Jimmy Wales, the nobody everybody knows about

"A nondescript man with thinning brown hair and a slight paunch" is how W nondescribes Jimmy Wales, the cofounder of Wikipedia, the site where anybody can write history, and nobodies do. Wales, once known for sporting kimonos and Mao jackets, has reverted to wearing all black, which gives the fashion magazine rather thin material to work with. One would think the magazine would turn to probing his brains, not his looks — but there, too, they came up empty.

Wales's deep thought, which ends the piece:

I like to think about how there are about a billion people online now, and in the next five to 10 years there is going to be the next billion coming online. Interesting things are going to happen.

Those who have attended Wales's speeches know this is par for the course; Wales says things that seem like they ought to be interesting, but are, on inspection, not. Only the ranks of cultishly fervid listeners hanging on his every word manage to create the illusion of importance.

Indeed, the illusion of importance is what unites Wales and Wikipedia. W managed to find Wales's first wife, Pam, who recounts how Wales in his 20s dreamed of owning a castle and being a millionaire before he was 40.

Instead, he ended up as an options trader. He often couches his biographies to suggest that the money he made trading options let him fund Bomis, the porn portal from which Wikipedia sprang. The truth, people close to Wales say: He was an utter failure as a trader, and the money behind Bomis came from somewhere else. Wikipedia, as a nonprofit, has not paid off for Wales; nor has, to date, Wikia, his for-profit wiki startup, which he has mostly neglected.

Wales has been a failure at love, too. After Pam came his second wife, Christine, from whom he is separated. His entanglement with Canadian political pundit Rachel Marsden was brief, torrid, and ill-fated. He has estranged some of his oldest friends, substituting celebrities like Bono and Desmond Tutu for them.

With neither money nor love, what's left? Fame, but of an empty sort; the kind of fame that leads to strangers Twittering about him in airports. Not a fame that profits Wales, except for the speaking fees; and not a fame that makes his life better. His quest for money has veered strangely off course. Middle-aged, muddle-brained, and middle-income, Wales has realized none of his original ambitions. And the worst part? Everyone knows it.

(Photo by Anthony Blasko/W Magazine)