April 2011

Librarian to the World Photograph by Robyn Twomey 

Wikipedia director Sue Gardner has transformed the site’s broken business into a growing hub with global ambitions. Can a fast-talking iconoclast outthink Silicon Valley’s gurus?
EnlargeLibrarian to the WorldPhotograph by Robyn Twomey 

EnlargeLibrarian to the WorldWIKIMANIAC: Sue Gardner is working to increase the number of Wikipedia users to a billion in the next five years. | Photograph by Robyn Twomey

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THAT’S A GEEK JOKE that a table full of Wikipedians came up with late one night while snickering about Mark Zuckerberg’s early business cards. (The Facebook founder’s less-erudite title: “I’m CEO … bitch.”) Sue Gardner — the executive director of the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the massive online encyclopedia anyone in the world can edit — laughed loudest of all. So Gardner had stickers with the phrase made up for her San Francisco-based staff. One now sits at eye level above her computer screen in the cubicle space she shares with her assistant and his dog, a wire fox terrier named Bella who’s been trained to fetch the boss’s Droid.

Millions of Wikipedians are familiar with the charismatic man who founded Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales — it was his twinkling mug that was plastered atop the site during the recent 10th-anniversary fundraising effort, encouraging users to donate money to the “temple of the mind” that they had all built together. But few know Gardner, the 44-year-old former journalist who was brought in four years ago to right the foundation’s worrisomely listing ship.

At the time, the sprawling, collaborative reference site already had a visibility and reach that few sites can match. Yet when Gardner arrived, it was managed by just seven people from a strip-mall office in Florida — and Wikimedia’s finances were under intense pressure.

In short order, Gardner began aggressively raising money, as evidenced by that triumphant anniversary campaign, which raised $16 million in 50 days late last year. (Before Gardner, the foundation’s efforts at fundraising ran along the lines of, literally, “Let’s buy Brion a laptop.”) She moved Wikimedia to a downtown San Francisco building and bulked up the full-time staff to 56 employees, with plans to add 40 more positions in the newly created community-outreach and global-development departments. She implemented criminal background checks and expense policies — basics for some businesses, but a level of professionalism Wikimedia had never before embraced.

Three years into the job, Gardner remains one of only two women running a top-10 website. Under her watch, Wikipedia is now bigger and more stable than ever. A recent Pew survey revealed that 53% of adult American Internet users visit Wikipedia regularly. More than 400 million users visit it each month. It would cost $50,000 to print one copy of the 3.5 million articles housed on English Wikipedia alone. (Forget the 250-plus Wikipedias in languages ranging from Amharic to Tamil.) And that one copy would fill up 1,500 books at 1,500 pages per book.

But Wikipedia also has real challenges to confront: a growing sense of insularity among seasoned editors who can set a punitive, unwelcoming tone for newcomers; a dearth of women editors (only 13% — unacceptable, according to Gardner); and perhaps most alarming, a shrinking pool of overall regular contributors to English Wikipedia, down by one-third since March 2007.

Still, Gardner’s ambitions are huge. She is opening a Wikimedia office in India this spring, with future plans for offices in Brazil and the Middle East and North Africa. Determined that the site not consist primarily of white people in rich countries pontificating on behalf of the rest of the globe, she wants to focus on growing Wikipedia participation in the developing world. She aims to double the number of Wikipedia users to a billion within five years. “What could be better than people who don’t have access to knowledge getting the ability to find out whatever it is that they want to find out?” she says. “And that’s what I think is so gorgeous about Wikipedia — it’s this limitless space; it can be as big as it needs to be. It can actually contain the sum of everything that we know, right?”

Gardner looks like an anime character sprung to life — her hair all jet-black razored angles, a spider tattoo on her right hand, tight black jeans, knee-length boots. Her idea of a vacation was a recent solo journey to a sanctuary in Kamal, India, for a 10-day silent retreat (though much of what she meditated on was how good a steak would taste once she got out of there). “Her countercultural sensibility coupled with a serious professionalism is what first struck me,” says Wales. “That and her sense of humor.”

Gardner grew up in Port Hope, Ontario, a quaint, historic town of 16,000 people. Her father was an Anglican priest at the oldest church in Ontario, and her mother the principal of the public high school. “Conservative town, principal, preacher,” she says with a laugh. “You can imagine!” But her feminist mother was the school’s first female principal, and her dad was a social-justice minister who’d been involved in the Freedom Rides and told his children that they could make up their own minds about faith when they turned 16 years old. And so, at 16, Gardner declared herself an atheist with her father’s blessing.

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By: Karen Valby

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