Internet Evolution today spoke with Larry Sanger, the former editor in chief of Wikipedia, who claims he had his co-founder status stripped of him by Jimmy Wales.
Our call to Sanger was prompted by an outburst by Jason Calacanis on IE Radio yesterday: "There's a big misconception that Jimmy Wales is a huge genius," said Calacanis. "He doesn't know what the [expletive deleted] he's doing. He's a fraud."
Sanger says he was hired in 2000 as editor in chief of Nupedia, an English-language encyclopedia written by experts -- and owned by Bomis Inc., a Web portal company, co-founded by Wales. The site was organized on the model of the open directory project (ODP). After a few months, says Sanger, he and Wales found they weren't getting many contributions, and Sanger was asked to find a system for creating another content stream.
Wales "wanted something that would require minimal programming, because he didn't want to spend any more money on the project," Sanger told Internet Evolution today. "So basically I made the proposal for what became Wikipedia."
According to Sanger, his involvement with Wikipedia didn't last; he was laid off from his paid position in 2002 after the market for Internet advertising collapsed, and he completely separated himself from the project shortly thereafter.
"I thought that the project would never have the amount of credibility it could have if it were not somehow more open and welcoming to experts," he stated as one reason for distancing himself. "The other problem was the community had essentially been taken over by trolls to a great extent. That was a real problem, and Jimmy Wales absolutely refused to do anything about it."
Sanger says Wales has changed the organization's written history over the years. Up until late-2004, early-2005, Sanger was acknowledged as co-founder in press releases, interviews, etc. (including this release from February 2004). In a mailing list post in October 2001, when Wikipedia and Nupedia still coexisted, Wales wrote:
Nupedia was started first, and is extremely high quality in the limited content that it does produce. 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!) who are intimidated and bored (sorry, Nupedia!) with the tedium of the process.
In 2005, however, Sanger says things started to change. According to The New York Times, Wales was caught editing Wikipedia pages to downplay Sanger's role, deleting references to "co-founder."
Further, says Sanger, in an interview with Hot Press in March 2009, Wales told the interviewer that Sanger named himself in press releases as co-founder. But Sanger, who was laid off in 2002, says this is impossible.
To refute the interview with Hot Press, Sanger posted a short-lived open letter to Wales on Wikipedia. "I tried to confront him last spring by putting an open letter to him on his Wikipedia user page, and he and his minions very quickly took it down," said Sanger. (The text of the letter is available here.)
Sanger believes Wales's reasons for denying his status as co-founder were at least partly financially motivated.
"In 2004, at just the time when he was leaving out any mention of me in discussing the history of Wikipedia, he was starting Wikia. That's actually when it was getting its funding," says Sanger.
"That's also when the star of Wikipedia really began to rise and started to enter into public consciousness. Jimmy Wales had a real financial motive to portray himself as the brains behind Wikipedia, when I really don't think he was."
Calacanis, too, says Wales used Wikipedia's success to attract funding for Wikia: "He just got a bunch of people to give him a bunch of money thinking, 'Oh, this is the guy who created Wikipedia.' Well guess what? He didn't create Wikipedia. Larry Sanger did."
Still, Sanger is reluctant to pinpoint exactly why the story has changed: "I've dealt with him enough to know that he makes it very difficult to read his motives. He has reasons to lie, and he's shown he is a liar, actually, in my opinion."
Responding to a request for comment today from Internet Evolution, Wales replied via email:
I think very highly of Larry Sanger, and think that it is unfortunate that this silly debate has tended to overshadow his work. As Larry himself wrote many years ago, "To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy's, not mine..." He's right. As the first employee of the project, who left Wikipedia long before it became a charity, and as one of a great many early contributors whose ideas helped shape the project, he deserves a great debt of gratitude.
I consider it unfortunate that a showman like Jason Calacanis can use this to generate easy publicity for himself - but I suppose until Jason actually does something like what Wikipedia has done for the world, he'll have to be content calling me names - not in spite of me donating Wikipedia to charity, but because of it. I hope that someday he will come to see things in a different light - because doing something worthwhile is more rewarding than all the money in the world.
— Nicole Ferraro, Site Editor, Internet Evolution