20.1. Some Recent Press
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
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,
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
, in "It's Like a Blog, But It's a Wiki,"
reporter Brad Stone
[Jimmy] Wales first tried to rewrite the rules of the reference-book business five
ago with a free online encyclopedia called Nupedia. Anyone could submit articles, but they were vetted in a
review process. After investing thousands of his own dollars and publishing only 24 articles, Wales reconsidered. He scrapped the review process and
using a popular kind of online Web site called a "wiki," which allows its readers to change the content.
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
as editors and peer reviewers. I
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
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
thinin 2001, I was both chief organizer of Wikipedia and editor in chief of Nupediaand my own
work on Nupedia was obvious to all active Nupedia contributors. It might be better to say that Nupedia withered due to neglectwhich was largely due to a lack of sufficient funds for paid organizerswhich 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
: 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
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
article by Daniel Pink also got a number of things wrong, despite being, in other respects, an
With Sanger as editor in chief, Nupedia
replicated the One Best Way model. He
a roster of
to write articles. (
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 0,000," 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
and email addresses of editors and reviewers with a web pageoften, 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
who he was, to fax a degree. Verifying bona fides seemed like a good idea
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" articlesnot 12after 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
. But Nupedia could have evolved, and would have, had we
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
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
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
to be laid off on account of the tech
. 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
reporting, considering the rather good chance that Wikipedia will become historically important, and considering that the planners of
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
closely and with interest after my departure, but silently and from the sidelines.