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Jimmy Wales on the (Encyclopedic) Value of Sharing

Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia. I had been watching the growth of the free and open source software movements for a...

Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia.

I had been watching the growth of the free and open source software movements for a few years, and I was thinking about people coming together and collaborating. What was really making that world possible is that people devised these licenses that allow, for example, programmers to share their work with other programmers, who could copy it, redistribute it, and modify it. This licensing method took away a lot of concerns people had about sharing their work online. People didn’t mind other people taking their work and reusing it, but there are certain things they didn’t want other people to do, like close the source code, make it proprietary, or make it so that I can’t see the changes that have been made. I realized that this mode of collaboration was not really something that would be confined only to software. I realized a lot more would be coming, so I started thinking of what might be good to collaborate on. I had the idea of the encyclopedia.

The way I talk about this is as a reemergence of folk culture. For a long time, we thought about culture being more or less divided in two parts: We had pop culture, which was commercially driven, and then we had fine art culture, which was partially commercial but we felt it needed to be paid for by wealthy patrons or governments or something like that. But we also had folk culture—people sharing songs and stories passed down from generations. Now that we have all of these tools for communicating directly peer to peer, we are seeing a real explosion and reemergence of that kind of folk culture, and a move away from broadcast culture.

In a certain sense it is a very natural extension of what we always did; it’s just that we have the tools to do it much better than we ever did before. Everybody used to take pictures and share them with their friends, and some people got involved with photography as a hobby and met other photographers and joined photography clubs. Other people would sing songs and modify them and those songs would get passed around. Now all of those things can happen on a much larger scale simply because we have the tools available to do it—and a licensing framework set up that helps people make sure that what they are doing is legal and in accordance with what their values are.

I think that the separated factions of people who care about making money off of this and people who don't isn’t really sustainable in the long run; I think that it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. What we are seeing is people reacting with a little bit of shock to this change, but in the long run these changes are here to stay. The Internet is here to stay. People sharing things online is here to stay. We still have a lot of innovations coming in terms of what kind of communities can be built and what kind of activities people may engage in online, but I think what we are going to see moving forward is really more of a spectrum, a continuum of activities: There are certain things that will be produced the old fashioned way as part of a commercially oriented broadcasted culture, and I think that’s fine and will stay the same; we are going to see people doing things like Wikipedia, which is spontaneously sharing with no commercial or career motive for the most part; and then there will be some in between, where people, especially younger artists, will get their start by becoming well known through the sharing culture, and then will go on to sell some of their work under a traditional model. Or we may see some existing successful performers who say, "Yeah I’m going to continue doing some of my work this way, but I’m also going do some of it in an attempt to have a bigger impact on the culture. I may release a song or a whole album in a way that allows people to modify it and let people take it and change it and build on it and do something different with it." I think that there is no way we should be in a situation where there are different factions. I think all of these things are just tools that people can use for a variety of purposes.

Story as told to Eric Steuer. Click the play button below to listen to the interview on which this piece is based.

Eric Steuer is the creative director of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that works to make it easier for creators to share their work with the rest of the world. It also provides tools to make it easier for people to find creative work that's been made available to them—and the rest of the world—to use, share, reuse etc., freely and legally. This is the third in a series of edited and condensed interviews called "We like to share," in which Steuer talked to people who work across a variety of fields who use sharing as an approach to benefit the work that they do.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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