Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

New Web guide drops anti-elitist bias of Wikipedia

Larry Sanger, co-founder of the free online encyclopedia, is now helping launch a Web guide based on some of its first principles


Larry Sanger seems to have a thing about free online encyclopedias. Although his main claim to fame is as the co-founder, along with Jimmy Wales, of Wikipedia, that is just one of several projects to produce large-scale, systematic stores of human knowledge Sanger has been involved in.

Sanger's love of philosophy and epistemology -- the study of the nature and scope of knowledge -- began around the age of 16. His doctorate, from the University of Ohio, concerned "epistemic circularity," and it was as this was nearing completion that he started thinking about less abstruse matters -- like earning money.

In 2000, he drew up a business proposal and sent it to a few people, one of whom was Wales, whom he had known from philosophy mailing lists in the mid-1990s.

"He saw that I was essentially looking for employment online and he was looking for someone to lead Nupedia ... Nupedia wasn't there at all, in fact it was just the vaguest of ideas," Sanger said. "Jimmy was frustratingly brief in his instructions, he simply wanted an encyclopedia that everyone could contribute to and that would be released under what he called an open content license."

The basic concept came from the open directory project Dmoz, short for Directory Mozilla. This volunteer effort to create a free version of Yahoo's hierarchical listings began in 1998 under the name Gnuhoo -- which was inspired by GNU/Linux -- before turning into Newhoo. It was acquired by Netscape and released as open content.

One of Sanger's tasks was to recruit academic volunteers to write, edit and organize entries. All the information was carefully peer-reviewed -- creating an entry was a seven-step process. This ensured rigor but also throttled the rate of production. This problem was evident as early as the summer of 2000, a few months after it had been designed.

While casting around for a way to speed up article production, Sanger met with Ben Kovitz, an old friend, in January 2001. Kovitz introduced Sanger to the idea of the wiki -- Web pages that anyone could write and edit -- invented in 1995 by Ward Cunningham.

"My first reaction was that this really could be what would solve the problem," Sanger explains, "because the software was already written, and this community of people on WikiWikiWeb" -- the first wiki -- "had created something like 14,000 pages."

Nupedia, by contrast, had produced barely two dozen articles.

Sanger took up the idea immediately: "I wrote up a proposal and sent it [to Wales] that evening, and the wiki was then set up for me to work on."

But this was not Wikipedia as we know it.

"Originally it was the Nupedia Wiki -- our idea was to use it as an article incubator for Nupedia. Articles could begin life on this wiki, be developed collaboratively and, when they got to a certain stage of development, be put into the Nupedia system," he said.

Things didn't quite work out that way.

"The editors and peer reviewers of Nupedia, mostly professors and other professionals, looked at the wiki tool and didn't want anything to do with it," he said.

The idea was too revolutionary. As Sanger points out: "It actually took the success of Wikipedia" -- as Sanger later baptized it -- "to make the idea plausible to a lot of people."

Wikipedia grew quickly -- perhaps too quickly. There was an influx of visitors driven by two postings on the Slashdot news site who were not clued in to the Wikipedia culture, recalls Sanger.

This story has been viewed 3442 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top