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.
Jason O'Toole, 07 May 2009
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.”