In an exclusive interview, LARRY SANGER - widely credited as co-founder of Wikipedia - takes issue with a number of comments made by ex-colleague Jimmy Wales in Hot Press recently, and explains why his new online encyclopedia, Citizendium, will eventually conquer cyberspace.
A war of words has erupted as a result of the recent Hot Press interview with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame. Larry Sanger is widely credited as “co-founder” of Wikipedia – something Wales disputes. Now Sanger says he’s incensed by comments Wales made in this magazine. In fact, he’s accusing Wales of trying to rewrite history.
In the wide-ranging interview, Wales insisted that Sanger was not the co-founder of the world’s fourth most popular website but rather was its Editor in Chief. For the past few years, Sanger has “refused to comment in detail” to the media about Wales’ constant dismissal of his status as “co-founder”. But Sanger describes our interview with Wales as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” – prompting him to break his vow of silence on the subject, to speak exclusively to Hot Press. Our interview also prompted a clearly irate Sanger to post an online “open letter to Jimmy Wales” – resulting in a war of words, with passionate bloggers debating the comments Wales made in Hot Press.
“I’ve usually bitten my tongue in the four or five years since Jimmy Wales stopped crediting me as co-founder of Wikipedia,” Sanger says. “I had no official title. From time to time, Jimmy referred to me as ‘Editor’ or ‘Editor in Chief’, but we never discussed this and, more to the point, I never used that title for myself. I will no longer mince words when Jimmy Wales continues to lie and misrepresent to the media — as he has done in a recent Hot Press interview – about my role.”
Sanger insists he was the co-founder of what is now one of the ten most used websites in the world. He says that proof of this status is in the initial press releases sent out by Wikipedia. Wales, on the other hand, said that Sanger simply put himself down as co-founder on these press releases, without authorisation.
“I did draft the first press release shortly before resigning as chief organiser of Wikipedia,” Sanger states, “but I distinctly remember that Jimmy Wales both proofed and posted it himself. In other words, he approved. As to the second and third press releases, I had nothing to do with them, which is why Jimmy’s simply answering in the affirmative is – I’m sorry to have to say – a straightforward lie. No one told me those releases were going to happen. If they retained my honorific in the second and third press release they did so deliberately. And, of course, Jimmy Wales surely had to review and approve the second and third press releases. Finally, he referred to himself as a co-founder in a 2002 mailing list post — some months after the first press release.”
Which presumably begs the question: who was the other co-founder if not Sanger?
“From 2001 through early 2004 or so, when the media wanted to do a story about Wikipedia, we were both interviewed. We told very complementary stories. Jimmy and I both explained more or less accurately about my role, which was duly reported on. Then, sometime in 2004, Jimmy started leaving me out of the history of Wikipedia. From mid-2004, he had started referring to himself as ‘the (singular) Founder’. Then in about 2005, he began actually denying that I was co-founder, which was something I found very disconcerting and incredibly brazen – what chutzpah!”
To prove his role as co-founder, Sanger cites various online references, including a Yahoo message board from 2002 (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/xodp/message/1720) on which Wales states: “Hello, let me introduce myself. I’m Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Nupedia and Wikipedia, the open content encyclopaedias.”
Wales told Hot Press that Sanger’s work is “often under-appreciated” and that “he really did a lot in the first year to think through editorial policy.” Sanger insists, rather, that it was he himself who came up with the brainwave for Wikipedia.
“That’s richly ironic,” he resumes. “As he and anybody familiar with the subject knows, Jimmy Wales himself has done more than any other person to cause my work to be ‘under-appreciated’. I got the idea for a wiki-based encyclopaedia over dinner with a friend of mine. After someone at Bomis – Wikipedia’s original parent business – set up the software, I proceeded to write the original policy pages. I came up with ‘Wikipedia’ as a name. It was widely regarded as a very silly name, after the Nupedia’s editors decided to reject it as a sub-project.
“I also promoted the project and was the court of final appeal on most issues. I led the project in its seminal first 14 months or so, when it adopted most of the policies it has today. I essentially guided what was a blank, infinitely expandable community bulletin board into a rapidly growing encyclopedia. I also worked with the earliest programmers, who were developing what would come to be called ‘MediaWiki’, explaining our requirements more carefully. For example, I was very insistent that we get rid of ‘CamelCase’. I also introduced the notion that the software should support separate Talk pages: moving discussion of an article away from the article itself and onto a separate page is something I insisted on.
“I formulated or articulated many of the most basic policies of the website and, more importantly, actually enforced these policies. Had I not enforced the policies in those early months, the project simply would have become another wiki – which is to say, nothing in particular, or whatever users happen to want to make it. What really made Wikipedia catch on was the notion, which I was very keen to promote, that we were merely using a wiki for the special purpose of creating an encyclopedia, not a collection of opinions, not a dictionary, not many other things that you can use a wiki to create. Jimmy was understood to be a very hands-off owner or distant overseer, and so his involvement in that seminal first year was far less than mine. This makes sense, of course, because while he was busy being CEO of Bomis, my job was to start Wikipedia – which I did.”
Wales also told me that Sanger left Wikipedia because he simply “didn’t want to pay him anymore” and that Sanger “didn’t want to continue as a volunteer”.
“This is highly misleading,” Sanger claims. “Both he and Tim Shell – his partner at Bomis, Inc. – told me that the collapse of the market for internet advertising, and the fall-through of a big ad deal, meant that they had to lay off all but the original five employees. Within a few months they went from like 12 employees down to four or five, and I was told that I was the last to be laid off.”
Sanger says he’s also perplexed by the fact that Wales categorically denied in Hot Press that Bomis was ever described as the “Playboy of the internet” – even though it was portrayed as such on his own Wikipedia entry. Sanger explains: “The website Bomis.com was, and still is, a search engine of interest mainly because it had lots of web rings – remember those? – about sexy female celebrities. As an adjunct to Bomis.com, there was the Bomis Babe Report, a blog about nude celebrities, web girls famous only for taking their clothes off, and porn stars. Finally, there was Bomis Premium, a pay site, which featured lots and lots of naked web girls, graphically displayed, but without actual depictions of sex acts. Jimmy led these ventures with what looked like glee, like a kid in a candy shop. None of this is a secret. Many people know about it, and it’s easy to find out the facts directly online. The only thing I think Jimmy Wales would dispute is whether to call it ‘porn’. Who cares? I always said that Wikipedia grew out of the compost of the web.”
Larry Sanger has since gone on to start up his own online encyclopaedia, entitled “Citizendium”, which stands for “The Citizens’ Compendium”. Two years on since its inception, Citizendium has so far failed to set the internet alight.
“It’s disappointing just how few people know about us, and just how much misinformation there is out there about us,” acknowledges the 40-year-old.
But Sanger is convinced that they can eventually achieve the same type of global popularity as Wikipedia.
“It may take some time, but I think it can. It’s just a matter of getting enough content into the project that people believe we’re worth caring about. Then I expect we’ll grow just as explosively as Wikipedia did,” he maintains.
“I hope that in five or ten years we’ll have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of articles. I also hope that tens of thousands of these – if not many more – are approved by experts. I hope we’ll increasingly become a recognised alternative both for the general public and for the world’s experts. As this happens, we’ll grow to become a top ten website like Wikipedia. I’m optimistic — I think it’s just a matter of time. By the way, when I answer this question, I get a sense of déjà vu. I remember saying very similar things to people who were sceptical of Wikipedia’s prospects.”
Unlike Wikipedia, which allows anonymous users to make entries, Citizendium insists that all contributors are publicly known.
“CZ, as we call it, requires contributors to use their own real names, which we take some steps to check. It’s not infallible, but so far pretty effective. We also make a low-key guiding role for experts within the system. We’re open to everyone who is willing to work under our basic policies. Unlike Wikipedia, we are completely vandalism-free. It’s very remarkable. We are also largely free of the sort of infantile trolling that goes on in so many online communities,” Sanger explains.
“Somebody once called us ‘Wikipedia for grown-ups’ – there’s something to that. I’m not about to make it our tagline, mind you. I want to be open and welcoming to teens. I simply think we have a better way to organise collaborative work online. If Wikipedia had, early on, adopted the model CZ has, it would be bigger and better than it is now. So while we’re getting off to a slower start than I would have liked, we’re doing alright. I think a lot of people are biding their time and seeing if we’ll survive. Memo to them: we will – and we’ll only grow stronger.”