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Fast Chat: Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia founder on engagement and why the ‘like’ button isn't enough

Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

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Wikipedia may not be ad supported, but that doesn’t mean there isn't ad potential in the thousands of wikis edited every day. After founding Wikipedia in 2001, Jimmy Wales went on to found its for-profit sibling Wikia in 2004. Now, the community-created content site—which skews toward pop culture and gaming topics—has more than 3 million registered users, who have created more than 13 million pages of content (and add a new wiki every two minutes). Adweek chatted with Wales about human nature, hyperconnected online communities, and the hyperpopular TV show The Wire. A few excerpts are below.

Adweek: If Wikipedia is an online community-created encyclopedia, then Wikia is . . .

Jimmy Wales: The rest of the library. The idea is you walk into a library and you say, "Can I see the encyclopedia, please?" and they take you over to the set of books. And then you look around the library and you see everything else. And you get things that are a really deep dive into certain topics. If you go to Encyclopedia Britannica and you’re reading about John F. Kennedy, you’d read a 10-page article about [him]. But if you go over to the shelf, there are 40 books about JFK and every detail. Whereas Wikipedia will have an entry on something, Wikia will have a whole shelf of books on that something.

What insights from Wikipedia led to the creation of Wikia?

The primary insight from Wikipedia that was important in the concept and the founding of Wikia is that the vast majority of people are basically good, which is sort of an outstanding thing to find out in one regard, but also sort of obvious in another regard. In the old days, because the software tools were not designed correctly for communities and human behavior, the Internet had a reputation for being an incredibly hostile place, and many discussion forums and so forth would become dominated by the worst characters.

What’s different about Wikipedia?

If you [walk around and talk to] 1,000 people, they’re perfectly nice people. Usually, one in a thousand people is annoying. But even the annoying ones aren’t usually utterly destructive, and they do behave themselves most of the time. So it turns out that people are social. They’re basically friendly. They get into fights and arguments, and they make up. And there are ways to help communities manage those things. So that human insight and also seeing how Wikipedia was functioning meant it was easier to really give genuine community control—to say, "Look the communities don’t need to be managed in a top-down fashion. They need support—they need some tech support, they need some social support." So when I was starting Wikia, that was first and foremost on our minds that "Gee, actually this works. People can work together, so let’s see what else they can build."

You’ve talked about wiki communities as examples of hyperconnected communities. What does that mean?

The concept of hyperconnected is that people are not just online anymore, but they are also constantly online in loads of different ways. The technology integrates itself into our lives in so many different ways. [On the Fox show Glee] wiki, they’re doing three things at once. They’re watching the episodes, they’re chatting with friends about the episode, but they’re also editing and updating the Glee wiki.

What does that mean for advertisers?

The era when you could just do an ad buy on I Love Lucy and reach almost everybody, and you got two or three big channels, that’s gone. It’s much more fragmented. It’s much more complicated. Word of mouth is so much more powerful than it ever was before.

If word of mouth happens completely naturally and you don’t do anything about it, great, good for you. But oftentimes that’s not how it really works. Reaching the influencers—reaching the people who are really passionate about your product—becomes super-duper important.

If you have a new TV series coming out and you’re the makers of The Wire, and it’s your next series and it’s similar, you absolutely want to do two things. First, you want to reach all the people who watch The Wire to say, "Hey, here’s our new show. It’s similar to The Wire. We think you’ll really like it."

But you also want to reach people who wrote The Wire wiki and people who are really into it to say, "Here’s the new show, and we want you to help us promote it and so on. And we want to give you information and participate." Tapping into those influencer communities is more important than ever before because if you miss them, you never make it to Facebook and Twitter.

When you talk to advertisers, what do they want that they can’t get from social media, like Facebook or Twitter?

With something like Facebook, they have really great demographic data. They can tell who clicked "like" on something—you have that superficial involvement in a brand and you can target to that. And for some brands, that’s all you need, I suppose. But, particularly for information-dense products, you want more than that. You really want those committed, engaged consumers who are talking about your product, evangelizing. For that you need that deep engagement. The person who clicks "like" on The Wire page in Facebook is very different from the person who—never mind the editors, never mind the people who wrote The Wire wiki—has read 10 episode summaries. Reaching that person, you know you’re going to reach an influencer.

How do you target based on influence and engagement?

What I always like to think about are the circles of fans or influencers of a brand or something. [For example], there’s a really passionate group of people who are really into Canon cameras and photography and programming. Influencing those super influencers influences me, which influences the next circle out. That concept is one that really helps you get to the idea that it’s actually worthwhile to differentiate—to target people based on that level of engagement. The message for each would be different—and what you sell them.

As consumers become more hyperconnected, why is engagement so important?

For traditional advertising like billboards, TV, commercials, everybody understands that it works but that the metrics around it are hard to get at. And people have been traditionally very good at understanding that brand matters. That it’s not all about direct response. Then, on the Internet, we went through this period, because everything seemed so measurable, and some of the most lucrative advertising on the Internet [was] mostly transactional-based advertising [that] what got lost for a while is the importance of brand.

A huge opportunity online is to say that, actually, as consumers are spending more and more of their time living and breathing as hyperconnected consumers, that the whole brand experience becomes incredibly important. It’s not about that they clicked and bought this much; it’s did you actually have engagement?

Speaking of brands, has Wikileaks presented any branding issues for Wikipedia or Wikia?

No, not so much. Obviously, the main impact is that I get lots of questions about whether or not it’s had an impact. The press has been really good about being very clear that it has nothing to do with us. I do wish it had a different name because I do think that there are some people who are quite confused. But we’ve been really lucky. I was really concerned, early on, when it first started to be a big story that we were going to get all kinds of mass confusion in the media. But the media’s been really good because they've known us for a long time. And also it’s so very different. I’m sort of the anti-Julian Assange. I’m actually a nice person. I don’t mean to say anything negative about him, but he’s widely regarded as difficult.

What’s your favorite wiki?

It varies over time because I get into wikis based on what I’m into. It was The Wire, which is a really great wiki, which I founded by the way. I started The Wire wiki years ago and I watched two seasons, then I got really busy and never got through the rest of it. When I left, it was just a little wiki—I’d written a bunch of articles about different characters and so on. Then I got away from the show for several years. And then, this last fall, I went back and rewatched the whole thing and I went to The Wire wiki thinking, "I remember my wiki; it’s probably not very good." And I went back and it’s amazing! Like they came and made it good for me, so it’s a really good wiki now. That was my wiki for awhile. Now I’ve just started working through Mad Men. That’s my new favorite.