q&a Jimmy Wales is best known for evangelizing Wikipedia, the open-source, nonprofit encyclopedia he co-founded in 2001. On Tuesday his for-profit venture, Wikia, in its fourth year, unveiled a community for all things "green."
Anyone can edit Wikia, just like Wikipedia, which is built to attract people passionate about a given topic rather than to provide a general reference. For example, a Wikipedia article about ExxonMobil provides an overview of corporate history, while Wikia Green might zero in on the company's environmental record, with special emphasis on the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
To reduce costs and its load on the electrical grid, Wikia has halved its server need over the past six months, in part through using virtualization and efficient power supplies. Its monthly unique visitors grew from 1 million to 10 million since 2006, by ComScore's count. The number of registered users reached 350,000 in August. Wikia's offices recently moved from San Mateo, Calif., to San Francisco in part to reduce employees' commutes, and the company is applying to be certified by the city's green business program.
Q: Why do Wikia Green now? There are so many green blogs and guides all over the internet, and they've had a head start on this project. Aren't people feeling over-saturated with "green" lately?
Wales: No, this is a growing area. What we're doing is actually complementary to blogs in the sense that what blogs do is update you on a day-to-day basis. Also, blogs are engaged in political or other types of analysis, whereas a wiki becomes a touchpoint for the community, a place where people meet up and work on whatever the consensus is about a certain topic.
We're hoping that a lot of bloggers will find it useful to send their readers (there) and also to collaboratively work on background information. The blogger doesn't really enjoy explaining something over and over. But if I want to tell you about biodiesel, and if you don't know about biodiesel, I can say, "Read this article first."
Were you seeing maybe an increased interest in green topics on Wikipedia? What sparked your interest in launching this?
Wales: One of the funny things about Wikipedia is I have no idea what the traffic is. We don't even track those kinds of numbers...This was sparked initially by a conversation with Al Gore last year just before he won the Nobel Prize. He said there should be a green wiki...We discussed it some and I decided hey, this is a good idea.
How do you hope to get contributors flowing in? Are you doing any publicity efforts aimed at green blogs, for instance?
Wales: We're doing a lot of outreach. I've been holding a series of green dinners where people educate me...I met Zem Joaquin and we're working with her on (her blog) ecofabulous, and we're gonna be powering their eco lingo column. We're trying to build relationships and to learn from this community: what's missing? What do you need?
Do you foresee other partnerships with green blogs or other resources?
Wales: We're very eager to do that. All the content can be reused and copied by anybody, commercially or non-commercially.
Will this integrate Web 2.0-type features, videos, maps, and other tools at some point?
Wales: We have the ability for people to do videos and some mapping stuff. The initial focus is on encyclopedic content and magazine-style articles...The software is the same platform we use across all the wikis. It has a lot of powerful features that people will use in ways surprising to me.
How do you prevent companies from stacking the entries with what some environmental activists call greenwashing? How will the community regulate this?
Wales: My view is that's virtually impossible in a wiki context, particularly a green wiki...The community monitors things as they come in. It's not a voting-style system that can be gamed. It's really an open discussion, dialog, and debate system. This is one of the great strengths of a wiki: it's a great counter to astroturfing and other types of campaigns.
Will there be widgets or ways for people to embed the content into their Web sites?
Wales: Yes, I don't think that's a major part of it, but yes.
This is a pretty consumer-focused resource. Do you see it evolving as an open-source resource or online lab for, say, inventors or entrepreneurs who are developing clean technologies?
Wales: That's very difficult to predict. When we were first brainstorming about what's needed, doing a wiki by scientists for scientists is something we considered, but we haven't seen a lot of scientists finding that to be useful; I don't know why. Really what I know how to do is build large public-facing communities...if that develops as part of the site, then great.
Internationally, how might this develop?
Wales: We support more languages, but have active wikis in (70) languages. We're launching initially in English, but it's pretty straightforward to launch in other languages.
Wikia has been compared to Google Knol and other tools. How would you describe the differences?
First of all, we're really a wiki ultimately, and Knol is more of a collaborative blog product...At Knol, people own articles, and with a wiki, that's not considered to be useful or helpful behavior...Knol is so new that I'm not really sure what it's gonna turn into...You put out a set of tools and you get a new community and they take it and do whatever they will.
Is Wikia seeing any profits at this point?
Wales: We don't release any financial information but, no, we're not profitable.
Revenues are coming in through Google AdSense?
Wales: Yeah, our big strengths are in computer gaming and entertainment, TV shows and movies.
Wookiepedia is the largest area on Wikia? Is that right?
Wales: It's one of the largest. I believe the WOW (World of Warcraft) wiki is bigger. We're very strong in what I call geek culture, and it's one of the things that attracted me to the green space. It's a very similar structure in terms of what's going on. In geek culture, things like Star Trek, Star Wars, you have super-motivated fans who know everything about it, and discuss and debate and document everything related to it. It's still a mass market topic.
The same thing I see going on online in the green space. They're highly motivated people, but they're talking to each other on message boards rather than building a resource, so we're hoping some of those people are gonna find this interesting.
What personal interest do you have in green topics and sustainability? Are you measuring your carbon footprint and trying to offset it?
Wales: Yes, I'm doing some things like that...At Wikia we're going through a process of trying to be certified as a green company...I come to this as an outsider. I'm part of that broad general public saying there's something really important and I want to learn more. It's time to wake up and do something. I'm finding it hard to get educated because the information is so disparate. I saw a need where people could come together and really clarifying and documenting all this kind of information.
Do you use any green servers, for instance, on the back-end are there efficiency features in terms of the hardware used to support all this?
Wales: No, we're looking into those kinds of things. On the server side of things the single greatest thing we've done is hire our new CTO, Artur Bergman, because he's an optimization genius and has doubled the efficiency of our servers. We're fortunate we haven't had to buy new hardware. We're doing double the page views of a few months ago with less total load, but that's really just good fortune.
Do you purchase carbon offsets or anything like that?
Wales: I do personally, for my travel...TerraPass.
You mentioned that this came about after a conversation with Al Gore. Are you getting (article) contributions from him or other big names?
Wales: We don't know for sure, so we don't have anything to report about that.
Where do you see this in 5 to 10 years? What do you hope will develop?
Wales: Obviously we want this to be a large and successful community. I don't have milestones or targets...As long as there's a healthy community and people are having fun and producing something of value, I'm satisfied.