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“Failure – Jimmy Wales is good at it”

“Failure – Jimmy Wales is good at it”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

MAASTRICHT. Wikipedia wasn’t his best idea, Jimmy Wales (48) told the approximately 1500 students at his lecture in the MECC last Friday. That was an online food ordering service. Nowadays every country has one, “but in 1996, restaurant owners were looking at me like I was from Mars.” He delivered his lecture ‘Failure as a route to success’ before the Dies Natalis celebration, during which he received an honorary doctorate.

Other great ideas that didn’t work out include a search engine that was hijacked by Chinese spammers and the predecessor of Wikipedia: Nupedia, a free encyclopedia written by experts. “I paid $250,000 for the first twelve articles”, explains Wales. “I always joke that I read them every night before I go to sleep, to make sure I get my money’s worth.”

His catchphrase is “Failure – Jimmy Wales is good at it.” It’s important for an entrepreneur to be good at failure, he says. “A real entrepreneur fails and fails and fails and fails. Make sure you enjoy yourself along the way and learn from your mistakes. Don’t put too much of yourself into one great idea. Start on a small level so you can fail faster, without huge investments. Don’t tie your ego to a particular business. If you need to: let it go.”

Can the university help students to fail in a safe environment? This question comes from the moderator Wynand Bodewes, Maastricht University’s chief entrepreneurship officer. “In the academic world you get wrapped up in achieving goals that are set for you. Instead of innovating, you’re checking all the boxes, like a good little soldier”, says Wales. “Why not have some assignments that don’t affect the student’s long-term record? And then don’t judge them on accomplishment, but on the cleverness and creativity that went into the project, even if it didn’t work out.”

Wales is UM’s first honorary doctorate recipient to be chosen by the students. “In the United States, it’s not unusual to give someone an honorary doctorate for the great achievement of donating a lot of money to the university. I don’t have any of those doctorates, but if they start allowing students to vote, I might end up with a lot”, Wales jokes. He’s probably right. With 500 million unique visitors per month, many of them students, Wikipedia is now the sixth most popular website.

Students often complain that they are not allowed to refer to Wikipedia content in papers. Could the site ever come to a level where its content can be used in an academic context? asks a student from the audience. “It’s not a goal for Wikipedia to be a citable source”, says Wales. “That’s not a question of quality, but a question about the role of an encyclopedia in the research process. The encyclopedia should be there to help you get orientated; to give you the tools and sources to dig deeper, rather than something you just read and quote for your paper. If someone is twelve years old and they quote Wikipedia and add a footnote, we should cheer that on, because they bothered to not just copy and paste. But on a university level that’s not enough, you have to read books, do serious research.”

What can companies learn from Wikipedia, a non-profit organisation that works mainly with volunteers? another student asks. “That jobs on every level of a company should be something people would want to do if they didn’t get paid. That creates a different mindset. If people like their jobs, they want to create something meaningful, not just drudge through it until they can go home.” 

Money should never be a primary motivator, Wales feels. This is also why he doesn’t want advertisements on Wikipedia. “We don’t care what you click on. But with ads you want people to go to the pages that are easier to sell as advertising space. And visitors might think the advertiser has influenced the content.”

The next question, then, is how do you maintain the neutrality and reliability of an encyclopedia that everyone can edit? Interesting enough, seemingly problematic topics – such as the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia – are not a problem, says Wales. “If that information becomes too coloured in favour of one of side, the Wikipedia community will notice.” It’s the more obscure topics that can cause problems. “The followers of a cult leader, for instance, have been very persistent in cutting negative information off their leader’s Wikipage. The community gets tired of that and tends to let it go, since almost no one knows him anyway.” Wales’s own solution – which he learned the hard way, after being criticised for editing his own Wikipage – is “Don’t edit areas you feel very passionate about. It’s too hard to stay neutral.” 

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