Wikipedia is today a reference source for millions of people around the world. Its Spanish edition alone receives almost 36 million visits a day. But there was a day that could have been very different.

Despite being its founder, Jimmy Wales has long since moved away from direct day-to-day life on Wikipedia and Wikimedia, the foundation that runs it. In part, because he has devoted part of his time to making grow a counterpart of Wikipedia but with ads.

Surely when looking for information about many series, comics or sagas you have come across portals such as Fandom (formerly known as Wikia), a community of Wikis that were founded by a company owned by Wales.

Fandom is a community of wikis—encyclopedias with user-generated content—like Wikipedia, but that, unlike the Free Encyclopedia, is monetized with ads. In total, it has more than 385,000 communities on topics from manga to video games and 50 million pages.

Its existence is, in a way, a fork of Wikipedia itself since Wales defended at one point the coexistence of the encyclopedia edited by anonymous users with advertisements, something that the community rejected.

Jimmy Wales, between free content and ads, almost always

Fandom currently has a monthly traffic of almost 850 million visits, according to SimilarWebsomething that is at the level of search engines such as Duck Duck Go or Google in Brazil.

But, what was its origin? In 2004, Wales and then-Wikimedia board member Angela Beesley founded the for-profit company Wikia.

The model was simple, but not easy: replicate the success of Wikipedia but with communities dedicated to Star Wars or Star Trek. Another service offered by Wikia was Wikia Search, an open source search engine intended to challenge Google by introducing transparency and public dialogue on how search engine results are created, but this project was abandoned in March 2009.

Fandom portal dedicated to Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire

Despite its traffic success, Wikia/Fandom is not an extremely lucrative business, but it is profitable. After going through several rounds of investment, his property is currently under the hands of the Texas fund TPG Capital since 2018.

The foundation of this portal is a mirror of the figure of Wales itself. A man convinced and almost utopian about the need to promote free and open knowledge without waiting for commercial interests. He has had later, not very successful, attempts to retry a new Wikipedia. With WikiTribune, a portal launched in 2017 with the aim of combating fake news through the combination of professional journalists and citizens; and WT Social, its ad-free social network, turned into another wasteland.

And yet, the birth of Wikia was the result of the community not allowing it to seek funding with ads on Wikipedia at the time, something that Wales insistently proposed at the beginning of the millennium.

The initial attempt to insert ads on Wikipedia was stopped by a Spanish countercurrent

That attempt was stopped by a group of Spanish Wikipedians who created a ‘fork’ or bifurcation of the project that redirected the idea to what we know today.

To understand the story, it is necessary to go back to the very origin of the project. As is well known, Wikipedia was a project co-founded by Jimmy -Jimbo- Wales and Larry Sangerafter a first attempt to create free information that did not go quite well.

That failed attempt was Nupedia, an encyclopedia that, although it also offered its articles openly, these were prepared by experts and academics in the field who, in addition, required peer review before publication.

This process caused the appearance of new content to be dropper in Nupedia, while Wikipedia, with a much more open approach to whoever wanted to collaborate, began publishing dozens of articles in January 2001. Editions in other languages ​​were added to that altruistic crusade, one of the first and most active, the Spanish Wikipedia just a few months later.

Bomis, an ancestor of Wikipedia and Wikia who taught Wales the commercial potential of the internet
The founders of Bomis, with Wales at the center.

But in this internet that was beginning to be massive but also prehistoric in many cases, mounting and storing a similar project on web servers was not an easy task.

Wikipedia was linked from its early years to Bomis, a company created by Jimmy Wales himself and that he had experimented with content websites such as a directory about the city of Chicago, but also many other portals, some with erotic content.

Bomis, under the umbrella of Wales, lent his servers to host the Wikipedia project in its early years and also owned the domain. Because yes, Wikipedia did not start with the .org domain from the beginning (now something with much less importance but vital in the Internet canons of two decades ago when referring to non-profit projects).

And at that confluence where Wikipedia was hosted by a private company, but with open-licensed content contributed by altruistic contributors, the schism arose.

Santiago Navarro, director of Wikimedia Spain, said in 2021 a hypertextual this particular event when we were interviewing him about the anniversary of the encyclopedia. “Basically, the founders of Wikipedia raised the possibility of showing ads in some way, something that did not go down well in the community, especially the Spanish one,” he recalled.

Wales is still halfway between both worlds

Wales, in any case, hasn’t made a huge fortune from his attempts, if that matters. An article of Quartz in 2013 his fortune was estimated at 1 million dollars, although the sale price of Fandom, made later, is unknown.

Be that as it may, since then Wales has built himself as a lecturer of importance and has sailed with the two failed attempts that we mentioned before towards new ports, both more similar to what was the origin of Wikipedia than to Wikia.

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