The Sanger memoirs

Historical retrospective triggers lively debate

Looking back to the early days

Last week, Larry Sanger published two lengthy excerpts from an upcoming memoir, in which he looked back at the early days of Wikipedia and how it evolved from the now-defunct Nupedia project. The memoir was published in two parts on Slashdot ([1],[2]), and will also appear later this year in Open Sources 2.0[3], a collection of essays by people from the open source movement.

Sanger was originally employed by Jimmy Wales as editor-in-chief of Nupedia, and later played a key role in starting up Wikipedia. He introduced his retrospective by noting that there has been much debate recently on the credibility of Wikipedia as a reference work, with Sanger himself being a negative voice. Sanger stated that despite being recently cast as an enemy of the project, he remained "one of Wikipedia's strongest supporters". However, he said that "if a better job can be done, a better job should be done".

Sanger went on to correct what he saw as a number of common misconceptions about his role in the project, with journalists misquoting the system under which Nupedia ran, how it was funded, and how it led to Wikipedia, saying that this had motivated him to tell his side of the story.

Could Nupedia have worked?

One of the themes of the memoir was Sanger's disappointment that the rigorously reviewed, expert-driven Nupedia model didn't work. He outlined his original idea that Wikipedia could have generated content quickly (Nupedia's primary failing), from which the best could have been creamed off to be released in Nupedia. But the success and rapid early growth of Wikipedia left little time for Nupedia to be developed, and in early 2002 Sanger was laid off due to tightening financial circumstances at Bomis, then the owner of the project.

Culture and evolution

As Wikipedia began to decisively replace Nupedia as a viable project, Sanger originated many of the rules and conventions which were adopted, a large proportion of which are still in use. He notes his surprise that one rule he wrote as a joke, Wikipedia:Ignore all rules, has been taken by some as the very essence of Wikipedia, and that the Wikipedia:Neutral Point of View policy led to the adoption of POV as a neologism to replace the word bias.

Considering what policies could have been better formulated, Sanger wrote that the policy of extreme tolerance of 'difficult' contributors caused the most problems. He noted that when he had tried to use what authority he had to counteract abuse of the system, troublemakers had made sport of challenging his authority, and suggested that Wikipedia could have evolved in a multitude of different ways, if slightly different policy decisions had been taken early on.

Lively discussion shows that recollections differ

The memoir triggered lively debate on blogs and mailing lists. Clay Shirky, writing on the Many-to-Many blog [4], disagreed with the idea expressed by Sanger that Wikipedia could have evolved very differently, considering instead that any consensus-based encyclopaedia-building community would have ended up broadly similar.

Discussion on Many-to-Many also included criticism of Sanger's description of himself as 'co-founder' of Wikipedia, with one poster accusing him of alternately distancing himself from and then associating himself with the project, according to how he thought it would affect his reputation.

Sanger rejoins the mailing list

The issue of whether Sanger could call himself co-founder of Wikipedia was also taken up on the wikipedia-l mailing list. Larry Sanger himself resubscribed after an absence of three years, to question Jimmy Wales' assertion that the original idea for a wiki encyclopaedia had come from another Bomis employee, Jeremy Rosenfeld. Sanger declared himself "extremely disillusioned" by what he saw as an attempt to write him out of the history of the project. Wales said he did not want to start a war, and was only pointing out interesting historical trivia. He "enthusiastically seconded" a post describing Sanger as "the main person that held things together long enough for the community to be strong and oriented enough to take care of things on its own" [5]. With a final post suggesting a valid description of the origins of Wikipedia, Sanger once again left the mailing list [6].

Sanger's essays appeared at an auspicious time; Wikipedians have recently been gathering their own reflections of Wikipedia's early history for a special Retrospective section of the next Wikimedia Quarto.

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