I went to the zoo with Jimmy Wales

He founded Wikipedia, the largest single reference work in human history. His aim is to collate all human knowledge. So why is Jimmy Wales feeding this tiny monkey?

As I shuffle for position in one corner of the monkey enclosure, peering at Jimmy Wales through my lens, something squeaks next to my right ear.

Turning my head slowly away from the camera, I realise I am almost nose-to nose with an Emperor tamarin - saguinus imperator, a small monkey named after the last German Emperor, with whom it shares a huge moustache. It looks like a sort of intelligent, old-fashioned squirrel. The tamarin peers at my camera, possibly appraising my choice of aperture and ISO, addresses the wall behind us with a short blast of pungent urine, and scampers back across the branch, towards the safety of Peter Jones.

From the moment we arrived, the monkeys accepted Peter Jones as their leader. It’s easy to see why: at 6ft 7in, Jones is a towering physical presence, and to the tiny primates he must seem a man-mountain. They gather on the branches around him, quivering with the nervous excitement of tiny Dragons Den contestants.

If I could speak to the monkeys, however, I’d point out that while Peter Jones is massive and he owns Jessops, it’s his smaller, bespectacled counterpart they should appoint as their king. Jimmy Wales runs the world’s fifth-largest website, the largest reference work in human history. Over 450 million people use Wikipedia on a monthly basis to find out about the world around them. It has over 30 million user-submitted articles, and it’s expanding and being refined on a daily basis. Schoolkids use it for their homework, junior doctors use it to diagnose people, journalists use it for pretty much everything. Also, Jimmy has some delicious mealworms, which he’s offering to the monkeys on a flat black box.

The box is the reason we’re here, in the monkey enclosure at London Zoo. Jimmy and Peter are judges in this year’s Google Impact Challenge, an initiative the Big G is running with Nesta to award large sums of money to innovative, high-tech charities. London Zoo was one of last year’s winners, with a project that puts a web of networked, motion-detecting cameras in areas where wildlife needs to be monitored. The cameras are so smart they can detect a poacher’s machete in total darkness. By entering Google Impact Challenge, The Zoological Society of London won an extra £500,000 to make more of these cameras and use them to protect more endangered wildlife.

Aside from detecting poachers, the cameras are also very useful for counting penguins, which is where we’re headed next.

“Is there somewhere we could wash our hands?” Asks Jimmy, as we carefully make our way down the darkened tunnel that leads out of the monkey house.

“Yeah, we’ve had worms on our hands”, says Peter, who was feeding the monkeys right out of his palm.

Is Jimmy often asked to publicly feed animals?

“Not that often, no,” he says, although he also admits this isn’t the most unusual thing he has been asked to do.

“I had to sing Sweet Home Alabama on Bulgarian TV once. That was pretty unusual,” muses Jimmy, as we watch Peter answering questions from the International Business Times. Somehow Peter is concentrating perfectly on his interview, even though we’re all keenly aware that penguins are leaping playfully in and out of the water behind him.

“It was a funny show,” says Jimmy. “I guess it was the Bulgarian equivalent of the Graham Norton show, and they have a segment where they get around a piano and sing. They said, we know you’re from Alabama, so you have to sing Sweet Home Alabama, live on Bulgarian television.”

After the tense humidity of monkeytown, Penguin Beach is a breath of fresh air. ZSL’s camera is again demonstrated with some help from Ricky, a Rockhopper penguin who emits a drawn-out cra-cra-cra-caaaauuw of pleasure when one of the internet’s most powerful men strokes his front with a cautious finger. The camera’s chief purpose is to catch poachers, but it could in future provide biologists and nature lovers with photos of hard-to-visit animals such as Antarctic penguins or snow leopards. Above Ricky’s beady red eyes he has two sprays of bright yellow eyebrow, which give him a mildly indignant look even when he’s being tickled by one of Britain’s most successful businessmen.

Abruptly, the photoshoots and filming come to an end: Peter Jones is ready to go home, and a noisy penguin demonstration in front of a large crowd of excitable schoolchildren has made further discussion impossible. Jimmy and I head towards some picnic benches a safe distance away, where I ask him to recall the early days of Wikipedia - when, like many of the ideas that will be submitted to Impact Challenge, it was a side project for a small group of people who already had day jobs. Jimmy’s a fan of side projects.

“They’re ideas where you find the lowest-cost way to try something," he says, "to see if it works or not before you plunge in too much resources. If you think of it as a side project, you'll keep the resources low and try to get the most out of them. If you go all-in, you may over-commit to the wrong thing. With Wikipedia, it just grew and grew and grew. In the first couple of years, traffic was doubling every three or four months, but we were starting from a very low base, so after two years we only had modest traffic. But the trend was so strong, I knew this was going to be something that could be very interesting and really quite big. But still, I never really contemplated being the number 5 website in the world.”

Unlike the causes who apply for Google Impact Challenge, Wales doesn't see Wikipedia as an altruistic effort of charity. Wiki-ers don't donate knowledge, he says, they add it because that's what they enjoy doing.

“Most of the people who are involved in Wikipedia are happy that what they’re doing helps others, but that’s not why they’re doing it. Mainly they do it because it's fun, and you get to meet interesting people, and you get to spend your time doing something that's productive, rather than just playing World of Warcraft or something. If you imagine the Wikipedia community as selfless people pouring their hearts out for the world, you've got the wrong picture. We're a bunch of passionate geeks doing something we really love, and we're happy that other people like it.

It could even be that the way Wikipedia sources its articles represents an idealised, futuristic form of work: work for work's sake.

“There's increasing room for intellectual hobbies, things people do that are productive for the world, but are not done for money. A lot of cultural works, for example - just look at all the amazing photography that people are creating these days. It's not just the work of professional photographers, but keen amateurs who finance their hobby, their art, with a day job that has nothing to do with it. A lot of programmers, too, are doing something perfectly valid but not that fun during the day, and then at night they're hacking code for quadcopters and making cool new apps and things like that. There's a lot of that happening.”

One of the other big user-generated communities, Reddit, recently began displaying ads that its community agrees on. How come WIkipedia doesn’t do that?

“Our fundraising model” - you know, those banners across the top of Wikipedia where Jimmy asks you to chip in - “works very well for us.”[ Wikipedia’s fundraising campaigns now raise around $30 million a time]. “So we have no plans to change that. At Wikia, which is now the 23rd most popular website, we do have ads, and it is a tradeoff - the service you provide has to be paid for somehow. But different models work for different projects. I talk about ads on Wikipedia about four times a week, when a reporter asks me, but we never discuss it at board level, ever.”

Of course, it’s easy to see the good in a not-for-profit, community effort like WIkipedia. But is all technology a force for good, all the time? Wales certainly seems to think so.

“I think it's so overwhelmingly a force for good, that there's no valid question as to whether we should stop innovating. Of course, there are always going to be problems, and some of them are quite serious. There are a lot of valid questions about online behaviour - human behaviour, with all of its glory and its ugliness, does come online, and it becomes more visible there. But I think we're maturing in terms of the software and the tools that enable people to have a more civil life online.”

Finally, we turn to a subject Wales has been vocal about this week: the decision, by the European Union’s Court of Justice, that individuals have a ‘right to be forgotten’. While privacy campaigners make a compelling case for Facebook having to remove those embarrassing photos of you in Ayia Napa in 1998, Wales says the legislation will be much more useful to businesses who want to censor their critics.

“That expression, the right to be forgotten, doesn't make sense. It's a nice-sounding phrase, but you can't actually have a right to be forgotten. Human brains don't work like that. What you could have is a right to censor what other people have said about you online. And once you frame it that way, it doesn't sound so easy and uncomplicated. We should really be very cautious about censoring the internet because there are so many ways in which it could be abused. I would say today, thousands of lawyers for thousands of shady characters with bad business dealings in their pasts are going to start thinking about how they're going to start scrubbing all that revealing information about them from the web, which means that we'll all be that much more vulnerable to con men. Saying 'oh, there's no public interest in business dealings from 15 years ago'... well, actually, there might be. So it's an interesting question, but let's go a little slower.”

As we get up to leave, I ask Jimmy what was the last article he edited in Wikipedia, and he begins scrolling through the links on his phone (Jimmy’s a Galaxy S5 man, if you’re wondering).

“I can’t tell you exactly which one, but lately I've been specialising in female authors, primarily English female authors. One of the things we face in the Wikipedia community is that the gender balance isn't very good, so we know our coverage of female novelists for example, is quite weak. So I've picked that area and started making some little changes.”

I'd never thought of Jimmy as a man who would be interested in Barbara Pym or Mary Cholmondley, but hey, I'd also never considered the idea that I'd watch him hand-feed a small monkey. You learn something new every day.

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