The editors of Wikipedia have one important rule they must always follow: ignore all rules.
Jimmy Wales, known internationally as the founder of Wikipedia, admitted to an audience in Loeb Playhouse Monday that he likes to run his company this way. To Wales, this break from traditional thinking allows his website to accomplish its objective: Provide the entire world free access to the entirety of human knowledge.
Wales, voted by TIME Magazine as one of the "100 Most influential People" in 2006, started Nupedia in 2000, which was quickly overtaken by Wikipedia for its novel approach to allow peer-reviewed edits of encyclopedia-style articles.
With this idea in mind, Wikipedia has become the world’s largest encyclopedia. It is accessible in 287 languages and receives more than 550 million page views by unique viewers per month, which puts it ahead of web-traffic competitors such as Apple, Amazon and eBay. In fact, it's the fifth most popular website in the world.
With such a presence in the realm of accessible information, Wales wants Wikipedia to function democratically. However, the Wikipedia editors are 87 percent male with an average age of 26, and a high percentage have advanced degrees, so Wales worries the tech-savvy culture of editing would stop otherwise qualified users from diverse populations from contributing.
"The idea is that over time, if you had to read 200 pages of rules in order to edit, then no one would participate," said Wales. "Most of the rules of Wikipedia should be pretty intuitive and obvious."
Wikipedia has found success in allowing everyone to edit articles, but what Wales really pushes for is a civil online atmosphere. He said it is one of the core practices of Wikipedia to allow everyone to express their thoughtful opinion without attacking others.
"I once co-authored an editorial about online civility in the Wall Street Journal, a perfectly intellectual newspaper with good readership," said Wales. "By the third comment, it said, 'Yet another Obama-bot who wants to censor the Internet.' The fourth comment was, 'You idiot, it's Bush who wants to censor the internet.' By the way, my article had nothing to do with this whatsoever ... like, who are these idiots?"
While the lack of civility in online discussion forums plagues the Internet, in Wales' opinion, he said the greatest threat is censorship of information that everyone should have access to. Wikipedia usually stays politically neutral, but in 2012, Wikipedia "Went Dark" to protest Congress' attempt to pass the "Stop Online Piracy Act" and the "Protect IP Act." The English-language Wikipedia became globally inaccessible for 24 hours, and that caught Congress' attention.
"When we made this protest, we had no idea what was going to happen," said Wales. "One senator said that over 10 million voters contacted Congress that day, and the other thing was that the House of Representatives' phone system crashed. We think that's cool."
Wales criticized even Bill Gates for his comments against Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about the National Security Agency to the general public in 2013.
"I think he broke the law, so I wouldn't characterize him as a hero," said Gates to Rolling Stone Magazine in 2014.
"Whatever you may think of Snowden, that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard Bill Gates say," said Wales. "Nelson Mandela broke the law. Rosa Parks broke the law. Lots of people broke unjust laws and lots of whistleblowers are breaking the law to point to injustice."
Wales' new initiative for his company is petitioning information providers to allow users from around the world free access to Wikipedia. He claims this is critical to the development of countries with weaker economies, such as Nigeria, that are just now entering the Internet age. In 2000, .1 percent of Nigeria was online, but now it is estimated that 45 percent of the population will have access to the Internet by the end of 2015.
"In January of 2002, the entire country of Nigeria had 72 Mbps connection," said Wales. "Just for comparison, back home in Florida, I have Verizon with 150 Mbps."
If Wales is able to give the entire world free access to the sum of human knowledge, you'll be reading more than just a Wikipedia post about it.