Citizendium Blog

May 8, 2007

Wales’ comments on Wired.com

Filed under: Press & blogs, Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 12:13 pm

I hate being engaged in a public controversy, but I find myself in one anyway.  The controversy was summed up in the following mercifully brief way in the Wired.com/Assignment Zero article about Citizendium:

The drama raging between the two information pioneers [me and Jimmy Wales] goes well beyond the scope of mere competing websites; it’s fueled by a well-documented professional-gone-personal conflict between Sanger and Wales about the paternity of Wikipedia. Sanger wrote the essay for kuro5hin that introduced Wikipedia. In the essay he credited himself as the “chief instigator of Wikipedia.” Wales wrote extensive comments to the essay, but not once did he object to Sanger’s crediting. Now Wales insists that Wikipedia was his own sole creation. He chafes at Sanger’s usual co-founder credit as “absurd,” going so far as to tell the Sydney Morning Herald that Sanger was just one of twenty people working on the project.

Also merciful was the next line: 

Wales refused interview requests for this article.

But, at some time after the article was posted, an “Editor’s note” was inserted, which reports Jimmy Wales’ views.  I’m no journalist, but I am a long-time consumer of online news, and I have never seen an editor’s note, of this sort, inserted into an Internet news article after publication — much less one that gives one side of a controversy three paragraphs to state views that, in my opinion, are libelous.  I was not given any opportunity to rebut the claims Wales made; I just happened to come across them today as I was glancing over the Wired article again.

Wales has made similar remarks before, but only privately and to Wikipedians.  He’s never said such outrageous things to a reputable news organization, or, if he has, the editors have had the good sense not to repeat them.

Here is my reply to Jimmy Wales’ remarks.

(Editor’s note: Following publication of this article, Wales offered the following on-the-record comment in an e-mail to NewAssignment.net editor Jay Rosen:

“‘Instigator’ does not mean ‘founder’ is the main other comment I would make. My claim in this matter is quite simple, and this is on the record:

“Larry Sanger was my employee working under my direct supervision during the entire process of launching Wikipedia. …

By January 15, 2001, the launch date of Wikipedia, I was in Nevada, Wales sent me very few e-mails (I sent him many and he replied to hardly any of them), and we virtually never talked on the phone.  Wales frequently says, “Larry Sanger was my employee working under my direct supervision,” but the force of the claim, as it will be understood by most people, is straightforward false.  It is true that I reported directly to Wales, but that hardly means that he was directly supervising me, which he was not.  He occasionally made a few vague suggestions — that’s all.  Virtually all the rest of the project was left up to me to organize.  I did so full-time; at the time, Wales had very little to do with it.  He was the most hands-off employer I’ve ever had.

… He was not the originator of the proposal to use a Wiki for the encyclopedia project — that was Jeremy Rosenfeld. …

This is libelous: it is provably false and it harms my reputation.  Wales has said it before, for the first time in 2005 on a mailing list, but never in a published source like Wired.com.

Why do I say “provably false”?  Here is some proof, a quote from Jimmy Wales himself, from Oct. 2001: “After a year or so of working on Nupedia, Larry had the idea to use Wiki software for a separate project specifically for people like you (and me!)…”  Yes, he really did write that.  It’s not a mistake or trick; Wales now quite simply wishes to rewrite history.

I proposed to Jimmy Wales that Nupedia create a wiki – and this wiki became Wikipedia.  I made this proposal the evening of January 2 or 3.  Ben Kovitz, who was there, is on the record saying I did so.  I had been credited with the idea of applying wiki technology to the task of creating an encyclopedia in Wikipedia’s own pages for several years.  That I conceived of Wikipedia was a claim made from the birth of Wikipedia.  For example, the March 2001 Wikipedia FAQ said: “The idea of a Nupedia-sponsored wiki originated out of a conversation Larry Sanger had with Ben Kovitz on the evening of January 2.”  The very first Wales ever told anyone, as far as I know, that I wasn’t the originator of the idea for a wiki encyclopedia, but instead a Jeremy Rosenfeld, was this post on Wikipedia-L – four years after the events — in response to my Wikipedia memoir.  Again, this is no mistake or trick.  It’s hard to believe (I sure thought so at the time), but there it is.

As far as I can recall, the very first time anyone started denying that I conceived of the idea for Wikipedia was in October 2004, when Wales himself edited the article about me to remove the words “conceived and”.  At the time I couldn’t believe that Wales would make that edit.  I had been credited for the previous three years with conceiving and spearheading Wikipedia: why would Wales want to deny it?

It now makes sense.  It was actually in 2004 that Jimmy Wales started giving interviews to reporters and leaving me out of the story of Wikipedia’s origin.  Until 2004, I had always been interviewed about the origin of Wikipedia as a matter of routine.  After that, not only was I not interviewed about the origin of Wikipedia, I did not even figure in the story Wales gave to reporters.  He deliberately left me out of it, when I was far better positioned to actually tell the story in the first place.

… And Larry has himself publicly stated, ‘To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy’s, not mine.’

I wrote that line in my Wikipedia memoir, in a spirit of generosity, knowing that partisans might take it out of context.  It never occurred to me that Jimmy Wales himself might do so.  The encyclopedia project described was not Wikipedia in particular, but Nupedia and the overall project that Bomis assigned me to work on.  Notice that I did not say that Wikipedia was Wales’ idea.  I have always said — since 2001 — that it was my idea to create a wiki encyclopedia.  Many, perhaps most, of the original policies were my ideas, too.  I said so in the memoir itself, in parts which of course Wales did not quote.

“His role in the early days of Wikipedia was important — he was considered the ‘editor-in-chief’ –

I was called editor-in-chief only by Wales and a few others at the time.  The titles I gave myself, and which I generally was called by, were “chief instigator” and “chief organizer,” which I felt better described the role I had.

but it was not the role of founder.

People are rarely called “founder” of brand new projects, particularly ones that have uncertain futures.  It was only when The New York Times interviewed us, in September 2001, that we had to be identified in relation to the origin of Wikipedia.  The Times said that, as one of the originators of Wikipedia, I “founded Wikipedia with Mr. Wales.”  I was also called a founder or co-founder of Wikipedia in Wikipedia’s own first three press releases — all of which Wales had to sign off on, and the second and third of which were produced after I was gone.  These facts are supported by links on this page.

Larry was never comfortable with the open wiki process, and he has been critical of it from the beginning and to this day.”)

This I find perhaps most outrageously libelous — a flat-out lie, one that is damaging to me and self-serving to Wales.

How on Earth could I have been uncomfortable with “the open wiki process” when I was the one who brought that process to Wales and to the community?  I was certainly no more critical of the process than Wales himself was in the beginning.  I thought it was really neat.  I still do, which is why the Citizendium invites a huge variety of people, not just experts, to participate in a bottom-up wiki.

I have been pulling my punches before now.  I didn’t want to shame Wales as I knew I could do, precisely because I didn’t want to get into a public controversy, and I never thought that Jimmy Wales would sink to the depths that he has.  But I was wrong.  I used to think that Jimmy was a decent person.  Based on quite actionable behavior that ex-Wikimedia people have told me about in recent weeks (I’ll let them come out with it, if and when they wish), his behavior in the Essjay scandal, and now this shameful libel — apparently not.  Perhaps I should have pointed out the facts in my own defense back in 2004, and Wales would have been shamed by the open record of Archive.org and Wikipedia’s own page histories, so that he could never have started writing me out of the history of Wikipedia in the self-serving way he has done.  I like to think that I am not conceited or self-serving; it always seemed immodest for me to defend myself aggressively.  I’m willing to suffer some abuse for some time, but I have my limits – and if Jimmy Wales is going to lie to a reputable news organization about my own achievements, when they are so easy to prove, I will not let him get away with it.

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