An interview with Wikia’s Jimmy Wales about his new green venture
Jimmy Wales, best known as a cofounder of Wikipedia, is now channeling some of his energy and ambition into the environmental realm, aiming to build “the world’s handbook for going green.”
Wikia, Inc., Wales’ for-profit company (not to be confused with Wikipedia, a project of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation), announced this month that it’s launching Wikia Green, which Wales describes as “an encyclopedia from a green perspective.” Built on a wiki platform, which allows anyone to contribute or edit content, Wikia Green aims to amass a collection of articles on all kinds of eco-topics — how-to advice, explanations of environmental science and technology, profiles of green groups and greenish people, etc.
Wikia, Inc. itself is also going green. The company has reduced its server need by more than 50 percent over the past six months and is pursuing certification from the San Francisco Green Business Program. It also recently relocated its office from the San Mateo Valley to San Francisco to be more centrally located for most employees.
Grist caught up with Wales to discuss his vision for Wikia Green.
Why start Wikia Green?
We’re looking to bring together people who are interested in green topics to build a central repository of knowledge — a central encyclopedia, if you will, of content from a green perspective. The idea is to have a place that lots of people can link to and go to that explains environmental and green concepts, but also covers anything in the world that the community is interested in from a green perspective.
Just to give you an idea of what I mean, if you a take a look at someone like Leonardo DiCaprio in Wikipedia, [his entry is] all about his acting career with maybe a couple of sentences about his views on green matters, whereas [his entry on Wikia Green] would focus much more strongly on that because that’s what people would be interested in from a green perspective.
Is Wikia Green aimed at a general audience that doesn’t know a lot about green issues?
Yeah, I think that’s the direction the community is going to take it; that’s basically what we have in mind. I’ll give you an example: biodiesel. If you’re an ordinary person, you may want to know more about biofuels and biodiesel, like, what are the pros? What are the cons? What is the current status? You can find information online, but if you look at the Wikipedia entry on biodiesel, it’s very scientific and not very consumer-friendly or green-oriented. It’s sort of a chemistry article. Wikia Green would be a place where people could come together and put the basics of what you need to know if you’re interested in environmental issues and you want to know about biodiesel.
How have you been developing the entries for Wikia Green? Have the entries thus far been generated by staff or the community?
It’s a little bit of both. We’ve had some staff working on it and we’ve done some quiet outreach to people in the community. We’re also working with ecofabulous, and we’re talking with some other people about sharing content back and forth so people have the ability to reuse our content. Everything we do is open-source, so everything is under a free license; anyone can take our content, modify it, and reuse it. Anyone can contribute.
How do you find community members and content editors? Do you reach out to people, or do they pop up naturally?
A lot of it is popping up naturally, a lot of it’s just general outreach — letting people know that this resource is here and that it’s trying to be a neutral space for lots of green people to come together and do something. But then also we do a lot of specific outreach. As I’ve traveled over the last few months, I’ve been putting together green dinners with green influencers and just trying to talk to people in this space and say, “Here’s what we’re trying to do, give us some ideas, tell us what you think this should be like.”
Which green influencers have you met with?
Zem Joaquin at ecofabulous, and obviously we’re partnering with her as a result of that. I’ve had dinner with Graham Hill at Treehugger, and [environmental architect] Bill McDonough.
You say Wikia Green will be a neutral space. What will that mean for politically charged topics like biofuels or climate change?
The basic idea for Wikia Green is that it’s from a green point of view. In other words, we’re going to say to people that this is not the place to come and have a debate about global warming. I’m sure some of that will go on because people are people and that’s what some people like to do. But at the end of the day, this is an advocacy site. We don’t intend for it to be stridently political — that isn’t really the idea here. This is a site where the participants agree to some sort of basic ideas, and obviously there’s a lot of internal debate, but this is fundamentally a green website.
How will it differ from other green sites — say, Grist or Treehugger?
The main thing is that we’re striving to be a meeting ground. A wiki tends to be very different from other types of community spaces. We hope to produce content on various topics — biodiesel would be a good example — which a blogger could link to. A green blogger could say, “Ok, I’m going to write a post today about biodiesel, but I want to make sure that my readers are up to speed on what it is and what some of the advantages and disadvantages are, so I’m going to link to Wikia Green for that.”
Like a knowledge bank, but not quite as detailed as a Wikipedia article?
Yeah, exactly. An encyclopedia from a green perspective.
How many people do you hope to have join Wikia Green? At what point would you consider it a success?
Obviously we want it to be as big as possible, but that’s kind of a lame answer. Ultimately what we would like to see is a healthy community, small or large, but it’s friendly people doing good work and having fun together. We’ve had some very successful wikis with fairly small communities. Just to give a silly example: the Muppet community at muppet.wikia.com. It’s a pretty small community, but they’ve created a fabulous resource and they’re very proud of it and they have a lot of fun doing it. In other cases — and in this case — I think the topic is much bigger and obviously you want to get a bigger community because there’s a lot to manage.
In general, what proportion of wiki users are editors and what proportion are just readers?
It varies from topic to topic. In some topics, the only people who really care about the topic are very intense fans and so you’ve got a higher proportion of editors to readers. In others, you’ve got a very broad topic of very broad interests, but only a few people are into it enough that they want to write about it. I suspect Wikia Green is going to be more toward the latter, and part of the motivation for creating this is that we know there are these very intense people out there who have a lot of knowledge and they’re doing a lot of work. Right now they’re just talking to each other more than anyone else, and we think those people are going to produce content that lots of people are interested in reading. Right now there are a lot of people for whom green issues aren’t a center point of their thinking or their lives, but they’re interested and they’re supportive. They just basically want to come and read and learn.
Will Wiki, Inc. be going green as well?
Yes, at Wikia we’re working to become a green-certified company. We just recently moved our office from down in the [San Mateo] Valley into San Francisco because we realized that the total number of people commuting from the city down into the valley was much higher than the people who lived down there. All of us who don’t like going down to the valley whined about it a lot, so I have to admit that it wasn’t purely a green move, but we were pretty pleased that it had that impact as well.