Though Wales doesn’t have a castle or even a jet yet, his many followers, who refer to him as the “WikiPope,” feel that his fame is still in its early stages. The Web site is groundbreaking, to say the least. It’s available online in more than 250 languages and grows daily, bringing Wales ever closer to his self-proclaimed goal of spreading free knowledge to the entire world. It’s also shockingly up-to-date: Wikipedia revealed Tim Russert’s death almost 40 minutes before NBC’s announcement. Alongside the encyclopedia, the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation also runs free online offshoots like Wiktionary (a dictionary), Wikibooks (educational textbooks), Wikisource (a library), Wikinews, Wikiquote (a compendium of famous quotations) and Wikiversity (a learning site where students can follow courses like “Introduction to Swedish”)—all of which consist of user-generated content. And Wales now travels so frequently as the face of the foundation that he carries his passport at the ready.
“Wikipedia is the history of our times,” says Wales’s friend Craig Newmark, creator of Craigslist. “It used to be that the people who won the wars got to write our history. Wikipedia changes that, since everyone has a chance to participate.”
Wales believes that Wikipedia could even help save the world. “I’m a big advocate of freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought,” says Wales, who considers himself a libertarian. “What can we put into the hands of people under oppressive regimes to help them? For me, a big part of it is information, knowledge—the ability to defeat propaganda by understanding it. We can use technology to get information into people’s hands.” But as an avowed atheist and someone who once ran a Web group devoted to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, he bristles at the idea that his mission is in any way altruistic. “Altruism is sacrificing your own values for others. That participating in a benevolent effort to share information is somehow destroying your own values makes no sense to me,” says Wales.
“To him, altruism was evil,” remembers Pam, who says that Wales therefore discouraged her from pursuing a nursing degree when they were married. “His whole ‘Mr. Save the World’ is so contrary to what he said every day for seven years.”
Some members of the very community in which Wales is a celebrity say all the jetsetting has turned this former soft-spoken nerd into a self-involved egoist. After the site took off, there were reports of fallings-out with former associates and misuse of the foundation’s expense account (Wales and foundation officials denied any wrongdoing). He also edited his own Wikipedia biography, altering a sentence identifying a former colleague as Wikipedia’s cofounder (this is a big etiquette no-no: Wikipedia policy states that “unsourced material obtained from a Wikipedian’s personal experience” is a violation, and Wales later told the press he regretted having done it).