who think, this is ridiculous. Hopefully we’ve got quality sources. So then hopefully those people who read this can say, oh, actually it is complicated. If you can get to the point of saying, okay, I have my view, but I understand other views and I do think it’s a complicated question, great, now we’re a little bit more mature as a society.
Lex Fridman (00:59:24) Well, that one is an interesting one because I feel like I hope that that article also contains the meta conversation about the politicization of that topic. To me, it’s almost more interesting than whether masks work or not, at least at this point. It’s like why masks became a symbol of the oppression of a centralized government. If you wear them, you’re a sheep that follows the mask control the mass hysteria of an authoritarian regime. And if you don’t wear a mask, then you are a science denier, anti- vaxxer, an alt-right, probably a Nazi.
Jimmy Wales (01:00:07) Exactly. And that whole politicization of society is just so damaging, and I don’t know, in the broader world, how do we start to fix that? That’s a really hard question.

Conspiracy theories

Lex Fridman (01:00:21) Well, at every moment, because you mentioned mainstream and fringe, there seems to be a tension here, and I wonder what your philosophy is on it because there’s mainstream ideas and there’s fringe ideas. You look at lab leak theory for this virus. That could be other things we can discuss where there’s a mainstream narrative where if you just look at the percent of the population or the population with platforms, what they say, and then what is a small percentage in opposition to that, and what is Wikipedia’s responsibility to accurately represent both the mainstream and the fringe, do you think?
Jimmy Wales (01:01:05) Well, I think we have to try to do our best to recognize both, but also to appropriately contextualize. And so this can be quite hard, particularly when emotions are high. That’s just a fact about human beings. I’ll give a simpler example, because there’s not a lot of emotion around it. Like our entry on the moon doesn’t say, some say the moon’s made of rocks, some say cheese, who knows? That kind of false neutrality is not what we want to get to. That doesn’t make any sense, but that one’s easy. We all understand. I think there is a Wikipedia entry called something like the moon is made of cheese, where it talks about this is a common sort of joke or thing that children say or that people tell to children or whatever. It’s just a thing. Everyone’s heard moon’s made of cheese, but nobody thinks, wow, Wikipedia is so one-sided it doesn’t even acknowledge the cheese theory. I say the same thing about flat Earth, again, very-
Lex Fridman (01:02:08) That’s exactly what I’m looking up right now.
Jimmy Wales (01:02:09) … very little controversy. We will have an entry about flat Earth, theorizing, flat Earth people. My personal view is most of the people who claim to be flat earthers are just having a laugh, trolling and more power to them, have some fun, but let’s not be ridiculous.
Lex Fridman (01:02:31) Then of course, for mostly human history, people believe that the Earth is flat, so the article I’m looking at is actually kind of focusing on this history. Flat Earth is an archaic and scientifically disproven conception of the Earth’s shape as a plain or disc, meaning ancient cultures subscribe to a flat Earth cosmography with pretty cool pictures of what a flat Earth would look like, with dragon, is that a dragon no angels on the edge. There’s a lot of controversy about that. What is it the edge? Is it the wall? Is it angels, is it dragons, is there a dome?
Jimmy Wales (01:03:00) And how can you fly from South Africa to Perth? Because on a flat Earth view, that’s really too far for any plane to make it because-
Lex Fridman (01:03:09) What I want to know-
Jimmy Wales (01:03:10) It’s all spread out.
Lex Fridman (01:03:11) What I want to know is what’s on the other side, Jimmy, what’s on the other side? That’s what all of us want to know. So I presume there’s probably a small section about the conspiracy theory of flat Earth, because I think there’s a sizeable percent of the population who at least will say they believe in a flat Earth.
Jimmy Wales (01:03:31) Yeah.
Lex Fridman (01:03:32) I think it is a movement that just says that the mainstream narrative to have distrust and skepticism about the mainstream narrative, which to a very small degree, is probably a very productive thing to do as part of the scientific process. But you can get a little silly and ridiculous with it.
Jimmy Wales (01:03:49) Yeah, I mean it’s exactly right. And so I think I find on many, many cases, and of course I, like anybody else, might quibble about this or that in any Wikipedia article, but in general, I think there is a pretty good sort of willingness and indeed eagerness to say, oh, let’s fairly represent all of the meaningfully important sides. So there’s still a lot to unpack in that, right? So meaningfully important. So people who are raising questions about the efficacy of masks, okay, that’s actually a reasonable thing to have a discussion about, and hopefully we should treat that as a fair conversation to have and actually address which authorities have said what and so on and so forth. And then there are other cases where it’s not meaningful opposition, you just wouldn’t say. I doubt if the main article Moon, it may mention cheese, probably not even because it’s not credible and it’s not even meant to be serious by anyone, or the article on the Earth certainly won’t have a paragraph that says, well, most scientists think it’s round, but certain people think flat.
(01:05:12) That’s just a silly thing to put in that article. You would want to sort of address that’s an interesting cultural phenomenon. You want to put it somewhere. So this goes into all kinds of things about politics. You want to be really careful, really thoughtful about not getting caught up in the anger of our times and really recognize. Yes, I always thought… I remember being really kind of proud of the US at the time when it was McCain was running against Obama because I thought, “Oh, I’ve got plenty of disagreements with both of them, but they both seem like thoughtful and interesting people who I would have different disagreements with.” But I always felt like, yeah, that that’s good, now we can have a debate. Now we can have an interesting debate. And it isn’t just people slamming each other, personal attacks and so forth.
Jimmy Wales (01:06:00) It isn’t just people slamming each other with personal attacks and so forth.
Lex Fridman (01:06:05) You’re saying Wikipedia has also represented that?
Jimmy Wales (01:06:09) I hope so. Yeah, and I think so in the main. Obviously, you can always find debate that went horribly wrong because there’s humans involved.
Lex Fridman (01:06:18) But speaking of those humans, I would venture to guess, I don’t know the data, maybe you can let me know, but the personal political leaning of the group of people who had a Wikipedia probably leans left, I would guess. To me, the question there is, I mean the same is true for Silicon Valley, the task for Silicon Valley is to create platforms that are not politically biased even though there is a bias for the engineers who create it. I believe it’s possible to do that. There’s conspiracy theories that it somehow is impossible, and there’s this whole conspiracy where the left is controlling it, and so on. I think engineers, for the most part, want to create platforms that are open and unbiased that create all kinds of perspective because that’s super exciting to have all kinds of perspectives battle it out, but still is there a degree to which the personal political bias of the editors might seep in in silly ways and in big ways?
(01:07:22) Silly ways could be, I think, hopefully I’m correct in saying this, but the right will call it the Democrat Party and the left will call it the Democratic Party, right? It always hits my ear weird. Are we children here? We’re literally taking words and just jabbing at each other. Yeah, I could capitalize a thing in a certain way, or I can just take a word and mess with them. That’s a small way of how you use words, but you can also have a bigger way about beliefs, about various perspectives on political events, on Hunter Biden’s laptop, on how big of a story that is or not, how big the censorship of that story is or not, and then there’s these camps to take very strong points and they construct big narratives around that. It’s a very sizable percent of the population believes the two narratives that compete with each other.
Jimmy Wales (01:08:21) Yeah. It’s really interesting and it’s hard to judge the sweep of history within your own lifetime, but it feels like it’s gotten much worse, that this idea of two parallel universes where people can agree on certain basic facts feels worse than it used to be. I’m not sure if that’s true or if it just feels that way, but I’m not sure what the causes are. I think I would lay a lot of the blame in recent years on social media algorithms, which reward clickbait headlines, which reward tweets that go viral, and they go viral because they’re cute and clever.
(01:09:13) My most successful tweet ever by a fairly wide margin, some reporter tweeted at Elon Musk because he was complaining about Wikipedia or something, “You should buy Wikipedia,” and I just wrote, “Bot for sale,” and 90 zillion retweets, and people liked it, and it was all very good, but I’m like, “You know what? It’s cute line and it’s a good mic drop,” and all that, and I was pleased with myself. I’m like, “It’s not really a discourse.” It’s not really what I like to do, but it’s what social media really rewards, which is kind of a let’s you and him have a fight, and that’s more interesting. It’s funny because at the time, I was texting with Elon who’s very pleasant to me, and all of that.
Lex Fridman (01:10:01) He might have been a little bit shitty, the reporter might have been a little bit shitty, but you fed into the shitty with a snarky funny of response, “Not for sale,” and where do you… That’s a funny little exchange, and you can probably after that laugh it off and it’s fun, but that kind of mechanism that rewards the snark can go into viciousness.
Jimmy Wales (01:10:22) Yeah. Well, and we certainly see it online. A series of tweets, sort of a tweet thread of 15 tweets that assesses the quality of the evidence for masks, pros and cons, and sort of wear this, that’s not going to go viral, but a SmackDown for a famous politician who was famously in favor of mask, who also went to a dinner and didn’t wear a mask, that’s going to go viral, and that’s partly human nature. People love to call out hypocrisy and all of that, but it’s partly what these systems elevate automatically. I talk about this with respect to Facebook, for example. I think Facebook has done a pretty good job, although it’s taken longer than it should in some cases, but if you have a very large following and you’re really spouting hatred or misinformation, disinformation, they’ve kicked people off.
(01:11:24) They’ve done some reasonable things there, but actually, the deeper issue of the anger we’re talking about, of the contentiousness of everything, I make of a family example with two great stereotypes. One, the crackpot racist uncle, and one, the sweet grandma. I always want to point out all of my uncles in my family were wonderful people, so I didn’t have a crackpot racist, but everybody knows the stereotype. Well, so grandma, she just posts sweet comments on the kids’ pictures and congratulates people on their wedding anniversary, and crackpot uncle’s posting his nonsense. Normally, it’s at Christmas dinner, everybody rolls their eyes, “Oh, yeah, Uncle Frank’s here, and he is probably going to say some racist comment and we’re going to tell him to shut up, or maybe let’s not invite him this year.” Normal human drama. He’s got his three mates down at the pub who listen to him and all of that, but now grandma’s got 54 followers on Facebook, which is the intimate family, and racist uncle has 714, so he’s not a massive influence or whatever, but how did that happen?
(01:12:36) It’s because the algorithm notices when she posts, nothing happens. He posts and then everybody jumps in to go, “God, shut up, Uncle Frank. That’s outrageous,” and there’s engagement, there’s page views, there’s ads. Those algorithms, I think they’re working to improve that, but it’s really hard for them. It’s hard to improve that if that actually is working. If the people who are saying things that get engagement, if it’s not too awful, but it’s just, maybe it’s not a racist uncle, but maybe it’s an uncle who posts a lot about what an idiot Biden is, which isn’t necessarily an offensive or blockable or bannable thing, and it shouldn’t be, but if that’s the discourse that gets elevated because it gets a rise out of people, then suddenly in a society, it’s like, “Oh, we get more of what we reward,” so I think that’s a piece of what’s gone on.


Lex Fridman (01:13:28) Well, if we could just take that tangent. I’m having a conversation with Mark Zuckerberg second time. Is there something you can comment on how to decrease toxicity on that particular platform, Facebook? You also have worked on creating a social network that is less toxic yourself, so can we just talk about the different ideas that these already big social network can do and what you have been trying to do?
Jimmy Wales (01:13:55) A piece of it is it’s hard. The problem with making a recommendation to Facebook is that I actually believe their business model makes it really hard for them, and I’m not anti-capitalism, I’m not, “Great. Somebody’s got business, they’re making money,” that’s not where I come from, but certain business models mean you are going to prioritize things that maybe aren’t longterm healthful, and so that’s a big piece of it. Certainly, for Facebook, you could say with vast resources, start to prioritize content that’s higher quality, that’s healing, that’s kind. Try not to prioritize content that seems to be just getting a rise out of people. Now, those are vague human descriptions, but I do believe good machine running algorithms, you can optimize in slightly different ways, but to do that, you may have to say, “Actually, we’re not necessarily going to increase page views to the maximum extent right now.”
(01:14:59) I’ve said this to people at Facebook. It’s like if your actions are convincing people that you’re breaking Western civilization, that’s a really bad for business in the long run. Certainly, these days, I’ll say, Twitter is the thing that’s on people’s minds as being more upsetting at the moment, but I think it’s true. One of the things that’s really interesting about Facebook compared to a lot of companies is that Mark has a pretty unprecedented amount of power. His ability to name members of the board, his control of the company is pretty hard to break even if financial results aren’t as good as they could be because he’s taken a step back from the perfect optimization to say, “Actually, for the longterm health in the next 50 years of this organization, we need to reign in some of the things that are working for us in making money because they’re actually giving us a bad reputation.” One of the recommendations I would say is, and this is not to do with the algorithms and all that, but how about just a moratorium on all political advertising?
(01:16:11) I don’t think it’s their most profitable segment, but it’s given rise to a lot of deep, hard questions about dark money, about ads that are run by questionable people that push false narratives, or the classic kind of thing is you run… I saw a study about Brexit in the UK where people were talking about there were ads run to animal rights activists saying, “Finally, when we’re out from under Europe, the UK can pass proper animal rights legislation. We’re not constrained by the European process.” Similarly, for people who are advocates of fox hunting to say, “Finally, when we’re out of Europe, we can re-implement…” You’re telling people what they want to hear, and in some cases, it’s really hard for journalists to see that, so it used to be that for political advertising, you really needed to find some kind of mainstream narrative, and this is still true to an extent, mainstream narrative that 60% of people can say, “Oh, I can buy into that,” which meant it pushed you to the center.
(01:17:20) It pushed you to try and find some nuance balance, but if your main method of recruiting people is a tiny little one-on-one conversation with them, because you’re able to target using targeted advertising, suddenly you don’t need consistent. You just need a really good targeting operation, really good Cambridge analytic style machine learning algorithm data to convince people. That just feels really problematic, so until they can think about how to solve that problem, I would just say, “You know what? It’s going to cost us X amount,” but it’s going to be worth it to kind of say, “You know what? We actually think our political advertising policy hasn’t really helped contribute to discourse and dialogue in finding reasoned middle ground and compromise solutions, so let’s just not do that for a while until we figure that out,” so that’s maybe a piece of advice.
Lex Fridman (01:18:15) Coupled with, as you were saying, recommender systems for the newsfeed and other contexts that don’t always optimize engagement, but optimize the long term mental wellbeing and balance and growth of a human being, but it’s a very difficult problem.
Jimmy Wales (01:18:33) It’s a difficult problem. Yeah. With WT Social, WikiTribune Social, we’re launching in a few months time a completely new system, new domain, and new lots of things, but the idea is to say let’s focus on trust. People can rate each other as trustworthy, rate content as trustworthy. You have to start from somewhere so it’ll start with a core base of our tiny community who, I think, are sensible, thoughtful people, want to recruit more, but to say, “You know what? Actually, let’s have that as a pretty strong element,” to say let’s not optimize based on what gets the most paid views in this session, let’s optimize on what the feedback from people is, this is meaningfully enhancing my life. Part of that is, and it’s probably not a good business model, but part of that is say, “Okay, we’re not going to pursue an advertising business model, but a membership model where you don’t have to be a member, but you can pay to be a member.”
(01:19:36) You maybe get some benefit from that, but in general, to say, actually the problem with… Actually, the division I would say is, and the analogy I would give is broadcast television funded by advertising gives you a different result than paying for HBO, paying for Netflix, paying for whatever. The reason is, if you think about it, what is your incentive as a TV producer? You’re going to make a comedy for ABC Network in the US, you basically say, “I want something that almost everybody will like and listen to,” so it tends to be a little blander, family-friendly, whatever. Whereas if you say, “Oh, actually,” I’m not going to use the HBO example, and an old example, you say, “You know what? Sopranos isn’t for everybody, Sex and the City isn’t for everybody, but between the two shows, we’ve got something for everybody that they’re willing to pay for,” so you can get edgier, higher quality in my own view content rather than saying it’s got to not offend anybody in the world. It’s got to be for everybody, which is really hard.
(01:20:47) Same thing here in a social network. If your business model is advertising, it’s going to drive you in one direction. If your business model is membership, I think it drives you in a different direction. Actually, and I’ve said this to Elon about Twitter Blue, which I think wasn’t rolled out well and so forth, but the piece of that that I like is to say, look, actually, if there’s a model where your revenue is coming from people who are willing to pay for the service, even if it’s only part of your revenue, if it’s a substantial part, that does change your broader incentives to say, actually, are people going to be willing to pay for something that’s actually just toxicity in their lives? Now, I’m not sure it’s been rolled out well, I’m not sure how it’s going, and maybe I’m wrong about that as a plausible business model, but I do think it’s interesting to think about, just in broad terms, business model drives outcomes in sometimes surprising ways unless you really pause to think about it.


Lex Fridman (01:21:46) If we can just link on Twitter and Elon before… I would love to talk to you about the underlying business model, Wikipedia, which is this brilliant, bold move at the very beginning, but since you mentioned Twitter, what do you think works? What do you think is broken about Twitter?
Jimmy Wales (01:22:03) It’s a long conversation, but to start with, one of the things that I always say is it’s a really hard problem, so I concede that right up front. I said this about the old ownership of Twitter and the new ownership of Twitter because unlike Wikipedia, and this is true actually for all social media, there’s a box, and the box basically says, “What do you think? What’s on your mind?” You can write whatever the hell you want, right? This is true, by the way, even for YouTube. I mean the box is to upload a video, but again, it’s just an open-ended invitation to express yourself.
(01:22:38) What makes that hard is some people have really toxic, really bad, some people are very aggressive, they’re actually stalking, they’re actually abusive, and suddenly, you deal with a lot of problems. Whereas at Wikipedia, there is no box that says, “What’s on your mind?” There’s a box that says, “This is an entry about the moon. Please be neutral. Please set your facts.” Then there’s a talk page which is not coming rant about Donald Trump. If you go on the talk page of the Donald Trump entry and you just start ranting about Donald Trump, people would say, “What are you doing? Stop doing that. We’re not here to discuss. There’s a whole world of the internet out there for you to go and rant about Donald Trump.”
Lex Fridman (01:23:17) It’s just not fun to do on Wikipedia as somehow as fun on Twitter.
Jimmy Wales (01:23:20) Well, also on Wikipedia, people are going to say, “Stop,” and, “Actually, are you here to tell us how can we improve the article or are you just here to rant about Trump? Because that’s not actually interesting.” Because the goal is different, so that’s just admitting and saying upfront, this is a hard problem. Certainly, I’m writing a book on trust. The idea is, in the last 20 years, we’ve lost trust in all kinds of institutions, in politics. The Edelman Trust Barometer Survey has been done for a long time, and trust in politicians, trust in journalism, it’s come declined substantially, and I think in many cases, deservedly, so how do we restore trust and how do we think about that?
Lex Fridman (01:24:07) Does that also include trust in the idea of truth?
Jimmy Wales (01:24:13) Trust in the idea of truth. Even the concept of facts and truth is really, really important, and the idea of uncomfortable truths is really important. When we look at Twitter and we can see, okay, this is really hard, so here’s my story about Twitter. It’s a two-part story, and it’s all pre Elon Musk ownership. Many years back, somebody accused me of horrible crimes on Twitter, and like anybody would, I was like… I’m in the public eye. People say bad things. I don’t really… I brush it off, whatever, but I’m like, “This is actually really bad.” Accusing me of pedophilia? That’s just not okay, so I thought, “I’m going to report this,” so I click report, and I report the tweet and there’s five others, and I report, and I go through the process, and then I get an email that says whatever, a couple of hours later saying, “Thank you for your report. We’re looking into this.” Great. Okay, good.
(01:25:16) Then several hours further, I get an email back saying, “Sorry, we don’t see anything here to violate our terms of use,” and I’m like, “Okay,” so I emailed Jack and I say, “Jack, come on. This is ridiculous,” and he emails back roughly saying, “Yeah, sorry, Jimmy. Don’t worry. We’ll sort this out.” I just thought to myself, “You know what? That’s not the point. I’m Jimmy Wales, I know Jack Dorsey. I can email Jack Dorsey. He’ll listen to me because he’s got an email from me and sorts it out for me.” What about the teenager who’s being bullied and is getting abuse and getting accusations that aren’t true? Are they getting the same kind of really poor result in that case? Fast-forward a few years, same thing happens. The exact quote, it goes, “Please help me. I’m only 10 years old, and Jimmy Wales raped me last week.” I was like, “Come on. Fuck off. That’s ridiculous,” so I report. I’m like, “This time I’m reporting,” but I’m thinking, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
(01:26:15) This one gets even worse because then I get a same result email back saying, “Sorry, we don’t see any problems,” so I raised it with other members of the board who I know, and Jack, and like, “This is really ridiculous. This is outrageous,” and some of the board members, friends of mine, sympathetic, and so good for them, but I actually got an email back then from the general counsel head of trust and safety saying, “Actually, there’s nothing in this tweet that violates our terms of service. We don’t regard and gave reference to the Me Too Movement. If we didn’t allow accusations, the Me Too Movement, it’s an important thing,” and I was like, “You know what? Actually, if someone says, ‘I’m 10 years old and someone raped me last week,’ I think the advice should be, ‘Here’s the phone number of the police.’ You need to get the police involved. Twitter’s not the place for that accusation.”
(01:27:05) Even back then… By the way, they did delete those tweets, but the rationale they gave is spammy behavior, so completely separate from abusing me. It was just like, “Oh, well, they were retweeting too often.” Okay, whatever. That’s just broken. That’s a system that it’s not working for people in the public eye. I’m sure it’s not working for private people who get abuse. Really horrible abuse can happen. How is that today? Well, it hasn’t happened to me since Elon took over, but I don’t see why it couldn’t, and I suspect now if I send a report and email someone, there’s no one there to email me back because he’s gotten rid of a lot of the trust and safety staff, so I suspect that problem is still really hard.
Lex Fridman (01:27:46) Just content moderation at huge scales.
Jimmy Wales (01:27:49) At huge scales is really something. I don’t know the full answer to this. A piece of it could be to say, “Actually, making specific allegations of crimes, this isn’t the place to do that. We’ve got a huge database. If you’ve got an accusation of crime, here’s who should call, the police, the FBI, whatever it is. It’s not to be done in public,” and then you do face really complicated questions about Me Too Movement and people coming forward in public and all of that, but again, it’s like probably you should talk to a journalist. Probably there are better avenues than just tweeting from an account that was created 10 days ago, obviously set up to abuse someone. I think they could do a lot better, but I also admit it’s a hard problem.
Lex Fridman (01:28:38) There’s also ways to indirectly or more humorously or a more mocking way to make the same kinds of accusations. In fact, the accusations you mentioned, if I were to guess, don’t go that viral because they’re not funny enough or cutting enough, but if you make it witty and cutting and meme it somehow, sometimes actually indirectly making an accusation versus directly making an accusation, that can go viral and that can destroy reputations, and you get to watch yourself. Just all kinds of narratives take hold.
Jimmy Wales (01:29:09) Yeah, no, I remember another case that didn’t bother me because it wasn’t of that nature, but somebody was saying, “I’m sure you’re making millions off of Wikipedia,” and I’m like, “No, actually, I don’t even work there. I have no salary,” and they’re like, “You’re lying. I’m going to check your 990 form,” which is the US form for tax reporting for charities, and I was like, “Yeah, here’s the link. Go read it and you’ll see I’m listed as a board member, and my salary is listed as zero.” Things like that, it’s like, “Okay.” That one, that feels like you’re wrong, but I can take that and we can have that debate quite quickly.
(01:29:52) Again, it didn’t go viral because it was kind of silly, and if anything would’ve gone viral, it was me responding, but that’s one where it’s like, actually, I’m happy to respond because a lot of people don’t know that I don’t work there and that I don’t make millions, and I’m not a billionaire. Well, they must know that because it’s in most news media about me, but the other one, I didn’t respond to publicly because it’s like Barbara Streisand effect. It’s like sometimes calling attention to someone who’s abusing you who basically has no followers and so on is just a waste.
Lex Fridman (01:30:24) And everything you’re describing now is just something that all of us have to learn because everybody’s in the public eye. I think when you have just two followers and you get bullied by one of the followers, it hurts just as much as when you have a large number, so it’s not… Your situation, I think it’s echoed in the situations of millions of other, especially teenagers and kids and so on.
Jimmy Wales (01:30:43) Yeah, no, it’s actually an example. We don’t generally use my picture and the banners anymore on Wikipedia, but we did, and then we did an experiment one year where we tried other people’s pictures, so one of our developers, and one lovely, very sweet guy, and he doesn’t look like your immediate thought of a nerdy Silicon Valley developer. He looks like a heavy metal dude because he’s cool. Suddenly, here he is with long hair and tattoos, and there’s his sort of say, “Here’s what your money goes for. Here’s my letter asking for support,” and he got massive abuse from Wikipedia, like calling him creepy, and really massive. This was being shown to 80 million people a day, his picture, not the abuse. The abuse was elsewhere on the internet. He was bothered by it.
(01:31:39) I thought, “You know what? There is a difference.” I actually am in the public eye. I get huge benefits from being in the public eye. I go around and make public speeches. Any random thing I think of, I can write and get it published in the New York Times, and I have this interesting life. He’s not a public figure, and so actually he wasn’t mad at us. It was just like, actually, suddenly being thrust in the public eye and you get suddenly lots of abuse, which normally, I think if you’re a teenager and somebody in your class is abusing you, it’s not going to go viral. It’s going to be hurtful because it’s local and it’s your classmates or whatever, but when ordinary people go viral in some abusive way, it’s really, really quite tragic.
Lex Fridman (01:32:24) I don’t know. Even at a small scale, it feels viral. When five people at your school, and there’s a rumor, and there’s this feeling like you’re surrounded, and the feeling of loneliness, I think, which you’re speaking to when you at least feel like you don’t have a platform to defend yourself, and then this powerlessness, that I think a lot of teenagers definitely feel, and a lot of people-
Jimmy Wales (01:32:49) I think you’re right.
Lex Fridman (01:32:51) I think even when just two people make up stuff about you or lie about you or say mean things about you or bully you, that can feel like a crowd.
Jimmy Wales (01:33:01) Yeah. No, that’s true.
Lex Fridman (01:33:03) Whatever that is in our genetics and our biology and the way our brain works, that just can be a terrifying experience. Somehow, to correct that, I think because everybody feels the pain of that, everybody suffers the pain of that, I think we’ll be forced to fix that as a society, to figure out a way around that.
Jimmy Wales (01:33:22) I think it’s really hard to fix because I don’t think that problem isn’t necessarily new. Someone in high school who writes graffiti that says, “Becky is a slut,” and spreads a rumor about what Becky did last weekend, that’s always been damaging, it’s always been hurtful, and that’s really hard.
Lex Fridman (01:33:45) Those kinds of attacks, there is oldest time itself, they proceed the internet. Now, what do you think about this technology that feels Wikipedia like, which is community notes on Twitter? Do you like it? Pros and cons? Do you think it’s scalable?
Jimmy Wales (01:34:00) I do like it. I don’t know enough about specifically how it’s implemented to really have a very deep view, but I do think it’s quite… The uses I’ve seen of it, I’ve found quite good, and in some cases, changed my mind. It’s like I see something, and of course, the human tendency is to retweet something that you hope is true or that you are afraid is true, or it’s that kind of quick mental action. Then I saw something that I liked and agreed with, and then a community note under it that made me think, “Oh, actually, this is a more nuanced issue,” so I like that. I think that’s really important. Now, how is it specifically implemented? Is it scalable or that? I don’t really know how they’ve done it, so I can’t really comment on that, but in general, I do think when your only mechanisms on Twitter, and you’re a big Twitter user, we know the platform and you’ve got plenty of followers and all of that, the only mechanisms are retweeting, replying, blocking.
(01:35:13) It’s a pretty limited scope, and it’s kind of good if there’s a way to elevate a specific thoughtful response. It kind of goes to, again, does the algorithm just pick the retweet or the… I mean retweeting, it’s not even the algorithm that makes it viral. If Paulo Coelho, very famous author, I think he’s got… I don’t know. I haven’t looked lately. He used to have eight million Twitter followers. I think I looked, he’s got 16 million now or whatever. Well, if he retweets something, it’s going to get seen a lot. Elon Musk, if he retweets something, it’s going to get seen a lot. That’s not an algorithm. That’s just the way the platform works. So, it is kind of nice if you have something else, and how that’s something else is designed, that’s obviously complicated question.
Lex Fridman (01:35:58) Well, there’s this interesting thing that I think Twitter is doing, but I know Facebook is doing for sure, which is really interesting. What are the signals that a human can provide at scale? In Twitter, it’s retweet. In Facebook, I think you can share. I think, yeah, but there’s basic interactions, you can have comment and so on, but there’s also, in Facebook, and YouTube has this too is, “Would you like to see more of this or would you like to see less of this?” They post that sometimes. The thing that the neural net that’s learning from that has to figure out is the intent behind you saying, “I want to see less of this.”
(01:36:39) Did you see too much of this content already? You like it, but you don’t want to see so much of it. You already figured it out, great. Or does this content not make you feel good? There’s so many interpretations that I would like to see less of this, but if you get that kind of signal, this actually can create a really powerfully curated list of content that is fed to you every day that doesn’t create an echo chamber or a silo, that actually just makes you feel good in the good way, which it challenges you, but it doesn’t exhaust you and make you this weird animal.
Jimmy Wales (01:37:20) I’ve been saying for a long time, if I went on Facebook one morning and they said, Ooh, we’re testing a new option. Rather than showing you things we think you’re going to like, we want to show you some things that we think you will disagree with, but which we have some signals that suggest it’s of quality,” I’m like, “Now, that sounds interesting.”
Lex Fridman (01:37:40) Yeah, that sounds really interesting.
Jimmy Wales (01:37:41) I want to see something where… Oh, I don’t agree with… Larry Lessig is a good friend of mine, founder of Creative Commons, and he’s moved on to doing stuff about corruption and politics and so on. I don’t always agree with Larry, but I always grapple with Larry because he’s so interesting and he’s so thoughtful, that even when we don’t agree, I’m like, “Actually, I want to hear him out because I’m going to learn from it,” and that doesn’t mean I always come around to agree with him, but I’m going to understand a perspective, and that’s really great feeling.
Lex Fridman (01:38:12) Yeah, there’s this interesting thing on social media where people accuse others of saying, “Well, you don’t want to hear opinions that you disagree with or ideas you disagree with.” I think this is something that’s thrown at me all the time. The reality is there’s literally almost nothing I enjoy more.
Jimmy Wales (01:38:29) It seems an odd thing to accuse you of because you have quite a wide range of long conversations with a very diverse bunch of people.
Lex Fridman (01:38:35) But there is a very, very harsh drop off because what I like is high quality disagreement. That really makes me think. At a certain point, there’s a threshold, it’s a kind of a gray area when the quality of the disagreement, it just sounds like mocking, and you’re not really interested in a deep understanding of the topic, or you yourself don’t seem to carry deep understanding of the topic. There’s something called intelligence square debates that may-
Lex Fridman (01:39:00) There’s something called Intelligence Squared debates. The main one is the British version. With the British accent, everything always sounds better. And the Brits seem to argue more intensely, like they’re invigorated, they’re energized by the debate. Those people I often disagree with, basically everybody involved, and it’s so fun. I learned something. That’s high quality. If we could do that, if there’s some way for me to click a button that says, “Filter out lower quality just today,” just sometimes show it to me because I want to be able to, but today I’m just not in the mood for the mockery.
(01:39:38) Just high quality stuff, because even flat Earth, I want to get high quality arguments for the flat Earth. It would make me feel good because I would see, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I never really thought in my mind to challenge the mainstream narrative of general relativity, of a perception of physics. Maybe all of reality, maybe all of space is an illusion. That’s really interesting. I never really thought about, let me consider that fully. Okay, what’s the evidence? How would you test that? What are the alternatives? How would you be able to have such consistent perception of a physical reality, if it’s all of it is an illusion? All of us seem to share the same kind of perception of reality,” that’s the kind of stuff I love, but not the mockery of it that cheap, that it seems that social media can inspire.
Jimmy Wales (01:40:34) Yeah. I talk sometimes about how people assume that the big debates in Wikipedia or the arguments are between the party of the left and the party of the right. And I would say no, it’s actually the party of the kind and thoughtful and the party of the jerks, is really it. Left and yeah, yeah, bring me somebody I disagree with politically. As long as they’re thoughtful, kind, we’re going to have a real discussion. I give an example of our article on abortion: so, if you can bring together a kind and thoughtful Catholic priest and a kind and thoughtful Planned Parenthood activist and they’re going to work together on the article on abortion, that can be a really great thing, if they’re both kind and thoughtful. That’s the important part. They’re never going to agree on the topic, but they will understand, okay, Wikipedia is not going to take a side, but Wikipedia is going to explain what the debate is about, and we’re going to try to characterize it fairly.
(01:41:36) And it turns out your kind and thoughtful people, even if they’re quite ideological, like a Catholic priest is generally going to be quite ideological on the subject of abortion, but they can grapple with ideas and they can discuss, and they may feel very proud of the entry at the end of the day, not because they suppress the other side’s views, but because they think the case has been stated very well that other people can come to understand it. And if you’re highly ideological, you assume, I think naturally, “If people understood as much about this as I do, they’ll probably agree with me.” You may be wrong about that, but that’s often the case. So, that’s what I think we need to encourage more of in society generally, is grappling with ideas in a really thoughtful way.

Building Wikipedia

Lex Fridman (01:42:21) So is it possible if the majority of volunteers, editors of Wikipedia really disliked Donald Trump, are they still able to write an article that empathizes with the perspective of, for time at least, a very large percentage of the United States that were supported of Donald Trump, and to have a full broad representation of him as a human being, him as a political leader, him as a set of policies promised and implemented, all that kind of stuff?
Jimmy Wales (01:42:55) Yeah, I think so. And I think if you read the article, it’s pretty good. And I think a piece of that is within our community, if people have the self-awareness to understand. So, I personally wouldn’t go and edit the entry on Donald Trump. I get emotional about it and I’m like, “I’m not good at this,” and if I tried to do it, I would fail. I wouldn’t be a good Wikipedian, so it’s better if I just step back and let people who are more dispassionate on this topic edit it. Whereas there are other topics that are incredibly emotional to some people where I can actually do quite well. I’m going to be okay. Maybe we were discussing earlier the efficacy of masks. I’m like, “Oh, I think that’s an interesting problem. And I don’t know the answer, but I can help catalog what’s the best evidence and so on.”
(01:43:48) I’m not going to get upset. I’m not going to get angry, able to be a good Wikipedian, so I think that’s important. And I do think though in a related framework that the composition of the community is really important. Not because Wikipedia is or should be a battleground, but because blind spots, like maybe I don’t even realize what’s biased if I’m particularly of a certain point of view, and I’ve never thought much about it. So one of the things we focus on a lot, the Wikipedia volunteers are, we don’t know the exact number, but let’s say 80% plus male, and they’re a certain demographic: they tend to be college educated, heavier on tech geeks than not, et cetera. So, there is a demographic to the community, and that’s pretty much global. Somebody said to me once, “Why is it only white men who edit Wikipedia?”, and I said, “You’ve obviously not met the Japanese Wikipedia community.”
(01:44:51) It’s a joke because the broader principle still stands, who edits Japanese Wikipedia? A bunch of geeky men, and women as well. So, we do have women in the community, and that’s very important. But we do think, “Okay, you know what, that does lead to some problems,” it leads to some content issues simply because people write more about what they know and what they’re interested in. They’ll tend to be dismissive of things as being unimportant if it’s not something that they personally have an interest in. I like the example, as a parent I would say our entries on early childhood development probably aren’t as good as they should be because a lot of the Wikipedia volunteers… Actually we’re getting older, the Wikipedians, so that demographic has changed a bit. But if you’ve got a bunch of 25 year old tech geek dudes who don’t have kids, they’re just not going to be interested in early childhood development. And if they tried to write about it, they probably wouldn’t do a good job, ’cause they don’t know anything about it.
(01:45:53) And somebody did a look at our entries on novelists who’ve won a major literary prize, and they looked at the male novelist versus the female, and the male novelists had longer and higher quality entries. And why is that? Well, it’s not because, ’cause I know hundreds of Wikipedian, it’s not because these are a bunch of biased, sexist men who like, “Books by women are not important.” No. Actually, there is a gender breakdown of readership. There are books, like hard science fiction’s a classic example, hard science fiction: mostly read by men. Other types of novels, more read by women. And if we don’t have women in the community, then these award-winning clearly important novelists may have less coverage. And not because anybody consciously thinks, “We don’t like a book by Maya Angelou. Who cares? She’s a poet. That’s not interesting.”
(01:46:55) No, but just because, well, people write what they know, they write what they’re interested in it. So, we do think diversity in the community is really important. And that’s one area where I do think it’s really clear. But I can also say, actually that also applies in the political sphere, to say, actually, we do want kind and thoughtful Catholic priests, kind and thoughtful conservatives, kind and thoughtful libertarians, kind and thoughtful Marxists to come in. But the key is the kind and thoughtful piece, so when people sometimes come to Wikipedia outraged by some dramatic thing that’s happened on Twitter, they come to Wikipedia with a chip on their shoulder ready to do battle, and it just doesn’t work out very well.
Lex Fridman (01:47:38) And there’s tribes in general where I think there’s a responsibility on the larger group to be even kinder and more welcoming to the smaller group.
Jimmy Wales (01:47:48) Yeah, we think that’s really important. And so oftentimes, people come in and there’s a lot… When I talk about community health, one of the aspects of that that we do think about a lot, that I think about a lot is not about politics. It’s just like, how are we treating newcomers to the community? And so, I can tell you what our ideals are, what our philosophy is, but do we live up to that? So the ideal is you come to Wikipedia, we have rules. One of our fundamental rules is ignore all rules, which is partly written that way because it piques people’s attention, like, “Oh, what the hell kind of rule is that?” But basically says, “Look, don’t get nervous and depressed about a bunch of what’s the formatting of your footnote?”, so you shouldn’t come to Wikipedia, add a link, and then get banned or yelled at because it’s not the right format.
(01:48:46) Instead, somebody should go, “Oh, hey. Yeah, thanks for helping, but here’s the link to how to format. If you want to keep going, you might want to learn how to format a footnote,” and to be friendly and to be open and to say, “Oh, right, oh, you’re new and you clearly don’t know everything about Wikipedia,” and sometimes in any community, that can be quite hard. So, people come in and they’ve got a great big idea, and they’re going to propose this to the Wikipedia community, and they have no idea. That’s basically a perennial discussion we’ve had 7,000 times before. And so then ideally, you would say to the person, “Oh yeah, great, thanks.” A lot of people have, and here’s where we got to and here’s the nuanced conversation we’ve had about that in the past that I think you’ll find interesting, and sometimes people are just like, “Oh God, another one, who’s come in with this idea which doesn’t work, and they don’t understand why.”
Lex Fridman (01:49:39) You can lose patience, but you shouldn’t.
Jimmy Wales (01:49:40) And that’s human, but I think it just does require really thinking in a self-aware manner of, “Oh, I was once a newbie.” Actually, I just did an interview with Emily Temple Woods, she was Wikipedian of the year, she’s just like a great, well-known Wikipedian. And I interviewed her for my book and she told me something I never knew, apparently it’s not secret, she didn’t reveal it to me, but it’s that when she started Wikipedia, she was a vandal. She came in and vandalized Wikipedia. And then basically what happened was she’d vandalized a couple of articles, and then somebody popped up on her talk page and said, “Hey, why are you doing this? We’re trying to make an encyclopedia here, and and this wasn’t very kind.”
(01:50:29) And she felt so bad. She’s like, “Oh, right. I didn’t really think of it that way.” She just was coming in, and she was 13 years old, combative and having fun, and trolling a bit. And then she’s like, “Oh, actually, I see your point,” and became a great Wikipedian. So that’s the ideal really, is that you don’t just go throw a block, “Fuck off.” You go, “Hey, what gives?”, which is I think the way we tend to treat things in real life, if you’ve got somebody who’s doing something obnoxious in your friend group, you probably go, “Hey, really, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think this person is actually quite hurt that you keep making that joke about them.” And then they usually go, “Oh, I thought that was okay,” and then they stop, or they keep it up and then everybody goes, “Well, you’re the asshole.”
Lex Fridman (01:51:21) Well, yeah, that’s just an example that gives me faith in humanity that we’re all capable and wanting to be kind to each other. And in general, the fact that there’s a small group of volunteers, they’re able to contribute so much to the organization, the collection, the discussion of all of human knowledge is so it makes me so grateful to be part of this whole human project. That’s one of the reasons I love Wikipedia is gives me faith in humanity.
Jimmy Wales (01:51:53) Yeah, no, I once was at Wikimania is our annual conference and people come from all around the world, really active volunteers. I was at the dinner, we were in Egypt at Wikimania and Alexandria at the closing dinner or whatever, and a friend of mine came and sat at the table, and she’s been in the movement more broadly, creative commons, she’s not really a Wikipedian, she’d come to the conference because she’s into creative commons and all that. So we have dinner, and it just turned out I sat down at the table with most of the members of the English language arbitration committee, and they’re a bunch of very sweet, geeky Wikipedians.
(01:52:31) And as we left the table, I said to her, “I still find this sense of amazement, we just had dinner with some of the most powerful people in English language media,” because they’re the people who are the final court of appeal in English Wikipedia. And thank goodness they’re not media moguls. They’re just a bunch of geeks who are just well-liked in the community because they’re kind and they’re thoughtful and they really think about things. I was like, “This is great. Love Wikipedia.”
Lex Fridman (01:53:01) To the degree that geeks run the best aspect of human civilization brings me joy in all aspects. And this is true programming, like Linux programmers, people that kind of specialize in a thing, and they don’t really get caught up into the mess of the bickering of society. They just do their thing, and they value the craftsmanship of it, the competence of it.
Jimmy Wales (01:53:29) Yeah. If you’ve never heard of this or looked into it, you’ll enjoy it, I read something recently that I didn’t even know about, but the fundamental time zones, and they change from time to time. Sometimes, a country will pass daylight savings or move it by a week, whatever. There’s a file that’s on all Unix based computers, and basically all computers end up using this file, it’s the official time zone file. But why is it official? It’s just this one guy. It’s like this guy and a group of community around him.
(01:54:04) And basically, something weird happened and it broke something because he was on vacation. And I’m just like, isn’t that wild that you would think… First of all, most people never even think about how do computers know about time zones? Well, they know because they just use this file which tells all the time zones and which dates they change and all of that. But there’s this one guy, and he doesn’t get paid for it. With all the billions of people on the planet, he put his hand up and goes, “Yo, I’ll take care of the time zones.”
Lex Fridman (01:54:36) And there’s a lot of programmers listening to this right now with PTSD about time zones. On top of this one guy, there’s other libraries, the different programming languages that help manage the time zones for you. But still, within those, it’s amazing just the packages, the libraries, how few people build them out of their own love for building, for creating, for community and all of that. I almost like don’t want to interfere with the natural habitat of the geek. When you spot him in the wild, you just want to be like, “Well, careful, that thing needs to be treasured.”
(01:55:16) No, I met a guy many years ago, lovely, really sweet guy, and he was running a bot on English Wikipedia that I thought, “Wow, that’s actually super clever.” And what he had done is his bot was like spell checking, but rather than simple spell checking, what he had done is create a database of words that are commonly mistaken for other words. They’re spelled wrong, so I can’t even give an example. And so, the word is people often spell it wrong, but no spell checker catches it because it is another word. And so, what he did is he wrote a bot that looks for these words and then checks the sentence around it for certain keywords. So in some context, this isn’t correct, but buoy and boy: people sometimes type B-O-Y when they mean B-O-U-Y, so if he sees the word boy, B-O-Y in an article, he would look in the context and see, is this a nautical reference? And if it was, he didn’t autocorrect, he just would flag it up to himself to go, “Oh, check this one out.”
(01:56:23) And that’s not a great example, but he had thousands of examples, and I was like, “That’s amazing. I would’ve never thought to do that.” And I’m glad that somebody did. And that’s also part of the openness of the system, and also I think being a charity, being this idea of actually, this is a gift to the world that makes someone go, “Oh, well, I’ll put my hand up. I see a little piece of things I can make better because I’m a good programmer and I can write this script to do this thing, and I’ll find it fun,” amazing.

Wikipedia funding

Lex Fridman (01:56:55) Well, I got to ask about this big, bold decision at the very beginning to not do advertisements on the website. And just in general, the philosophy of the business model of Wikipedia, what went behind that?
Jimmy Wales (01:57:06) Yeah, so I think most people know this, but we’re a charity, so in the US, registered as a charity. And we don’t have any ads on the site. And the vast majority of the money is from donations, but the vast majority from small donors. So, people giving $25 or whatever.
Lex Fridman (01:57:29) If you’re listening to this, go donate.
Jimmy Wales (01:57:31) Go donate.
Lex Fridman (01:57:31) Donate now.
Jimmy Wales (01:57:33) $25.
Lex Fridman (01:57:33) I’ve donated so many times
Jimmy Wales (01:57:34) And we have millions of donors every year, but it’s a small percentage of people. I would say in the early days, a big part of it was aesthetic, almost as much as anything else. It was just like, “I don’t really want ads in Wikipedia. There’s a lot of reasons why it might not be good.” And even back then, I didn’t think as much as I have since about a business model can tend to drive you in a certain place, and really thinking that through in advance is really important because you might say, “Yeah, we’re really, really keen on community control and neutrality,” but if we had an advertising based business model, probably that would begin to erode. Even if I believe in it very strongly, organizations tend to follow the money in the DNA in the long run.
(01:58:25) And so things like, it’s easy to think about some of the immediate problems. So if you go to read about, I don’t know, Nissan car company, and if you saw an ad for the new Nissan at the top of the page, you might be like, “Did they pay for this?”, or, “Do the advertisers have influence over the content?”, because of wonder about that for all kinds of media.
Lex Fridman (01:58:53) And that undermines trust.
Jimmy Wales (01:58:55) Undermines trust, right. But also, things like we don’t have clickbait headlines in Wikipedia. You’ve never seen Wikipedia entries with all these kind of listicles, “The 10 funniest cat pictures, number seven will make you cry,” none of that kind of stuff, because there’s no incentive, no reason to do that. Also, there’s no reason to have an algorithm to say, “Actually, we’re going to use our algorithm to drive you to stay on the website longer. We’re going to use the algorithm to drive you to…”, It’s like, “Oh, you’re reading about Queen Victoria. There’s nothing to sell you when you’re reading about Queen Victoria. Let’s move you on to Las Vegas because actually, the ad revenue around hotels in Las Vegas is quite good,” so there’s no incentive for the organization to go, “Oh, let’s move people around to things that have better ad revenue.”
(01:59:48) Instead, it’s just like, “Oh, well, what’s most interesting to the community?,” just to make those links. So, that decision just seemed obvious to me, but as I say, it was less of a business decision and more of an aesthetic. It’s like, “I like Wikipedia that doesn’t have ads.” In these early days, a lot of the ads, that was well before the era of really quality ad targeting and all that, so you got a lot of-
Lex Fridman (02:00:18) Banners.
Jimmy Wales (02:00:18) Banners, punch the monkey ads and all that kind of nonsense. But there was no guarantee. It was not really clear, how could we fund this? It was pretty cheap. It still is quite cheap compared to most. We don’t have 100,000 employees and all of that, but would we be able to raise money through donations? And so, I remember the first time that we really did a donation campaign was on a Christmas Day in 2003, I think it was. We had three servers, database servers, and two front end servers, and they were all the same size or whatever, and two of them crashed. They broke, I don’t even know, remember now, the hard drive. It was Christmas Day, so I scrambled on Christmas Day to go onto the database server, which fortunately survived, and have it become a front end server as well. And then, the site was really slow and it wasn’t working very well.
(02:01:28) And I was like, “Okay, it’s time. We need to do a fundraiser,” and so I was hoping to raise $20,000 in a month’s time, but we raised nearly $30,000 within two, three weeks time. So that was the first proof point of, “Oh, we put a batter up and people will donate,” we just explained we need the money. And we were very small back then, and people were like, “Oh yeah, I love this. I want to contribute.” Then over the years, we’ve become more sophisticated about the fundraising campaigns, and we’ve tested a lot of different messaging and so forth. What we used to think, I remember one year we really went heavy with, “The idea of Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet. So what about the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa?”
(02:02:20) So I thought, “Okay, we’re trying to raise money. We need to talk about that because it’s really important and near and dear to my heart,” and just instinctively knowing nothing about charity fundraising, you see it all around, it’s like, oh, charity’s always mentioned the poor people they’re helping, so let’s talk about. Didn’t really work as well. This is very vague and very broad, but the pitch that works better than any other in general is a fairness pitch of, “You use it all the time, you should probably chip in.” And most people are like, “Yeah, you know what? My life would suck without Wikipedia. I use it constantly and whatever. I should chip in, it just seems like the right thing to do.”
(02:03:02) And there’s many variants on that, obviously. And it works. And people are like, “Oh yeah, Wikipedia, I love Wikipedia, and I shouldn’t.” So sometimes people say, “Why are you always begging for money on the website?”, and it’s not that often, it’s not that much, but it does happen. They’re like, “Why don’t you just get Google and Facebook and Microsoft, why don’t they pay for it?”, and I’m like, “I don’t think that’s really the right answer.”
Lex Fridman (02:03:34) Influence starts to creep in.
Jimmy Wales (02:03:35) Influence starts to creep in, and questions start to creep in. The best funding for Wikipedia is the small donors. We also have major donors. We have high net worth people who donate, but we always are very careful about that sort of thing to say, “Wow, that’s really great and really important, but we can’t let that become influence because that would just be really quite not good for Wikipedia.”
Lex Fridman (02:04:01) I would love to know how many times I’ve visited Wikipedia, how much time I’ve spent on it, because I have a general sense that it’s the most useful site I’ve ever used, competing maybe with Google search, which ultimately lands on Wikipedia.
Jimmy Wales (02:04:01) Yeah, right.
Lex Fridman (02:04:20) But if I would just be reminded of like, “Hey, remember all those times your life was make better because of the site?”, I think I would be much more like, “Yeah, why did I waste money on site X, Y, Z when I should be giving a lot of it here?”
Jimmy Wales (02:04:33) Well, the Guardian newspaper has a similar model, which is they have ads. There’s no paywall, but they just encourage people to donate, and they do that. I’ve sometimes seen a banner saying, “Oh, this is your 134th article you’ve read this year, would you like to donate?” And I think it’s effective-
Lex Fridman (02:04:55) [inaudible 02:04:55].
Jimmy Wales (02:04:54) … they’re testing. But also, I wonder just for some people, if they just don’t feel like guilty and then think, “Oh, I shouldn’t bother them so much.” I don’t know. It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer.
Lex Fridman (02:05:06) I guess that’s the thing I could also turn on, ’cause that would make me… I feel like legitimately, there’s some sites, this speaks to our social media discussion: Wikipedia unquestionably makes me feel better about myself if I spend time on it. There’s some websites where I’m like, if I spend time on Twitter, sometimes I’m like, I regret. I think Elon talks about this, minimize the number of regretted minutes. My number of regretted minutes on Wikipedia is zero. I don’t remember a time… I’ve just discovered this. I started following on Instagram, a page, depthsofwikipedia.
Jimmy Wales (02:05:46) Oh, yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:05:47) There’s crazy Wikipedia pages. There’s no Wikipedia page that [inaudible 02:05:51]-
Jimmy Wales (02:05:51) Yeah, I gave her a media contributor of the year award this year because she’s so great.
Lex Fridman (02:05:55) Yeah, she’s amazing.
Jimmy Wales (02:05:57) Depthsofwikipedia is so fun.
Lex Fridman (02:05:59) Yeah, that’s the interesting point that I don’t even know if there’s a competitor. There may be the programming, Stack Overflow type of websites, but everything else, there’s always a trade-off. It’s probably because of the ad driven model because there’s an incentive to pull you into clickbait, and Wikipedia has no clickbait. It’s all about the quality of the knowledge and the wisdom.
Jimmy Wales (02:06:22) Yeah. No, that’s right. And I also Stack Overflow. Although I wonder what you think of this, so I only program for fun as a hobby, and I don’t have enough time to do it, but I do, and I’m not very good at it. So therefore, I end up on Stack Overflow quite a lot trying to figure out what’s gone wrong. And I have really transitioned to using ChatGPT much more for that because I can often find the answer clearly explained, and it works better than sifting through threads, and I feel bad about that because I do love Stack Overflow and their community. I’m assuming, I haven’t read anything about in the news about it, but I’m assuming they are keenly aware of this, and they’re thinking about, “How can we use this chunk of knowledge that we’ve got here and provide a new type of interface where you can query it with a question and actually get an answer that’s based on the answers that we’ve had?” I don’t know.
Lex Fridman (02:07:19) Mm-hmm. And I think Stack Overflow currently has policies against using GPT. There’s a contentious kind of tension.
Jimmy Wales (02:07:28) Of course, yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:07:29) But they’re trying to figure that out.
Jimmy Wales (02:07:30) Well, and so we are similar in that regard. Obviously, all the things we’ve talked about like ChatGPT makes stuff up and it makes up references, so our community has already put into place some policies about it. But roughly speaking, there’s always more nuance. But roughly speaking, it’s, you the human are responsible for what you put into Wikipedia. So, if you use ChatGPT, you better check it, ’cause there’s a lot of great use cases of like, “Oh, well, I’m not a native speaker of German, but I am pretty good,” I’m not talking about myself, a hypothetical me that’s pretty good, and I just want to run my edit through ChatGPT in German to go make sure my grammar’s okay. That’s actually cool.

ChatGPT vs Wikipedia

Lex Fridman (02:08:15) Does it make you sad that people might use, increasingly use ChatGPT for something where they would previously use Wikipedia? So basically, use it to answer basic questions about the Eiffel Tower?
Jimmy Wales (02:08:32) Yeah. No-
Lex Fridman (02:08:32) And where the answer really comes at the source of it from Wikipedia, but they’re using this as an interface.
Jimmy Wales (02:08:38) Yeah. No, that’s completely fine. Part of it is our ethos has always been, “Here’s our gift of the world. Make something,” so if the knowledge is more accessible to people, even if they’re not coming through us, that’s fine. Now, obviously we do have certain business model concerns, and where we’ve had more conversation about this, this whole GPT thing is new, things like if you ask Alexa, “What is the Eiffel Tower?”, and she reads you the first two sentences from Wikipedia and doesn’t say it’s from Wikipedia, and they’ve recently started citing Wikipedia, then we worry, “Oh, if people don’t know they’re getting the knowledge from us, are they going to donate money? Or are they just going to think, oh, what’s Wikipedia for? I can just ask Alexa.” It’s like, well, Alexa only knows anything because she read Wikipedia. So we do think about that, but it doesn’t bother me in the sense of like, oh, I want people to always come to Wikipedia first.
(02:09:33) But we had a great demo, literally just hacked together over a weekend by our head of machine learning where he did this little thing to say, you could ask any question, and he was just knocking it together, so he used OpenAI’s API just to make a demo, asked a question, “Why do ducks fly south for winter?”, which is the kind of thing you think, “Oh, I might just Google for that, or I might start looking in Wikipedia. I don’t know.” And so what he did, he asked ChatGPT, “What are some Wikipedia entries that might answer this?” Then, he grabbed those Wikipedia entries, said, “Here’s some Wikipedia entries. Answer this question based only on the information in this,” and he had pretty good results, and it prevented the making stuff up. Now, it’s just he hacked it together on a weekend, but what it made me think about was, “Oh, okay, so now we’ve got this huge body of knowledge that in many cases you’re like, oh I really I want to know about Queen Victoria. I’m just going to go read the Wikipedia entry and it’s going to take me through her life and so forth.”
(02:10:44) But other times, you’ve got a specific question, and maybe we could have a better search experience where you can come to Wikipedia, ask your specific question, get your specific answer that’s from Wikipedia, including links to the articles you might want to read next. And that’s just a step forward. That’s just using new type of technology to make the extraction of information from this body of text into my brain faster and easier. So, I think that’s cool.
Lex Fridman (02:11:10) I would love to see a ChatGPT grounding into websites like Wikipedia. And the other comparable website to me will be like Wolfram Alpha for more mathematical knowledge, that kind of stuff. So, taking you to a page that is really crafted as opposed to the moment you start actually taking you to journalist websites like news websites, it starts getting a little iffy, because you’re now in a land that has a wrong incentive.
Jimmy Wales (02:11:44) Right, yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:11:45) You’re pulled in.
Jimmy Wales (02:11:45) Yeah, and you need somebody to have filtered through that and tried to knock off the rough edges. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And I think that kind of grounding, I think they’re working really hard on it. I think that’s really important-
Jimmy Wales (02:12:00) … is, I think they’re working really hard on it. I think that’s really important. And that actually… So if you ask me to step back and be like very business-like about our business model and where’s it going to go for us, and are we going to lose half our donations because everybody’s just going to stop coming to Wikipedia and go to ChatGPT? Well, grounding will help a lot because frankly, most questions people have, if they provide proper links, we’re going to be at the top of that, just like we are in Google. So we’re still going to get tons of recognition and tons of traffic just from… Even if it’s just the moral properness of saying, “Here’s my source.” So I think we’re going to be all right in that.
Lex Fridman (02:12:39) Yeah, in the close partnership if the model is fine-tuned, is constantly retrained that Wikipedia is one of the primary places where if you want to change what the model knows, one of the things you should do is contribute to Wikipedia or clarify Wikipedia.
Jimmy Wales (02:12:53) Yeah, yeah. No, that’s [inaudible 02:12:55].
Lex Fridman (02:12:54) Or elaborate, expand, all that kind of stuff.

Larry Sanger

Jimmy Wales (02:12:56) Yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:12:57) You mentioned all of us have controversies. I have to ask, do you find the controversy of whether you are the sole founder or the co-founder of Wikipedia ironic, absurd, interesting, important? What are your comments?
Jimmy Wales (02:13:13) I would say unimportant. Not that interesting. I mean, one of the things that people are sometimes surprised to hear me say is I actually think Larry Sanger doesn’t get enough credit for his early work in Wikipedia, even though I think co-founder’s not the right title for that. So he had a lot of impact and a lot of great work, and I disagree about a lot of things since and all that, and that’s fine. So yeah. No, to me that’s like, it’s one of these things that the media love a falling out story, so they want to make a big deal out of it, and I’m just like, yeah, no.
Lex Fridman (02:13:51) So there’s a lot of interesting engineering contributions in the early days, like you were saying, there’s debates about how to structure it, what the heck is this thing that we’re doing? And there’s important people that contributed to that.
Jimmy Wales (02:14:02) Yeah, definitely.
Lex Fridman (02:14:03) So he also, you said you’ve had some disagreements. Larry Sanger said that nobody should trust Wikipedia, and that Wikipedia seems to assume that there’s only one legitimate, defensible version of the truth on any controversial question. That’s not how Wikipedia used to be. I presume you disagree with that analysis.
Jimmy Wales (02:14:21) Yeah. I mean, just straight up, I disagree. Go and read any Wikipedia entry on a controversial topic, and what you’ll see is a really diligent effort to explain all the relevant sides. So yeah, just disagree.
Lex Fridman (02:14:32) So on controversial questions, you think perspectives are generally represented?
Jimmy Wales (02:14:36) Yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:14:37) Because it has to do with the tension between the mainstream and the non-mainstream that we were talking about.
Jimmy Wales (02:14:43) Yeah. No, I mean for sure. To take this area of discussion seriously is to say, yeah, you know what? Actually that is a big part of what Wikipedia and spend their time grappling with is to say, how do we figure out whether a less popular view is pseudoscience? Is it just a less popular view that’s gaining acceptance in the mainstream? Is it fringe versus crackpot, et cetera, et cetera? And that debate is what you’ve got to do. There’s no choice about having that debate of grappling with something. And I think we do. And I think that’s really important. And I think if anybody said to the Wikipedia community, “Gee, you should stop covering minority viewpoints on this issue,”
(02:15:39) I think they would say, “I don’t even understand why you would say that. We have to grapple with minority viewpoints in science and politics and so on.” And this is one of the reasons why there is no magic simple answer to all these things. It’s really contextual. It’s case by case. It’s like you’ve got to really say, okay, what is the context here? How do you do it? And you’ve always got to be open to correction and to change and to challenge and always be sort of serious about that.
Lex Fridman (02:16:13) I think what happens, again, with social media is when there is that grappling process in Wikipedia and a decision is made to remove a paragraph or to remove a thing or to say a thing, you’re going to notice the one direction of the oscillation of the grappling and not the correction. And you’re going to highlight that and say, how come this person… I don’t know, maybe legitimacy of elections that’s the thing that comes up. Donald Trump maybe previously-
Jimmy Wales (02:16:42) Yeah, I can give a really good example, which is, there was this sort of dust up about the definition of recession in Wikipedia. The accusation was often quite ridiculous and extreme, which is, under pressure from the Biden administration Wikipedia changed the definition of recession to make Biden look good, or we did it not under pressure, but because we’re a bunch of lunatic leftists and so on. And then when I see something like that in the press, I’m like, “Oh dear, what’s happened here? How do we do that?” Because I always just accept things for five seconds first, and then I go and I look and I’m like, “You know what? That’s literally completely not what happened.” What happened was, one editor thought the article needed restructuring. So the article is always said, so the traditional kind of loose definition of recession is two quarters of negative growth, but there’s always been within economics, within important agencies and different countries around the world, a lot of nuance around that.
(02:17:43) And there’s other factors that go into it and so forth. And then it’s just an interesting complicated topic. And so the article has always had the definition of two quarters. And the only thing that really changed was moving that from the lead, from the top paragraph to further down. And then news stories appeared saying, “Wikipedia has changed the definition of recession.” And then we got a huge rush of trolls coming in. So the article was temporarily protected, I think, only semi protected, and people were told, “Go to the talk page to discuss.” So anyway, it was a dust up that was… When you look at it as a Wikipedian, you’re like, “Oh, this is a really routine kind of editorial debate.” Another example, which unfortunately our friend Elon fell for, I would say, is the Twitter files. So there was an article called the Twitter files, which is about these files that were released once Elon took control of Twitter, and he released internal documents.

Twitter files

(02:18:36) And what happened was somebody nominated it for deletion, but even the nomination said, “This is mainly about the Hunter Biden laptop controversy, shouldn’t this information be there instead?” So anyone can… It takes exactly one human being anywhere on the planet to propose something for deletion, and that triggers a process where people discuss it, which within a few hours, it was what we call snowball closed i.e, this doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing. So an admin goes, “Yeah, wrong,” and closed the debate, and that was it. That was the whole thing that happened. And so nobody proposed suppressing the information. Nobody proposed it wasn’t important, it was just editorially boring internal questions. So sometimes people read stuff like that and they’re like, “Oh, you see, look at these leftists. They’re trying to suppress the truth again.” It’s like, well slow down a second and come and look, literally, it’s not what happened.
Lex Fridman (02:19:36) So I think the right is more sensitive to censorship, and so they will more likely highlight there’s more virality to highlighting something that looks like censorship in any walks of life. And this moving a paragraph from one place to another, or removing it and so on, as part of the regular grappling of Wikipedia can make a hell of a good article or YouTube video.
Jimmy Wales (02:20:01) Oh, yeah. Yeah. No, it sounds really in enticing and intriguing and surprising to most people because they’re like, “Oh, no, I’m reading Wikipedia. It doesn’t seem like a crackpot leftist website. It seems pretty kind of dull, really in its own geeky way.” And so that makes a good story. It’s like, oh, am I being misled? Because there’s a shadowy cabal of Jimmy Wales.
Lex Fridman (02:20:25) I generally, I read political stuff. I mentioned to you that I’m traveling to have some very difficult conversation with high profile figures both in the war in Ukraine and in Israel and Palestine. And I read the Wikipedia articles around that, and I also read books on the conflict and the history of the different regions. And I find the Wikipedia articles to be very balanced, and there’s many perspectives being represented. But then I ask myself, “Well, am I one of them leftist crackpots?” They can’t see the truth. I mean, it’s something I ask myself all the time, forget the leftist, just crackpot in general. Am I just being a sheep and accepting it? And I think that’s an important question to always ask, but not too much.
Jimmy Wales (02:21:12) Yeah. No, I agree.
Lex Fridman (02:21:12) A little bit, but not too much.
Jimmy Wales (02:21:15) Yeah. No, I think we always have to challenge ourselves of what do I potentially have wrong?

Government and censorship

Lex Fridman (02:21:20) Well, you mentioned pressure from government. You’ve criticized Twitter for giving in to Turkey’s government censorship. There’s also conspiracy theories or accusations of Wikipedia being open to pressure from government to government organizations, FBI and all this kind of stuff. What is the philosophy about pressure from government and censorship?
Jimmy Wales (02:21:50) So we’re super hardcore on this. We’ve never bowed down to government pressure anywhere in the world, and we never will. And we understand that we’re hardcore. And actually there is a bit of nuance about how different companies respond to this, but our response has always been just to say no. And if they threaten to block, well, knock yourself out, you’re going to lose Wikipedia. And that’s been very successful for us as a strategy because governments know they can’t just casually threaten to block Wikipedia or block us for two days, and we’re going to cave in immediately to get back into the market. And that’s what a lot of companies have done. And I don’t think that’s good that we can go one level deeper and say, I’m actually quite sympathetic. If you have staff members in a certain country and they are at physical risk, you’ve got to put that into your equation.
(02:22:43) So I understand that. If Elon said, “Actually, I’ve got a hundred staff members on the ground in such and such a country, and if we don’t comply, somebody’s going to get arrested. And it could be quite serious.” Okay, that’s a tough one. That’s actually really hard. But yeah, no. And then the FBI one, no, the criticism I saw. I kind of prepared for this because I saw people responding to your request for questions, and I was like, somebody’s like, “Oh, well, don’t you think it was really bad that you da da da, da?” I actually reached out to [inaudible 02:23:18] and said, “Can you just make sure I’ve got my facts right?” And the answer is, we received zero requests of any kind from the FBI or any of the other government agencies for any changes to content in Wikipedia. And had we received those requests at the level of the Wikipedia Foundation, we would’ve said, “We can’t do anything because Wikipedia is written by the community.”
(02:23:40) And so the Wikimedia Foundation can’t change the content of Wikipedia without causing… I mean, God, that would be a massive controversy, you can’t even imagine. What we did do, and this is what I’ve done, I’ve been to China and met with the Minister of Propaganda. We’ve had discussions with governments all around the world, not because we want to do their bidding, but because we don’t want to do their bidding, but we also don’t want to be blocked. And we think actually having these conversations are really important. There’s no threat of being blocked in the US. That’s just never going to happen. There is the First Amendment. But in other countries around the world, it’s like, “Okay, what are you upset about? Let’s have the conversation. Let’s understand, and let’s have a dialogue about it so that you can understand where we come from and what we’re doing and why.”
(02:24:26) And then sometimes it’s like, gee, if somebody complains that something’s bad in Wikipedia, whoever they are, don’t care who they are. It could be you, it could be the government, it could be the Pope. I don’t care who they are. It’s like, oh, okay. Well, our responsibility as Wikipedia is to go, “Oh, hold on, let’s check is that right or wrong? Is there something that we’ve got wrong in Wikipedia? Not because you’re threatening to block us, but because we want Wikipedia to be correct.” So we do have these dialogues with people. And a big part of what was going on with, you might call it pressure on social media companies or dialogue with, as we talked earlier, grapple with the language depending on what your view is. In our case, it was really just about, oh, okay, they want to have a dialogue about COVID information, misinformation.
(02:25:22) We are this enormous source of information which the world depends on. We’re going to have that conversation. We’re happy to say, here’s… If they say, how do you know that Wikipedia is not going to be pushing some crazy anti-vax narrative first? I mean, I think it’s somewhat inappropriate for a government to be asking pointed questions in a way that implies possible penalties. I’m not sure that ever happened because we would just go, I don’t know, the Chinese blocked us. So it goes, right? We’re not going to cave into any kind of government pressure, but whatever the appropriateness of what they were doing, I think there is a rule for government in just saying, let’s understand the information ecosystem. Let’s think about the problem of misinformation, disinformation in society, particularly around election security, all these kinds of things. So I think it would be irresponsible of us to get a call from a government agency and say, “Yeah, why don’t you just fuck off? You’re the government.” But it would also be irresponsible to go, “Oh, dear, government agent’s not happy. Let’s fix Wikipedia so the FBI loves us.”
Lex Fridman (02:26:35) And when you say you want to have discussions with the Chinese government or with organizations like CDC and WHO, it’s to thoroughly understand what the mainstream narrative is so that it can be properly represented, but not drive what the articles are?
Jimmy Wales (02:26:50) Well, it’s actually important to say whatever the Wikimedia Foundation thinks has no impact on what’s in Wikipedia. So it’s more about saying to them, “We understand you’re the World Health Organization, or you’re whoever, and part of your job is to… Public health is about communications. You want to understand the world.” So it’s more about, “Well, let’s explain how Wikipedia works.”
Lex Fridman (02:27:18) So it’s more about explaining how Wikipedia works and like, “Hey, it’s the volunteers”?
Jimmy Wales (02:27:22) Yeah, exactly.
Lex Fridman (02:27:23) It’s a battle of ideas, and here’s how the sources are used.
Jimmy Wales (02:27:29) Yeah, exactly.
Lex Fridman (02:27:30) What are the legitimate sources and what not a legitimate source is.
Jimmy Wales (02:27:32) Yeah, exactly.
Lex Fridman (02:27:33) I mean, I suppose there’s some battle about what is a legitimate source. There could be statements made that CDC… There’s government organizations in general have sold themselves to be the place where you go for expertise. And some of that has been to small degree, raised in question over the response to the pandemic.
Jimmy Wales (02:27:57) Well, I think in many cases, and this goes back to my topic of trust. So there were definitely cases of public officials, public organizations where I felt like they lost the trust of the public because they didn’t trust the public. And so the idea is, we really need people to take this seriously and take actions, therefore, we’re going to put out some overblown claims because it’s going to scare people into behaving correctly. You know what? That might work for a little while, but it doesn’t work in the long run because suddenly people go from a default stance of… Like the Center for Disease Control, very well respected scientific organization. I don’t know. They’ve got fault in Atlanta with the last file of smallpox or whatever it is that people think about them. And to go, “Oh, right, these are scientists we should actually take seriously and listen to, and they’re not politicized.”
(02:28:58) It’s like, okay. And if you put out statements, and I don’t know if the CDC did, but Who Health Organization, whoever, that are provably false and also provably, you kind of knew they were false, but you did it to scare people because you wanted them to do the right thing. It’s like, no, you know what? That’s not going to work in the long run. You’re going to lose people, and now you’ve got a bigger problem, which is a lack of trust in science, a lack of trust in authorities who are, by and large, they’re like quite boring government bureaucrat scientists who just are trying to help the world.
Lex Fridman (02:29:31) Well, I’ve been criticized, and I’ve been torn on this. I’ve been criticized for criticizing Anthony Fauci too hard. The degree to which I criticized him is because he’s a leader. And I’m just observing the effect in the loss of trust in the institutions like the NIH that where I personally know there’s a lot of incredible scientists doing incredible work, and I have to blame the leaders for the effects on the distrust and the scientific work that they’re doing because of what I perceive as basic human flaws of communication, of arrogance, of ego, of politics, all those kinds of things. Now, you could say, “You’re being too harsh,” possible, but I think that’s the whole point of free speech is you can criticize people who lead. Leaders, unfortunately or fortunately, are responsible for the effects on society.
(02:30:28) To me, Anthony Fauci or whoever in the scientific position around the pandemic had an opportunity to have a FDR moment or to get everybody together, inspire about the power of science to rapidly develop a vaccine that saves us from this pandemic and future pandemic that can threaten the wellbeing of human civilization. This was epic and awesome and sexy. And to me, when I’m talking to people about science, it’s anything but sexy in terms of the virology and biology development because it’s been politicized. It’s icky, and people just don’t want to… “Don’t talk to me about the vaccine. I understand. I understand. I got vaccinated.” There’s just, “Let’s switch topics quick.”
Jimmy Wales (02:31:11) Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s interesting because as I say, I live in the UK and I think all these things are a little less politicized there. And I haven’t paid close enough attention to Fauci to have a really strong view. I’m sure I would disagree with some things. I remember hearing at the beginning of the pandemic as I’m unwrapping my Amazon package with these masks I bought because I heard there’s a pandemic. And I just was like, “I want some N95 mask, please.” And they were saying, “Don’t buy masks.” And the motivation was because they didn’t want there to be shortages in hospitals. Fine. But there were also statements of masks, they’re not effective and they won’t help you. And then the complete about phase two, you’re ridiculous if you’re not wearing a… It’s just like, no, that about face just lost people from day one.
Lex Fridman (02:32:06) The distrust in the intelligence of the public to deal with nuance, to deal with the uncertainty.
Jimmy Wales (02:32:11) Yeah. This is exactly what… I think this is where the Wikipedia neutral point of view is and should be in ideally. And obviously every article and everything we could… You know me now and you know how I am about these things, but ideally, it’s to say, look, we’re happy to show you all the perspectives. This is Planned Parenthood’s view, and this is Catholic Church view, and we’re going to explain that, and we’re going to try to be thoughtful and put in the best arguments from all sides, because I trust you. You read that and you’re going to be more educated and you’re going to begin to make a decision. I mean, I can just talk in the UK, the government, da, da, da. When we found out in the UK that very high level government officials were not following the rules they had put on everyone else. I had just become a UK citizen just a little while before the pandemic, and it’s kind of emotional. You get a passport in a new country and you feel quite good.
(02:33:09) I did my oath to the Queen, and then they dragged the poor old lady out to tell us all to be good. I was like, “We’re British and we’re going to do the right things, and it’s going to be tough, but going to…” So you have that kind of Dunkirk spirit moment, and you’re following the rules to a T, and then suddenly it’s like, well, they’re not following the rules. And so suddenly I shifted personally from, “I’m going to follow the rules, even if I don’t completely agree with them, but I’ll still follow because I think we’ve got to all chip in together,” to, “You know what? I’m going to make wise and thoughtful decisions for myself and my family.” And that generally is going to mean following the rules. But it’s basically when they’re at certain moments in time, you’re not allowed to be in an outside space unless you’re exercising. I’m like, I think I can sit in a park and read a book. It’s going to be fine. That’s irrational rule, which I would’ve been following just personally of like, I’m just going to do the right thing.
Lex Fridman (02:34:06) And the loss of trust, I think, at scale was probably harmful to science. And to me, the scientific method and the scientific community is one of the biggest hopes, at least to me, for the survival and the thriving of human civilization.
Jimmy Wales (02:34:22) Absolutely. And I think you see some of the ramifications of this. There’s always been pretty anti-science, anti-vax people. That’s always been a thing, but I feel like it’s bigger now simply because of that lowering of trust. So a lot of people, maybe it’s like you say, a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I got vaccinated, but I really don’t want to talk about this because it’s so toxic.” And that’s unfortunate because I think people should say, “What an amazing thing.” There’s also a whole range of discourse around if this were a disease that was primarily killing babies, I think people’s emotions about it would’ve been very different, right or wrong. Then the fact that when you really looked at the death rate of getting COVID, wow, it’s really dramatically different. If you’re late in life, this was really dangerous. And if you’re 23 years old, yeah, well, it’s not great. And long COVID is a thing and all of that. And I think some of the public communications, again, were failing to properly contextualize it. Not all of it. It’s a complicated matter, but yeah.

Adolf Hitler’s Wikipedia page

Lex Fridman (02:35:45) Let me read you a Reddit comment that received two likes.
Jimmy Wales (02:35:48) Oh, two whole people liked it.
Lex Fridman (02:35:52) Yeah, two people liked it. And I don’t know, maybe you can comment on whether there’s truth to it, but I just found it interesting because I’ve been doing a lot of research on World War II recently. So this is about Hitler.
Jimmy Wales (02:36:06) Oh, okay.
Lex Fridman (02:36:06) It’s a long statement. “I was there when a big push was made to fight bias at Wikipedia. Our target became getting the Hitler article to be Wiki’s featured article. The idea was that the voting body only wanted articles that were good PR and especially articles about socially liberal topics. So the Hitler article had to be two to three times better and more academically researched to beat the competition. This bias seems to hold today, for example, the current list of political featured articles at a glance seems to have only two books, one on anarchism and one on Karl Marx. Surely we’re not going to say there have only ever been two articles about political non-biography books worth being featured, especially compared to 200 plus video games. And that’s the only topics with good books are socialism and anarchy.” Do you have any interesting comments on this kind of-
Jimmy Wales (02:36:06) Oh, yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:37:00) [inaudible 02:37:00] featured, how the featured is selected, maybe Hitler, because he is a special figure [inaudible 02:37:09] kind of stuff.
Jimmy Wales (02:37:09) I love that. No, I love the comparison to how many video games, and that definitely speaks to my earlier is like, if you’ve got a lot of young geeky men who really like video games, that doesn’t necessarily get you to the right place in every respect. Certainly. Yeah. So here’s a funny story. I woke up one morning to a bunch of journalists in Germany trying to get in touch with me because German language, Wikipedia chose to have as the featured article of the day, Swastika. And people were going crazy about it, and some people were saying, “It’s illegal. Has German Wikipedia been taken over by Nazi sympathizers,” and so on? And it turned out it’s not illegal, discussing the swastika. Using the swastika as a political campaign and using it in certain ways is illegal in Germany in a way that it wouldn’t be in the US because the First Amendment, but in this case, it was like actually part of the point is the swastika symbol is from other cultures as well.
(02:38:17) I just thought it was interesting. I did joke to the community, I’m like, “Please don’t put the swastika on the front page without warning me because I’m going to get [inaudible 02:38:25].” It wouldn’t be me, it’s the foundation. I’m not that much on the front lines. So I would say that to put Hitler on the front page of Wikipedia, it is a special topic. And you would want to say, “Yeah, let’s be really careful that it’s really, really good before we do that,” because if we put it on the front page and it’s not good enough, that could be a problem. There’s no inherent reason. Clearly, World War II is a very popular topic in Wikipedia. It’s like, turn on the history channel. People, it’s a fascinating period of history that people are very interested in. And then on the other piece, like anarchism and Karl Marx.
Lex Fridman (02:39:05) Karl Marx. Yeah.
Jimmy Wales (02:39:06) Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s interesting. I’m surprised to hear that not more political books or topics have made it to the front page.
Lex Fridman (02:39:15) Now we’re taking this Reddit a comment.
Jimmy Wales (02:39:16) I mean, as if-
Lex Fridman (02:39:17) That’s face value.
Jimmy Wales (02:39:18) … it’s completely… But I’m trusting. So I think that’s probably is right. They probably did have the list up. No, I think that piece… The piece about how many of those featured articles have been video games, and if it’s disproportionate, I think the community should go, “Actually, what’s gone? That doesn’t seem quite right.” I mean, you can imagine that because you’re looking for an article to be on the front page of Wikipedia, you want to have a bit of diversity in it. You want it to be not always something that’s really popular that week, so I don’t know, the last couple of weeks, maybe succession, the big finale of succession might lead you think, oh, let’s put succession on the front page, that’s going to be popular. In other cases, you kind of want to pick something super obscure and quirky because people also find that interesting and fun. Yeah, I don’t know. But you don’t want it to be video games most of the time. That sounds quite bad.
Lex Fridman (02:40:17) Well, let me ask you just as somebody who’s seen the whole thing, the development of the millions of articles. Big impossible question, what’s your favorite article?
Jimmy Wales (02:40:33) My favorite article? Well, I’ve got an amusing answer, which is possibly also true. There’s an article in Wikipedia called Inherently Funny Words, and one of the reasons I love it is when it was created early in the history of Wikipedia, it kind of became like a dumping ground. People would just come by and write in any word that they thought sounded funny. And then it was nominated for deletion because somebody’s like, “This is just a dumping ground. People are putting all kinds of nonsense in.” And in that deletion debate, somebody came forward and said essentially, “Wait a second, hold on. This is actually a legitimate concept in the theory of humor and comedy. And a lot of famous comedians and humorists have written about it.” And it’s actually a legitimate topic. So then they went through and they meticulously referenced every word that was in there and threw out a bunch that weren’t.
(02:41:29) And so it becomes this really interesting. And now my biggest disappointment, and it’s the right decision to make because there was no source, but it was a picture of a cow, but there was a rope around its head tying on some horns onto the cow. So it was kind of a funny looking picture. It looked like a bull with horns, but it’s just a normal milk cow. And below it, the caption said, “According to some, cow is an inherently funny word,” which is just hilarious to me, partly because the “According to some” sounds a lot like Wikipedia, but there was no source. So it went away, and I know I feel very sad about that, but I’ve always liked that. And actually the reason Depths of Wikipedia amuses me so greatly is because it does highlight really interesting obscure stuff, and you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe somebody wrote about that in Wikipedia. It’s quite amusing.” And sometimes there’s a bit of rye humor in Wikipedia. There’s always a struggle. You’re not trying to be funny, but occasionally a little inside humor can be quite healthy.
Lex Fridman (02:42:40) Apparently words with the letter K are funny. There’s a lot of really well researched stuff on this page. It’s actually exciting. And I should mention for Depths of the Wikipedia, it’s run by Annie Rauwerda.
Jimmy Wales (02:42:56) That’s right, Annie.
Lex Fridman (02:42:57) And let me just read off some of the pages. Octopolis and Octlantis-
Jimmy Wales (02:43:05) Oh yeah, that was…
Lex Fridman (02:43:05) … are two separate non-human underwater settlements built by the gloomy octopuses in Jarvis Bay East Australia. The first settlement named Octopolis by a biologist was founded in 2009. The individual structures in Octopolis consists of borrows around a piece of human detritus believed to be scrap metal, and it goes on in this way.
Jimmy Wales (02:43:29) That’s great.
Lex Fridman (02:43:30) Satiric misspelling, least concerned species. Humans were formally assessed as a species of least concern in 2008. I think Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would slightly disagree. And the last one, let me just say, friendship paradox is the phenomena first observed by the sociologist Scott Feld in 1991, that on average an individual’s friends have more friends than that individual.
Jimmy Wales (02:43:58) Oh, that’s really interesting.
Lex Fridman (02:43:58) That’s very lonely.
Jimmy Wales (02:44:00) That’s the kind of thing that makes you want to… It sounds implausible at first because shouldn’t everybody have on average, about the same number of friends as all their friends? So you really want to dig into the math of that and really think, oh, why would that be true?
Lex Fridman (02:44:13) And it’s one way to feel more lonely in a mathematically rigorous way. Somebody else on Reddit asks, “I would love to hear some war stories from behind the scenes.” Is there something that we haven’t mentioned that was particularly difficult in this entire journey you’re on with Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales (02:44:32) I mean, yeah, it’s hard to say. So part of what I always say about myself is that I’m a pathological optimist, so I always think everything is fine. And so things that other people might find a struggle, I’m just like, “Oh, well, this is the thing we’re doing today.” So that’s kind of about me, and it’s actually… I’m aware of this about myself, so I do like to have a few pessimistic people around me to keep me a bit on balance. I mean, I would say some of the hard things, I mean, there were hard moments like when two…
Jimmy Wales (02:45:00) I would say some of the hard things. I mean, there were hard moments when two out of three servers crashed on Christmas Day and then we needed to do a fundraiser and no idea what was going to happen. I would say as well, in that early period of time, the growth of the website and the traffic to the website was phenomenal and great. The growth of the community and in fact the healthy growth of the community was fine.
(02:45:29) And then the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit I set up to own and operate Wikipedia as a small organization, it had a lot of growing pains. That was the piece that’s just many companies or many organizations that are in a fast growth. It’s like you’ve hired the wrong people, or there’s this conflict that’s arisen and nobody has got experience to do this and all that. So, no specific stories to tell, but I would say growing the organization was harder than growing the community and growing the website, which is interesting.
Lex Fridman (02:46:02) Well, yeah. It’s kind of miraculous and inspiring that a community can emerge and be stable, and that has so much kind of productive, positive output. Kind of makes you think. It’s one of those things you don’t want to analyze too much because you don’t want to mess with a beautiful thing, but it gives me faith in communities. I think that they can spring up in other domains as well.
Jimmy Wales (02:46:29) Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. At Fandom, my for-profit wiki company where it’s all these communities about pop culture mainly, sort of entertainment, gaming and so on, there’s a lot of small communities. So, I went last year to our Community Connect conference and just met some of these people, and here’s one of the leaders of the Star Wars wiki, which is called Wookieepedia, which I think is great. And he’s telling me about his community and all that. And I’m like, “Oh, right. Yeah, I love this.”
(02:47:03) So, it’s not the same purpose as Wikipedia of a neutral, high quality encyclopedia, but a lot of the same values are there of like, “Oh, people should be nice to each other.” It’s like when people get upset, just remember we’re working on Star Wars wiki together, there’s no reason to get too outraged. And just kind people just, just geeky people with a hobby.

Future of Wikipedia

Lex Fridman (02:47:27) Where do you see Wikipedia in 10 years, 100 years, and 1,000 years?
Jimmy Wales (02:47:35) Right. So, 10 years, I would say pretty much the same. We’re not going to become TikTok with entertainment deals, scroll by video humor, and blah-blah-blah, and encyclopedia. I think in 10 years, we probably will have a lot more AI supporting tools like I’ve talked about, and probably your search experience would be you can ask a question and get the answer rather than from our body of work.
Lex Fridman (02:48:09) So, search and discovery, a little bit improved, interface, some of that.
Jimmy Wales (02:48:12) Yeah, all that. I always say one of the things that most people won’t notice, because already they don’t notice it, is the growth of Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world. So, you probably don’t speak Swahili, so you’re probably not checking out that Swahili Wikipedia is doing very well, and it is doing very well. And I think that kind of growth is actually super important. It’s super interesting, but most people won’t notice that.
Lex Fridman (02:48:41) If we can just link on that if we could, do you think there’s so much incredible translation work is being done with AI, with language models? Do you think that can accelerate Wikipedia?
Jimmy Wales (02:48:55) Yeah, I do.
Lex Fridman (02:48:55) So, you start with the basic draft of the translation of articles and then build on top of that.
Jimmy Wales (02:49:00) What I used to say is machine translation for many years wasn’t much used to the community, because it just wasn’t good enough. As it’s gotten better, it’s tended to be a lot better in what we might call economically important languages, that’s because the corpus that they train on and all of that.
(02:49:20) So, to translate from English to Spanish, if you’ve tried Google Translate recently Spanish to English is what I would do, it’s pretty good. It’s actually not bad. It used to be half a joke and then for a while it was kind of like, “Well, you can get the gist of something.” And now, actually, it’s pretty good. However, we’ve got a huge Spanish community who write in native Spanish, so they’re able to use it and they find it useful, but they’re writing.
(02:49:44) But if you tried to do English to Zulu where there’s not that much investment, there’s loads of reasons to invest in English-Spanish, because they’re both huge, economically important languages. Zulu not so much. So, for those smaller languages, it was just still terrible. My understanding is it’s improved dramatically and also because the new methods of training don’t necessarily involve identical corpuses to try to match things up, but rather reading and understanding with tokens and large language models, and then reading and understanding, and then you get a much richer …
(02:50:22) Anyway, apparently it’s quite improved, so I think that now, it is quite possible that these smaller language communities are going to say, “Oh, well finally, I can put something in an English and I can get out Zulu that I feel comfortable sharing with my community because it’s actually good enough, or I can edit it a bit here and there.” So, I think that’s huge. So, I do think that’s going to happen a lot and that’s going to accelerate, again, what will remain to most people an invisible trend, but that’s the growth in all these other languages. So, then move on to 100 years.
Lex Fridman (02:50:52) I was starting to get scary.
Jimmy Wales (02:50:54) Well, the only thing I’d say about 100 years is we’ve built the Wikimedia Foundation, and we run it in a quite cautious, and financially conservative, and careful way. So, every year, we build our reserves. Every year, we put aside a little bit of more money. We also have the endowment fund, which we just passed 100 million, that’s a completely separate fund with a separate board. So, it’s not just a big fat bank account for some future profligate CEO to blow through. The foundation will have to get the approval of a second order board to be able to access that money, and that board can make other grants through the community and things like that.
(02:51:38) So, the point of all that is I hope and believe that we are building in a financially stable way that we can weather various storms along the way, so that hopefully we’re not taking the kind of risks. And by the way, we’re not taking too few risks either. That’s always hard. I think the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia will exist in 100 years if anybody exists in 100 years, we’ll be there.
Lex Fridman (02:52:06) Do you think the internet just looks a predictably different, just the web?
Jimmy Wales (02:52:11) I do. I think right now, this sort of enormous step forward we’ve seen and has become public in the last year of the large language models really is something else. It’s really interesting. You and I have both talked today about the flaws and the limitations, but still it’s … As someone who’s been around technology for a long time, it’s sort of that feeling of the first time I saw a web browser, the first time I saw the iPhone, the first time the internet was really usable on a phone. And it’s like, “Wow, that’s a step change difference.” There’s a few other …
Lex Fridman (02:52:48) Maybe a Google Search.
Jimmy Wales (02:52:49) Google Search was actually one.
Lex Fridman (02:52:51) I remember the first Search.
Jimmy Wales (02:52:51) Because I remember Alta Vista was kind of cool for a while, then it just got more and more useless, because the algorithm wasn’t good. And it’s like, “Oh, Google Search, now I like the internet, it works again.” And so, large language model, it feels like that to me. Like, “Oh, wow, this is something new and really pretty remarkable.” And it’s going to have some downsides. The negative use case …
(02:53:14) People in the area who are experts, they’re giving a lot of warnings. I’m not that worried, but I’m a pathological optimist. But I do see some really low-hanging fruit bad things that can happen. My example is, how about some highly customized spam where the email that you receive isn’t just misspelled words and trying to get through filters, but actually as a targeted email to you that knows something about you by reading your LinkedIn profile and writes a plausible email that will get through the filters. And it’s like suddenly, “Oh, that’s a new problem. That’s going to be interesting.”
Lex Fridman (02:53:55) Just on the Wikipedia editing side, does it make the job of the volunteer of the editor more difficult in a world where larger and larger percentage of the internet is written by an LLM?
Jimmy Wales (02:54:08) One of my predictions, and we’ll see, ask me again in five years how this panned out, is that in a way, this will strengthen the value and importance of some traditional brands. So, if I see a news story and it’s from the Wall Street Journal, from the New York Times, from Fox News, I know what I’m getting and I trust it to whatever extent I might have, trust or distrust in any of those.
(02:54:43) And if I see a brand new website that looks plausible, but I’ve never heard of it, and it could be machine generated content that may be full of errors, I think I’ll be more cautious. I think I’m more interested. And we can also talk about this around photographic evidence. So, obviously, there will be scandals where major media organizations get fooled by a fake photo.
(02:55:04) However, if I see a photo of the recent ones, the Pope wearing an expensive puffer jacket, I’m going to go, “Yeah, that’s amazing that a fake like that could be generated.” But my immediate thought is not, “Oh, so the Pope is dipping into the money, eh? Partly because this particular Pope doesn’t seem like he’d be the type.”
Lex Fridman (02:55:25) My favorite is extensive pictures of Joe Biden and Donald Trump hanging out and having fun together.
Jimmy Wales (02:55:31) Yeah. Brilliant. So, I think people will care about the provenance of a photo. And if you show me a photo and you say, “Yeah, this photo is from Fox News,” even though I don’t necessarily think that’s the highest, but I’m like, “Wow, it’s a news organization and they’re going to have journalism, and they’re going to make sure the photo is what it purports to be.”
(02:55:55) That’s very different from a photo randomly circulating on Twitter. Whereas I would say, 15 years ago, a photo randomly circulating on Twitter, in most cases, the worst you could do, and this did happen, is misrepresent the battlefield. So, like, “Oh, here’s a bunch of injured children. Look what Israel has done.” But actually, it wasn’t Israel, it was another case 10 years ago. That has happened, that has always been around. But now, we can have much more specifically constructed, plausible looking photos that if I just see them circulating on Twitter, I’m going to go, “I just don’t know. Not sure. I can make that in five minutes.”
Lex Fridman (02:56:32) Well, I also hope that it’s kind of like what you’re writing about in your book that we could also have citizen journalists that have a stable, verifiable trust that builds up. So, it doesn’t have to be in New York Times with this organization that you could be in an organization of one as long as it’s stable and carries through time and it builds up or it goes up.
Jimmy Wales (02:56:52) No, I agree. But the one thing I’ve said in the past, and this depends on who that person is and what they’re doing, but it’s like I think my credibility, my general credibility in the world should be the equal of a New York Times reporter. So, if something happens, and I witness it, and I write about it, people are going to go, “Well, Jimmy Wales said it. That’s just like if a New York Times reporter said it. I’m going to tend to think he didn’t just make it up.”
(02:57:18) The truth is nothing interesting ever happens around me. I don’t go to war zones. I don’t go to big press conferences. I don’t interview Putin and Zelenskyy. To an extent, yes. Whereas I do think for other people, those traditional models of credibility are really, really important. And then there is this sort of citizen journalism. I don’t know if you think of what you do as journalism. I kind of think it is, but you do interviews, you do long form interviews.
(02:57:49) If you come and you say, “Here’s my tape,” but you wouldn’t hand out a tape. I just gesture to you as if I’m handing you a cassette tape. But if you put it into your podcast, ” Here’s my interview with Zelenskyy.” And people aren’t going to go, “Yeah, how do we know? That could be a deep fake. You could have faked that.” Because people are like, “Well, no, you’re a well known podcaster and you do interview interesting people. Yeah, you wouldn’t think that.” So, that your brand becomes really important.
(02:58:19) Whereas if suddenly, and I’ve seen this already, I’ve seen sort of video with subtitles in English, and apparently the Ukrainian was the same and it was Zelenskyy saying something really outrageous. And I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t believe that. I don’t think he said that in a meeting with whatever. I think that’s Russian propaganda or probably just trolls.”
Lex Fridman (02:58:42) Yeah. And then building platforms and mechanisms of how that trust can be verified. If something appears on a Wikipedia page, that means something. If something appears on my Twitter account, that means something. That means I, this particular human, have signed off on it.
Jimmy Wales (02:58:58) Yeah, exactly.
Lex Fridman (02:58:58) And then the trust you have in this particular human transfers to the piece of content. Hopefully, there’s millions of people with different metrics of trust. And then you could see that there’s a certain kind of bias in the set of conversations you’re having. So, maybe okay, I trust this person, I have this kind of bias and I’ll go to this other person with this other kind of bias and I can integrate them in this kind of way. Just like you said with Fox News and whatever [inaudible 02:59:24].
Jimmy Wales (02:59:23) Yeah. Wall Street Journal, New York Times, they’ve all got where they sit. Yeah.

Advice for young people

Lex Fridman (02:59:29) So, you have built, I would say, one of if not the most impactful website in the history of human civilization. So, let me ask for you to give advice to young people how to have impact in this world. High schoolers, college students wanting to have a big positive impact on the world.
Jimmy Wales (02:59:50) Yeah, great. If you want to be successful, do something you’re really passionate about rather than some kind of cold calculation of what can make you the most money. Because if you go and try to do something and you’re like, “I’m not that interested, but I’m going to make a lot of money doing it,” you’re probably not going to be that good at it. And so, that is a big piece of it.
(03:00:12) For startups, I give this advice. And this is a career startup, any kind of young person just starting out is be persistent. There will be moments when it’s not working out and you can’t just give up too easily. You’ve got to persist through some hard times. Maybe two servers crash on a Sunday, and you’ve got to scramble to figure it out, but persist through that, and then also be prepared to pivot. That’s a newer word, new for me. But when I pivoted from Nupedia to Wikipedia it’s like, “This isn’t working. I’ve got to completely change.” So, be willing to completely change direction when something is not working.
(03:00:54) Now, the problem with these two wonderful pieces of advice is, which situation am I in today? Is this a moment when I need to just power through and persist because I’m going to find a way to make this work? Or is this a moment where I need to go, “Actually, this is totally not working and I need to change direction?” But also, I think for me, that always gives me a framework of like, “Okay, here’s the problem. Do we need to change direction, or do we need to power through it?” And just knowing those are the choices. Not always the only choices, but those choices.
(03:01:27) I think it can be helpful to say, “Okay, am I chickening out because I’m having a little bump, and I’m feeling unemotional, and I’m just going to give up too soon?” Ask yourself that question. And also, it’s like, “Am I being pigheaded and trying to do something that actually doesn’t make sense?” Okay. Ask yourself that question too. Even though they’re contradictory questions, sometimes it will be one, sometimes it will be the other, and you got to really think it through.
Lex Fridman (03:01:53) I think persisting with the business model behind Wikipedia is such an inspiring story, because we live in a capitalist world. We live in a scary world, I think, for an internet business. And so, to do things differently than a lot of websites are doing, what Wikipedia has lived through this excessive explosion of many websites that are basically ad driven. Google is ad driven. Facebook, Twitter, all of these websites are ad driven. And to see them succeed, become these incredibly rich, powerful companies that if I could just have that money, you would think as somebody running Wikipedia, “I could do so much positive stuff.” And so, to persist through that is … I think from my perspective now, Monday night quarterback or whatever was the right decision, but boy is that a tough decision.
Jimmy Wales (03:02:56) It seemed easy at the time.
Lex Fridman (03:02:58) And then you just kind of stay with it. Stick with it.
Jimmy Wales (03:03:00) Yeah, just stay with it. It’s working.
Lex Fridman (03:03:01) So now, when you chose persistent.
Jimmy Wales (03:03:06) Yeah. I always like to give an example of MySpace, because I just think it’s an amusing story. MySpace was poised, I would say, to be Facebook. It was huge. It was viral, it was lots of things. Kind of foreshadowed a bit of maybe even TikTok because it was a lot of entertainment, content, casual. And then Rupert Murdoch bought it and it collapsed within a few years. And part of that I think was because they were really, really heavy on ads and less heavy on the customer experience.
(03:03:40) So, I remember, to accept a friend request was like three clicks where you saw three ads. And on Facebook, you accept the friend request, you didn’t even leave the page, like that’s just accepted. So, I used to give this example of like, “Yeah, well, Rupert Murdoch really screwed that one up.” And in a sense, maybe he did, but somebody said, “You know what, actually, he bought it for …” And I don’t remember the numbers he bought it for, 800 million, and it was very profitable through its decline. He actually made his money back and more. From a financial point of view, it was a bad investment in the sense of you could have been Facebook. But on more mundane metrics, it’s like, “Actually, it worked out for him.”
Lex Fridman (03:04:18) It all matters how you define success.
Jimmy Wales (03:04:20) It does. That is also advice to young people. One of the things I would say when we have our mental models of success as an entrepreneur, for example, and your examples in your mind are Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. So, people who at a very young age had one really great idea that just went straight to the moon and it became one of the richest people in the world. That is really unusual, like really, really rare.
(03:04:52) And for most entrepreneurs, that is not a life path you’re going to take. You’re going to fail, you’re going to reboot, you’re going to learn from what you failed at. You’re going to try something different. And that is really important, because if your standard of success is, “Well, I feel sad because I’m not as rich as Elon Musk.” It’s like, “Well, so should almost everyone, possibly everyone except Elon Musk is not as rich as Elon Musk.”
(03:05:17) Realistically, you can set a standard of success. Even in a really narrow sense, which I don’t recommend of thinking about your financial success. It’s like if you measure your financial success by thinking about billionaires, that’s heavy. That’s probably not good. I don’t recommend it.
(03:05:40) Personally, for me, when journalists say, “Oh, how does it feel to not be a billionaire?” I usually say, “I don’t know how does it feel to you.” Because they’re not. But also, I live in London. The number of bankers that no one has ever heard of who live in London, who make far more money than I ever will is quite a large number, and I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs at all, because mine is so interesting.
(03:06:07) “Oh, right, Jimmy, we need you to go and meet the Chinese propaganda minister.” “Oh, okay. That’s super interesting.” Like, “Yeah, Jimmy, here’s the situation. You can go to this country. And why you’re there, the President has asked to see you.” It’s like, “God, that’s super interesting.” “Jimmy, you’re going to this place and there’s a local Wikipedia who said, ‘Do you want to stay with me and my family?'” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s really cool. I would like to do that. That’s really interesting.” I don’t do that all the time, but I’ve done it and it’s great. So, for me, that’s arranging your life so that you have interesting experiences. It’s just great.

Meaning of life

Lex Fridman (03:06:50) This is more to the question of what Wikipedia looks like in 1,000 years. What do you think is the meaning of this whole thing? Why are we here, human civilization? What’s the meaning of life?
Jimmy Wales (03:07:00) Yeah. I don’t think there is external answer to that question.
Lex Fridman (03:07:05) And I should mention that there’s a very good Wikipedia page on the different philosophies in the meaning of life.
Jimmy Wales (03:07:11) Oh, interesting. I have to read that and see what I think. Hopefully, it’s actually neutral and gives a wide range …
Lex Fridman (03:07:16) Oh, it’s a really good reference to a lot of different philosophies about meaning. The 20th century philosophy in general, from Nietzsche to the existentialist, to Simone de Beauvoir, all of them have an idea of meaning. They really struggle with it systematically, rigorously, and that’s what the page … And obviously, a shout-out to the Hitchhiker’s Guide and all that kind of stuff.
Jimmy Wales (03:07:37) Yeah. I think there’s no external answer to that. I think it’s internal. I think we decide what meaning we will have in our lives and what we’re going to do with ourselves. If we’re talking about 1,000 years, millions of years, Yuri Milner wrote a book. He’s a big internet investor guy. He wrote a book advocating quite strongly for humans exploring the universe, and getting off the planet. And he funds projects to using lasers to send little cameras, and interesting stuff. And he talks a lot in the book about meaning. His view is that the purpose of the human species is to broadly survive and get off the planet.
(03:08:31) Well, I don’t agree with everything he has to say, because I think that’s not a meaning that can motivate most people in their own lives. It’s like, “Okay, great.” The distances of space are absolutely enormous, so I don’t know. Shall we build generation ships to start flying places? I can’t do that. Even if I’m Elon Musk and I could devote all my wealth to build, I’ll be dead on the ship on the way. So, is that really a meaning?
(03:08:57) But I think it’s really interesting to think about. And reading his little book, it’s quite a short little book. Reading his book, it did make me think about, “Wow, this is big. This is not what you think about in your day-to-day life. Where is the human species going to be in 10 million years?” And it does make you sort of turn back to Earth and say, “Gee, let’s not destroy the planet. We’re stuck here for at least a while, and therefore we should really think about sustainability.” I mean, one million year sustainability.
(03:09:37) And we don’t have all the answers. We have nothing close to the answers. I’m actually excited about AI in this regard, while also bracketing, yeah, I understand there’s also risks and people are terrified of AI. But I actually think it is quite interesting this moment in time that we may have in the next 50 years to really, really solve some really long-term human problems, for example, in health. The progress that’s being made in cancer treatment, because we are able to at scale model molecules, and genetics, and things like this, it gets huge. It’s really exciting. So, if we can hang on for a little while, and certain problems that seem completely intractable today, like climate change may end up being actually not that hard.
Lex Fridman (03:10:30) And we just might be able to alleviate the full diversity of human suffering.
Jimmy Wales (03:10:35) For sure. Yeah.
Lex Fridman (03:10:37) In so doing, help increase the chance that we can propagate the flame of human consciousness out towards the stars. And I think another important one, if we fail to do that. For me, it’s propagating, maintaining the full diversity, and richness, and complexity, and expansiveness of human knowledge. So, if we destroy ourselves, it would make me feel a little bit okay if the human knowledge persists.
Jimmy Wales (03:11:09) It just triggered me to say something really interesting, which is when we talked earlier about translating and using machines to translate, we mostly talked about small languages and translating into English, but I always like to tell this story of something inconsequential, really.
(03:11:28) I was in Norway, in Bergen, Norway, where every year they’ve got this annual festival called [foreign language 03:11:33], which is young groups drumming, and they have a drumming competition. It’s the 17 sectors of the city, and they’ve been doing it for a couple hundred years or whatever. They wrote about it in the three languages of Norway. And then from there, it was translated into English, into German, et cetera, et cetera.
(03:11:53) And so, what I love about that story is what it reminds me is this machine translation goes both ways. And when you talk about the richness and broadness of human culture, we’re already seeing some really great pieces of this. So, like Korean soap operas, really popular, not with me, but with people.
(03:12:17) Imagine taking a very famous, very popular, very well known Korean drama. I literally mean now, we’re just about there technologically where we use a machine to redub it in English in an automated way, including digitally editing the faces so it doesn’t look dubbed. And so, suddenly you say, “Oh, wow, here’s a piece of …” It’s the Korean equivalent of maybe it’s Friends as a comedy, or maybe it’s Succession, just to be very contemporary. It’s something that really impacted a lot of people, and they really loved it, and we have literally no idea what it’s about. And suddenly, it’s like, “Wow.” Music, street music from wherever in the world can suddenly become accessible to us all in new ways. It’s so cool.
Lex Fridman (03:13:09) It’s really exciting to get access to the richness of culture in China, in the many different subcultures of Africa, South America.
Jimmy Wales (03:13:19) One of my unsuccessful arguments with the Chinese government is by blocking Wikipedia, you aren’t just stopping people in China from reading Chinese Wikipedia and other language versions of Wikipedia, you’re also preventing the Chinese people from telling their story. So, is there a small festival in a small town in China like [foreign language 03:13:41]? I don’t know. But by the way, the people who live in that village, that small town of 50,000, they can’t put that in Wikipedia and get it translated into other places. They can’t share their culture and their knowledge.
(03:13:54) And I think for China, this should be a somewhat influential argument, because China does feel misunderstood in the world. And it’s like, “Okay, well, there’s one way. If you want to help people understand, put it in Wikipedia. That’s what people go to when they want to understand.”
Lex Fridman (03:14:08) And give the amazing, incredible people of China a voice.
Jimmy Wales (03:14:13) Exactly.
Lex Fridman (03:14:14) Jimmy, I thank you so much. I’m such a huge fan of everything you’ve done.
Jimmy Wales (03:14:18) Oh, thank you. That’s really great.
Lex Fridman (03:14:18) I keep saying Wikipedia. I’m deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply grateful for Wikipedia. I love it. It brings me joy. I donate all the time. You should donate too. It’s a huge honor to finally talk with you, and this is just amazing. Thank you so much for today.
Jimmy Wales (03:14:31) Thanks for having me.
Lex Fridman (03:14:33) Thanks for listening to this conversation with Jimmy Wales. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, let me leave you with some words from the world historian, Daniel Boorstin. The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.