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Jimmy Wales: The Man Who Democratized Human Knowledge

[Jimmy Wales photo]

The date was January 15, 2001. While the dotcom boom was imploding, three men quietly launched an unlikely website from San Diego. Little did they know this side project called Wikipedia would grow to become the largest encyclopedia in history, disrupting how we gather and spread human knowledge.

Behind this world-changing movement was Jimmy Wales, an unassuming genius who built online communities to empower ordinary people. Let‘s examine his background, achievements, personal life and the evolution of his radical vision.

Driven By Knowledge From An Early Age

Born in Huntsville Alabama in 1966 into a humble household, Jimmy Donal Wales stand out for his intense curiosity and academic ability. He received his first computer – a Timex Sinclair – at age six, teaching himself to program.

Gifted in math and science, Wales enlisted in a new ‘graded group‘ system in elementary school allowing faster learners to accelerate through grades individually rather than by age. At just 16 years old, he enrolled in finance undergraduate studies at Auburn University followed by a Master‘s degree.

Chasing Digital Dreams In The 90s

During the dotcom boom in 1996, Wales saw potential in harnessing the internet to make information free and accessible globally. Teaming up with friends Tim Shell and Michael Davis, the young entrepreneurs founded web portal company Bomis in San Diego.

Specializing in handcrafted web directories, Bomis enjoyed early traction and profits. However Wales grew frustrated at the limited content, wanting to take on established giants like Microsoft‘s Encarta encyclopedia. This sparked the idea for Nupedia – a free, online and expert-built encyclopedia.

Ambition Meets Reality With Nupedia

Launching in 2000 with Larry Sanger as Editor-in-Chief, this passion project sought to emulate traditional encyclopedias in prestige and accuracy but updated constantly. Its complex seven step review process ensured high quality, vetted by experts with PhDs.

However Nupedia‘s sluggish progress disappointed Wales. In its first year, only 21 articles were approved. He realized academic peer review made contributing too intimidating. By January 2001, Wales soft-launched a side-project built around simplicity over perfection: Wikipedia.

[Table or infographic contrasting Nupedia vs Wikipedia in the early days]

When Openness Transcends Accuracy – Rise of Wikipedia

Wales opted for an open editing model where anyone could contribute instantly without approval bottlenecks. Technologically this leveraged open-source Ward Cunningham‘s WikiWikiWeb platform that stored version histories. Socially it tapped into crowdsourcing, valuing collective knowledge over isolated expertise.

Early critics dismissed Wikipedia‘s reliability and viability. However its passion community grew exponentially faster than Nupedia. In 2003, Wales set up the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation to fund infrastructure and technology. Donations poured in to support servers and growth.

Today Wikipedia dominates – 55 million articles across 300 language editions contributed by 250,000 editors globally. Wales‘ radical social experiment proved information accessibility transcends accuracy.

[Include graph or chart showing Wikipedia‘s growth since 2001]

Upholding Values Of A Trusted Public Space

With exponential growth came controversies. Critics called out factual errors and biases emerging from Wikipedia‘s crowdsourced model. Some took advantage to spread misinformation or vandalize pages.

Wales believes no system perfect at launch can attain excellence without transparency and accountability. Under his leadership, policies strengthened around verifiability, conflict mitigation and community standards upholding NPOV (Neutral Point of View). Mechanisms ensure factual integrity and quality control authority resides within the collective community itself.

As attacks by vandals and trolls increased, Wales doubled down on Foundations values of tolerance, free speech and good faith dialogue. Concepts like ‘Assume Good Faith‘ asked editors to approach conflict through patience, empathy and benefit of doubt. True democracy succeeds through pluralism, not gatekeeping.

Advocating For Knowledge As A Human Right

Beyond leading Wikipedia policies and culture, Wales advocates for legal frameworks supporting free knowledge globally. At the World Economic Forum in 2008, he spearheaded the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Free Speech. Recently he joined the European Commission‘s High-Level Expert Group on Disinformation.

In 2012, Wales led fellowship movements centralizing free knowledge as an emerging human right. He believes internet freedom protects open access to art, science, culture and ideas – advancing both individual opportunity and shared progress.

[Quote or video clip of Jimmy advocating internet freedom, access to knowledge as a right]

This also manifests through Wales‘ travels speaking at universities and leadership summits worldwide to promote Wikipedia‘s vision – still evolving 20 years on.

Recognition And Respect Of Peers & Institutions

Wales may not be a billionaire like peers running Big Tech giants. But fellow luminaries respect how profoundly he has transformed learning. Accolades include:

UNESCO Niels Bohr Medal (2013) – For contributions to cultural openness, education and access to information.

Dan David Prize (2015) – Prestigious global award recognizing innovations expanding human knowledge and achievements.

President‘s Medal, British Academy (2017) – Annual award recognizing outstanding contributions to humanities and social sciences.

2065 Initiative Fellow – Appointed by President Obama to advise US policy advancing reliable algorithms, data dignity and AI transparency.

Despite lacking Gates or Bezos level fortunes, Wales holds true satisfaction seeing millions gaining knowledge, insight and opportunity through exploring Wikipedia‘s network spanning disciplines. With an estimated net worth of $1-2 million, the 56 year old continues globe trotting for the Foundation, making headlines related to platforms or purpose.

The Man Behind The Mission

Residing in London with American-British citizenship, Wales has been married three times with three daughters. He met current wife Kate Garvey attending former PM Tony Blair‘s farewell party.

While running an historic global movement, Wales retains down to earth midwestern manners in public settings. Yet those who know him describe a character full of conviction behind gentlemanly modesty.

In his spare time, the meat lover unwinds through cooking for friends and family. Surprisingly the perfectionist futurist remains a bit old school – still using a flip phone instead of newest iPhone. But lifelong learning stays core to Wales‘ identity.

"We seek to be a beacon of reason, of freedom of speech, in a world which is constantly facing threats to both."

So what‘s next for the pioneer who opened Floodgates of information? Biographers characterize Jimmy Wales as restless, responsive and radically imaginative all at once. Two decades since that humble dot org experiment, perhaps Wikipedia still remains Wikipedia‘s biggest competitor.

Wikipedia Timeline, Politico, Wired, University of Michigan, Duke University