My role in Wikipedia (links)
To the best of my knowledge, I was first described as co-founder of Wikipedia
back in September 2001 by The New York Times. That was also my
description in Wikipedia's own press releases from 2002 until 2004. With
my increasing distance from the project, and as it grew in the public eye,
however, some of those associated with the project have found it convenient to
downplay and even deny my crucial, formative involvement. In fact, in the
early years of the project, my role and the "founder" title were not in dispute at all;
indeed, Wikipedia's first three press releases, including
two that I had nothing to do with, all credited me as
founder. It was not until 2004 that Jimmy Wales began
omitting mention of my involvement at the start of Wikipedia
to the press in 2004, and he didn't start denying that I am co-founder until 2005 or 2006, just when
Wikipedia began to enter the public eye. The
following links have come to light, and they should dispel much of the
- January 10, 2001
Nupedia-L post by me titled, "Let's make a wiki": "As to Nupedia's use of
a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE 'open' and simple format for developing content.
We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to
either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be
implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in
general are very low-risk."
- January 15, 2001
Nupedia-L post by me titled "Wikipedia is up!": "Humor me. Go there
and add a little article..."
- March 2001: the Wikipedia FAQ said "The idea of a Nupedia-sponsored wiki originated out of a conversation Larry Sanger had with BenKovitz on the evening of January 2."
- March 2001: on
my user page, I described myself as "Editor-in-Chief of Nupedia and (with
Jimbo Wales) instigator of Wikipedia." I never called myself
"editor" of Wikipedia. At the same time,
the Wikipedia article gave no one in particular credit.
- July 2001: Jimmy Wales
submitted an article of mine to Slashdot, and there described me as "editor-in-chief of the Nupedia and Wikipedia sister projects."
- October 2001: Jimmy wrote
a mailing list post, in which he said, "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!)..."
- Fall 2001:
Meatball Wiki, I humorously (in response to criticism of my role in the
project) called myself "Dictator for Life." Others, there, called me
Wikipedia's "chief instigator."
- Early press coverage:
- September 2001
New York Times: "Sanger...founded Wikipedia with Mr. Wales"
- September 2001 Technology Review
called Wikipedia "the brainchild of Wales and its full-time editor Larry
- 2002 press coverage
- January 2003 Wired News: Jimmy and I were both called "co-founder" and I was, in addition, "former chief organizer"
- January 2003 The Guardian:
"its founders, internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry
- Wikipedia's press releases:
- January 2002
First Wikipedia press release: "The founders of Wikipedia are Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger. Wales has supplied the financial backing and other support for the project, and Sanger...has led the project."
This press release was written on a wiki page (so, Wales could have
commented at the time) and, to the best of my recollection, was approved and
posted by Jimmy Wales, who I believe personally posted all Bomis press
- January 2003
Second Wikipedia press release: "The project was founded by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger."
Note: this press release was written and posted after I left the project.
I had nothing to do with either drafting or approving it.
- February 2004,
First Wikimedia Foundation press release: "The Wikipedia project was
founded in January 2001 by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher
Larry Sanger. ... Sanger led the Wikipedia project during its first year, as
a full-time paid editor. Since then it has operated mostly on consensus,
using policies refined over time by its contributors." Again, this
press release was written and posted after I left the project and I had
nothing to do with it.
- Early versions of Wikipedia's own articles were all clear on the point:
- March 2002: someone calling him/herself "AnonymousDonor"
wrote on Meatball
Wiki (near bottom of page), "Larry Sanger resigned on March 1st, 2002. He
won't even stay as a volunteer. The project now no longer has a leader (or,
put another way, everyone is a leader now)." To this, long-time
Wikipedia contributor Stephen Gilbert replied, "That's not quite true. Jimmy
Wales, WikiPedia's co-founder, has stepped into Larry's shoes, although he
won't be able to lead as a full-time job."
- March 2002: Erik Moeller, now a WikiMedia Board member,
wrote in Kuro5hin,
"Larry Sanger played a crucial role in the first
year of Wikipedia and has helped establish a shared philosophy for its users.
... This may well be the right time to abandon the concept of 'editorship'
altogether... Now that Larry Sanger is gone, Wikipedia's owners will
have to watch whether the project manages the transition to effective
self-regulation and step in if necessary."
- August 2002: Jimmy Wales
himself to the xopd mailing list this way: "Hello, let me introduce
myself. I'm Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Nupedia and Wikipedia, the open content
- Mid-2004 and 2005: Jimmy Wales began leaving me entirely out of the story
of Wikipedia's origins, distorting my role and my views, e.g., saying that I
was opposed to the idea, and taking credit for things I had done. A good
example of this is the 2005 article in Wired Magazine by Daniel Pink.
- April 2005:
my memoir of Nupedia and Wikipedia was posted on Slashdot
- April 2005: at the end of an exchange between Jimmy and me on Wikipedia-L, I
summed up my view: "Probably...hundreds of people had the idea about a wiki encyclopedia before Wikipedia got started, and even told each other about it. But it was the idea I had, while tasked with solving Nupedia's problem, that actually and directly led to the development of Wikipedia. That is a matter of historical fact, in living memory of several people--including Jimmy, whether he admits it or not." Jimmy
responded, "Of course I 'admit' it. :-)"
- April 2005: one of the very first Wikipedians, who had been with the project since January 2001, posted on the list
his own interesting and lengthy account of Wikipedia's origins. Among other things, he wrote: "While I don't know anything of Larry and Jimbo's interaction outside the wiki, in Wikipedia itself Larry seemed to run the show, and either created or developed many (maybe most) of the conventions that we still follow. The direct work of Jimbo (again, just from what I remember I saw in the wiki) was much smaller, which makes sense considering he had somebody hired to do the job of running an encyclopedia, and the job was being well done."
- April 2005: Florence Devouard,
now Chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation,
responded to this by saying (among much else), "I tend to consider Larry as a co-foundator
of the project myself, but not being there in 2001, it is just a personal assumption from what I heard and read."
- 2005: Jimmy Wales began, for the first time, explicitly denying that I was
co-founder of Wikipedia.
- January 2007: largely in response to the ongoing controversy on
Wikipedia's Talk pages about Wikipedia's origins, Manning Bartlett, a very
active early contributor to Wikipedia
wrote on the Talk page of "History of Wikipedia" article: "Frankly - to
assert that Larry was not a co-founder of the Pedia is patently absurd. Jimbo
was the driving force behind the Internet-based encyclopedia concept, which
became Nupedia. Larry proposed and convinced Jimbo that a wiki-based concept
was worthwhile. Larry remains (in my opinion) the single most important
individual in the history of the actual Wikipedia, and his structural and
philosophical influence remains apparent to this day." Another early
contributor to Wikipedia, Derek Ross, responded: "Agreed. That's how I see it
- 2009: once again, after protracted discussion, the Wikipedia pages about
me, Jimmy Wales, and Wikipedia have all pretty reliably given me credit as
co-founder in the last few years.
A note about the word "founder":
I believe "founder" is used in two
closely-related ways, depending on whether the thing founded is either a
business enterprise, on the one hand, or a community project, movement, etc.,
on the other hand. In a business context, frequently, the founders of an
enterprise are its original funders or sponsors. In a community context,
however, the founders are those who had the most personal influence in getting
a community started. So, for example, we might say the French government
was a "founder" of the United States in the business sense, while Washington,
Jefferson, and Franklin were among the community founders.
So, on the one
hand, we can say that Bomis, Inc. was the founder of Wikipedia in the
"business sense." Strictly speaking, the "business founder" of Wikipedia
was not Jimmy Wales individually, since it was Bomis that paid the bills for
Wikipedia (including my paycheck), and Wales, Tim Shell, and Michael Davis
were, to the best of my knowledge, equal partners and co-owners of Bomis, Inc.
On the other hand--and I am sorry to have to say this myself, because I know
it sounds so immodest coming from my own mouth, but after the events of recent
years I just want the truth stated clearly--I have a much stronger claim
than Jimmy Wales has to being a founder of Wikipedia in the community
sense. As you can see from the evidence above, and as I think most people
who were there will attest, I was far more active than he was in the first 14
months of the project, and my influence on the community, in terms of
organizational work, general policy, and important decisions was far greater
than his. For anyone wondering what I could possibly mean by this, I would point
my memoir for clarification. I'd also like to point out that Jimmy Wales has
written no similar memoir, because he really did not do that very much in the
community to write about. If he ever does write a memoir of the events of the
first 14 months of Wikipedia, he knows I will be on hand to keep him honest.
Finally, I submit that, since Wikipedia is best known and most useful not as
a "business enterprise" but as a free resource and worldwide non-profit
community, the most relevant sense of foundership is not the business sense but
the community sense.
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