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Jimmy Wales: 'I'm Wikipedia's monarch'

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RSA 2013 The RSA conference usually has some off-topic keynotes at the end of the day and this year was no exception, with Jimbo Wales popping in to explain how the UK's Royal Family aren't the only Wales' to wear a crown.

He explained that while the bulk of the work on Wikipedia was done by 100,000 unpaid volunteers, they were subordinate to the administrators. He likened these power users to an aristocracy, in that they have great power and almost never lose their jobs, but they still have to bow a knee to someone.

"Finally, there's a little bit of monarchy – which is my role in the community," he said. "Like the monarch in the UK, most of the role is waving and giving speeches, but I do have certain powers in the community that I almost never use, and if I did would probably lead to me losing the role.

"This is a kind of safety valve, so if the community gets into a difficult position and can't find a way forward using our normal rules, I have the power to go in and resolve it, but usually just suggest a vote."

The average age of a Wikipedia contributor is 26, he said, and – like much of the technology field – there was a heavy sex imbalance, with just 13 per cent of the community having XX chromosomes. Interestingly, the number of contributors with PhDs was double the rate found in the population as a whole.

Wales also dropped some fascinating vignettes about the online encyclopedia. The organization was banned in China until the Beijing Olympics, and is still not as popular with local internet users as it is in the rest of the world. But the name has started cropping up on local restaurant menus.

He showed images sent in of menus listing beef brisket with Wikipedia, stir fried Wikipedia with peppers, steamed eggs with Wikipedia, and even a bread company that takes its name from the site. The Chinese Wikipedia editors are mystified by this, but Wales suggested a hypothesis.

"What we figured out was that just around the time of the Beijing Olympics a lot of restaurants were expecting millions of foreigners to flood into the county for the first time," he said. "Restaurants that wouldn't normally see foreigners decided to translate their menus and if you type almost anything into a search engine what's the first thing that comes up? Wikipedia."

Wales also showed off some country statistics that raised a few chuckles. The most popular type of category for Wikipedia articles in Japanese is pop culture information, he said, which given the country's documented obsession with such matters is unsurprising.

But in German the most popular topic is geography, which raised a smattering of chuckles from those who know their 20th Century history. In France, one of the least popular categories was sex, which Wales attributed to the fact that the population spent more time actually having sex and so was less inclined to read about it. ®

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