Wikipedia turns 20 this Friday, January 15, 2021, on what is known as “Wikipedia Day” around the world.
Launched on January 15, 2001, “To create and freely distribute a free encyclopedia in all the languages of the world.” Wikipedia now contains more than 55 million articles, written by human volunteers in hundreds of languages. With 1.7 billion unique visitors per month, it ranks as the 6th most popular U.S.–based website and 13th globally, with nine of the top 15 websites now based in China.
Wikipedia is the lone tech giant that tried a different economic model and it started in St. Petersburg. The same city where Nelson Poynter established the St. Petersburg Times as the country’s once shining example of independent local journalism due to its ownership by the Poynter Institute.
Unlike the other turn of the century technology giants that dominate our lives today, Wikipedia was driven by donations–not venture capital–and in 2003 was permanently organized under the charitable non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia remained a St. Petersburg based organization until leaving for San Francisco in late 2007 when the need for resources outgrew what was available in the market.
At one time it perplexed me how few locals knew that Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales in St. Petersburg. But when I started asking people who had been part of our nascent entrepreneurial community, I discovered that we know, but we just don’t talk about Wikipedia. We don’t mention it, we don’t celebrate it. In fact, a good number of people believe we are better off without Wikipedia and especially Jimmy Wales, citing a reputation of being difficult to work with.
I believe leaving out this part of St. Petersburg’s history is an error. As the traditional big tech companies try to clean up the mess they’ve made of democracy, it is their underlying economic incentives that must come under scrutiny. How can you connect human beings if your business model dictates colonizing users’ attention?
How difficult was Wales, compared to founders we idolize like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos? Had Elon Musk so much as had lunch on the St. Petersburg Pier while drawing up plans for SpaceX, there might be a plaque telling everyone about our part of history–or at least a craft brew noting the connection.
Trends in St. Petersburg will point the way forward for our nation. The heritage of Poynter is alive today as his Institute assists Facebook to fight disinformation. St. Pete will headquarter Climate First Bank, a new community bank founded as a permanent benefit corporation with a triple bottom line focus. As USF consolidates, St. Pete’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business focuses on cultivating social capital, differentiating it from USF’s other offerings–all while the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg illuminates the structural inequality of racism that must be addressed for every resident to thrive.
The Sunshine City understands the value of quality of life in a life well lived and Wikipedia’s founding here is part of that story. To leave it out is to leave out a story of inspiration for everyone that dreams of changing the world from here in the ‘burg.
Happy birthday Wikipedia! On this Wikipedia Day, your hometown appreciates you.