According to one estimate, on any given month almost one-third of the world's Internet users will reference Wikipedia, which bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."
"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's where we're headed. And with your help, we will get there," reads Wales' recent personal appeal that sits atop Wikipedia pages.
Enter a famous name or concept into your favorite search engine and chances are high that the Wikipedia entry will be first or second in the list of results. As the site further entrenches itself near the top of the Internet's hierarchy, honor is due to Wales, who is credited as co-creator of Wikipedia.
Wales fits our definition of AOY: "An Alabamian who made a significant mark on events over the past year; someone who lived up to the state creed's dictate 'to foster her advancement within the statehood of the world.'"
Wales, 43, is a Huntsville native who graduated from the Randolph School, a small, private school in the Rocket City. The son of a grocer and a teacher, he earned a finance degree at Auburn University before entering graduate studies at the University of Alabama. Eventually, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a futures trader. By the mid-1990s, he was dipping his entrepreneurial toes into the Internet. After several moderately successful attempts, Wales, co-creator Larry Sanger and others launched Wikipedia on Jan. 15, 2001.
Its lofty aim: a nonprofit, online encyclopedia filled with public contributions and edited by the same public. In one digital locale, Wikipedia aimed to duplicate the five-centuries-old "commonplace book" concept of collected wisdom.
By the end of 2001, Wikipedia had collected 20,000 entries and was available in 18 languages. Three years later, it was available in 161 languages. By 2007, the English version reached 2 million articles, more than any encyclopedia employing Gutenberg's invention of ink on paper.
Today, it claims 262 language editions and 14 million articles. As The Atlantic noted in 2006, "Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge-gathering the world has ever known, and it may well be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind …
"A quarter-century ago, it was inconceivable that a legion of unpaid, unorganized amateurs scattered about the globe could create anything of value, let alone what may one day be the most comprehensive repository of knowledge in human history. Back then, we knew that people do not work for free; or if they do work for free, they do a poor job; and if they work for free in large numbers, the result is a muddle."
Wikipedia defied the conventional wisdom. Yet, it is not perfect. The public can be that way.
Wikipedia's public contributors do not always play fair or honest. In 2005, it was discovered that an awful and untrue slur against journalist John Seigenthaler had lingered on the site.
It is a sad commentary on the human condition. Put a giant blackboard and a steady supply of chalk on the town square, and something bad is bound to get through.
Wikipedia's overseers stepped up policing efforts. In 2009, Wikipedia took even more steps to semi-professionalize its editing.
Yet, the utopian vision of Wales' Wikipedia still holds, despite the occasional setback. In online years, Wikipedia is out of its awkward teen phase and heading into respectability.
When the Taliban captured New York Times reporter David Rohde in Afghanistan in November 2008, the newspaper requested a media blackout of the news in hopes it would spare Rohde's life. Between late 2008 and Rohde's June 2009 release, Wales and a set of Wikipedia administrators diligently kept the news off the site, a move that denied the terrorist kidnappers the spotlight they craved.
Wales discussed the situation on NPR's "On the Media" program: "The New York Times told me that they were acting on advice that it would be best if it was kept quiet, and I just chose to believe that. If this had not worked, and let's imagine that Mr. Rohde had been executed by his captors, then I think there would be a lot of pushback on all of us now, saying, gee, maybe if you had reported on this he'd still be alive today."
Credit goes to Wales; it was a tough decision requiring a balance between the public's right to know and the protection of a human life.
Wales draws no salary from Wikipedia, which proudly wears the dot-org Web domain to signify nonprofit. He lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife and daughter. He does draw income from his Web-hosting company, Wikia Inc.
"My philosophy is you can be a lot more financially independent if you choose to live cheaply," Wales told the Orlando Sentinel. "You can have a big, expensive house and a Mercedes, but then you are a slave to your job."
Freedom from many of the old, unwired world's constraints is important to Wales, according to Michael Snow, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees. "Most recognize Jimmy as the founder of Wikipedia, but many don't realize how devoted he is to both the Wikipedia community, as well as the broader free-culture movement," Snow said in a statement last week. "The amount of time and energy he dedicates to Wikipedia is amazing, both as an active volunteer and leader, along with his efforts to promote and cultivate the health of the project. He juggles this immense responsibility while traveling around the world as an evangelist and spokesperson for the project, educating the world about the value of free, shared knowledge."
Dan Gillmor, tech writer and author of 2006's We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, is an investor in Wikia and a friend of Wales. "What he and his collaborators at Wikipedia have already accomplished is one of the more amazing achievements of modern times," Gillmor wrote via e-mail. "They've created a collection of living documents, an encyclopedia — and more — that gets better and better despite the widely publicized flaws. Wikipedia is moving us closer to a world of democratized media that we use, not just consume."
In a few decades, the Internet has grown from a novelty to nearly a must-have tool for education, work, play and life. Many have pondered the question of whether this great digital upheaval would be for good or ill.
Wales, as a key driver of Wikipedia, has shown the value of his digital commonplace book. "His devotion to the project is clearly represented in what Wikipedia has become today — an invaluable resource that everyone depends on to understand the world around them. It's an accomplishment worthy of this special award," said Snow.
Walt Whitman once wrote that "the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse."
Thanks to the vision of the 2009 Alabamian of the Year, that contribution is easier.