Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jimmy Wales Is Not an Internet Billionaire

Jim Naughten for The New York TimesAccording to Wikipedia, the Tampa International Airport is a public airport six miles west of downtown Tampa, in Hillsborough County, Florida. It’s also where Jimmy Wales flies in and out of a couple times a month, in coach, to visit his 12-year-old daughter, Kira, who is named after the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s anti-communist novel, “We the Living.” Kira lives with Wales’s ex-wife in a ranch-style home not far from the strip mall where Wales, along with a handful of colleagues he generally no longer speaks to, ran Wikipedia a decade ago. The original Florida address for one of the Internet’s most life-changing innovations is now a UPS store with a faded red awning. Next door is a Kahwa CafĂ©.

Jimmy Wales and Kate Garvey on their wedding day at Wesley’s Chapel in London last October.

That was Wales’s old life. In his new one, he lives in London with Kate Garvey, his third wife, whom he often describes as “the most connected woman in London.” Garvey doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, but if she did, it would probably note that she was Tony Blair’s diary secretary at 10 Downing Street and then a director at Freud Communications, the public relations firm run by Matthew Freud, a great-grandson of Sigmund Freud, who is also Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law. And that Blair, in his 2010 memoir, wrote that Garvey ran his schedule “with a grip of iron and was quite prepared to squeeze the balls very hard indeed of anyone who interfered.”

Garvey and Wales were married last October before about 200 guests, including the Blairs, the political operative Alistair Campbell, David Cameron’s former aide Steve Hilton and Mick Hucknall, the lead singer of Simply Red. Garvey’s maid of honor gave a toast teasing her friend for marrying the one world-famous Internet entrepreneur who didn’t become a billionaire. But the wedding was still covered in The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times, much to Wales’s excitement. “Front page, above the fold,” he told me of the latter. Wales pulled up The Mail’s Web site on his MacBook to show me some photographs from the reception. “That was surreal,” he said.

Wales has a complicated time balancing his new life with his old one. That was evident one morning this winter as he bounded into the lobby of the West End building where he rented office space and hurriedly signed himself in at the front desk. Wales, his brown Tumi bag slung over his shoulder, was 45 minutes late, disheveled and a little frantic. He had left the keys to his and Garvey’s Marylebone apartment at his place outside Tampa; the nanny, here in London, was stranded with the couple’s 2-year-old daughter. “I forgot to drop off the key,” he said. Just when Wales thought he might have to run home, his assistant, who is based in Florida, texted that a building manager had let the nanny in. Global child-care crisis averted.

Wales wore a too-tight black turtleneck under a black overcoat with a well-shorn beard, a look that could either read Steve Jobs superhero or Tekserve flasher. Almost any time you see Wales, 46, he looks like a well-groomed version of a person who has been slumped over a computer drinking Yoo-hoo for hours. After he composed himself, he explained that his office was too embarrassingly unkempt for public consumption. (“It’s a room with a couch, it’s a huge mess.”) So he joined me on a cracked sofa in a common lounge area downstairs. With its ratty Oriental carpets and mismatched folding chairs, the space exuded a bohemian chic look that Wales, a savvy purveyor of his own image, seemed to delight in showing off. The building, a condemned former BBC space, had been slated for demolition. Wales would soon be moving. “I’m not the Google guys,” he said.

London is often described as Britain’s New York, L.A. and Washington all in one — the center for finance, entertainment and politics. But there are conspicuously few traces of Silicon Valley. Wales gladly fills the void. Before he showed me his wedding photos, he talked about his new friend, the British model Lily Cole, who rented office space across the hall. Then he took a call from the Boston Consulting Group, the business-advisory firm, to discuss a speech he would be giving at the World Economic Forum. Wales uses a cheap smartphone made by the Chinese company Huawei that a friend bought him for $85 in Nairobi. The phone, which he often shows to reporters, is the perfect prop to segue to his current obsession of expanding Wikipedia onto mobile devices in the developing world. It is not, however, the perfect phone for participating in an international conference call with the Boston Consulting Group. Several calls were dropped. Wales suggested conducting the meeting over instant messenger, an idea that was rejected.

Once the call finally got under way, though, Wales seemed distracted. On his MacBook, he was following his Wikipedia “talk” page, where the site’s volunteers log their discussions and disagreements over entries. The page had lit up with a raging debate about the banning of some editors on the Turkish version of Wikipedia. Wales watched as the online version of a cafeteria food fight ensued.

Amy Chozick is a staff reporter at The Times. This is her first article for the magazine.

Editor: Jon Kelly

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