Open Sources 2.0/Beyond Open Source: Collaboration and Community/The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir
An impassioned debate has been raging, particularly since about the summer of 2004, concerning the merits of Wikipedia and the future of free online encyclopedias. This discussion has not benefited by much detailed, accurate consideration of the origins of Wikipedia and of its parent project, Nupedia. Yet those origins are crucial to forming a proper judgment of the current state and best future direction of free encyclopedias.
Wikipedia as it stands is a fantastic project; it has produced enormous amounts of content and thousands of excellent articles, and now, after just four years, it is getting high-profile, international recognition as a new way of obtaining at least a rough and ready idea about many topics. Its surprising success may be attributed, briefly, to its free, open, and collaborative nature.
This has been my attitude toward Wikipedia practically since its founding. But in late 2004, I wrote an article critical of certain aspects of the Wikipedia project, "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism," which occasioned much debate. I have also been quoted, as co-founder of Wikipedia, in many recent news articles about the project, making various other critical remarks. I am afraid I am getting an undeserved reputation as someone who is opposed to everything Wikipedia stands for. This is completely incorrect. In fact, I am one of Wikipedia's strongest supporters. I am partly responsible for bringing it into the world (as I will explain), and I still love it and want only the best for it. But if a better job can be done, a better job should be done. Wikipedia has shown fantastic potential, and it is open content—and so if the project has aspects which will keep it from being the maximally authoritative, broad, and deep reference that I believe it could be, I firmly believe that the world has the right to, and should, improve upon it.
Wikipedia's predecessor, which I was also employed to organize, was Nupedia. Nupedia aimed to be a highly reliable, peer-reviewed resource that fully appreciated and employed the efforts of subject-area experts, as well as the general public. When the more free wheeling Wikipedia took off, Nupedia was left to wither. It might appear to have died of its own weight and complexity. But, as I will explain, it could have been redesigned and adapted—it could have, as it were, "learned from its mistakes" and from Wikipedia's successes. Thousands of people who had signed up and who wanted to contribute to the Nupedia system were left disappointed. I believe this was unfortunate and unnecessary; I always wanted Nupedia and Wikipedia working together to be not only the world's largest but also the world's most reliable encyclopedia. I hope that this memoir will help to justify this stance. Hopefully, too, I will manage to persuade some people that collaboration between an expert project and a public project is the correct approach to the overall project of creating open content encyclopedias.
I am not writing to request that Nupedia be resuscitated now, as nice as that would be. But I would like to tell the story of Nupedia and the first couple of years of Wikipedia as I remember it. I present this as a memoir—a personal view—not as an authoritative history. The "overall project of creating open content encyclopedias" is something about which I have been writing since at least 2001. For example, in July 2001, while still working on both Wikipedia and Nupedia, I wrote, "If some other open source project proves to be more competitive, then it should and will take the lead in creating a body of free encyclopedic knowledge." Since Wikipedia is open content and hence may be reproduced and improved upon by anyone, I have always been cognizant that it might not end up being the only or best version. My personal devotion has always been to the ideal project as I have envisioned it, not necessarily to particular incarnations of Nupedia or Wikipedia; and I think this attitude is fully consistent with the (very positive) spirit of open source collaboration generally.
This being said, let me also emphasize strongly that, throughout this discussion, I am not suggesting that Wikipedia needs to be replaced with something better. I do, however, think that it needs to be supplemented by a broader, more ambitious, and more inclusive vision of the overall project.
Some Recent Press Reports
This memoir seems all the more important to publish now because the early history of Nupedia and Wikipedia has been mischaracterized in the press recently. If there were only a few inaccuracies, which made no difference, I would be happy to leave well enough alone. But some of the mischaracterizations I've seen do make a difference. They give the public the impression that Nupedia failed because it was run by snobbish experts whose standards were too high. As I will make clear, that is not correct. One might also gather from some reports that the idea for Wikipedia sprang fully grown from Jimmy Wales' head. Jimmy, of course, deserves enormous credit for investing in and guiding Wikipedia. But a more refined idea of how Wikipedia originated and evolved is crucial to have, if one wants to appreciate fully why it works now, and why it has the policies that it does have.
For example, in the November 1, 2004 issue of Newsweek, in "It's Like a Blog, But It's a Wiki," reporter Brad Stone writes:
[Jimmy] Wales first tried to rewrite the rules of the reference-book business five years ago with a free online encyclopedia called Nupedia. Anyone could submit articles, but they were vetted in a seven-step review process. After investing thousands of his own dollars and publishing only 24 articles, Wales reconsidered. He scrapped the review process and began using a popular kind of online Web site called a "wiki," which allows its readers to change the content.
This capsule history is, of course, very brief and so should be expected not to have every relevant detail. But some of the claims made here are not just vague, they are actually misleading, and so several clarifications are in order:
- The article makes it sound as if Jimmy were the only person making the relevant decisions. That is incorrect; the Nupedia system (indeed, seven steps) was established via negotiation with Nupedia's volunteer Advisory Board, mostly Ph.D. volunteers, who served as editors and peer reviewers. I articulated our decisions in Nupedia's "Editorial Policy Guidelines." Jimmy started and broadly authorized it all, but as to the details, he really had little to do with them.
- Nupedia's Advisory Board might be surprised to learn that Jimmy "scrapped the review process." Jimmy was certainly disappointed with the process (as were many people), and he did not actively support it after 2001 or so. But in fairness to the people actually working on Nupedia, the fact is that work on Nupedia gradually petered out in 2001-2002. I in particular was stretched thin—in 2001, I was both chief organizer of Wikipedia and editor in chief of Nupedia—and my own slowing work on Nupedia was obvious to all active Nupedia contributors. It might be better to say that Nupedia withered due to neglect—which was largely due to a lack of sufficient funds for paid organizers—which was as much due to the bursting of the Internet bubble as anything else.
- Also, to the best of my knowledge, the "thousands of his own dollars" invested in these projects were, if I am not very mistaken, the dollars of Bomis.com, which is jointly owned by three partners: Jimmy, Tim Shell, and Michael Davis. (The money for Wikipedia now comes from donations.) But again, Jimmy was the prime motivating force within Bomis.
- Moreover, Nupedia had fewer than 24 articles when Wikipedia launched, being not quite a year old at that time. The idea of adapting wiki technology to the task of building an encyclopedia was mine, and my main job in 2001 was managing and developing the community and the rules according to which Wikipedia was run. Jimmy's role, at first, was one of broad vision and oversight; this was the management style he preferred, at least as long as I was involved. But, again, credit goes to Jimmy alone for getting Bomis to invest in the project and for providing broad oversight of the fantastic and world-changing project of an open content, collaboratively built encyclopedia. Credit also of course goes to him for overseeing its development after I left, and guiding it to the success that it is today.
A March 2005 Wired Magazine article by Daniel Pink also got a number of things wrong, despite being, in other respects, an excellent article:
With Sanger as editor in chief, Nupedia essentially replicated the One Best Way model. He assembled a roster of academics to write articles. (Participants even had to fax in their degrees as proof of their expertise.) And he established a seven-stage process of editing, fact-checking, and peer review. "After 18 months and more than $250,000," Wales said, "we had 12 articles."Then an employee told Wales about Wiki software. On January 15, 2001, they launched a Wiki-fied version and within a month, they had 200 articles. In a year, they had 18,000....Sanger left the project in 2002. "In the Nupedia mode, there was room for an editor in chief," Wales says. "The Wiki model is too distributed for that."
This too needs clarifications:
- The "roster of academics" (the aforementioned Nupedia Advisory Board) was not limited to academics; they were experts in their fields, in any case. Moreover, they were editors and peer reviewers; the general public was able to propose and write articles on subjects about which they had some knowledge.
- It is incorrect to say that participants had to fax their degrees as proof of their expertise; we did verify bona fides by matching the names and email addresses of editors and reviewers with a web page—often, but not always, an academic web page. Indeed there was one (but only one) case that I recall in which I asked someone, who had no web page or any other easy way to prove who he was, to fax a degree. Verifying bona fides seemed like a good idea especially when initially building what was to be an academically respectable project.
- Again, I did not establish the editorial process alone; I had considerable assistance (for which I am still grateful) from Nupedia's excellent Advisory Board.
- And as I wrote on July 25, 2001 for Kuro5hin, Nupedia had "just over 20" articles—not 12—after 18 months. We always suspected that we would wind up scrapping our first attempts to design an editorial system, and that we would learn a great deal from those first attempts; and that's essentially what happened. But Nupedia could have evolved, and would have, had we continued working on it.
- The second paragraph begins, "Then an employee told Wales about Wiki software." I don't know how Jimmy first learned about wikis, but as I will explain, I proposed to him and to the Nupedia community at large that we start a wiki-based encyclopedia.
- The context of the line "Sanger left the project in 2002"—particularly with Jimmy quoted as saying, "In the Nupedia mode there was room for an editor in chief"—makes it sound as if I were let go specifically because I was working only on Nupedia and was no longer needed for that. In fact, I was working on Wikipedia far more at the time than Nupedia, and the reason for my departure from both projects was that Bomis was, like virtually all dot-coms, losing money. They could not afford to pay me; I was told that I was the last of several newer Bomis employees to be laid off on account of the tech recession. But Wikipedia indeed was able to continue on without me, and I agreed even at the time that Wikipedia could survive without me, and that it had become essentially "unmanageable."
In view of such problematic reporting, considering the rather good chance that Wikipedia will become historically important, and considering that the planners of related projects might find some value in this, I want to tell my story as I remember it. This memoir covers only the first few years of the project. I have followed the project fairly closely and with interest after my departure, but silently and from the sidelines.
I'm going to begin with Nupedia. The origin of Wikipedia cannot be explained except in that context. Moreover, the Nupedia project itself was very worthwhile, and I think it might have been able to survive, as I will explain. Finally, some errors regarding Nupedia have been passed around although they are little more than unfounded rumors. It is unfortunate that the thousands of hours of excellent volunteer work done on Nupedia should be thus disrespected or grossly misunderstood. I personally will always be grateful to those initial contributors who believed in the project and our management, worked hard for a completely unproven idea, and laid the groundwork for the growing institution of open content projects.
In 1999, Jimmy Wales wanted to start a free, collaborative encyclopedia. I knew him from several mailing lists back in the mid-'90s, and in fact we had already met in person a couple of times. In January 2000, I emailed Jimmy and several other Internet acquaintances to get feedback on an idea for what was to be, essentially, a blog. (It was to be a successor to "Sanger and Shannon's Review of Y2K News Reports," a Y2K news summary that I first wrote and then edited.) To my great surprise, Jimmy replied to my email describing his idea of a free encyclopedia, and asking if I might be interested in leading the project. He was specifically interested in finding a philosopher to lead the project, he said. He made it a condition of my employment that I would finish my Ph.D. quickly (whereupon I would get a raise)—which I did, in June 2000. I am still grateful for the extra incentive. I thought he would be a great boss, and indeed he was.
To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy's, not mine, and the funding was entirely by Bomis. I was merely a grateful employee; I thought I was very lucky to have a job like that land in my lap. Of course, other people had had the idea; but it was Jimmy's fantastic foresight actually to invest in it. For this the world owes him a considerable debt. The actual development of this encyclopedia was the task he gave me to work on.
I arrived in San Diego in early February 2000 to get to work. One of the first things I asked Jimmy was how free a rein I had in designing the project. What were my constraints, and in what areas was I free to exercise my own creativity? He replied, as I clearly recall, that most of the decisions should be mine; and in most respects, as a manager, Jimmy was indeed very hands-off. I spent the first month or so thinking very broadly about different possibilities. I wrote quite a bit (that writing is now all lost—that will teach me not to back up my hard drives) and discussed quite a bit with both Jimmy and one of the other Bomis partners, Tim Shell.
I maintained from the start that something really could not be a credible encyclopedia without oversight by experts. I reasoned that, if the project is open to all, it would require both management by experts and an unusually rigorous process. I now think I was right about the former requirement, but wrong about the latter, which was redundant; I think that the subsequent development of Wikipedia has borne out of this assessment.
One of the first policies that Jimmy and I agreed upon was a "nonbias" or neutrality policy. I know I was extremely insistent upon it from the beginning, because neutrality has been a hobbyhorse of mine for a very long time, and one of my guiding principles in writing "Sanger's Review." Neutrality, we agreed, required that articles should not represent any one point of view on controversial subjects, but instead fairly represent all sides. We also agreed in rejecting an alternative that (for a time) Tim and some early Nupedians plugged for: the development, for each encyclopedia topic, of a series of different articles, each written from a different point of view.
I believed, moreover, that a strongly collaborative and open project could not survive if its contributors were not "personally invested" in the project, and that this required some input and management by its users. It was very early on that I decided that Nupedia should have an Advisory Board—editors, and peer reviewers, who would together agree to project policy—and that the public should have a say in the formulation of policy.
An early incarnation of Nupedia's Advisory Board was in place by summer of 2000 or so. It was made up of the project's highly qualified editors and reviewers, mostly Ph.D. professors but also a good many other highly experienced professionals. Eventually the Advisory Board agreed to an extremely rigorous seven-step system. A lot of the details of the Nupedia policy and processes were proposed by me, but then tweaked and elaborated by others, and the policy was not published as project policy until we had a quorum of editors and peer reviewers who could fully discuss and approve of a policy statement. Even so, our policy overlooked a fundamental problem. We should not have assumed that such a complex system could be navigated patiently by many volunteers.
I spent significant time recruiting people for Nupedia, emailing new arrivals, posting to mailing lists, giving interviews, and so on. I had had some experience publicizing Internet projects when I worked on several philosophy discussion groups as a graduate student in the 1990s and I knew that getting many willing and active participants was difficult but important. I even had an administrative assistant for six months in 2000 and 2001, Liz Campeau, whose sole job was to recruit people to work on Nupedia and then Wikipedia. I think a large part of the reason Wikipedia got off the ground so quickly and so well is that it was started by Nupedians, who were then a very large base of people who wanted to work on an encyclopedia, and who had many definite ideas about how it should be done. Roughly 2,000 Nupedia members were subscribed to the general announcement list in January 2001 when Wikipedia launched. We operated the system initially using email and mailing lists, while planning and finalizing process details. That lasted from spring through fall 2000. I think our first article ("atonality" by Christoph Hust), that made it entirely through the system, was published in June or July 2000. To move the system to a completely web-based one, there was, of course, a great deal of design and programming to do. So in fall of 2000, I worked a lot with a programmer (Toan Vo) and the Bomis sysadmin (Jason Richey) to transfer the system from a clunky mailing list system to the Web. But by the time the web-based system was ready it had become obvious to Jimmy and me that the seven-step editorial process would move too slowly, even when managed on the Web. But Magnus Manske later, in 2001, made some very nice additions to the Nupedia system.
Some institutional traditions begin easily but die hard. Nupedia's Advisory Board was reluctant to seriously consider a simpler system, despite months of coexistence and uncomfortable comparison between Nupedia and Wikipedia. Nupedia editors and peer reviewers had a very strong commitment to rigor and reliability, as did I. Moreover, as Wikipedia became increasingly successful in 2001, Jimmy asked me to spend more and more time on it, which I did; Nupedia suffered from neglect. It wasn't until summer of 2001 that I was able to propose, get accepted, and install something we called the Nupedia Chalkboard. This was a wiki which was to be closely managed by Nupedia's staff. It offered both a simpler way to develop encyclopedia articles for Nupedia, and a way to import articles from Wikipedia. Established practices are hard to break, and the Chalkboard went largely unused. The general public simply used Wikipedia if they wanted to write articles in a wiki format, while most Nupedia editors and peer reviewers were not persuaded that the Chalkboard was necessary or useful.
By early winter 2001, Nupedia had published approved versions of only about 25 articles, although there were dozens of draft articles at various stages in process. I was finally able to persuade the Advisory Board to move the system to a much simpler two-step process, virtually identical to that used to run many academic journals: articles would be submitted to an editor; the editor would, if the article seemed good enough, forward it to a reviewer for acceptance or rejection; if accepted, the article would be posted. We also contemplated various ways of allowing public comment, moderation, and editing of posted articles. I believe this new, simpler system would have produced thousands of articles for Nupedia very quickly. The Nupedia community was certainly interested and motivated. The Advisory Board was gradually accepting that the system's complexity was the main obstacle to getting more articles into and through the system.
Unfortunately, Nupedia's new system arrived too late. This system should have been adopted in the winter of 2001-2002. At the same time, Wikipedia was demanding as much attention as I could give it, and I had little time to implement the new Nupedia system. I am quite sure we could have started Nupedia in early 2002 had we made the time. But Bomis lost the ability to pay me and, newly unemployed, I did not have the time to lead Nupedia as a volunteer. I did not entirely lose hope on Nupedia, however.
The Origins of Wikipedia
In the fall of 2000, Jimmy and I were in agreement that Nupedia's slow productivity was probably going to be an ongoing problem and that there needed to be a way, moreover, in which ordinary, uncredentialed people could participate more easily. Uncredentialed people could (and did) participate in Nupedia, particularly as writers and copy editors, but it was challenging for most of them to get articles through the elaborate system. We had a huge pool of talent, motivated to work on an encyclopedia but not motivated enough to work on Nupedia, going to waste.
It was my job to solve these problems. I wrote multiple detailed proposals for a simpler, more open editing system and I ran them by Jimmy. His reply to all of them was that it would require too much programming, and he couldn't afford to pay more high-priced programmers. In retrospect, of course, I realize that we could have found a way to enlist volunteers to develop the system. Jimmy and I both probably knew that at the time; unfortunately, we didn't pursue it.
While I was thinking hard about how to create a more open system with minimal setup requirements, I had dinner with an old Internet friend of mine, Ben Kovitz. Ben had moved to town for a new job and we were out at a Pacific Beach Mexican restaurant, talking about jobs, tech stuff, and philosophy (Ben, Jimmy, and I all knew each other from those philosophy mailing lists on which we were active). Ben explained the idea of Ward Cunningham's WikiWikiWeb to me. Instantly I was considering whether wiki would work as a more open and simple editorial system for a free, collaborative encyclopedia, and it seemed exactly right. The more I thought about it, without even having seen a wiki, the more it seemed obviously right. Immediately I wrote a proposal—unfortunately, lost now—in which I said that this might solve the problem and that we ought to try it. Given that setting up a wiki would be very simple and would not require hiring a programmer, Jimmy could scarcely refuse. He liked the idea but was initially skeptical—properly so, as I was, despite my excitement.
Wiki advocates often point out that Wikipedia is nonstandard as a wiki. This is partly because we began just with the very basic wiki concept and not so much of the culture. Wiki culture is very distinctive. Wiki pages can be started and edited by anyone, but in Thread Mode (as in "the thread of this discussion"), the dialogue becomes complex. In that case, or when consensus is reached, or when positions have hardened, it is considered a good idea to "refactor" pages (a term borrowed from programming)—i.e., to rewrite them, taking into account the highlights of the dialog. Then the dialog might be represented in "Document Mode." Opinions are very welcome on a typical wiki. There are many other collective habits that make up typical wiki culture; these are only a few.
However, I denied the necessity of organizing Wikipedia according to these precise principles. To be sure, a few other participants wanted Wikipedia to adopt wiki culture wholesale so that it would be "just another wiki," and they had some small influence over the direction of the project. Still, I viewed wiki software as simply a tool, a way to organize people who want to collaborate. I saw no necessity whatsoever to partake in all aspects of the idiosyncratic culture that happened to be associated with the advent of this very generally applicable tool, since we were engaged in a very specific sort of project with very specific requirements. This caused some consternation among some wiki advocates, who appeared to think that Wikipedia should, or inevitably would, become just another wiki, somehow necessarily partaking of typical wiki culture. Ward Cunningham's prediction, when Jimmy asked him whether wiki software "could successfully generate a useful encyclopedia," was: "Yes, but in the end it wouldn't be an encyclopedia. It would be a wiki." As I said in reply: "Wikipedia has a totally different culture from this wiki, because it's pretty single-mindedly aimed at creating an encyclopedia. It's already rather useful as an encyclopedia, and we expect it will only get better."
Typical wiki culture aside, wiki software does encourage, but does not strictly require, extreme openness and decentralization: openness, since page changes are logged and publicly viewable, and pages may be further changed by anyone; and decentralization, because for work to be done, there is no need for a person or body to assign work, but rather, work can proceed as and when people want to do it. Wiki software also discourages the exercise of authority, since work proceeds at will on any page, and on any large, active wiki it would be too much work for any single overseer or limited group of overseers to keep up. These all became features of Wikipedia.
My initial idea was that the wiki would be set up as part of Nupedia; it was to be a way for the public to develop a stream of content that could be fed into the Nupedia process. I think I got some of the basic pages written—how wikis work, what our general plan was, and so forth—over the next few days. I wrote a general proposal for the Nupedia community, and the Nupedia wiki went live January 10. The first encyclopedia articles for what was to become Wikipedia were written then. It turned out, however, that a clear majority of the Nupedia Advisory Board wanted to have nothing to do with a wiki. Again, their commitment was to rigor and reliability, a concern I shared with them and continue to have. They evidently thought a wiki could not resemble an encyclopedia at all, that it would be too informal and unstructured, as the original WikiWikiWeb was, to be associated with Nupedia. They of course were perfectly reasonable to doubt that it would turn into the fantastic source of content that it did. Who could reasonably guess that it would work? But it did work, and now the world knows better.
Wikipedia's First Few Months
We decided to relaunch the wiki under its own domain name. I came up with the name "Wikipedia," a silly name for what was at first a very silly project, and the newly independent project was launched at Wikipedia.com on January 15, 2001. It was a ".com" at first because, at the time, we were contemplating selling ads to pay for me, programmers, and servers. It was easy to deprecate ".com" in favor of ".org" in 2002, after Jimmy was able to assure users that Wikipedia would never run ads to support the project.
I took it to be one of my main jobs to promote Wikipedia, and this resulted in a steady influx of new participants. I wrote on the Wikipedia announcement page January 24, "Wikipedia has definitely taken [on] a life of its own; new people are arriving every day and the project seems to be getting only more popular. Long live Wikipedia!" By the end of January, we reportedly had 600 articles; there were 1,300 in March, 2,300 in April, and 3,900 in May. Not only was the project growing steadily, but the rate of growth was also increasing.
Wikipedia started with a handful of people, many from Nupedia. The influence of Nupedians was crucial early on. I think, especially, of the tireless Magnus Manske (who worked on the software for both projects), our resident stickler Ruth Ifcher, and the very smart poker-playing programmer Lee Daniel Crocker—to name a few. All of these people, and several other Nupedia borrowings, had a good understanding of the requirements of good encyclopedia articles, and they were intelligent, skilled writers. The direction that Wikipedia ought to go in seemed obvious to us all, in terms of what sort of content we wanted. But what we did not have worked out in advance was how the community should be organized, and (not surprisingly) that turned out to be the thorniest problem. Still, because the project started with these good people, and we were able to adopt, explain, and promote good habits and policies to newer people, the Nupedian roots of the project helped to develop a robust, functional, and successful community. As to project leadership or management, we began with me, Jimmy, and Tim Shell; Tim mostly stopped participating after the first few months.
The many rank-and-file users did the heavy lifting, and if there had not been a reasonable consensus among them about what the project should look like, it just wouldn't have happened. In any collaborative project, it is the contributors who are responsible for the outcome. Those early adopters should feel proud of themselves, because they were essential in shaping a thing of beauty and usefulness.
I recall saying casually, but repeatedly, in the project's first nine months or so, that experts and specialists should be given some particular respect when writing in their areas of expertise. They should be deferred to, I thought, unless there was some clear evidence of bias. In those first months, deference to expertise was a policy that at least I usually insisted upon, but not strongly or clearly enough. It was nearly a year after the project began that I finally articulated this view as a policy to consider. Perhaps this was because, indeed, most users did make a practice of deferring to experts up to that time. "This is just common sense," as I wrote, "but sometimes common sense needs to be spelled out!" What I now think is that that point of common sense needed to be spelled out quite a bit sooner and more forcefully, because in the long run, it was not adopted as official project policy, as it could have been.
Some questions have been raised about the origin of Wikipedia policies. The tale is interesting and instructive. We began with no (or few) policies in particular and said that the community would determine—through a sort of vague consensus based on its experience working together—what the policies would be. The very first entry on a "rules to consider" page was the "Ignore All Rules" rule (to wit: "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business"). This is a "rule" that I personally proposed. I thought we first needed experience with wikis before we could have rules about wikis. Even more importantly at that point, we needed participants more than we needed rules. As the project grew and the requirements of its success became increasingly obvious, I became ambivalent about this particular "rule" and then rejected it altogether. As one participant later commented, "this rule is the essence of Wikipedia." That was certainly never my view; I always thought of the rule as being a temporary and humorous injunction to participants to add content instead of being distracted by (then) relatively inconsequential issues about how exactly articles should be formatted, etc. In a similar spirit, I proposed that contributors be bold in updating pages.
I also, for similar reasons, specifically disavowed any title; I was organizing the project but I did not want to present myself as editor in chief. I wanted people to feel comfortable adding information without having to consult anything like an editor. Participation was more important, I felt.
As we set it up, Wikipedia did have some minimal wiki cultural features: it was wide open and extremely decentralized, and (provisionally, anyway) featured very little attempt to exercise authority. Insofar as I was able to organize it at all, I guided the project through force of personality and what "moral authority" I had as co-founder of the project. Jimmy and I agreed early on that, at least in the beginning, we should not eject anyone from the project except perhaps in the most extreme cases. Our first forcible expulsion (which Jimmy performed) did not occur for many months, despite the presence of difficult characters from nearly the beginning of the project. Again, we were learning: we wished to tolerate all sorts of contributors to be well situated to adopt the wisest policies. However, this provisional "hands-off" management policy had the effect of creating a difficult-to-change tradition, the tradition of making the project extremely tolerant of disruptive (uncooperative, "trolling") behavior. And as it turned out, particularly with the large waves of new contributors from the summer and fall of 2001, the project became very resistant to any changes in this policy. I suspect that the cultures of online communities generally are established pretty quickly and then are very resistant to change, because they are self-selecting; that was certainly the case with Wikipedia, anyway.
So, I could only attempt to shame any troublemakers into compliance; without recourse to any genuine punitive action, that was the most I could do. In the first eight months of the project, this was usually sufficient for me to do my job. Wikipedia began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature. I always took Wikipedia's anarchy to be provisional and purely for purposes of determining what the best rules, and the nature of its authority, should be. What I, and other Wikipedians, failed to realize is that our initial anarchy would be taken by the next wave of contributors as the very essence of the project—how Wikipedia was "meant" to be—even though Wikipedia could have become anything we the contributors chose to make it.
This point bears some emphasis: Wikipedia became what it is today because, having been seeded with great people with a fairly clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, we proceeded to make a series of free decisions that determined the policy of the project and culture of its supporting community. Wikipedia's system is neither the only way to run a wiki, nor the only way to run an open content encyclopedia. Its particular conjunction of policies is in no way natural, "organic," or necessary. It is instead artificial, a result of a series of free choices, and we could have chosen differently in many cases; and choosing differently on some issues might have led to a project better than the one that exists today.
Though it began as anarchy, there were quite a few policies that were settled within the first six months. This required some struggle, especially on my part. Since the project was a wiki, some participants thought that there should be no rules at all. But it was made clear from the beginning that we intended Wikipedia to be an encyclopedia, and so we pushed for at least those rules that would help define and sustain the project as an encyclopedia.
For instance, throughout the early months, people added various content that seemed less than encyclopedic. Many people seemed to confuse encyclopedia articles with dictionary entries, and eventually I wrote a page called "Wikipedia is not a dictionary." As people found new ways not to write encyclopedia articles, I started "What Wikipedia is not": I and others would note on an article's discussion page that some content did not belong in an encyclopedia, and then underscored the point by adding an entry to the "What Wikipedia is not" page. To take another example, Wikipedia was not to be a place for publishing original research. In fact, this is a policy that had been settled upon and even enforced in Nupedia days; enforcing it actually led to the departure of Nupedia's erstwhile Classics editor sometime in 2001.
Many of our first controversies were over these restrictions. At the time, I had enough influence within the community to get these policies generally accepted. And if we had not decided on these restrictions, Wikipedia might well have ended up, like many wikis, as nothing in particular. But since we insisted that it was an encyclopedia, even though it was just a blank wiki and a group of people to begin with, it became an encyclopedia. There is something simple, yet profound about that. I also like to think that we helped to show the world the potential that wikis have.
Another policy that was instituted early on was the nonbias or neutrality policy. This was borrowed from the Nupedia project and was made a Rule to Consider—in a very early version, the policy was put this way:
Avoid bias: Since this is an encyclopedia, after a fashion, it would be best if you represented your controversial views either (1) not at all, (2) on *Debate, *Talk, or *Discussion pages linked from the bottom of the page that you're tempted to grace, or (3) represented in a fact-stating fashion, i.e., which attributes a particular opinion to a particular person or group, rather than asserting the opinion as fact. (3) is strongly preferred.
Jimmy then started a specialized policy page he called "Neutral Point of View." I confess I don't much like this name as a name for the policy, because it implies that to write neutrally, or without bias, is actually to express a point of view, and, as the definite article is used, a single point of view at that. "Neutrality," "neutral," and "neutrally" are better to use for the noun, adjective, and adverb. But the acronym "NPOV" came to be used for all three, by Wikipedians wanting to seem hip, and then the unfortunate "POV" came to be used when the perfectly good English word "biased" would do.
In addition to these, I suggested a number of other rules. I believe I am responsible for the original formulations of a lot of the article-naming conventions, as well as the conventions of bolding the title of the article, starting articles with full sentences, making article titles uncapitalized, and much else. I think these policies were just a matter of common sense for anyone who understood what a good encyclopedia should be like. And of course I was not the only person proposing conventions. Moreover, actual project policy, or community habits, succeeded in being established only by being followed and supported by a majority of participants. It was then, we said, that there was a "rough consensus" in favor of the policy. And consensus, we said, is required for a policy actually to be considered project policy. For our purposes, a "consensus" appeared to consist of (1) widespread common practice, (2) many vocal defenders, and (3) virtually no detractors.
But that way of settling upon policy proposals—viz., by alleged consensus—did not scale, in my opinion. After about nine months or so, there were so many contributors, and especially brand-new contributors, that nothing like a consensus could be reached, for the simple reason that condition (3) in the previous paragraph was never achievable: there would after that always be somebody who insisted on expressing disagreement. There was, then, a nonscaling policy adoption procedure, and a crying need to continue to adopt sensible policies. This led to some serious problems in the community. But first, something more positive.
Why Wikipedia started working
This is a good place to explain why Wikipedia actually got started and why it worked. The explanation involves several factors, some borrowed from the open source movement, some borrowed from wiki software and culture, and some more idiosyncratic:
- Open content license
- We promised contributors that their work would always remain free for others to read. This, as is well known, motivates people to work for the good of the world—and for the many people who would like to teach the whole world, that's a pretty strong motivation.
- Focus on the encyclopedia
- We said that we were creating an encyclopedia, not a dictionary, etc., and we encouraged people to stick to creating the encyclopedia and not use the project as a debate forum.
- Anyone could contribute. Everyone was specifically made to feel welcome (e.g., we encouraged the habit of writing on new contributors' user pages, "Welcome to Wikipedia!" etc.). There was no sense that someone would be turned away for not being bright enough, or not being a good enough writer, or whatever.
- Ease of editing
- Wikis are easy for most people to figure out. In other collaborative systems (like Nupedia), you have to learn all about the system first. Wikipedia had an almost flat learning curve.
- Collaborate radically; don't sign articles
- Radical collaboration, in which (in principle) anyone can edit any part of anyone else's work, is one of the great innovations of the open source software movement. On Wikipedia, radical collaboration made it possible for work to move forward on all fronts at the same time, to avoid the big bottleneck that is the individual author, and to burnish articles on popular topics to a fine luster.
- Offer unedited, unapproved content for further development
- This is required if one wishes to collaborate radically. We encouraged putting up their unfinished drafts—as long as they were at least roughly correct—with the idea that they can only improve if there are others collaborating. This is a classic principle of open source software. It helped get Wikipedia started and helped keep it moving. This is why so many original drafts of Wikipedia articles were initially of poor quality, and also why it is surprising to the uninitiated that many articles have turned out very well indeed.
- A firm neutrality policy made it possible for people of widely divergent opinions to work together, without constantly fighting. It's a way to keep the peace.
- Start with a core of good people
- I think it was essential that we began the project with a core group of intelligent, good writers who understood what an encyclopedia should look like, and who were basically decent human beings.
- Enjoy the Google effect
- We had little to do with this, but had Google not sent us an increasing amount of traffic each time they spidered the growing web site, we would not have grown nearly as fast as we did.
That's pretty much it. The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task, and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching stuff to the world. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. And the Google effect provided a steady supply of "fresh blood"—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.
Nearly all other project rules were either optional, or straightforward applications of these principles. The project probably would still have succeeded nicely even if it had moderated or tweaked some of these principles. For instance, radical openness—that is, being open even to those who brazenly flouted and disrespected the project's mission, was surely not necessary; after all, without them, the project would have been more welcoming to the many people who felt they could not work with such difficult people. And if we had required people to sign in, that would not have made very much difference (although it probably would have made some in the beginning; the project wouldn't have grown as fast). Of course, we didn't have to use the GNU FDL for the license. Certainly, we did not need to set the community up initially as an anarchy governed by some vague consensus: instead, we could have adopted a charter from the very start. The project could have been managed quite differently; there could have been specially designated and well-qualified editors. The project could have officially encouraged and deferred to experts. An article approval process could have been adopted without threatening the principle of posting unedited content for collaboration. Certainly, many of the later bells and whistles—the arbitration committee, a three-revert rule, having administrators with the particular configuration of rights they have, etc.—were not absolutely necessary to adopt in the precise forms they took. These differences would not have threatened the basic principles that made the project work.
The basic principles that explain why Wikipedia could start working—and still does work—are relatively simple, few in number, and above all, general. The more specific principles that Wikipedia adopted were a matter of historical accident. There was a great deal of "wiggle room." Those intent on studying or replicating the Wikipedia model would do well to bear that in mind.
A Series of Controversies
So much for the very early history of Wikipedia; the next phase involved rapid growth and some serious internal controversies over policy and authority. If Wikipedia's basic policy was settled upon in the first nine months, its culture was solidified into something closer to its present form in the nine months after that.
The project continued to grow. We had 6,000 articles by July 8; 8,000 by August 7; 11,200 by September 9; and 13,000 by October 4. Consulting the web site logs, we noted a Google effect: each time Google spidered the web site, more pages would be indexed; the greater the number of pages indexed, the more people arrived at the project; the more people involved in the project, the more pages there were to index. In addition to this source of new contributors, Wikipedia was Slashdotted several times and had large influxes of new users, particularly after two articles I wrote for Kuro5hin were posted on Slashdot: "Britannica or Nupedia? The Future of Free Encyclopedias" (July 25, 2001) and "Wikipedia is wide open. Why is it growing so fast? Why isn't it full of nonsense?" (September 24, 2001).
This growth brought difficult challenges. Some of our earliest contributors were academics and other highly qualified people, and it seems to me that they were slowly worn down and driven away by having to deal with difficult people on the project. I hope they will not mind that I mention their names, but the two that stick in my mind are J. Hoffman Kemp and Michael Tinkler, a couple of Ph.D. historians. They helped to set what I think was a good precedent for the project in that they wrote about their own areas of expertise, and they contributed under their own, real names. The latter has the salutary effect of making the contributor more serious and more apt to take responsibility for his contributions. They are also very nice people, but they did not "suffer fools gladly." Consequently, they wound up in some silly disputes that would have driven less patient people away instantly. So, there was a growing problem: persistent and difficult contributors tend to drive away many better, more valuable contributors; Kemp and Tinkler were only two examples. There were many more who quietly came and quietly left. Short of removing the problem contributors altogether—which we did only in the very worst cases—there was no easy solution under the system as we had set it up. And I am sorry to have to admit that those aspects of the system that led to this problem were as much my responsibility as anyone else's. Obviously, I would not design the system the same way if given the chance again.
As a result, I grew both more protective of the project and increasingly sensitive to abuse of the system. As I tried to exercise what little authority I claimed, as a corrective to such abuse, many newer arrivals on the scene made great sport of challenging my authority. One of the earliest challenges happened in late summer 2001. The front page of Wikipedia—then open to anyone to edit, like any other page on the project—was occasionally vandalized with infantile graffiti. Someone then tried to make an archive of the vandalism that had been done to the front page of Wikipedia. I maintained that to make such an archive would be to encourage such vandalism, so I deleted the archive. This occasioned much debate. Then a user made the archive a subpage of his own user page—and user pages were generally held to be the bailiwick of the user. Consequently I deleted that subpage, which occasioned a further hue and cry that, perhaps, I was abusing my authority. The vandalism-enshrining user in question proceeded to create a "deleted pages" page, on which the deleted vandalism archives were listed, as if to accuse me of trying to act without public scrutiny—but this was, of course, perfectly acceptable to me. At the time, I thought this controversy was just as silly as it will sound to most people reading this. I thought that I needed only to "put my foot down" a little harder and, as had happened for the first six months of the project, participants would fall into line. What I did not realize was that this was to be only the first in a long series of controversies. The ultimate upshot of these was to undermine my own moral authority over the project and to make the project as safe as possible for the most abusive and contentious contributors.
Throughout this and other early controversies, much of the debate about project policy was conducted on the wiki itself. Other debates were conducted on mailing lists, Wikipedia-L and then later for the English language project, WikiEN-L. In addition, people had taken to putting their own essays on Wikipedia, as subpages of their user pages. These too were occasioning debate. It seemed to me, and many other contributors, that this debate was distracting the community from our main goal: to create an encyclopedia. Consequently I proposed that we move the debate to another wiki that was to be created specifically for that purpose—what became known as the "meta-wiki." This proposal was very widely supported, so we set it up.
As it happened, the meta-wiki became even more uncontrolled than Wikipedia itself, and for many months was continually infested with contributions by people that can only be called "trolls." That epithet came to be discouraged, however, for reasons soon to be explained. The existence of trolls was a problem we felt we should tolerate—and deal with only verbally, not with harsh penalties—for the sake of encouraging the broadest amount of participation. In the first years, only the worst trolls were expelled from the project. I do not know whether this policy has been changed as a result of the operation of the much-later installed Arbitration Committee.
There are obvious reasons that the meta-wiki proved harder to control. First, it had no specific purpose, other than to host project debate and essays that do not belong on the main wiki—which was not enough to make anyone care very much about it. Second, because many people did not care what happened on the meta-wiki, they did not do the very necessary weeding that takes place on Wikipedia. Besides, as the meta-wiki was a repository of opinion, people felt less comfortable editing or deleting what was, after all, only opinion.
What happened was that project policy discussions moved almost exclusively to the project mailing lists. There is a reason why this was a superior solution to having much debate on an uncontrolled, "unmoderated" wiki. On a wiki, contributions exist in perpetuity, as it were, or until they are deleted or radically changed. Consequently, anyone new to a discussion sees the first contribution first. So, whoever starts a new page for discussion also, to a great extent, sets the tone and agenda of the discussion. Moreover, nasty, heated exchanges live on forever on a wiki, festering like an open wound, unless deliberately toned down afterward; if the same exchange takes place on a mailing list, it slips mercifully and quietly into the archives.
At about the same time that we decided to start the meta-wiki, and soon after the vandalism archive affair, I was thinking a great deal about Wikipedia's apparent anarchy, and I wrote an essay titled "Is Wikipedia an experiment in anarchy?" This and the discussion that ensued tended to ossify positions with regard to the authority issue: I and a few others agreed that Jimmy and I should have special authority within the system, to settle policy issues that needed settling. Jimmy was relatively quiet about this issue. This was probably because his authority, unlike mine, was generally accepted. By November or December of 2001, Wikipedia was growing fast, and became the subject of regular news reporting, even by the likes of The New York Times and MIT's Technology Review. After the two major Slashdottings earlier in the year, we knew that large influxes of members could change the nature of the project, and not necessarily for the better. If there were some major news coverage—an evening news story in the U.S., for example—there might be many new people who would need to be taught about Wikipedia's standards and positive cultural aspects. So, I proposed what I thought was a humorously named "Wikipedia Militia" which would manage new (and very welcome) "invasions" by new contributors. By this time, however, there was a small core group of people who were constantly on the watch for anything that smacked the least bit of authoritarianism; consequently, the name, and various aspects of how the proposal was presented, was vigorously debated. Eventually, we switched to "The Wikipedia Welcoming Committee" and finally, the "Volunteer Fire Department"—which eventually, it seems, fell into disuse.
The governance challenge
After the September Slashdotting, I composed a page originally called "Our Replies to Our Critics" (and now called "Replies to Common Objections"), in which I addressed the problem that "cranks and partisans" might abuse the system:
Moreover—and this is something that you might not be able to understand very well if you haven't actually experienced it—there is a fair bit of (mostly friendly) peer pressure, and community standards are constantly being reinforced. The cranks and partisans, etc., are not simply outgunned. They also receive considerable opprobrium if they abuse the system.
This reflects the conception I had in September 2001 of Wikipedia's culture; the reply in the previous paragraph was as much hopeful and prescriptive as descriptive. But it turned out to be only partly true. As difficult users began to have more of a "run of the place," in late 2001 and 2002, opprobrium was in fact meted out only piecemeal and inconsistently. It seemed that participation in the community was becoming increasingly a struggle over principles, rather than a shared effort toward shared goals. Any attempt to enforce what should have been set policy—neutrality, no original research, and no wholesale deletion without explanation—was frequently if not usually met with resistance. It was difficult to claim the moral high ground in a dispute, because the basic project principles were constantly coming under attack. Consequently, Wikipedia's environment was not cooperative but instead competitive, and the competition often concerned what sort of community Wikipedia should be: radically anarchical and uncontrolled, or instead more single-mindedly devoted to building an encyclopedia. Sadly, few among those who would love to work on Wikipedia could thrive in such a protean environment.
It is one thing to lack any equivalent to "police" and "courts" that can quickly and effectively eliminate abuse; such enforcement systems were rarely entertained in Wikipedia's early years, because according to the wiki ideal, users can effectively police each other. It is another thing altogether to lack a community ethos that is unified in its commitment to its basic ideals so that the community's champions could claim a moral high ground. So, why was there no such unified community ethos and no uncontroversial "moral high ground"? I think it was a simple consequence of the fact that the community was to be largely self-organizing and to set its own policy by consensus. Any loud minority, even a persistent minority of one person, can remove the appearance of consensus. In fact, I recall that (in October 2002, after I resigned) I felt compelled by ongoing controversies to request that Jimmy declare that certain policies were in fact nonnegotiable, which he did. Unfortunately, this declaration was too little, too late.
By late 2001, I had gained both friends and detractors. I think I had become, within the project, a symbol of opposition to anarchism, of the enforcement of standards, and consequently of the exercise of authority in a radically open project. But I was still trying to manage the project as I always had—by force of personality and "moral" authority. So, when people arrived who clearly and openly disrespected established policy, I was, in my frustration, very short with them; and when the project continued to try to establish new policies, my role in articulating those policies and actually establishing them (attempting to express a "consensus") was challenged. This undermined what remaining moral authority I had. I felt my job was on the line, and the project continued in turmoil day in and day out. From my point of view, fires were spreading everywhere, and as I had become a somewhat controversial figure, I did not have enough allies to help me put them out. Consequently, I was too peremptory and short with some users. This, however, exacerbated the problem, because the attitude could not be backed up by punishment; harsh words from a leader are empty threats if unenforceable. I thereby handed my antiauthoritarian "wiki-anarchist" opponents an advantage, because—ironically—they were able to portray me as dictatorial, when I was anything but. I came to the view, finally and belatedly, that it would be better to ignore the trolls. However, this is particularly hard to do on a wiki. Unlike on an email list, trollish contributions do not just disappear into the archives; they sit out in the open, as available as the first day they appeared and festering. Attempts to delete or radically edit such contributions were often met by reposting the earlier, problem version: the ability to do that is a necessary feature of collaboration. Persistent trolls could be a serious problem, particularly if they were able to draw a sympathetic audience. And there was often an audience of sympathizers: contributors who philosophically were opposed to nearly any exercise of authority, but who were not trolls themselves.
It is ironic that it was I who initially supported the lack of any enforceable rules in the community. Some legal theorists would maintain that a community that lacks enforceable rules lacks any law at all. In retrospect, it is clear that there was a fundamental problem with my role in the system: to have real authority, I needed to be able to enforce the rules, and for both fairness and the perception of fairness, there needed to be clear rules from the beginning. But, by my own design, I had very early on rejected the label "editor in chief" and much real enforcement authority; a year into the game, it would have been difficult if not impossible to claim enforcement authority over active but problem users. Moreover, I was the author of the "ignore all rules" rule. My early rejection of any enforcement authority, my attempt to portray myself and behave as just another user who happened to have some special moral authority in the project, and my rejection of rules—these were all clearly mistakes on my part. They did, I think, help the project get off the ground; but I really needed a subtler and more forward-looking understanding of how an extremely open, decentralized project might work.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken Teddy Roosevelt's advice: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Since my "stick" was very small, I suppose I felt compelled to "speak loudly," which I regret. As it turns out, it was Jimmy who spoke softly and carried the big stick; he first exercised "enforcement authority." Since he was relatively silent throughout these controversies, he was the "good cop," and I was the "bad cop": that, in fact, is precisely how he (privately) described our relationship. Eventually, I tired of this arrangement. Because Jimmy had kept a low profile in the early days of the project and showed that he was willing to exercise enforcement authority upon occasion, he was never as ripe for attack as I was.
Perhaps the root cause of the governance problem was that we did not realize well enough that a community would form, nor did we think carefully about what this entailed. For months I denied that Wikipedia was a community, claiming that it was, instead, only an encyclopedia project, and that there should not be any serious governance problems if people would simply stick to the task of making an encyclopedia. This was wishful thinking. In fact, Wikipedia was from the beginning both a community and an encyclopedia project. And for a community attempting to achieve something, to be serious, effective, and fair, a charter seems necessary. In short, a collaborative community would do well to think of itself as a polity with everything that that entails: a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter. There are special requirements of nearly every serious community, however, best served by relevant experts; and so I think a prominent role for the relevant experts should be written into the charter. I would recommend all of this to anyone launching a serious online community. But indeed, in January 2001, we were in both "uncharted" and "unchartered" territory. The world, I think, will be able to benefit from this and our other initial mistakes.
In fairness to ourselves, it was a good idea to allow the community to decide by experience and consensus what article content rules to endorse. This allowed us to generate a very sensible set of article content rules. Yet it was a mistake to apply the same thinking to the organization of the community itself. We should have acknowledged that a community would form, that it would have certain persistent and difficult issues that would need to be solved, and that a lack of any effective founding community charter might result in chaos.
My Resignation and Final Few Months with the Project
Throughout the governance controversy, I was preparing for my wedding, which took place December 1, 2001. A few days after I arrived back from my honeymoon, I was informed that I should probably start looking for another job, because Bomis had to lay off most of its workers. Bomis had 10 to 12 workers at the end of 2000, and by the beginning of 2002 it was back to its original 4 to 5. My salary was reduced in December and then halved in January. This seemed inevitable because Wikipedia was not bringing in any money at all for Bomis, even if Wikipedia was becoming even more of a publicly recognized, if still modest success. Our first anniversary came just before we announced having 20,000 articles, and I was invited to talk about the project at Stanford on January 16.
I was officially laid off at the beginning of February, which I announced a few weeks later. I had continued on as a volunteer; Wikipedia and Nupedia were, after all, volunteer projects. But I was laboring in the aftermath of the governance controversies of the previous fall and winter, which promised to make the job of a volunteer project leader even more difficult. Moreover, I had to look for a real job. So, throughout the month of February, I considered resigning altogether.
Jimmy had told me the previous December that Bomis would start trying to sell ads on Wikipedia to pay for my job. Even in that horrible market for Internet advertising, there were already enough page views on Wikipedia that advertising proceeds might have provided me a very meager living. We knew that this would be extremely controversial, because so many of the people who are involved in open source and open content projects absolutely hate the idea of advertising on the web pages of free projects, even to support project organizers. In fact, when this advertising plan was announced, in late February of 2002, the Spanish Wikipedia was forked (something I urged them not to do).
Bomis was not successful in selling any ads for Wikipedia anyway—early 2002 was the very bottom of the market for Internet advertising. I also had some hope that we might, finally, set up the project's managing nonprofit, which we had discussed doing for a long time (and which eventually did come into being: Wikimedia). The job of setting up the nonprofit was left to me, but ongoing controversies seemed to eat up any time I had for Wikipedia, and frankly I had no idea where to begin. So, after a month without pay, I announced my general resignation; I completely stayed away from the project for a few months.
Wikipedia's offshoot projects—a dictionary, a textbook project, a quotation project, a public domain book repository, etc.—were all started in 2002 or later, and I cannot claim any credit for them.
In the spring, a controversy erupted. Caring as I did—and as I still do—about the future of free encyclopedias, I felt compelled to get involved. The controversy featured a troll who was putting up huge numbers of screeds on the meta-wiki and on Wikipedia as well. The controversy began with a discussion of what to do about, and how to react to, this particular troll. I maintained that one should not "feed the troll," and that the troll should be "outed" (it was an anonymous user, but it was not hard to use Google to determine the identity of the troll) and shamed.
There resulted a broader controversy about how to treat problem users generally. There were, as I recall, two main schools of thought. One, to which I adhered and still adhere, was that bona fide trolls should be "named and shamed" and, if they were unresponsive to shaming, they should be removed from the project (by a fair process) sooner rather than later. We held that a collaborative project requires commitment to ethical standards which are—as all ethical standards ultimately are—socially established by pointing out violations of those standards. Hence naming and shaming. A second school of thought held that all Wikipedia contributors, even the most difficult, should be treated respectfully and with so-called WikiLove. Hence trolls were not to be identified as such (since "troll" is a term of abuse), and were to be removed from the project only after a long (and painful) public discussion. I felt at the time that the prevalence of the second school entailed rejection of both objective standards and rules-based authority. It is impossible to explain why one is removing some partisan screeds from the wiki without, in some way, identifying it as a partisan screed, and pointing out that such productions are inconsistent with the neutrality policy. This will necessarily be received as less than respectful and "loving," especially if one must engage the troll himself in a long, drawn-out dispute. In a very long dispute with any trollish type, it is only a matter of time before some epithet gets bandied about. More generally, the very application of rules, or laws, entails a moral judgment, or what for its effectiveness must have the force of a moral judgment. I suppose I agree with those legal theorists who say that there is necessarily, in its core, a moral component to the law. Consequently, the new policy of "WikiLove" handed trolls and other difficult users a very effective weapon for purposes of combating those who attempted to enforce rules. After all, any forthright declaration that a user is doing something that is clearly against established conventions—posting screeds, falsehoods, nonsense, personal opinion, etc.—is nearly always going to appear disrespectful, because such a declaration involves a moral accusation. The result is that, on pain of becoming persona non grata in the community, one had to treat brazen, self-conscious violators of basic policy with particular respect. It was a perfect coup for the resident wiki anarchists. I again left the project for several months.
In fall of 2002, I had started teaching at a local community college, and with some extra time on my hands, I started editing Wikipedia a little and engaging in mailing list discussions. I think my first new post to Wikipedia-L, from September 1, 2002, was "Why the free encyclopedia movement needs to be more like the free software movement." In it I argued that the free software movement is led and dominated by highly qualified programmers, and that the "free encyclopedia movement"—that is, Wikipedia, Nupedia, and other newer projects—needs to move in that direction. I suggested that Nupedia be redesigned to release "approved" versions of Wikipedia articles; Wikipedia itself was not to be touched. This proposal met with a very cool reception. After a few months of discussion, Jimmy himself was "intending to revive Nupedia in the near future" and "thinking very much along the lines of what is being discussed here." Unfortunately, this never happened.
By December, I proposed, and Magnus Manske very helpfully coded, an expert-controlled approval process for Wikipedia that was in fact to be independent of both Nupedia and Wikipedia. It would not have affected the Wikipedia editorial process. It would have lived in a separate namespace or domain, as an independent add-on project for Wikipedia. Without explaining the details, expert reviewers, the recruitment of which I would organize, would examine Wikipedia articles and approve or disapprove of particular versions of those articles. We set up a mailing list, Sifter-L (archives no longer online, apparently), which for several weeks discussed policy issues.
There was not a great deal of support for the proposal on Wikipedia-L. There was little or no excitement that the new project might bring into Wikipedia a fresh crop of subject area specialists. But that was fine as far as I was concerned, since the project was to operate independently of Wikipedia. Still, I had the very distinct sense that any specialists arriving on the scene would not necessarily be met with open arms—particularly if before approving an article they wished to make whatever changes to articles that they felt necessary. There were even a few Wikipedians who made it clear that experts should not expect to be treated any differently than anyone else, even when writing about their areas of expertise.
I then considered whether the interaction between Wikipedians and the new reviewers might be a problem after all. Surely, I thought, most specialists would want to edit even very good articles before approving them (in the independent system). This would require that the reviewers interact with Wikipedians. Wikipedia's culture had become such that disrespect of expertise was tolerated, and, again, trolls were merely warned, but very politely (in keeping with the policy of WikiLove), that they please ought to stop their inflammatory behavior. Trolls would certainly find ripe targets in expert reviewers, I thought. I recalled that patient, well-educated Wikipedians like J. Hoffmann Kemp and Michael Tinkler had been driven off the project not only by trolls but also by some of the more abrasive and disrespectful regulars. I then considered: could I in good conscience really ask academics, who are very busy, to engage in this activity that would probably annoy most of them and do nothing to contribute to their academic careers? Recruiting for Nupedia had been easy by comparison and caused me no such pangs of conscience.
I believe it was this problem that finally prompted me in January of 2003 to inform Jimmy by private email that I was breaking with the project altogether; the only way he could prevent this, I told him, was that he personally crack down on problem users, and make the project more officially welcoming to experts. I also told him that I did not expect this information to change his mind, and that I did not mean to issue an ultimatum. And in fact our exchange did not change his mind. I concluded that we had a fundamental philosophical disagreement about how the project should be run. I respected and still respect his view. That is where matters ended, and it was then that I broke with Wikipedia altogether.
Final Attempts to Save Nupedia
Nevertheless, I was interested in pursuing Nupedia's development. It still seemed salvageable to me.
I recall two incidents in which I tried to have Nupedia revived. First, I approached Jimmy with the offer to try to find a buyer/managing organization for Nupedia. I suggested that since Bomis did not have enough money to support it, and since Jimmy did not appear to have any specific intentions with the project, I might be able to find a university or other organization that would take on the responsibility. In the end, we did not pursue this possibility. Later, I offered to buy Nupedia myself—that is, the domain name, the membership list, and whatever other proprietary material Bomis might have controlled. I wanted to start it up again as a simpler, more streamlined, but still fully peer-reviewed project. I thought, moreover, that if I owned it, I might be able to give it to a suitable sponsoring educational or nonprofit institution. Jimmy seemed cool to the idea, and did not ask for any specific offers.
Nupedia, then, didn't die just from the inefficiency of its system. To some extent it was also allowed to die, even after it was clear that its former editor in chief expressed an interest in continuing the project under an entirely different system. The result was that, without a leader or organization that could support its mission, Nupedia died a slow death. The server it lived on had some trouble in 2003, and as a result, the web site went offline. For whatever reason, the web site was never brought up again after that.
Perhaps there was a concern that Nupedia would essentially fork Wikipedia. I feel that such a concern would not have justified letting Nupedia wither untended. The projects, Wikipedia and Nupedia, were naturally complementary parts of a single, symbiotic whole. That at least is how I always regarded them. From the founding of Wikipedia, I always thought Wikipedia without Nupedia would have been unreliable, and that Nupedia without Wikipedia would have been unproductive. Together they were to be an "unstoppable high-quality article-creation juggernaut."
It is still disappointing to me that we made plans and promises to thousands of Nupedians, including hundreds of extremely well-qualified people, some of them leaders in their fields. We spent many thousands of hours, all told, on the project. I apologize to those people, and I can only hope that they will find some future open content encyclopedia project worthy of their participation, one that will show the world the potential that Nupedia had.
I have some advice for anyone who would like to start new projects on the model of Wikipedia.
You can learn from Wikipedia's success; so, first and most importantly, note the principles I've articulated about why Wikipedia works.
But you can also learn from our mistakes. Governance issues are, in my opinion, the primary failing of Wikipedia. Bear in mind, also, that these are only rough guidelines, for those who are starting projects that have enough resemblance to Wikipedia. These are not perfectly general rules:
- If you intend to create a very large, complex project, establish early on that there will be some nonnegotiable policy. Wikis and collaborative projects necessarily build communities, and once a community becomes large enough, it absolutely must have rules to keep order and to keep people at work on the mission of the project. "Force of personality" might be enough to make a small group of people hang together; for better or worse, however, clearly enunciated rules are needed to make larger groups of people hang together.
- There is some policy that, with forethought, can be easily predicted will be necessary. Articulate this policy as soon as possible. Indeed, consider making a project charter to make it clear from the beginning what the basic principles governing the project will be. This will help the community to run more smoothly and allow participants to self-select correctly.
- Establish any necessary authority early and clearly. Managers should not be afraid to enforce the project charter, even by removing people from the project. As soon as it becomes necessary, it should be done. Standards that are not enforced in any way do not exist in any robust sense. Do not tolerate deliberate disruption from those who oppose your aims. Tell them to start their own project; there's a potentially infinite amount of cyberspace.
- As any disagreements among project managers are apt to be publicly visible in a collaborative project, and as this is apt to undermine the moral authority of at least one manager, make sure management is on the same page from the beginning—preferably before launch. This requires a great deal of thinking through issues together.
- In knowledge-creation projects, and perhaps many other kinds of projects, make special roles for experts from the very beginning. Do not attempt to add those roles later, as an afterthought. Specialists are one of your most important resources, and it is irrational not to use them as much as you can. Preferably, design the charter so that they are included and encouraged. Moreover, make the volunteer project management a meritocracy, and not based on longevity but based on the ability to lead and contribute to the project. That is the only condition under which very many of the best-qualified people will want to participate.
Another point needs more in-depth development.
Radical and untried new ideas require constant refinement and adaptation to succeed. The first proposal is very rarely the best, and project designers must learn from their mistakes and constantly redesign better projects. Nupedia's Advisory Board failed to admit to inherent flaws in its system, and its delay in admission shut the window of opportunity on its improvement. The Wikipedia community fell into a mistake by thinking that just a few—the wiki feature and the neutrality policy and a few other things—explained Wikipedia's success and that those features can thus be applied with no significant changes to new projects. But there is no substitute for constant creativity and problem solving—nor for honesty about what problems need solving. The honesty to recognize problems and creativity in solving them is, after all, what made Wikipedia succeed in the first place.
This is a crucial point: if you use a tool or model from another project, think through very carefully how that tool or model should be adapted. Do not assume that you need to use every feature or every aspect of the surrounding culture, that you are borrowing. Wikipedia borrowed rather too much from (1) the culture of wikis, (2) unmoderated online discussions, and (3) freewheeling online culture generally. To be sure, Wikipedia is also a product of those cultures, and works as well as it does largely because of what it borrowed from those cultures. But it also shares some of its more serious current flaws with such cultures. Those planning new projects, or wanting to overhaul old ones, might well bear in mind that a certain cultural context, including the context that has grown up around a tool, just might not be right for that project. Let me elaborate:
- Consider first the culture of wikis. On the one hand, I said we wanted to determine the best rules, and experience would help us determine that; so we had no rules to begin with. On the other hand, one might add that another reason we began without rules was that we were partaking in the extremely uncontrolled, freewheeling nature of "traditional" wikis. I think that's right. But there is an excellent reason why an encyclopedia project should not partake in that extremely uncontrolled nature of wiki culture, and why it should adopt actually enforceable rules. Unlike traditional wikis, encyclopedia projects have a very specific aim, with very specific constraints, and efficient work toward that aim, within those constraints, practically requires the adoption of enforceable rules. The mere fact that most wikis, when Wikipedia was created, did not have enforceable rules hardly meant that one could not innovate further, and create one that did have rules.
- Moreover, Jimmy and I and most of the first participants on Wikipedia were veterans of unmoderated Internet discussion groups, and hence, naturally, we could appreciate the advantages of letting a virtual community develop in the absence of any real authority. In unmoderated forums, there is often found a sense, among some participants, that any attempt to oust a particularly troublesome user amounts to unjustifiable censorship. The result is that the existence of many unmoderated forums online has created a small army of people militantly opposed to the slightest restriction on speech, who feel that they do and should have a right to say whatever they like, wherever they like, online. Any attempt to create and enforce rules for Internet projects, when that small army is ready to cry "censorship," will seem daring or even outrageous in many contexts online. But there is an excellent reason why such anarchy is inappropriate for many projects, including encyclopedia projects, even one that is self-policing like a wiki. There simply must be a way to enforce rules for rules to be effective. Given that encyclopedia project development happens almost entirely using words, nearly any rules will also be restrictions on speech. Anyone who advocates many enforceable rules on a collaborative project, in the cultural context of an Internet filled with so many unmoderated discussion groups, can be made to seem reactionary. But this is only a result of that cultural context; in any other context, the existence of rules would be perfectly natural and unobjectionable.
- Finally, and generally speaking, the Internet is a great leveler. Since social interaction can proceed among complete strangers who cannot so much as see each other, things that seem to matter in many "meatspace" discussions, such as age, social status, and level of education, are often dismissed as unimportant online. Many Internet forums, chatrooms, and blogs are populated by people who are identified by only a "handle," and any suggestion that communication should be restricted or in any way altered in accordance with "expertise" or "authority" is likely to be met with outrage in most forums. But there are several excellent and obvious reasons why expertise does need special consideration in an encyclopedia project, and in other collaborative projects. First, there are many subjects that dilettantes cannot write about credibly; I, for example, could not write very credibly about astronomy or speleology, but I have a passing interest in both. If I am working only with other dilettantes, our articles are apt to remain amateurish at best; we can fill in the gaps in each other's knowledge, and do research, but the results will remain problematic until someone with more knowledge of the subject contributes. Second, there are very many specialized subjects about which no one but experts have any significant knowledge at all. Third, it is only the opinions of experts that will be trusted by most of the public as authoritative in determining whether an article is generally reliable. Moreover, the standards of public credibility are not likely to be changed by the widespread use of Wikipedia or by online debate about the reliability of Wikipedia. Like them or hate them, those are the facts. But if one points out these facts online, culturally "leveled" as it is, particularly in forums or projects like Wikipedia which go out of their way to ignore individual differences among people, one finds a frosty reception at best.
Consider, if you will, that it was because Wikipedia was started in the context of the ingrained cultures of wikis, of unmoderated discussion forums, and of the leveling, anti-elitist influence of the Internet at large, that it was very difficult for us to exercise the maximal amount of creativity that a maximally successful project would require. In establishing a new cultural context, we were deeply constrained by the old. Now, to be sure, Wikipedia did not have to adopt the particular conjunction of policies that it did. But it is not surprising that it did adopt its particular conjunction of policies, considering the conjunction of influences on its development. It would have required much more explanation, persuasion, and struggle to have persuaded potential participants that some persons, even in a wiki environment, should have special standing. Constantly reinforced cultural habits die very hard indeed, and place strong constraints upon what can be imagined, and what bare possibilities seem worth consideration.
It was our willingness to exercise our creativity and follow our imagination and create what is a new kind of culture, that led to Wikipedia's success. For the overall project of creating open content encyclopedias—and indeed, for the fantastic collaborative Internet that has yet to be created—to reach its full potential, the processes of identifying mistakes honestly, and creatively seeking solutions, must be ramped up and continued unabated.
- ↑ Posted December 31, 2004, at http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/12/30/142458/25. All URLs in this chapter were accessed April 5, 2005.
- ↑ "Britannica or Nupedia? The Future of Free Encyclopedias," posted July 25, 2001, at http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2001/7/25/103136/121.
- ↑ http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6298340/site/newsweek.
- ↑ A version of "Nupedia.com Editorial Policy Guidelines" from 2001 can be found at http://web.archive.org/web/20010607080354/www.nupedia.com/policy.shtml.
- ↑ "The Book Stops Here," http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.03/wiki.html.
- ↑ Consult the 2001 assignment policy if you are interested: http://web.archive.org/web/20010607080354/http://www.nupedia.com/policy.shtml#assignment.
- ↑ "Britannica or Nupedia?" op. cit.
- ↑ For an introduction, see the "Welcome Visitors" page of WikiWikiWeb: http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?WelcomeVisitors.
- ↑ Usemod.com, a wiki about wikis, has many articles that introduce the old-fashioned idea about wikis. See "WikiPedia Is Not Typical," http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?WikiPediaIsNotTypical.
- ↑ "Thread Mode," http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?ThreadMode.
- ↑ "What Is Refactoring," http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?WhatIsRefactoring.
- ↑ "Document Mode," http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?DocumentMode.
- ↑ "Wiki Pedia," http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiPedia.
- ↑ "Wikipedia: Size of Wikipedia," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Size_of_Wikipedia.
- ↑ "Deferring to the experts," http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Deferring_to_the_experts.
- ↑ "RulesToConsider," http://web.archive.org/web/20010307211833/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/RulesToConsider.
- ↑ "Wikipedia talk:Ignore all rules," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Ignore_all_rules.
- ↑ "Be bold in updating pages," http://web.archive.org/web/20011111150732/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/Be_bold_in_updating_pages.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:Wikipedia is not a dictionary," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_is_not_a_dictionary.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:What Wikipedia is not," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:What_Wikipedia_is_not.
- ↑ "Nupedia.com Editorial Policy Guidelines," Version 3.31 (November 16, 2000), Part III, "General Nupedia Policies," http://web.archive.org/web/20001205000200/http://www.nupedia.com/policy.shtml#III.
- ↑ "NeutralPointOfView," http://web.archive.org/web/20010416035757/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/NeutralPointOfView. For the current version, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view.
- ↑ That is, the GNU Free Documentation License. Can be read at http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html. By 2000-2001, this license was the biggest thing going, as far as open content licenses were concerned; Creative Commons, at http://creativecommons.org, did not get started until 2001.
- ↑ Op. cit.
- ↑ http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2001/9/24/43858/2479.
- ↑ "User:JHK," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:JHK.
- ↑ "User:MichaelTinkler," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wiki.phtml?title=User:MichaelTinkler.
- ↑ http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikipedia-l.
- ↑ http://mail.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikien-l.
- ↑ "Moving commentary out of Wikipedia," posted November 3, 2001, http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Moving_commentary_out_of_Wikipedia.
- ↑ Wikipedia Meta-Wiki, http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.
- ↑ "Internet troll," http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:Arbitration Committee," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Arbitration_Committee.
- ↑ "The Art of Wikipedia Weeding," posted September 26, 2001, http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/The_art_of_Wikipedia_weeding.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:Mailing lists," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Mailing_lists.
- ↑ "Moderator (communications)," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moderator_%28communications%29.
- ↑ Posted November 1, 2001, http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Is_Wikipedia_an_experiment_in_anarchy.
- ↑ "Slashdot effect,"http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slashdot_effect.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:The Wikipedia Militia," http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:The_Wikipedia_Militia&oldid=290128.
- ↑ "Wikipedia talk:The Wikipedia Militia," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:The_Wikipedia_Militia.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:Volunteer Fire Department," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Volunteer_Fire_Department.
- ↑ "Wikipedia/Our Replies to Our Critics," http://web.archive.org/web/20011112085441/www.wikipedia.com/wiki/Wikipedia/Our_Replies_to_Our_Critics.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:Replies to common objections," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Replies_to_common_objections.
- ↑ "What we need," http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikien-l/2002-November/000047.html.
- ↑ "Re: What we need," http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikien-l/2002-November/000086.html.
- ↑ The presentation may be viewed at http://www.stanford.edu/class/ee380/winter-schedule.html. The text of the talk is located at http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_and_why_it_matters.
- ↑ "Announcement about my involvement in Wikipedia and Nupedia," http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Announcement_about_my_involvement_in_Wikipedia_and_Nupedia—Larry_Sanger.
- ↑ Located at http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portada.
- ↑ The fork is called Enciclopedia Libre Universal en Español, http://enciclopedia.us.es/index.php/Enciclopedia_Libre_Universal_en_Espa%F1ol.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:Statement by Larry Sanger about the Spanish wiki encyclopedia fork," http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statement_by_Larry_Sanger_about_the_Spanish_wiki_encyclopedia_fork.
- ↑ The Wikimedia Foundation's home page: http://www.wikimedia.org/.
- ↑ "My resignation," http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/My_resignation—Larry_Sanger.
- ↑ "Wikipedia:WikiLove," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiLove.
- ↑ http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikipedia-l/2002-September/022164.html.
- ↑ "Wikipedia subset proposal," http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikipedia-l/2002-November/024677.html
- ↑ http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikipedia-l/2002-November/024684.html.
- ↑ "Britannica or Nupedia?" op. cit.
- ↑ See "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism," op. cit.