A million dollars is a lot of money for a normal person, but that's pretty low if you founded the fifth most visited website on the planet, and only pretty good if you were a CEO in 1965. Nonetheless, Wikipedia chief Jimmy Wales just barely cracks six figures in total net worth, despite the 20 billion page views behind his 12-and-a-half-year-old do-gooder website, according to Amy Chozik's big new profile in The New York Times Magazine. Wales makes less than "car dealers in Ohio," he admits in interview. But he's okay with that: "Their jobs are much, much less interesting than mine," he added. "Can you imagine Howard Roark saying, 'I just want to make as much money as possible?'" asked Wales, a libertarian Ayn Rand fan — like any good Internet tycoon.
This 46-year-old entrepreneur has a higher purpose, apparently. Wales pulls in his real money by way of $70,000 in speaking engagement fees and the stock options in his for-profit arm, Wikia. Wikipedia, however, is a non-profit and part of a larger movement that Wales evangelizes in his many talks about "Internet rights." But maybe the whole doing-good thing happened more by accident: "Like many Internet entrepreneurs of the early aughts, Wales aimed to create something cool first and worry about a business model later," writes Chozik. But the bubble had popped by the time he got around to thinking about money and now it's too late to slap ads on the site. "Were Wikipedia to accept banner and video ads, it could, by most estimates, be worth as much as $5 billion," reports Chozik. "But that kind of commercial sellout would probably cause the members of the community, who are not paid for their contributions, to revolt."
So, Wales has run with an entrepreneur image that doesn't include dollar signs and has transformed himself into a kind of benevolent pseudo-celebrity. "I used to be just a guy. Now I'm Jimmy Wales," he said in an interview once. Jimmy Wales sure is famous, but he's famous for being the guy who puts his face on top of the Internet encyclopedia and asks us for money. He gets to be on Stephen Colbert's show and have the likes of Bono in his cellphone, which by the way is a cheap $85 Huawei. But he'll always be "the guy who made the sum of the world's information free without making a penny himself."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.