The TH Interview: Jimmy Wales—Wikifying Green Knowledge (Part One)

TH: So, it's like a green lens. It's a lens particular to the interest focus of that Wikia.

JW: Exactly, and then, of course, we're also expecting to see a lot of kinds of articles that don't really fit that same kind of encyclopedic focus. What I mean by that is normally in an encyclopedia you have a topic like Leonardo DiCaprio or Exxon, but here it's a little more open-ended and flexible to things like magazine-style articles, or how-to articles about different things in life.

Like, if you want to learn about carbon offsets, you can learn some basic stuff about it in Wikipedia, but if you really want to get practical advice, how would I actually go about doing it, and is it a good thing to do or not? Those would be the kind of things that I think we're going to see a lot more of.

TH: For instance, in a Wikipedia entry you wouldn't necessarily find a how-to guide on reducing your carbon footprint, or how to get hyper mileage out of your Prius, or use worms to compost. But on Wikia Green, people are actually going to learn how to do things that are relevant to greening their lives.

JW: Exactly. Really, one of the problems that I think people have right now is a lot of that kind of information is dispersed all over the place. It sometimes says a lot of conflicting information and conflicting voices, and one of the things that a Wikia is really great for is bringing together that conflicting information and maybe not telling you the answer.

Basically giving you in one place the idea of, "OK, well some people recommend this and some people recommend that, and these are some of the circumstances where this would be better than that." At least it's all pulled together for you. So then you have an actual chance of not just going down one path because it's the only thing you happened to have seen.

TH: Wikipedia itself has this intricate mechanism that evolved over time for how content is generated, how it gets reviewed and edited, unedited and re-edited. What's the community management scheme for Wikia? Is it going to be similar?

JW: It's basically the same. What really we've evolved over a long period of time is a set of tools that the community can use to manage itself. I view my work as being about the design of social processes for communities and the software to support that.

What you want is really very similar to what you want out of a good municipal government. In other words, by analogy anyway, you want to be able to speak out and dissent against the other people in the community so that it doesn't become a police state where everybody has to agree with the main moderator or else they've got to go.

At the same time you don't want it to be a place where it isn't safe for your grandmother to walk in the park. In other words, you don't want the poisonous personalities to dominate the conversation and take over. Somewhere in the middle there is this idea of saying, "You know what? We really need to work together." We really do need people to be open to the fact that not everybody is going to agree. If you had some administrative privileges, that doesn't give you carte blanche to become a dictator.

On the other hand, as in any community where you are trying to get something done, there does come a point where you say, "You know, really, we're trying to accomplish a particular goal, and I'm sorry but you're not really helping with that. And I am going to have to ask you to leave, and we'll actually block you if you don't leave."

That's always a difficult process for a community to go through, but I think it's a healthy process to say, "You know what, we actually do want to draw some lines and say we're trying to get something done here." That model philosophically works really, really well. It's amazing to me that it works so broadly across so many different places.

I would not have predicted several years ago that you could have a humor site where people are able to work together with an eye towards quality without it just sort of breaking down. But a lot of the same value is coming to play there. It's just that the standard is: is it funny? And it turns out lots of people can agree if something's fun.

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