Origins of Wikipedia

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Origins of Wikipedia (2006)
by Larry Sanger
1786191Origins of Wikipedia2006Larry Sanger

Origins of Wikipedia

Originally posted by Larry Sanger to User:Larry Sanger/Origins of Wikipedia

February 16, 2006

Dear Wikipedia community,

So, who founded Wikipedia? This has been a matter of an embarrassing dispute between Jimmy Wales and me. But I think the facts that ought to inform the debate are not (yet) really in question. I was hoping that my memoir ("The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia") would put questions to rest. But it was clearly too long for most people to read. What I want to do here, as briefly and fairly as possible but without leaving out anything germane, is to rehearse the issues that go to the issue of apportioning credit (or blame).

--Larry Sanger 02:02, 15 February 2006 (UTC)

Why is this "FAQ" even necessary?[edit]

I am sorry to have to write on this question at all, because doing so is obviously immodest. So let me begin by asking whether this "FAQ" is even necessary.

I was hoping it wouldn't be. I have no desire to make a scene. While in fact I remain a very strong supporter of Wikipedia, I have been colored within the Wikipedia community as a critic because I do not support every aspect of the project as it is currently run. I think that's why there are some within the Wikipedia community who have gone out of their way to downplay my role in the founding of Wikipedia.

Back in 2001-3, Jimmy Wales and I were regularly referred to as co-founders in the press. The article read, "Wales has supplied the financial backing and other support for the project, and Sanger, who earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Ohio State in 2000, has led the project." A 2002 version of the "History of Wikipedia" article read as follows:

Wikipedia had its origin in a conversation between two old Internet friends, Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief of Nupedia, and Ben Kovitz, a computer programmer and polymath, on the evening of January 2, 2001, in San Diego, California. Kovitz is (or was) a Ward's Wiki regular. When Kovitz explained the basic wiki concept to Sanger over dinner, Sanger immediately saw that the wiki format would be an excellent format whereby a more open, less formal encyclopedia project could be pursued. For months prior to this, Sanger and his boss, Jimmy Wales, president and CEO of Bomis, Inc., had been discussing various ways to supplement Nupedia with a more open, complementary project.
So it did not take much for Sanger to persuade Wales to set up a wiki for Nupedia. Nupedia's first wiki went online on January 10. There was considerable resistance on the part of Nupedia's editors and reviewers, however, to making Nupedia closely associated with a website in the wiki format. Therefore, the new project was given the name "Wikipedia" and launched on its own address,, on January 15. ...

Beginning in 2004, news articles began to appear that gave the early history of Wikipedia but failed to mention my role in the formation of Wikipedia. In 2005, in response to my memoir, Jimmy Wales said (and later repeated) that someone other than me had proposed and pursued the idea of a wiki encyclopedia. Then in late 2005, it came out that Jimmy edited his own Wikipedia biography to downplay my role in Wikipedia's formation. Most recently, in February 2006, for the first time (to my knowledge), Jimmy was reported to have denied that I am Wikipedia's co-founder, saying "it's preposterous" to give me the honorific.

I would like to explain the facts as I remember them, and as fairly and neutrally as I can.

Who underwrote the idea of a free encyclopedia?[edit]

Funds from Bomis, Inc., were used to build a free encyclopedia. It was Jimmy Wales who had the good sense and insight to persuade his two partners, Tim Shell and another fellow, to fund the project. It was to Jimmy, then CEO of Bomis, that I was answerable. Roughly put, Bomis paid for it, and Jimmy as CEO was the inspiration and driving force behind putting Bomis' money into the project.

Who "had the idea" of a free encyclopedia open for development by the general public?[edit]

Again, the idea and inspiration behind the project of a free encyclopedia comes from Jimmy Wales. By 1999 Jimmy had the idea for a "Nupedia," which would apply open source principles to the development of an encyclopedia. As I wrote in my memoir, "To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy's, not mine... The actual development of this encyclopedia was the task he gave me to work on."

Who "had the idea" of a wiki-based encyclopedia?[edit]

I did. Not only did I conceive of a wiki-based encyclopedia as a strategic solution to Nupedia's inefficiency problems, I spearheaded and pursued the project as its leader in its first year. The story can be found in many places, e.g., here. So while Jimmy Wales tasked me with and very broadly oversaw Bomis' free encyclopedia projects, I actually oversaw the day-to-day work, and was most responsible for producing the strategic ideas, that led to Wikipedia.

So, just to be clear:

  • I proposed to Jimmy to lead a new wiki-based encyclopedia; he agreed, set up the wiki, and I got to work.
  • I also introduced the idea to the Nupedia community, which seeded the early project with some really good people.
  • I named it. (Not that I'm particularly proud of that. ;-) )
  • I actually wrote the first organizational and policy pages for Wikipedia, publicized it, managed it, and in many other ways got it started.

But hasn't Jimmy Wales said that it was someone else, not you, who first proposed the idea of a wiki-based encyclopedia?[edit]

Yes, he said that for the first time (to my knowledge) in April 2005, in response to my memoir, on the wikipedia-l mailing list. That was the first I had ever heard that story from Jimmy. I responded with, shall we say, consternation. The claim as expressed was simply misleading, as further discussion on the mailing list made clear.

The discussion made it clear that all that Jimmy was claiming was that a Bomis employee had suggested privately to him that we use a wiki to start an encyclopedia. That Jimmy heard about the idea from someone else, if true, had no important causal impact on anything, and Jimmy was not claiming that it did. He certainly never mentioned the idea to me, and Jimmy himself certainly didn't act on the suggestion somehow independently of me. At one point I asked Jimmy to acknowledge that, as I put it, "It was the idea I had, while tasked with solving Nupedia's problem, that actually and directly led to the development of Wikipedia," and Jimmy replied, "Of course I 'admit' it. :-)" It wasn't until I (independently) heard about wikis from a friend of mine, Ben Kovitz, over dinner on January 2, 2001, that I saw that wikis could be an excellent tool for developing encyclopedias. It was only then that I asked Jimmy to set up a wiki for me to get started, which I believe he did the next day, and only then that the project started its development.

What exactly was your role in Wikipedia's seminal first year, anyway?[edit]

Some people have called me "editor," but I thought (at the time) that wikis shouldn't have editors (I've since developed a more qualified view); so I called myself "chief instigator" or "chief organizer." Here are some of the things I can take credit for (again, I apologize for the immodesty of this procedure, which I wish were not necessary):
    • Set up very many policy pages and other pages now fundamental to Wikipedia, such as "What Wikipedia is not," "Replies to objections," and the elaborated version of the neutrality ("NPOV") policy (the notion of which was borrowed from Nupedia), bolding article titles, etc.
    • Ceaselessly monitored the "recent changes" page looking for violations of policy, thereby encouraging people to follow the policies Wikipedia now follows
    • Made content decisions about particular articles, to help defuse ongoing "edit wars"
    • Set up the basic Wikipedia mailing lists, and leading discussions
    • Recruited participants in various Internet forums (I think Liz Campeau did some of this under our employ, too)
    • Welcomed new participants
    • Banned obvious vandals; attempted to defuse troll situations, but with diminishing success as the project went on
    • Much else

As the person assigned to manage the Bomis-sponsored encyclopedia projects, I (again, forgive me) did much more work on Wikipedia than anyone else on the Bomis payroll, including Jimmy. (And just to be clear, I only worked on the encyclopedia projects--not on Bomis' many other ventures.)

But weren't you merely an employee under Jimmy Wales's direction?[edit]

The suggestion is both highly misleading and uninformative; after all, the President of the United States is "merely" an employee under the direction of the American people. To give you an idea of what role I had in the community in that first year, at one point I called myself "Dictator for Life," by way of humorously rejecting a suggestion a participant made, that we make my job open to public election. Though I was answerable to the CEO of Bomis, Inc., most of the work that I did was not directed by him in any meaningful sense. Throughout my employment, Jimmy Wales made it perfectly clear that I was the primary person responsible for the encyclopedia projects. When I first arrived, Jimmy had only the vaguest idea of how Nupedia should be organized; he said that the project proposal and development was largely up to me.

In terms of setting up the Wikipedia project and community, what did Jimmy Wales do?[edit]

He installed the first wiki software on a Bomis server (I don't remember that, myself, but he says so and I believe him). Also, to be sure, he was a participant from the beginning, and he did contribute a few important statements of policy. Also, he (but only very rarely, in the first year) played the role of the "court of final appeal." Probably the single most important, influential policy that I would attribute mainly to him was the decision not to ban trolls until after a protracted public discussion. I supported this policy of extreme tolerance and delay provisionally in the early months, but later came to oppose it, on grounds that it allowed essentially an endless string of disruptions to the community. (We agreed from the beginning to ban obvious vandals--we made a distinction between vandals, who are not subtle in their disruption, and trolls, who are a little more so.) As Wikipedia began to "heat up" by fall of 2001, Jimmy began to play a more active role in the community, but was still more or less in the background. After I left, in March 2002, it was suggested that no one would play my role, that Wikipedia could be entirely leaderless. But instead, Jimmy began to play a much more active role in the community. As I understand it, Jimmy took over some of my old functions, and left other functions to the community itself.

This account of events is supported nicely by one of the first Wikipedians in this mailing list post from one of the earliest Wikipedians.

Wasn't Jimmy Wales responsible for the "neutral point of view" policy? Didn't you oppose it?[edit]

What Jimmy did was to set up the Wikipedia page called "neutral point of view," and to write a few paragraphs stating the policy. This was, however, an elaboration of a policy that was previously on Wikipedia's old "rules to consider" page as well as a Nupedia policy, which I drafted. I proceeded, moreover, to elaborate the neutrality policy greatly, an early formulation of which can be found here. An early, internally influential debate occurred on Creationism talk page--I tend to think that that debate really created a broader buy-in for the policy from a community that previously had been quite skeptical.

It's puzzling to me, but Jimmy has occasionally claimed that I was somehow resistant to the idea of neutrality. This is puzzling to me because I was more responsible than anyone else for insisting on and articulating Wikipedia's neutrality policy. Moreover, I always presented it as a way to "keep the peace," to enable people of widely divergent views to work together peacefully.

There is really little to debate about here; the simple fact of the matter is that from a very early stage in the project, Jimmy and I were very well agreed that Nupedia, and then Wikipedia, would aim to be neutral or unbiased in a certain sense that I think we both understood very well and in the same way. I think we can both take the credit, or the blame, for this extremely crucial policy.

How did this dispute between Jimmy Wales and you get started in the first place?[edit]

It's been disappointing to me, to be sure. I think it's because, for some years after Wikipedia got started, both Jimmy and I were referred to as "co-founders." But because I left Wikipedia in 2002 and no longer speak on its behalf, and because he obviously has so much "personal capital" (so to speak) bound up in the project, Jimmy no doubt feels it is a misleading to continue to call me "co-founder." Perhaps that's true, to an extent. Still, I am proud of the work I did and I feel that to stop calling me "co-founder" is to ignore my seminal role in the project.

So, who founded Wikipedia?[edit]

I think we both did. But it depends on what you mean by "founded." If founders are restricted to the funders, then Bomis, Inc., is the founder of Wikipedia--and that includes Jimmy Wales, Tim Shell, and their partner. Of these, Jimmy is most important because he was CEO of Bomis and the most gung-ho about a free encyclopedia. If the founders of Wikipedia are the people who got it started, that would definitely include me, but also Jimmy and Tim Shell, and then (soon after) a lot of people from Nupedia and from the Internet at large. In a sense, Wikipedia had bunches and bunches of founders, because soon after the wiki was set up, a lot of people were working together, with the collection of them together doing more important, seminal work than any one of them, including me or Jimmy, did alone. Those are the real founders, I'd like to say. But if we must speak of the "founders" of Wikipedia by way of putting specific names on the most influential originators of the project, I think it is appropriate to call Jimmy and I "co-founders"--as we were called (as the above-linked news articles illustrate) until about 2004, when Jimmy started referring to himself to the press as the (singular) founder.

Have you got any solution to this? What could you agree on being called?[edit]

I've talked privately with Jimmy and unfortunately we can't seem to reach a mutually agreeable solution. The solution I recommend is this. When discussing the origin of Wikipedia, please continue to refer to Jimmy and I as "co-founders." But when discussing Wikipedia in general, including the present state of Wikipedia, call Jimmy the "chief," "leader," or "President of the Board," and of course leave me out of it (unless you want an outside opinion).

Of course, these are just my suggestions, or hopes. I realize that what you call anybody is pretty much your own business.  :-)

What are you doing now?[edit]

I am Director of Distributed Content Programs for the Digital Universe Foundation. I am happy to report that I am unambiguously not a founder of the Digital Universe; the DU was founded by Joe Firmage and the person I work most closely with, the astrophysicist Dr. Bernard Haisch (DUF President). The larger organization--ManyOne Networks--has several dozen employees mostly setting up the technical platform and tools. I am helping to organize wiki-based, expert-run encyclopedias (the first one, the Encyclopedia of Earth, is still "under wraps" but it's also under exciting development), as well as other things, for this new, open content, expert-driven, public-involving, noncommercial, neutral, general information resource. We've consulted with Larry Lessig, who's on our Board of Advisors, and will be using a Creative Commons (recommending a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike to our expert content partners). It will change the world in remarkable ways. It will be the world's first free, exhaustive, noncommercial general compendium of reliable information--not just an encyclopedia.

By the way, if you are interested in getting involved, or just following our progress, please read about the planned Contributor Program and give us your e-mail address so you can stay in the loop. You can also follow my blog (I'll be posting a lot more to it when we get proper blogging software set up).

This work is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, which allows free use, distribution, and creation of derivatives, so long as the license is unchanged and clearly noted, and the original author is attributed.

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