We recently got talking to Larry Sanger, former co-founder of Wikipedia and Everipedia’s Chief Information Officer, and discussed everything from his inspiration behind Wikipedia to the challenges he faced, along with his views on blockchain.
We’d like to open with Wikipedia. What inspired you to cofound it? What opportunity did you see in the marketplace that others were ignoring?
“I was hired to start Nupedia which evolved into Wikipedia. I think the notion that Jimmy Wales had in mind is that he saw the success of open source software. When he offered me the job, he said, on your way over do some background reading on open source software and read an essay called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric Raymond. It was fascinating, and I got on board right away.
It was coincidental that Wikipedia’s predecessor was called Nupedia. Nupedia was unable to execute particularly well as they tried to organize encyclopedia writing in a traditional way, and that is slow and takes a lot of effort. If you’re going to have a free encyclopedia, you can’t pay the writers.“
Wikipedia is a decentralized encyclopedia and faced a lot of challenges during its creation. We were interested in learning about some major obstacles it faced.
What were the main challenges and obstacles for Wikipedia? And how did Wikipedia overcame them to become the most popular encyclopedia worldwide?
“One challenge was that people who arrived didn’t really have a clear idea of what an encyclopedia was. They wrote a lot of, for example, dictionary definitions or long opinion articles or some would simply write blogs. Every time somebody came up with a misconception of the mission of an encyclopedia, I would add an entry to the “What Wikipedia is Not” page.
There were also some people who were just nuts. They wrote stuff that just didn’t make much sense.
There were some accounts, even just IP addresses that we blocked because they were simply vandalizing the site. Vandalism is a separate issue, and it’s easy to justify getting rid of that.”
What were your Biggest Early Regrets in Wikipedia?
“One of my biggest early regrets is that we didn’t adopt something like a community charter and require people to live by it. As a result, the governance process on Wikipedia ended as a Lord of the Flies thing.”
The Wikipedia Editors: Nobody or everybody
How were the first editors chosen? I assume that the company did it at the beginning?
“On Wikipedia, it is all volunteers, and whoever wants to write on the Wiki can. There was a message at the top of every page that we put in there that was there for years. It said, “You can edit this page right now”. So you can press the edit button and boom, the text is edited.”
Who validates that the information is accurate?
“Nobody or everybody. In other words, there wasn’t anyone in the system that was set up as an editor who had special authority that other people did not have.
We edited each other’s work, and that’s how it still works. There are also admins and they have an authority that other people don’t have.”
You name them as editors, so it’s not accurate to call them editors?
“There is no special editor category on Wikipedia. Actually, Wikipedians often call everyone on the site “editors”.
So, it’s basically my word against someone else’s. The theory is that you just debate and other people can join in and eventually you will arrive at a consensus.
This is how it usually worked when there was a dispute. What happened is that one person puts in a claim in the article and somebody else says “I think the claim is wrong.” Then, what happens is that they would just debate the merits of the claim.
That’s the wrong approach. If you find yourself disagreeing, then you shouldn’t be debating about the merits of a particular claim. You should be trying to decide how best to represent the claim fairly with evidence or at least as much evidence as it has or is generally presented on its behalf.”
The Decentralized Network that will change the world
From your time at Wikipedia were you always aware of the impact that a decentralized network would have on the Internet and society as a whole?
“I would say I had a notion that people who were involved in decentralized networks were doing something that could potentially change the world.
I had already seen the importance of the Linux operating system and Apache. But the idea that it would create something much larger than that and getting really, really serious about the technology of decentralization in a way that, blockchain implemented. I don’t think I understood and that would have been news to me and a lot of people.”
From Greater Wiki to Everipedia
What motivated you to join Everipedia? Do you believe it represents the next phase of an online encyclopedia? Why?
“It doesn’t represent the next phase. When Everipedia started, I had more or less despaired of creating a community to outcompete Wikipedia. I got more excited by a particular idea that hit me about 3 years ago, I called it Greater Wiki, and it points directly at a blockchain encyclopedia hosting and rating network. The idea was that we collect articles or references to articles from the Internet.
Not to create a community per se, but make it possible to simply rate those articles. At the same time, if we collect metadata about the people doing the rating, it would be possible to show the ranking of the top articles. Fascinating.
There would have to be enough participation in such a system. So I really want to get this started because nothing like it existed.
The English language Wikipedia, is on the blockchain
In the first development phase, really interesting things are going on. The actual content of Everipedia, which includes the English language Wikipedia, is on the blockchain now, which is absolutely crazy. The editing of a Wiki is now mediated by the blockchain. You can receive tokens right now for your contributions to the blockchain, which is really neat. You put it all together, and we’ve got a very interesting project going on, and that’s why I got onboard.”
Interesting developments on Everipedia! We’re happy that Larry has faith in blockchain and has developed a blockchain based encyclopedia and we hope it surpasses the popularity of Wikipedia.