Jimmy Wales Rewrites History (Starting With His Own)
In general, I try to avoid using Wikipedia as my main source when writing these posts, but I’ll make an exception in this case because for Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia essentially serves as his autobiography. Unfortunately, as is true with many autobiographies, Wales has chosen to downplay or sugar coat some pivotal parts of his life.
Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales went through many evolutions before becoming an Internet entrepreneur and innovator. He was a gamer, a stock trader and at one point, an amateur pornographer. But according to Wales’ own description of his early life on Wikipedia, he grew up an avid reader who “spent lots of hours pouring over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias.” (Does anyone actually do this as a kid?)
Early on, he expressed an interest in finance and bounced around between colleges and grad schools, with the intention to earn a PhD in business, only to fail. According to Wikipedia, Wales “did not write the doctoral dissertation required for a PhD., something which he has ascribed to boredom.”
Despite this self-imposed setback, Wales secured a position at a Chicago trading firm and quickly earned some big bucks. But even though he was making a good living in this profession, his hobbies got the better of him. Wales was “addicted” to wasting time on the Internet and equally obsessed with multi-player role playing games. Six years after becoming a trader, Wales ditched his post to create his own Web site.
His first attempt was a site that connected businessmen in downtown Chicago with restaurants they could lunch at. “The result was failure,” he said in a speech earlier this year. “In 1996, restaurant owners looked at me like I was from Mars.” Next, Wales founded a search engine called Three Apes, which lasted just three months before “it was taken over by Chinese hackers.” (Notably, neither of these sites are mentioned on his Wikipedia page.)
Finally, he created a site called Bomis. Though Bomis ultimately proved to be a failure, especially compared to Wikipedia, it was more popular than his previous sites and represented a step forward in Wales’ pursuit to build the next big thing on the Internet. Like Wikipedia, Wales’ first site mostly featured user-generated content that could help visitors discover new sites about software, celebrities and more. However, Bomis also sold erotic photos and included a “guy-oriented search engine” that led users to pages and pages of naked ladies.
This site was hailed as an online rival to Maxim and Playboy, and helped establish Wales’ reputation as a “Porn King,” a title he has tried desperately to replace with something more respectable in recent years. According to Wired, he has repeatedly edited his own Wikipedia biography to rephrase and omit most of his Bomis years. Yet, the two sites are deeply tied to one another. Bomis provided Wales with the money to create Nupedia (the early version of Wikipedia), and in fact, Bomis actually hosted this site for a time. In theory, the missions of the two sites were very similar as well: one was determined to make all the world’s information easily accessible and the other was determined to do the same for all the world’s beautiful women.
At the very least, Wales is emblematic of how one’s early creations can linger throughout a career. But as Wales himself has since admitted, he is also evidence of the inevitability and value of failure. “Don’t tie your ego to any one project. If it stumbles, you’ll be unable to move forward,”he declared at a Ted talk in Tampa Bay. “Fail a lot, but enjoy yourself along the way.”