It feels as if “new media” royalty is about to arrive at the Watershed arts centre – lots of stubbly, open-shirted men pacing up and down, and women fiddling nervously with their iPhones.
I sip my coffee, and check my watch once again, as the frenetic preparations gather pace.
Jimmy Wales is the founder of internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia
Whoever would have thought there could be this much fuss about the tenth anniversary of an encyclopaedia?
But then, our expected visitor is Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia – and there is something about Wikipedia that makes the whole thing feel more like a religious movement than a web-based “reference book”.
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The army of 80,000 volunteers, spread across the globe, who manage and maintain the integrity of Wikipedia’s 17 million articles, all have something apostolic in their wide-eyed dedication.
Nobody here is going to complain too much if their online messiah is a few minutes late.
After all, despite having only arrived in Bristol a couple of hours earlier, Jimmy has already visited Bristol Cathedral School and the ARKive project, and moments after his quick-as-a-flash interviews with the media, he will be whisked off to Bristol University, to give a public lecture on his wiki success story.
It’s all in a day’s work for the 44-year-old – he spends much of his life travelling from city to city, with all the timetabled precision of a presidential state visit. When he does arrive, Jimmy glides through the Watershed bar with a gentle calmness – picking off a few invisible specks of dust from his velvet pinstripe suit, before sitting down to answer the questions he has probably answered a thousand times before.
“It’s a lovely city,” he enthuses, in his soft American drawl. “I’ve been having a great time with the kids at the Cathedral School.”
Many of the younger ones would not have been born when Wikipedia first went live in 2001. The site was an evolution of Jimmy’s earlier attempt at an online encyclopaedia, Nupedia.
Jimmy claims to have “always had his head in encyclopaedias” as a child growing up in small-town Alabama, where his grandmother, Erma, ran a small private school (which owned a prized copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica).
But as an early internet entrepreneur, Jimmy made his money initially in a soft-porn, fast-car “lads” website.
But Jimmy had a more noble vision of what the internet could do for mankind.
“I’d long had a dream of an online encyclopaedia that would be freely-accessible by everyone,” he tells me, smiling gently through his new-media beard.
“My first attempt, Nupedia, didn’t take off – but then I was introduced to the concept of a wiki, and Wikipedia was born.”
For the uninitiated, “wiki” technology allows the contents of a website to be altered and added to by its users (the term is based on the Hawaiian expression “wiki-wiki”, meaning “fast”).
Wikipedia was not the first website to use the technology – but it was the first to put it to any substantial use.
“I was confident it would work right from the beginning,” Jimmy says. “I always knew we would get the occasional person trying to vandalise the site or change content for a joke, but I thought we could cope with that if we had enough volunteers.
“I have to admit though, on that first day when we turned on the open-editing facility, I woke up a few times in the night to log on and check nobody had wrecked the whole project.
“But we quickly realised we needn’t have worried – people are generally sensible and well- meaning. Folks get what we’re trying to do, and are keen to help.”
But the initial results were underwhelming. The original article for “Astronomer” simply said: “Scientist whose area of research is astronomy.”
Sweden read: “Country in Northern Europe. Inhabitants are called Swedes. Language spoken is Swedish. Capital is Stockholm.” Physics? “Physics is a very broad subject.”
But Wikipedia grew quickly – a thousand articles were written in less than a month.
Over the next five years, many new language versions were launched, and Wikipedia began to surpass traditional reference sources in breadth and depth.
Wikipedia is now consulted by more than 400 million people every month.
It provides instant access to in-depth information, free of charge and free of advertising.
In the last decade, a vast and unique global volunteer community has come together to create more than 17m articles in 270 languages – the aim? To advance the cause of free knowledge for every person on the planet.
“We’re non-profit-making, and we’re funded entirely by donations,” Jimmy says. “People always ask why we don’t run advertising to fund the project, but I feel it would be a distraction. I fear it could lead to us worrying more about revenue than accuracy and breadth of information.
“I think the site will continue to grow in the coming years – we particularly want to focus on developing the site in Third World countries, where access to this kind of information could revolutionise the education of some of the world’s poorest people.”
So how does this internet icon see the web developing over the next generation?
“Hey, I’ve absolutely no idea,” Jimmy says with a disappointing shrug. “I know about as much as the next guy. I always say I’m more like a carpenter than an architect.
“The only thing that is certain in my mind, is that the internet will become increasingly connected to mobile technology – cellphones are how we’ll all be accessing the net.
“Wikipedia itself will continue to develop. Even though we have millions of articles, there is still a lot of work to do,” he adds.
“So, I want everybody out there, if you’ve never edited Wikipedia, to try it – just click ‘edit’.”
Jimmy’s ultimate vision? You can change the world with a click.