My role in Wikipedia (links)

To the best of my knowledge, I was first described in the press as co-founder of Wikipedia back in September 2001 by The New York Times. That was also my description in Wikipedia’s own press releases from 2002 until 2004. With my increasing distance from the project, and as it grew in the public eye, however, some of those associated with the project have found it convenient to downplay and even deny my crucial, formative involvement. In fact, in the early years of the project, my role and the “founder” title were not in dispute at all; indeed, Wikipedia’s first three press releases (2002, 2003, and 2004), including two that I had nothing to do with, all credited me as founder. It was not until later, in 2004 that Jimmy Wales began omitting mention of my involvement at the start of Wikipedia to the press, and he didn’t start denying that I am co-founder until 2005 or 2006, just when Wikipedia began to enter the public eye. The following links have come to light, and they should dispel much of the confusion.

  • January 10, 2001: Nupedia-L post by me titled, “Let’s make a wiki”: “As to Nupedia’s use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE ‘open’ and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk.”
  • January 15, 2001: Nupedia-L post by me titled “Wikipedia is up!”: “Humor me. Go there and add a little article…”
  • March 2001: the Wikipedia FAQ said “The idea of a Nupedia-sponsored wiki originated out of a conversation Larry Sanger had with BenKovitz on the evening of January 2.”
  • March 2001: onmy user page, I described myself as “Editor-in-Chief of Nupedia and (with Jimbo Wales) instigator of Wikipedia.” I never called myself “editor” of Wikipedia. At the same time,the Wikipedia article gave no one in particular credit.
  • July 2001: Jimmy Wales submitted an article of mine to Slashdot, and there described me as “editor-in-chief of the Nupedia and Wikipedia sister projects.”
  • October 2001: Jimmy wrote a mailing list post, in which he said, “After a year or so of working on Nupedia, Larry had the idea to use Wiki software for a separate project specifically for people like you (and me!)…”
  • Fall 2001: on Meatball Wiki, I humorously (in response to criticism of my role in the project) called myself “Dictator for Life.” Others, there, called me Wikipedia’s “chief instigator.”
  • Early press coverage:
    1. September 2001 New York Times: “Sanger…founded Wikipedia with Mr. Wales”
    2. September 2001 Technology Review called Wikipedia “the brainchild of Wales and its full-time editor Larry Sanger.”
    3. 2002 press coverage
    4. January 2003 Wired News: Jimmy and I were both called “co-founder” and I was, in addition, “former chief organizer”
    5. January 2003 The Guardian: “its founders, internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger”
  • Wikipedia’s press releases:
    1. January 2002 First Wikipedia press release: “The founders of Wikipedia are Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger. Wales has supplied the financial backing and other support for the project, and Sanger…has led the project.” This press release was written on a wiki page (so, Wales could have commented at the time) and, to the best of my recollection, was approved and personally posted by Jimmy Wales, who I believe personally posted all Bomis press releases.
    2. January 2003 Second Wikipedia press release: “The project was founded by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger.” Note: this press release was written and posted after I left the project. I had nothing to do with either drafting or approving it.
    3. February 2004, First Wikimedia Foundation press release: “The Wikipedia project was founded in January 2001 by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger. … Sanger led the Wikipedia project during its first year, as a full-time paid editor. Since then it has operated mostly on consensus, using policies refined over time by its contributors.” Again, this press release was written and posted after I left the project and I had nothing to do with it.
  • Early versions of Wikipedia’s own articles were all clear on the point:
    1. Wikipedia
    2. History of Wikipedia
    3. Larry Sanger” (this began life as my user page, before we had a “User:” namespace)
    4. Jimmy Wales
  • February 2002: Jimmy Wales, describing my role in the project, wrote on Wikipedia-l: “The right way to look at it is that Larry is the final arbiter of what the consensus is.  Since agitators on all sides are likely to never concede that the consensus is against them, we need to have a final stopping point. That’s Larry, or maybe me if the issue is something technically beyond the scope of his knowledge, but so far, achieving technical consensus has been pretty easy.”  For the record, I did not agree with this precise description of the situation.
  • March 2002: someone calling him/herself “AnonymousDonor” wrote on Meatball Wiki (near bottom of page), “Larry Sanger resigned on March 1st, 2002. He won’t even stay as a volunteer. The project now no longer has a leader (or, put another way, everyone is a leader now).” To this, long-time Wikipedia contributor Stephen Gilbert replied, “That’s not quite true. Jimmy Wales, WikiPedia’s co-founder, has stepped into Larry’s shoes, although he won’t be able to lead as a full-time job.”
  • March 2002: Erik Moeller, now Wikimedia Deputy Director, wrote in Kuro5hin, “Larry Sanger played a crucial role in the first year of Wikipedia and has helped establish a shared philosophy for its users. … This may well be the right time to abandon the concept of ‘editorship’ altogether… Now that Larry Sanger is gone, Wikipedia’s owners will have to watch whether the project manages the transition to effective self-regulation and step in if necessary.”
  • August 2002: Jimmy Wales introduces himself to the xopd mailing list this way: “Hello, let me introduce myself. I’m Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Nupedia and Wikipedia, the open content encyclopedias.”
  • Mid-2004 and 2005: Jimmy Wales began leaving me entirely out of the story of Wikipedia’s origins, distorting my role and my views, e.g., saying that I was opposed to the idea, and taking credit for things I had done. A good example of this is the 2005 article in Wired Magazine by Daniel Pink (the problems are described in the memoir next listed).
  • April 2005: my memoir of Nupedia and Wikipedia was posted on Slashdot
  • April 2005: at the end of an exchange between Jimmy and me on Wikipedia-L, I summed up my view: “Probably…hundreds of people had the idea about a wiki encyclopedia before Wikipedia got started, and even told each other about it. But it was the idea I had, while tasked with solving Nupedia’s problem, that actually and directly led to the development of Wikipedia. That is a matter of historical fact, in living memory of several people–including Jimmy, whether he admits it or not.” Jimmy responded, “Of course I ‘admit’ it. :-)”
  • April 2005: one of the very first Wikipedians, who had been with the project since January 2001, posted on the list his own interesting and lengthy account of Wikipedia’s origins. Among other things, he wrote: “While I don’t know anything of Larry and Jimbo’s interaction outside the wiki, in Wikipedia itself Larry seemed to run the show, and either created or developed many (maybe most) of the conventions that we still follow. The direct work of Jimbo (again, just from what I remember I saw in the wiki) was much smaller, which makes sense considering he had somebody hired to do the job of running an encyclopedia, and the job was being well done.”
  • April 2005: Florence Devouard, ex-Chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation, responded to this by saying (among much else), “I tend to consider Larry as a co-foundator of the project myself, but not being there in 2001, it is just a personal assumption from what I heard and read.”
  • 2005: Jimmy Wales began, for the first time, explicitly denying that I was co-founder of Wikipedia.
  • January 2007: largely in response to the ongoing controversy on Wikipedia’s Talk pages about Wikipedia’s origins, Manning Bartlett, a very active early contributor to Wikipedia wrote on the Talk page of “History of Wikipedia” article: “Frankly – to assert that Larry was not a co-founder of the Pedia is patently absurd. Jimbo was the driving force behind the Internet-based encyclopedia concept, which became Nupedia. Larry proposed and convinced Jimbo that a wiki-based concept was worthwhile. Larry remains (in my opinion) the single most important individual in the history of the actual Wikipedia, and his structural and philosophical influence remains apparent to this day.” Another early contributor to Wikipedia, Derek Ross, responded: “Agreed. That’s how I see it too.”
  • 2009: once again, after protracted discussion, the Wikipedia pages about me, Jimmy Wales, and Wikipedia have all pretty reliably given me credit as co-founder in the last few years.

A note about the word “founder”: I believe “founder” is used in two closely-related ways, depending on whether the thing founded is either a business enterprise, on the one hand, or a community project, movement, etc., on the other hand. In a business context, frequently, the founders of an enterprise are those that led its development, especially from the start or close to the start, and sometimes, those who funded it. In a community context, however, the founders are those who had the most personal influence in getting a community started. So, for example, we might say the French government was a “founder” of the United States in the business sense, while Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were among the community founders. So, on the one hand, we can say that Bomis, Inc. was the founder of Wikipedia in the “business sense.” Strictly speaking, the “business founder” of Wikipedia was not Jimmy Wales individually, since it was Bomis that paid the bills for Wikipedia (including my paycheck), and Wales, Tim Shell, and Michael Davis were, to the best of my knowledge, equal partners and co-owners of Bomis, Inc.

On the other hand–and I am sorry to have to say this myself, because I know it sounds so immodest coming from my own mouth, but after the events of recent years I just want the truth stated clearly–I have a much stronger claim than Jimmy Wales has to being a founder of Wikipedia in the community sense. As you can see from the evidence above, and as I think most people who were there will attest, I was far more active than he was in the first 14 months of the project, and my influence on the community, in terms of organizational work, general policy, and important decisions was far greater than his. For anyone wondering what I could possibly mean by this, I would point to my memoir for clarification. I’d also like to point out that Jimmy Wales has written no similar memoir, because he really did not do that very much in the community to write about. If he ever does write a memoir of the events of the first 14 months of Wikipedia, he knows I will be on hand to keep him honest.

Finally, I submit that, since Wikipedia is best known and most useful not as a “business enterprise” but as a free resource and worldwide non-profit community, the most relevant sense of foundership is not the business sense but the community sense.