Web Guru Champions Free-Culture Movement

Published: Sep 25, 2007
By Robin Roger
Web Writer

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales spoke to a crowd of 250 people at The University of Tampa before flying to Switzerland to have dinner with Bill Gates, Tony Blair and Bono.

Wales discussed the philosophy and technology behind Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, during the Board of Fellows’ Business Network Symposium on Jan. 25. The event also featured Robert Moreyra of Atlantic American Realty Group and Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

Time magazine recognized him [Wales] as one of its 100 most influential people,” said John Robinson of the UT Board of Fellows, who co-chaired the event with Chris Sass. “[Wired] called him the ‘geek rock star.’ I call him the electronic encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia started with the radical idea that everyone on the planet should have access to the sum of all human knowledge, Wales said. He gave examples of how that dream has grown closer to reality, such as the man who copied the entire online encyclopedia to a CD-ROM and brought it to an impoverished South African school.

With more than 1.6 million articles in English and more than half a million in German, the Web site continues to grow as more language sections are added. It is now among the 10 most visited sites on the Internet, according to www.alexa.com, a Web site that ranks sites by their traffic.

Wales also discussed other projects that fall under the umbrella of his St. Petersburg-based nonprofit, Wikimedia. New initiatives include an open-source search engine, as well as an online library, Wikibooks, and an Internet university, Wikiversity.

“For a free culture movement, it’s low-hanging fruit,” he said of the projects. “Textbooks are expensive, especially in a developing world. Wikibooks and Wikiversity will give people the opportunity to get a higher-quality education.”

Wales said he would like to see universities at the forefront, with more professors using the open-source textbooks in the classroom and adding to them as they go. On Wikiversity, an open learning community, professors will be able to upload their learning materials and activities for free download.

“I think it will change universities, but I see no end to universities,” Wales said. “There’s a difference between a textbook and what professors do, giving certification and feedback. Nothing can replace that certification and the process you go through getting approval from professors.”

Wales predicted that universities will incorporate more distance learning as technology improves.

Tim Daly of Sendtec Marketing Fusion in St. Petersburg said he came to hear Wales speak about the upcoming search engine. His firm specializes in search engine marketing and has worked with clients such as Orkin Pest Control and the Oriental Trading Company.

“It would really change what we do,” Daly said. “It could be the demise of Google.”

Later in the program, Newman told the story behind the oldest family-owned cigar company in the country, started by his grandfather more than a century ago. He also spoke about the company’s philanthropic work in the Dominican Republic, where some of their most popular cigars are made.

The Cigar Family Charitable Foundation bought 23 acres surrounding five communities near the cigar factory and built an entire infrastructure of roads, bridges and electricity. It then built a school for children from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. When the children finished the eighth grade, they had nowhere to go, so the foundation built a high school in 2005.

“The best way to break the cycle of poverty is through education,” Newman said.

Moreyra outlined the various prongs of Communications Equity Associates, including the real estate arm for which he works, Atlantic American Realty Group. The company recently bought an interest in SimDag LLC, the developer of Trump Tower Tampa.

“The goal is to keep each business unit as diversified as possible,” he said.

The Business Network Symposium is held three times a year by the Board of Fellows to strengthen connections between the University and the local business community. Businesses that are well known, changing or new to Tampa Bay have the opportunity to come and share their accomplishments and plans with the business community.