Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Interview With the Founder of Wikipedia

I recently traveled to Columbus, Ohio to interview Larry Sanger for VICE. Several news outlets have picked up the story and distorted it as a black-and-white portrayal of Sanger's views towards Wikipedia. His actual views are much more nuanced and although he elucidated them in the original article, I want to publish my original interview in its entirety, for posterity.

The Co-Founder of Wikipedia Lives In Ohio

Wikipedia is considered by some to be one of humanity’s greatest achievements. As its monument in Słubice, Poland, reads: “[Wikipedia is] the greatest project co-created by people regardless of political, religious, or cultural borders.” A world without Wikipedia is difficult to imagine—a dark place in which Encyclopedia Brittanica held all the answers, a world in which the sum total of humanity’s knowledge wasn’t accessible to anyone, at any time, at any place, ever.

With so many contributors, or “Wikipedians” as they are called, individual credit for Wikipedia can be diluted into nothingness. Yet Wikipedia would not have come into this world without its two founders, Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales.

The story of Wikipedia starts with Nupedia, and the story of Nupedia starts with Bomis. Bomis was a dot-com company founded by Jimmy Wales, Tim Shell, and Michael Davis (the trio later became the Wikimedia Foundation’s first Board of Trustees). As part of Bomis’ offerings, which included softcore pornography, Wales envisioned Nupedia—a free, online encyclopedia, built not by elites in a tower, but learned internet users from all over the world. 

To develop the project, Wales brought on Larry Sanger, a philosopher who had just received his PhD from from Ohio State University. Sanger moved to San Diego in early 2000 and got to work as Nupedia’s first and only editor-in-chief. By the end of its first year, Nupedia had only twenty-one articles approved under the aggressive peer-review process. It became clear a better solution was needed.

It was Sanger, then, who would synthesize emergent “wiki” technology with Nupedia’s original vision. Sanger came up with the name “Wikipedia,” wrote its founding documents, and spent the next fourteen months as the site’s sole paid editor and philosophical leader.

As word about the project spread throughout web, Wikipedia and Sanger were inundated with new users, some of them trolls hellbent on causing mischief. They engaged in “edit wars” with Sanger, undermining his authority and creating turmoil within the community.

The dot-com bust of the early 2000s affected Bomis, and with decreasing funds for the project, as well as the increasingly unruly user base, Sanger left Wikipedia. He moved back to Ohio, and throughout the 2000s, embarked on a series of knowledge projects and startups. He also became known as a Wikipedia critic, criticizing the quality of the site, as well as the “anti-elitism” many users displayed for experts.

Sanger still lives in Ohio. The first time I met him, in a suburb near Columbus, we went to a farm restaurant named Bob Evans. I was so excited to meet him—I had spent much of my childhood on Wikipedia. I told him so. “Oh, you poor child,” He said. This was my first glimpse into Sanger’s relationship with Wikipedia. He explained it to me—everything seems good on Wikipedia, right? But then look at the pages for subjects you’re an expert on, and you realize they’re inadequate. I thought about the page for Gucci Mane and realized he was right.

Sanger’s personality was startlingly similar to the site. Every question, I asked, he gave a comprehensive, neutral answer to. Whenever he came close to making a declaration, he would pause, recollect himself, and then give me a strong argument from the other side. His opinions were partitioned by qualifiers: “sort of,” “almost,” “kind of,” “maybe.” It became clear how much Wikipedia was a child of his mind.

Sanger was a man of Neutrality, and his propensity to build vast, neutral repositories of information not only manifested itself in our conversation, but in his future work after Wikipedia: Citizendium, a better Wikipedia; Reading Bear, a repository for teaching reading to children; and Infobitt, a repository (of sorts) for news.

Over coffee and a walk in the nearest park, I talked to Sanger about his life and life’s work.

What got you into philosophy?

I decided I wanted to study philosophy and make it my life's work when I was about 16. I had a class, and although [the teacher] didn't have us read anything, he explained a bunch of different philosophical problems and had us discuss them.

I decided I ought to become a philosophy professor that summer because I thought it was very important not to make any deep mistakes in life. I saw that all of the misery and difficulties that were suffered by the people around me seemed to be due to false thoughts. For example, I knew people whose lives had been practically ruined by drugs, but I also knew that there’s this false idea that if you take drugs, you get cooler, and then you achieve some sort of heightened sense of awareness. And it's all just false.

Who are some of your favorite philosophers?

Because I taught “Intro Philosophy” so many times, and because [they’re] often the assigned authors for “Intro Philosophy”, I’m pretty familiar with Socrates and Plato. I'm a big fan of the elenchus—that’s the Socratic method, as it's called, the "questioning method." I like Aristotle's Virtue of Ethics quite a bit—I don't know if I'm a "virtue ethicist" but I like that stuff. And I studied a lot of Descartes and Hume. I don't how much I agree with what they say, but I admire what they wrote. 

In terms of the things I agree with and the things that are influential in my thinking, it's definitely Thomas Reid and G.E. Moore, another philosopher of common sense. For political philosophy, I guess it would be Locke and John Stuart Mill. I'm a classical liberal.

I didn't start reading any philosophy until I got to college. One of my big regrets is that I didn't get to read as many classics [when I was younger]. I don't think many people knew that it was possible for a bright high school student to get something out of the great works of philosophy. Why the hell not? 

So I'm not making that mistake with my two boys. My older boy has already read some philosophy, not classics yet, that's too difficult, but a kid's introduction to philosophy. 

One of your biggest philosophical tenets is neutrality. What influenced your views on neutrality?

A philosopher isn't much of a philosopher if he isn't fair-minded. And that means, among other things, giving a fair shake to your opponents: answering their very best arguments, interpreting their arguments in a way that is very sympathetic. 

I think it might have started when I was in debate in high school. I was exposed to different issues, and the fact that it is possible to construct interesting arguments on both sides of a debate. And so I'd look up articles about those things, and I was always furious when I came across an article that failed to present one side fairly or at all. The worst instances were when [the author] would just come out and say what their position is. It just struck me as being really unfair.

After high school and college, you became a graduate student of philosophy at Ohio State University. How did you meet Jimmy Wales?

Sometime between 1994 and 1994, I subscribed to Jimmy Wales' mailing list called MDOP. "Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy." The philosophy [mailing lists] back then were an overlap between academia and lot of programmers, and just smart people who were plugged in.

I was sort of a gadfly [in those groups] for the reason that I don't take a position until I feel like I've gone through all of the best arguments on both sides. So there were all these people making these confident pronouncements about this and that, and to clarify for myself I would try to poke holes in them. So people got kind of annoyed at me in those groups, including Jimmy Wales. 

One time Jimmy Wales called me up out of the blue, I think around 1995 or so, and he just wanted to talk about some of the things we had been debating. I think it was in the Ayn Rand group.

Around that time, I started a discussion group called "The Association for Systematic Philosophy," and it was great. It was like a graduate seminar without professors, but there actually were some professors there, and we were all teaching each other.  There were a good half a dozen people on that group who are now semi-famous. 

Like who?

I think Jimmy Wales was on it. And then there was [programmer] Ben Kovitz, (economist) Brian Caplan, (professor) Mike Huemer, (professor) Luciano Floridi…The one thing that these people all mostly had in common is libertarianism. They either liked or didn't hate Ayn Rand.

How did you end up getting involved with Nupedia? 

In January 2000, I circulated around to online friends an idea that I had for a website. It was a “cultural news blog” not about the arts, but about different social and political issues. I'm sure it would have been big if I had run with it, but Jimmy Wales wrote back and said, "Instead of doing that, why don't you come and work on this idea that I've had.” Basically, he had registered a domain name,, and he had the vague idea that it would be a free encyclopedia built by the users. It would nevertheless be very rigorously vetted and academically respectable, and would be run according to open-source software principles. 

I moved to San Diego, and was given the job of starting this project for Bomis. Bomis would be the owner. Jimmy didn't really talk about specific plans for the encyclopedia myself, but he gave me a few things to read. When it came to what the general outlines of the encyclopedia, how to organize it, and all the rest of that, I was pretty much on my own.

I went to work on Nupedia, but by the summer of 2000, it had become clear that the process we tested out [for making articles on Nupedia] was very slow. And the number of articles that had been finished were few.

Bomis' staff in 2000: Sanger is second from the bottom, and Wales is third from the top.
And that’s how Wikipedia came about, correct?

I made several different proposals to Jimmy about different ways we could supplement the Nupedia system. And everything required extra programming. By then, Jimmy Wales was worried about keeping costs low, the dot-com boom was turning to bust, and so whatever we did to solve the problem had to involve no more programming.

Then the infamous dinner conversation happened.

Then the famous, infamous, dinner conversation happened. On January 2, 2001, I had dinner with my friend Ben Kovitz, who I knew from those mailing lists, at a Mexican restaurant. I had enchiladas. Ben explained what he had been doing in his spare time, spending a lot of time on wikis, [a website which can be edited directly from the web browser, by anyone]. It all sounded very interesting, and at some point I said, "You know, I just wonder how this might solve the problem I've been having with Nupedia”—if articles could be started as wiki pages. 

So I was quite excited after we talked about it for an hour or so. I was skeptical, obviously, because it doesn't sound plausible at first, but Ben was able to answer a lot of my objections. The best part of it was that the software was easy to install. So then Ben and I actually went back to my apartment so I could write an email to Jimmy Wales, and explain what the idea was, and ask him to install the software. He agreed, and within a day or two, [the wiki software] had been installed. 

What was the reaction from Nupedia?

Before it became actually Wikipedia it was the Nupedia Wiki. After I had made the first introductory pages, home pages, and things like that, which took me maybe a week, I started inviting the first few people to go there and make their [contributions]. When the Nupedia advisory board mailing list [found out], they thought the idea was just absolutely ridiculous. They didn’t want to have anything to do with anything called a “wiki.” 

Jimmy Wales sort of immediately started agreeing, virtually nodding his head in great concern to what these people were saying, and it became clear that we were going to have to put it on a different domain, with a different name. 

Because it was my little side project that I was working on, I remember sitting down at a word processing program on Word and just making a long list of names. I'm pretty sure one of the first ones that I came up with was Wikipedia. I think there were several other possibilities that were reasonable sounding but nothing nearly as likely as Wikipedia, even though it sounded pretty ugly.


Oh yeah. It sounded weird to almost everybody who heard of it, it's like "wiki, what?" [makes a face]

Did you have any doubts about the wiki technology?

My doubts were the doubts that anybody has about wikis when they first hear about them. How could this possibly work? What's going to stop vandals from changing everything? And the answer to that is very straightforward: Just change it back. But as far as the culture of wikis, I never really cared that much about that. 

I always thought wiki was just a tool. One of the things that we did, that perhaps people don't give us much credit for, is that we changed the way that wikis are used. The way that wikis are used now, usually, was determined by the Wikipedia model. For example, Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb repository had discussion intermixed with exposition. So somebody would start writing about a software pattern or political topic, and other people would put things on the page as interjections. There was a lot of meta-talk that was jumbled in there, and it was obvious that that was not appropriate for an encyclopedia.

Wikipedia was the first wiki to be run the way Wikipedia is run. The old style of wiki didn’t clearly distinguish between two different kind of pages: the kind which is like an article and the kind which is like a discussion. So that's why we started the convention of moving all of the discussion, always, to a talk sub-page, which much later became a tab, and so forth. 

So then Wikipedia started, and it was growing pretty fast. There arose some issues with trolls…how did you react?

It was kind of stressful. I think it stressed out my wife more than me. The idea that there were people who were abusing me online just bothered her greatly. 

Let's put it this way: back then, I just wanted to sort of foster a collegial atmosphere that would be open and welcoming to a lot of different people so they could get to work on making a lot of encyclopedia articles. But these “characters” showed up and they focused a lot on the wiki itself, on getting quite personal, and causing a great deal of unnecessary controversy. 

What do you think motivated the trolls?

It depends on the person. There was one guy called 24. but I suspect that he was literally insane. He wrote some really wacked-out stuff. And there's there another one called LIR. That person was…abrasive is not the right word, and [them] being confrontational wasn’t the problem. It was them doing so needlessly, for no good purpose other than to stir the pot. 

At any rate I think it depends on the person. But because [Wikipedia] was wide open, and anybody could participate, there were people who would spent a lot of their time wasting everyone else's time. I doubt that many of those people are just "bad," they might just be abrasive, confused…“mentally unhinged” in a few cases.

What do you think is Wikipedia’s biggest problem today?

I think Wikipedia never solved the problem of how to organize itself in a way that didn't lead to mob rule. On the one hand, it isn't a mob at all. It's highly organized and structured and there's a lot of rules, so it seems like the very opposite of that, right? But on the other hand, the way that the community is organized isn't codified or decided upon in any type of constitutional way. So there might be some people who selectively apply rules according to positions that other people take on their pet issues. And that's inherently unfair, right?

And I think a small amount of that goes on. A lot of the behaviors that people associate with so-called social justice warriors today, I remember seeing back in 2001, 2002, with the new arrivals. 

It's really hard to lay out what I think is the single biggest shortcoming of Wikipedia, especially if I want to do so in a way that is not going to make a lot of people pissed off at me. I don't want to be in the business of Wikipedia-bashing anymore. But I do think it has a root problem that’s social. Some of the people that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the asylum.

If you could start over, what would you do differently with Wikipedia?

One thing that I would have done, could have done and should have done right away, would be to create a process whereby articles were approved by experts. Some sort of tagging system, something lightweight, something Web 2.0, that would enable experts to bless certain articles as credible. But by the time the new recruits arrived—the anarchist crowd, as I called it at the time—all that stuff became deeply unpopular. 

Because there wasn't anyone who was really leading the project, including Jimmy Wales—he just sort of let the thing run itself after I left—there needed to be a way for new ideas to be proposed and voted on by the community. And right now, I think Wikipedia is sort of stuck, and has long been stuck. 

They're very slow to adapt, because they don't have any community-approved mechanism for proposing and approving new changes. So there needed to be a constitutional system for doing that. And I think it could have been added but never was.

What are your thoughts on Wikipedia today? Do you feel proud of it?

I guess I'm moderately proud. I always sort of felt like we just got lucky with the right idea at the right time, and we had a reasonably successful implementation of the idea. I don't know how much the success of Wikipedia really reflects well on me.


Well, I don't know, but that's just the nature of certain kinds of discovery. I mean, just as anyone might say about any number of inventions, it's not clear to me how much Wikipedia was just dumb luck. 

I will say that a lot of the success of Wikipedia was exactly what we hoped and dreamed. And some of the policy choices that we made were definitely the right ones. I think the neutrality policy is absolutely instrumental, for example. And the changes that we made to the way that wikis work was instrumental. So we definitely did some right things that we can take credit for. But I don't know. [pauses and thinks] I'm not really sure what to say. 

What do you think the future of the Internet holds?

To a certain extent, I miss the old days. I sense everybody got online between about 2000 and 2005. That's when the Internet became much more commercial, less dominated by academics and programmers and more dominated by everybody and his grandma, and celebrities, and giant corporations. I think would have thought back in the 1990s, that when the establishment gets online, GE and General Motors and the other big powerhouses are going to take over. 

That wasn't what happened. What happened was that the big tech companies became the biggest corporations in the world, and since that has happened, some of the old spirit of freedom and innovation has been lost. It’s a shame. A lot more was possible [back then], because people didn't feel themselves to be locked into the big systems of today, when Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Snapchat..dominate the scene. So I don't want to take anything away from people there, but everything is sort of centrally controlled now through the big social networks. It's actually kind of difficult to get a really good new idea to go viral if you don't have the ear of certain people. 

All of that said, I do think that there are still so many possibilities out there about how to organize people to create knowledge projects.So Wikipedia, Quora, Genius, all kinds like that, we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to how to organize people to create awesome new things. We've given a really good try at very few.

Execution is everything, and I think there's a lot of models out there that were poorly executed. Maybe some of mine, like Citizendium, like Infobitt.


[pauses] Wikipedia, yeah, too.


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