Mondo Wikipedia

Community and controversy as the online reference giant turns five

Even Wales has rewritten his own biography, altering sentences about the role of his former employee Larry Sanger. On four occasions he changed the phrase "Wales and Sanger set up Wikipedia" to "Wales set up Wikipedia." Fellow users barely questioned his decision to contribute. The culture of the encyclopedia is simple: If you see a problem, change it. If other people think you're wrong, no big deal— they'll change it. Nothing is permanent. One frequent user, Fang Aili, didn't understand why Seigenthaler made such a fuss when he could have just taken out the libelous information himself. "Umm . . . Why didn't he just press the 'Edit' button, for god's sake? THAT'S WHAT IT'S THERE FOR. Jesus Christ."

In 2000, Jimmy Wales, a futures and options trader with a fondness for Ayn Rand, decided to start an open-content encyclopedia called Nupedia. "I saw it as a kind of social event," he says, "the equivalent of a sports league—but for geeks." He hired an acquaintance, Larry Sanger, a philosophy grad student at Ohio State University, to begin recruiting scholars and experts. Unlike what became Wikipedia, Nupedia would have a relatively traditional format, with each entry undergoing a seven-step editorial process. The first article, published in the summer of 2000, took more than four months to complete. The subject was atonality.

By the end of the year, there were only 24 articles. As a side project, Wales used the wiki, a type of software that allows for constant collaboration, to create a second encyclopedia where people could mess around with the entries before they were formally reviewed. Sanger came up with the term Wikipedia ("a silly name for what was at first a very silly project"), and the site was launched on January 15, 2001, now referred to by some users as Wikipedia Day. Within a month, the encyclopedia had 1,000 articles. After a year, there were more than 20,000.

Whose idea it was to use the wiki is a point of contention: In a recent essay on slashdot.com, Sanger says he proposed the idea and Wales was initially skeptical. Wales disagrees. The concept, he says, came from another employee, Jeremy Rosenfeld. Confident in his version of the story, Wales went ahead and tweaked the Wikipedia entry for "Larry Sanger" to reflect what he believed was the truth. Sanger was not amused: "Jimmy, I notice that you removed 'conceived of' from the description of my relationship to the origin of Wikipedia," he wrote on a discussion page. "I didn't conceive of it? It seems to me I did; it was, in a very robust sense, my idea. You remember this, I'm sure."

From the beginning, Wikipedia has presented the notion that history was up for grabs. The site evolved into its own community before Wales and Sanger had a chance to evaluate how they should govern it. As Sanger describes it in his essay, Wikipedia "began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature," but the community soon expanded out of control. Within months, Sanger felt he'd already missed his chance to assert himself as an authority. His biggest mistake, he writes, was failing to recognize that Wikipedia was more than just an encyclopedia: It was its own "polity." It needed "a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter."

Sanger resigned from the site in March 2002. Funding for his position had run out, and he chose not to continue as a volunteer. The site had become a "boisterous outdoor bazaar," he says. He had taken on the role of bad cop and he was frustrated with users' unruliness (Wales was the good cop, removed from logistics yet providing all the money). "I found myself generally despised by the old Wikipedians," he tells the Voice. "Anyone with authority was bound to be unpopular."

In a 2004 article published on kuro5hin .org, "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism," Sanger (who recently launched his own encyclopedia, Digital Universe) acknowledges that the site is "very cool." But as a philosophy professor with a specialty in epistemology, he is concerned about the way it is seen in academic circles. The problem, he writes, isn't that Wikipedia is unreliable. It's that librarians, teachers, and professors will always perceive it as unreliable. It's too open to "trolls and fools."

Ward Cunningham, the man who invented the wiki 10 years ago, says he designed it in reaction to precisely this kind of assumption: the idea, barely thought out, that ordinary people can't be trusted. "No one has the right answers," he says. "Honest to God, what is truth? Can you tell me what truth is? If you want infallibility, go see the pope."

Cunningham uses the term "Web 2.0" to describe what he and many others see as a new phase in the development of the Internet, defined in part by the idea of a collective consciousness. If Web 1.0 was a shopping mall, this second phase is more of an ongoing conversation, he says. Many successful sites are community based, participatory, and free of charge (see MySpace, Craigslist, Flickr, Socialtext, Blogspot, Meetup, Dodgeball). In a widely read blog post, "The Amorality of Web 2.0," Nick Carr, the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, encourages people to acknowledge the trend for what it is: "The Cult of the Amateur."

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