An impassioned debate has been raging, particularly since about the summer of 2004, about the merits of Wikipedia and the future of free online encyclopedias. This discussion has not benefitted by much detailed, accurate consideration of the origins of Wikipedia and of its parent project, Nupedia. But it seems to me that those origins are very important -- crucial, even -- to forming a proper judgment of the current state and best future direction of free encyclopedias.
Wikipedia as it stands is a fantastic project; it has produced enormous amounts of content, thousands of excellent articles, and now, after just four years, is getting high-profile, international recognition as a new way of obtaining at least a rough and ready idea about very many topics. Its surprising success may be attributed, briefly, to its free, open, and collaborative nature.
This has been my attitude toward Wikipedia practically since its founding. But a few months ago I wrote an article critical of certain aspects of the Wikipedia project, 'Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism', which occasioned much debate. I have also been quoted, as co-founder of Wikipedia, in many recent news articles about the project, making various other critical remarks. I am afraid I am getting an undeserved reputation as someone who is opposed to everything Wikipedia stands for. This is completely incorrect. In fact, I am one of Wikipedia's strongest supporters. I am partly responsible for bringing it into the world (as I will explain), and I still love it and want only the best for it. But if a better job can be done, a better job should be done. Wikipedia has shown fantastic potential, and it is open content--and so if the project has problems (or features) which will keep it from being the maximally authoritative, broad, and deep reference that I believe could exist, I firmly believe that the world has the right to, and should, improve upon it.
Wikipedia's predecessor, which I was also employed to organize, was Nupedia. Nupedia was to be a highly reliable, peer-reviewed resource that fully appreciated and employed the efforts of subject area experts, as well as the general public. When the more free-wheeling Wikipedia took off, Nupedia was left to wither. It might appear to have died of its own weight and complexity. But, as I will explain, it could have been redesigned and adapted--it could have, as it were, "learned from its mistakes" and from Wikipedia's successes. Thousands of people who had signed up and who wanted to contribute to the Nupedia system were left disappointed. I believe this was unfortunate and unnecessary; I always wanted Nupedia and Wikipedia working together to be not only the world's largest but also the world's most reliable encyclopedia. I hope that this memoir will help to justify this stance. Hopefully, too, I will manage to persuade some people that collaboration between an expert project and a public project is the correct approach to the overall project of creating open content encyclopedias.
I am not writing to request that Nupedia be resuscitated now, as nice as that would be. But I would like to tell the story of Nupedia and the first couple years of Wikipedia, as I remember it. A more complete history of the projects, as opposed to a memoir, must await a careful study of the Nupedia and Wikipedia archives--if early archives of them still exist (I have no idea if they do)--or else these entries from the "Wayback Machine." Interviews with many of those heavily involved in the projects would also help a great deal, so long as interviews were done of people on different side of the disputes that helped to shape the project.
By the way, the "overall project of creating open content encyclopedias" is something of which I have been writing since at least 2001. For example, in July of 2001, while still working on both Wikipedia and Nupedia, I wrote, "if some other open source project proves to be more competitive, then it should and will take the lead in creating a body of free encyclopedic knowledge." Since Wikipedia is open content and hence may be reproduced and improved upon by anyone, I have always been cognizant that it might not end up being the only or best version. My personal devotion has always been to the ideal project as I have envisioned it, not necessarily to particular incarnations of Nupedia or Wikipedia; and I think this attitude is fully consistent with the (very positive) spirit of open source collaboration generally.
This being said, let me also emphasize strongly that, throughout this discussion, I am not suggesting that Wikipedia needs to be replaced with something better. I do, however, think that it needs to be supplemented by a broader, more ambitious, and more inclusive vision of the overall project.
Some recent press reports
The following memoir seems all the more important to publish now because the early history of Nupedia and Wikipedia has been mischaracterized in the press recently. If there were only a few inaccuracies, which made no difference, I would be happy to leave well enough alone. But some of the mischaracterizations I've seen do make a difference, because they give the public the impression that Nupedia failed because it was run by snobbish experts whose standards were too high. As the following should make clear, that is not quite correct. One might also gather from some reports that the idea for Wikipedia sprang fully grown from Jimmy Wales' head. Jimmy, of course, deserves enormous credit for investing in and guiding Wikipedia. But a more refined idea of how Wikipedia originated and evolved is crucial to have, if one wants to appreciate fully why it works now, and why it has the policies that it does have.
For example, in the Nov. 1, 2004 issue of Newsweek, in "It's Like a Blog, But It's a Wiki," reporter Brad Stone writes:
This capsule history is, of course, very brief and so should be expected not to have every relevant detail. But some of the claims made here are not just vague, they are actually misleading, and so several clarifications are in order (all of this is elaborated below):[Jimmy] Wales first tried to rewrite the rules of the reference-book business five years ago with a free online encyclopedia called Nupedia. Anyone could submit articles, but they were vetted in a seven-step review process. After investing thousands of his own dollars and publishing only 24 articles, Wales reconsidered. He scrapped the review process and began using a popular kind of online Web site called a "wiki," which allows its readers to change the content.
- The article makes it sound as if Jimmy were the only person making the relevant decisions. That is incorrect; the Nupedia system (indeed, seven steps) was established via negotiation with Nupedia's volunteer Advisory Board, mostly Ph.D. volunteers, who served as editors and peer reviewers. I articulated our decisions in Nupedia's "Editorial Policy Guidelines." Jimmy started and broadly authorized it all, but as to the details, he really had little to do with them.
- Nupedia's Advisory Board might be surprised to learn that Jimmy (alone!) "scrapped the review process." Jimmy was certainly disappointed with the process (as were many people), and he did not actively support it after 2001 or so. But in fairness to the people actually working on Nupedia, the fact is that work on Nupedia gradually petered out in 2001-2. I in particular was stretched thin--in 2001, I was both chief organizer of Wikipedia and editor-in-chief of Nupedia--and my own slowing work on Nupedia was obvious to all active Nupedia contributors. It might be better to say that Nupedia withered due to neglect--which was largely due to a lack of sufficient funds for paid organizers--which was as much due to the bursting of the Internet bubble as anything else.
- Also, to the best of my knowledge, the "thousands of his own dollars" invested in these projects were, if I am not very mistaken, the dollars of Bomis.com, which is jointly owned by three partners, Jimmy, Tim Shell, and Michael Davis. (The money for Wikipedia now comes from donations.) But again, Jimmy was the prime motivating force within Bomis.
- Moreover, Nupedia had fewer than 24 articles when Wikipedia launched, being not quite a year old at that time. The idea of adapting wiki technology to the task of building an encyclopedia was mine, and my main job in 2001 was managing and developing the community and the rules according to which Wikipedia was run. Jimmy's role, at first, was one of broad vision and oversight; this was the management style he preferred, at least as long as I was involved. But, again, credit goes to Jimmy alone for getting Bomis to invest in the project, and for providing broad oversight of the fantastic and world-changing project of an open content, collaboratively-built encyclopedia. Credit also of course goes to him for overseeing its development after I left, and guiding it to the success that it is today.
A March 2005 Wired Magazine article by Daniel Pink also got a number of things wrong, despite being, in other respects, an excellent article:
This too needs clarifications:With Sanger as editor in chief, Nupedia essentially replicated the One Best way model. He assembled a roster of academics to write articles. (Participants even had to fax in their degrees as proof of their expertise.) And he established a seven-stage process of editing, fact-checking, and peer review. "After 18 months and more than $250,000," Wales said, "we had 12 articles."
Then an employee told Wales about Wiki software. On January 15, 2001, they launched a Wiki-fied version and within a month, they had 200 articles. In a year, they had 18,000. ... Sanger left the project in 2002. "In the Nupedia mode, there was room for an editor in chief," Wales says. "The Wiki model is too distributed for that."
- The "roster of academics" (the aforementioned Nupedia Advisory Board) was not limited to academics; they were experts in their fields, in any case. Moreover, they were editors and peer reviewers; the general public was able to propose and write articles on subjects about which they had some knowledge. (Consult the old assignment policy if you are interested.)
- It is incorrect to say that participants had to fax their degrees as proof of their expertise; we did verify bona fides by matching the names and e-mail addresses of editors and reviewers with a web page--often, but not always, an academic web page. Indeed there was one (but only one) case that I recall in which I asked someone, who had no web page or any other easy way to prove who he was, to fax a degree. Verifying bona fides seemed like a good idea especially when initially building what was to be an academically-respectable project.
- Again, I did not establish the editorial process alone; I had considerable assistance (for which I am still grateful) from Nupedia's excellent Advisory Board.
- And as I wrote on July 25, 2001 for Kuro5hin, "Britannica or Nupedia? The Future of Free Encyclopedias," Nupedia had "just over 20" articles--not 12--after 18 months. We always suspected that we would wind up scrapping our first attempts to design an editorial system, and that we would learn a great deal from those first attempts; and that's essentially what happened. But Nupedia could have evolved, and would have, had we continued working on it.
- The second paragraph begins, "Then an employee told Wales about Wiki software." I don't know how Jimmy first learned about wikis, but as I will explain below, I proposed to him and to the Nupedia community at large that we start a wiki-based encyclopedia.
- The context of the line "Sanger left the project in 2002"--particularly with Jimmy quoted as saying, "In the Nupedia mode there was room for an editor in chief"--makes it sound as if I were let go specifically because I was working only on Nupedia and that I was no longer needed for that. In fact, I was working on Wikipedia far more at the time than Nupedia, and the reason for my departure from both projects was that Bomis was, like virtually all dot-coms, losing money. They could not afford to pay me; I was told that I was the last of several newer Bomis employees to be laid off on account of the tech recession. But Wikipedia indeed was able to continue on without me, and I agreed even at the time that Wikipedia could survive without me, and that it had become essentially "unmanageable" (as I put it--the following memoir should make it clear what I meant by that).
I'm going to begin this memoir with several paragraphs about Nupedia, because the origin of Wikipedia cannot be explained except in that context. Moreover, the Nupedia project itself was very worthwhile, and I think it might have been able to survive, as I will explain. Finally, some errors regarding Nupedia have been passed around (a few examples are above), which are little better than unfounded rumors. It is unfortunate that the thousands of hours of excellent volunteer work done on Nupedia should be thus disrespected or grossly misunderstood. I personally will always be grateful to those initial contributors who believed in the project and our management, worked hard for a completely unproven idea, and laid the groundwork for the growing institution of open content projects.
In 1999, Jimmy Wales wanted to start a free, collaborative encyclopedia. I knew him from several mailing lists back in the mid-90s, and in fact we had already met in person a couple of times. In January 2000, I e-mailed Jimmy and several other Internet acquaintances to get feedback on an idea for what was to be, essentially, a blog. (It was to be a successor to "Sanger and Shannon's Review of Y2K News Reports," a Y2K news summary that I first wrote and then edited.) To my great surprise, Jimmy replied to my e-mail describing his idea of a free encyclopedia, and asking if I might be interested in leading the project. He was specifically interested in finding a philosopher to lead the project, he said. He made it a condition of my employment that I would finish my Ph.D. quickly (whereupon I would get a raise)--which I did, in June 2000. I am still grateful for the extra incentive. I thought he would be a great boss, and indeed he was.
To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely JimmyÃââs, not mine, and the funding was entirely by Bomis. I was merely a grateful employee; I thought I was very lucky to have a job like that land in my lap. Of course, other people had had the idea; but it was Jimmy's fantastic foresight actually to invest in it. For this the world owes him a considerable debt. The actual development of this encyclopedia was the task he gave me to work on.
So I arrived in San Diego in early February, 2000, to get to work. One of the first things I asked Jimmy is how free a rein I had in designing the project. What were my constraints, and in what areas was I free to exercise my own creativity? He replied, as I clearly recall, that most of the decisions should be mine; and in most respects, as a manager, Jimmy was indeed very hands-off. Nevertheless, I always did consult with him about important decisions, and moreover, I wanted his advice. Now, Jimmy was quite clear that he wanted the project to be in principle open to everyone to develop, just as open source software is (to an extent). Beyond this, however, I believe I was given a pretty free rein. So I spent the first month or so thinking very broadly about different possibilities. I wrote quite a bit (that writing is now all lost--that will teach me not to back up my hard drives) and discussed quite a bit with both Jimmy and one of the other Bomis partners, Tim Shell.
I maintained from the start that something really could not be a credible encyclopedia without oversight by experts. I reasoned that, if the project is open to all, it would require both management by experts and an unusually rigorous process. I now think I was right about the former requirement, but wrong about the latter, which was redundant; I think that the subsequent development of Wikipedia has borne out this assessment. But I fully realize that all of this is a matter of debate. Some will claim that the experience of Wikipedia refuted my original judgment that expert oversight is necessary for a very credible encyclopedia; but I disagree with them. More on this below.
Also, I am fairly sure that one of the first policies that Jimmy and I agreed upon was a "nonbias" or neutrality policy. I know I was extremely insistent upon it from the beginning, because neutrality has been a hobby-horse of mine for a very long time, and one of my guiding principles in writing "Sanger's Review." Neutrality, we agreed, required that articles should not represent any one point of view on controversial subjects, but instead fairly represent all sides. We also agreed in rejecting an alternative that (for a time) Tim and some early Nupedians plugged for: the development, for each encyclopedia topic, of a series of different articles, each written from a different point of view.
I believed, moreover, that a strongly collaborative and open project could not survive if its contributors were not "personally invested" in the project, and that this required some input and management by its users. So I think it was very early on that I decided that Nupedia should have an Advisory Board--editors, and peer reviewers, who would together agree to project policy--and that the public should have a say in the formulation of policy.
An early incarnation of NupediaÃââs Advisory Board was in place by summer of 2000 or so. It was made up of the project's highly-qualified editors and reviewers, mostly Ph.D. professors but also a good many other highly-experienced professionals. Eventually the Advisory Board agreed to an extremely rigorous seven-step system. A lot of the details of the Nupedia policy and processes were, I think, proposed by me, but then tweaked and elaborated by others, and the policy was not published as project policy until we had a quorum of editors and peer reviewers who could fully discuss and approve of a policy statement. But I do not think that we discussed the proposal well enough, and further initial discussion could have made a difference, because, as it turned out, a clear mistake of mine and others was to assume that such a complicated system would be navigated patiently by many volunteers, even if they had clear-enough instructions. That is a mistake I doubt anyone designing volunteer content creation systems will make again; I certainly would not make it again.
I spent a huge amount of time recruiting people for Nupedia, e-mailing new arrivals, posting to mailing lists, giving interviews, etc. I had had some experience publicizing Internet projects when I worked on several philosophy discussion groups as a grad student in the 1990s (I had perpetrated an "Association for Systematic Philosophy" as well as a "Tutorial Manifesto"), and I knew that getting many willing and active participants was difficult but important. I even had an administrative assistant for six months in 2000 and 2001, Liz Campeau, whose sole job was to recruit people to work on Nupedia and then Wikipedia. I think a large part of the reason Wikipedia got off the ground so quickly and so well is that it was started by Nupedians, who were then a very large base of people who wanted to work on an encyclopedia, and who had many definite ideas about how it should be done. Maybe 2,000 Nupedia members were subscribed to the general announcement list in January of 2001, when Wikipedia launched--I forget how many but an old project news page indicates that 2,000 is about right.
We operated the system initially using e-mail and mailing lists, while planning and finalizing process details. That lasted from spring through fall 2000. I think our first article ("atonality" by Christoph Hust), that made it entirely through the system, was published in June or July of 2000. To move the system to a completely web-based one, there was, of course, a great deal of design and programming to do. So in fall of 2000 I worked a lot with a specifically-hired programmer (Toan Vo) and the Bomis sysadmin (Jason Richey) to transfer the system from a clunky mailing list system to the web. But by the time the web-based system was ready--I think December of 2000, just a month before Wikipedia got started--it had become obvious to Jimmy and me that the seven-step editorial process would move too slowly, even when managed on the web. But Magnus Manske later, in 2001, made some very nice additions to the Nupedia system.
Some institutional traditions begin easily but die hard. So, in 2001, it was only after many months and uncomfortable comparison of Nupedia with the thriving, younger Wikipedia, that Nupedia's Advisory Board was willing to consider a simpler system seriously. That was because Nupedia editors and peer reviewers had a very strong commitment to rigor and reliability, as did I. Moreover, as Wikipedia became increasingly successful in 2001, Jimmy asked me to spend more and more time on it, which I did; Nupedia suffered from neglect. But by the summer of 2001, I was able to propose, get accepted (with very lukewarm support), and install something we called the Nupedia Chalkboard, a wiki which was to be closely managed by Nupedia's staff. It was to be both a simpler way to develop encyclopedia articles for Nupedia, and a way to import articles from Wikipedia. No doubt due to lingering disdain for the wiki idea--which at the time was still very much unproven--the Chalkboard went largely unused. The general public simply used Wikipedia if they wanted to write articles in a wiki format, while perhaps most Nupedia editors and peer reviewers were not persuaded that the Chalkboard was necessary or useful.
By early winter, 2001, Nupedia had published approved versions of only about 25 articles, although there were many more (I vaguely recall over 150 drafts) at various stages in process. I was finally able to persuade the Advisory Board to move the system to a much simpler two-step process, virtually identical to that used to run many academic journals: articles would be submitted to an editor; the editor would, if the article seemed good enough, forward it to a reviewer for acceptance or rejection; if accepted, the article would be posted. We also were thinking of various ways of allowing public comment on or moderated editing of posted articles. I believe this new, simpler system would have produced thousands of articles for Nupedia very quickly. The general public on Nupedia was certainly interested and motivated, and I think it was finally becoming generally accepted by the Advisory Board that the complexity of the system was the main reason that they were not starting articles and getting them through the system.
But, unfortunately, Nupedia's new system was never adopted when it should have been--the winter of 2001-2--because at the same time, Wikipedia was demanding as much attention as I could give it, and I had little time to implement the new Nupedia system. I am quite sure we could have started the new Nupedia system in early 2002, if we had made the time. But Bomis lost the ability to pay me and, newly unemployed, I did not have the time to lead Nupedia as a volunteer. I did not entirely lose hope on Nupedia, however, as I will explain below.
The origins of Wikipedia
In the fall of 2000, Jimmy and I were very well agreed that Nupedia's slow productivity was probably going to be an ongoing problem and that there needed to be a way, moreover, in which ordinary, uncredentialed people could participate more easily. Uncredentialed people could (and did) participate in Nupedia, particularly as writers and copyeditors, but it was pretty painful for most of them to get articles through the elaborate system. So there seemed to be a huge fund of talent, motivated to work on an encyclopedia but not motivated enough to work on Nupedia, going to waste.
It was my job to solve these problems. I wrote multiple detailed proposals for a simpler, more open editing system--two or three, at least--and I ran them by Jimmy, and I think his reply to all of them was that it would require too much programming and he couldn't afford to pay more high-priced programmers (they were very high-priced at the time, you will recall, and we already had Toan and Jason working quite a bit on Nupedia's new web-based system). Now, of course, I fully realize that we could have found a way to enlist volunteers to develop the system. Jimmy and I both probably knew that at the time; I'm not sure why we didn't pursue it.
So it was while I was thinking hard about how to create a more open system, that would require minimal programming to set up, that I had dinner with an old Internet friend of mine, Ben Kovitz. Ben had moved to town for a new job and we were out at a Pacific Beach Mexican restaurant on January 2, 2001, talking about jobs, techie stuff, and philosophy, no doubt. (Ben, Jimmy, and I were all active on those philosophy mailing lists in the mid-90s and we all knew each other.) So Ben explained the idea of Ward Cunningham's WikiWikiWeb to me. Instantly I was considering whether wiki would work as a more open and simple editorial system for a free, collaborative encyclopedia, and it seemed exactly right. And the more I thought about it, without even having seen a wiki, the more it seemed obviously right. So I'm sure it was that very evening or the following morning that I wrote a proposal--unfortunately, lost now--in which I said that this might solve the problem and that we ought to try it. After he had nixed my several earlier proposals, and given that setting up a wiki would be very simple and require hiring no programmer, Jimmy could scarcely refuse. I vaguely recall that he liked the idea but was initially skeptical--properly so, as I was, despite my excitement.
Wiki advocates often used to point out (and I'm sure some still do) that Wikipedia is nonstandard as a wiki. This is partly because we began just with the very basic wiki concept and not so much of the culture. Wiki culture is very distinctive. I cannot hope to explain even the highlights briefly, so I will not try; I will simply give a few notions. Wiki pages can be started and edited by anyone, but, in "Thread Mode" (as in "the thread of this discussion") the dialogue can become complex. In that case, or when consensus is reached, or when positions have hardened, it is considered a good idea to "refactor" pages (a term borrowed from programming), i.e., to rewrite them, but honestly, taking into account the highlights of the dialogue. Then the dialogue might be represented as in "Document Mode." Opinions are very welcome on a typical wiki. There are many other collective habits that make up typical wiki culture; these are only a few.
But I denied the necessity of organizing Wikipedia according to these precise principles. To be sure, a few other participants wanted Wikipedia to adopt wiki culture wholesale, so that it would be "just another wiki," and they had some small influence over the direction of the project; but speaking for myself, I viewed wiki software as simply a tool, a way to organize people who want to collaborate. I saw no necessity whatsoever of partaking in all aspects of the idiosyncratic culture that happened to be associated with the advent of this very generally-applicable tool, since we were engaged in a very specific sort of project, with very specific requirements. This caused some consternation among some wiki advocates, who appeared to think that Wikipedia should, or inevitably would, become just another wiki, somehow necessarily partaking of typical wiki culture. Ward Cunningham's prediction, when Jimmy asked him whether wiki software "could successfully generate a useful encyclopedia," was: "Yes, but in the end it wouldn't be an encyclopedia. It would be a wiki." As I said in reply: "Wikipedia has a totally different culture from this wiki, because it's pretty singlemindedly aimed at creating an encyclopedia. It's already rather useful as an encyclopedia, and we expect it will only get better."
Typical wiki culture aside, wiki software does encourage, but does not strictly require, extreme openness and de-centralization: openness, since (as the software is typically designed) page changes are logged and publicly viewable, and (again, only typically) pages may be further changed by anyone; de-centralization, because in order for work to be done, there is no need for a person or body to assign work, but rather, work can proceed as and when people want to do it. Wiki software also discourages (or at least does not facilitate) the exercise of authority, since work proceeds at will on any page, and on any large, active wiki it would be too much work for any single overseer or limited group of overseers to keep up. These all became features of Wikipedia.
My initial idea was that the wiki would be set up as part of Nupedia; it was to be a way for the public to develop a stream of content that could be fed into the Nupedia process. I think I got some of the basic pages written--how wikis work, what our general plan was, and so forth--over the next few days. I wrote a general proposal for the Nupedia community, and the Nupedia wiki went live January 10. The first encyclopedia articles for what was to become Wikipedia were written then. It turned out, however, that a clear majority of the Nupedia Advisory Board wanted to have nothing to do with a wiki. Again, their commitment was to rigor and reliability, a concern I shared with them and continue to have. Still, perhaps some of those people are kicking themselves now. They (some of them) evidently thought that a wiki could not resemble an encyclopedia at all, that it would be too informal and unstructured, as the original WikiWikiWeb was (and is), to be associated with Nupedia. They of course were perfectly reasonable to doubt that it would turn into the fantastic source of content that it did. Who could reasonably guess that it would work? But it did work, and now the world knows better.
Wikipedia's first few months
So we decided to relaunch the wiki under its own domain name. I came up with the name "Wikipedia," a silly name for what was at first a very silly project, and the newly independent project was launched at Wikipedia.com on January 15, 2001. It was a ".com" at first because, at the time, we were contemplating selling ads to pay for me, programmers, and servers. It was easy to deprecate ".com" in favor of ".org" in 2002, after Jimmy was able to assure users that Wikipedia would never (at least I think he said, or clearly implied, "never") run ads to support the project.
I took it to be one of my main jobs to promote Wikipedia, and this resulted in a steady influx of new participants. I wrote on the Wikipedia announcement page January 24, "Wikipedia has definitely taken [on] a life of its own; new people are arriving every day and the project seems to be getting only more popular. Long live Wikipedia!" By the end of January we reportedly and approximately had 600 articles; there were 1300 in March, 2300 in April, and 3900 in May. Not only was the project growing steadily, the rate of growth was increasing.
Wikipedia started with a handful of people, many from Nupedia. The influence of Nupedians was, I think, pretty important early on; I think, especially, of the tireless Magnus Manske (who worked on the software for both projects), our resident stickler Ruth Ifcher, and the very smart poker-playing programmer Lee Daniel Crocker--to name a few. All of these people, and several other Nupedia borrowings, had a good understanding of the requirements of good encyclopedia articles, and they were good writers and very smart. The direction that Wikipedia ought to go in was pretty obvious to myself and them, in terms of what sort of content we wanted. But what we did not have worked out in advance was how the community should be organized, and (not surprisingly) that turned out to be the thorniest problem. But the facts that the project started with these good people, and that we were able to adopt, explain, and promote good habits and policies to newer people, partly accounts for why the project was able to develop a robust, functional community and eventually to succeed. As to project leadership or management, we began with me, Jimmy, and Tim Shell; but Tim stopped participating so much after the first few months.
But the many rank-and-file users did the heavy lifting, and if there had not been a reasonable consensus among them about what the project should look like, it just wouldn't have happened. In any collaborative project, it is the contributors who are responsible for the outcome. Those early adopters should feel proud of themselves, because they were absolutely instrumental in shaping a thing of beauty and usefulness.
I recall saying casually, but repeatedly, in the project's first nine months or so, that experts and specialists should be given some particular respect when writing in their areas of expertise. They should be deferred to, I thought, unless there were some clear evidence of bias. (I recall an interesting discussion with a Polish scientist, Piotr Wozniak, about this issue when we came to a small disagreement about the "sleep" article.) So, in those first months, deference to expertise was a policy that at least I usually insisted upon, but not strongly or clearly enough. It was nearly a year after the project began that I finally articulated this view reasonably clearly as a policy to consider. Perhaps this was because, indeed, most users did make a practice of deferring to experts up to that time. "This is just common sense," as I wrote, "but sometimes common sense needs to be spelled out!" What I now think is that that point of common sense needed to be spelled out quite a bit sooner and more forcefully, because in the long run, it was not adopted as official project policy, as it could have been.
Some questions have been raised about the origin of Wikipedia policies. The tale is interesting and instructive, and one of the main themes of this memoir. We began with no (or few) policies in particular and said that the community would determine--through a sort of vague consensus, based on its experience working together--what the policies would be. The very first entry on a "rules to consider" page was the "Ignore All Rules" rule (to wit: "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business"). This is a "rule" that, current Wikipedians might be surprised to learn, I personally proposed. The reason was that I thought we needed experience with how wikis should work, and even more importantly at that point we needed participants more than we needed rules. As the project grew and the requirements of its success became increasingly obvious, I became ambivalent about this particular "rule" and then rejected it altogether. As one participant later commented, "this rule is the essence of Wikipedia." That was certainly never my view; I always thought of the rule as being a temporary and humorous injunction to participants to add content rather than be distracted by (then) relatively inconsequential issues about how exactly articles should be formatted, etc. In a similar spirit, I proposed that contributors be bold in updating pages (the current version is much expanded, as it should be).
I also, for similar reasons, specifically disavowed any title; I was organizing the project but I did not want to present myself as editor-in-chief. I wanted people to feel comfortable adding information without having to consult anything like an editor. Participation was more important, I felt. (Others referred to me, later, as Wikipedia's editor.)
As we set it up, Wikipedia did have some minimal wiki cultural features: it was wide open, extremely decentralized, and (provisionally anyway) featured very little attempt to exercise authority. Insofar as I was able to organize it at all, I guided the project through force of personality and what "moral authority" I had as co-founder of the project. Jimmy and I agreed early on that, at least in the beginning, we should not eject anyone from the project except perhaps in the most extreme cases. Our first forcible expulsion (which Jimmy performed) did not occur for many months, despite the presence of difficult characters from nearly the beginning of the project. Again, we were learning: we wished to tolerate all sorts of contributors in order to be well-situated to adopt the wisest policies. But--and in hindsight this should have seemed perfectly predictable--this provisional "hands off" management policy had the effect of creating a difficult-to-change tradition, the tradition of making the project extremely tolerant of disruptive (uncooperative, "trolling") behavior. And as it turned out, particularly with the large waves of new contributors from the summer and fall of 2001, the project became very resistant to any changes in this policy. I suspect that the cultures of online communities generally are established pretty quickly and then very resistant to change, because they are self-selecting; that was certainly the case with Wikipedia, anyway.
So I could only attempt to shame any troublemakers into compliance; without recourse to any genuine punitive action, that was the most I could do. In about the first eight months of the project, this was usually sufficient for me to do my job. After that, however, my job got increasingly difficult, as I will explain.
So Wikipedia began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature. I always took Wikipedia's anarchy to be provisional and purely for purposes of determining what the best rules, and the nature of its authority, should be. What I, and other Wikipedians, failed to realize is that our initial anarchy would be taken by the next wave of contributors as the very essence of the project--how Wikipedia was "meant" to be--even though Wikipedia could have become anything we the contributors chose to make it.
This point bears some emphasis: Wikipedia became what it is today because, having been seeded with great people with a fairly clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, we proceeded to make a series of free decisions that determined the policy of the project and culture of its supporting community. Wikipedia's system is neither the only way to run a wiki, nor the only way to run an open content encyclopedia. Its particular conjunction of policies is in no way natural, "organic," or necessary. It is instead artificial, a result of a series of free choices, and we could have chosen differently in many cases; and choosing differently on some issues might have led to a project better than the one that exists today.
Though it began as an anarchy, there were quite a few policies that were settled upon, more or less, within the first six months or so. This required some struggle, especially on my part, particularly because, since the project was a wiki, some participants thought that there should be no rules at all. (Enforceable rules were regarded as "anti-wiki," which was supposed to be a bad thing.) But it was made clear from the beginning that we intended Wikipedia to be an encyclopedia, and so we were able to plug for at least those rules that would help define and sustain the project as an encyclopedia.
For instance, throughout the early months, people added various content that seemed less than encyclopedic in various ways. Many people seemed to confuse encyclopedia articles with dictionary entries, and eventually I wrote a page called "Wikipedia is not a dictionary." (I am surprised to discover that this page still exists as of this writing, with a good deal of its original content.) As people found new ways not to write encyclopedia articles, I started "What Wikipedia is not": I and others would note on an article's discussion page that some certain content did not belong in an encyclopedia, and then underscored the point by adding an entry to the "What Wikipedia is not" page. To take another example, Wikipedia was not to be a place for publishing original research. In fact, this is a policy that had been settled upon and even enforced in Nupedia days; enforcing it actually led to the departure of Nupedia's erstwhile Classics editor sometime in 2001.
Many of our first controversies were over these restrictions. At the time, I had enough influence within the community to get these policies generally accepted. And if we had not decided on these restrictions, Wikipedia might well have ended up, like many wikis, as nothing in particular. But since we insisted that it was an encyclopedia, even though it was just a blank wiki and a group of people to begin with, it became an encyclopedia. There is something very profound about that. I also like to think that we helped to show the world the potential that wikis have.
Another policy that was instituted early on was the nonbias or neutrality policy. This was borrowed from the Nupedia project and made a Rule to Consider--in a very early version, the policy was put this way:
Avoid bias: Since this is an encyclopedia, after a fashion, it would be best if you represented your controversial views either (1) not at all, (2) on *Debate, *Talk, or *Discussion pages linked from the bottom of the page that you're tempted to grace, or (3) represented in a fact-stating fashion, i.e., which attributes a particular opinion to a particular person or group, rather than asserting the opinion as fact. (3) is strongly preferred.
Jimmy then started a specialized policy page he called "Neutral Point of View" (here is the current version). I confess I don't much like this name as a name for the policy, because it implies that to write neutrally, or without bias, is actually to express a point of view, and, as the definite article is used, a single point of view at that. "Neutrality", "neutral", and "neutrally" are better to use for the noun, adjective, and adverb. But the acronym "NPOV" came to be used for all three, by Wikipedians wanting to seem hip, and then the unfortunate "POV" came to be used when the perfectly good English word "biased" would do.
In addition to these, I recall suggesting a number of other rules--no doubt most matters of historical fact, along these lines, can be verified in archives. I believe I am responsible for the original formulations of a lot of the article naming conventions, as well as the conventions of bolding the title of the article, starting articles with full sentences, making article titles uncapitalized, and much else. I think these policies were just a matter of common sense for anyone who understood what a good encyclopedia should be like. And of course I was not the only person proposing conventions. Moreover, actual project policy, or community habits, succeeded in being established only by being followed and supported by a majority of participants. It was then, we said, that there was a "rough consensus" in favor of the policy. And consensus, we said, is required for a policy actually to be considered project policy. For our purposes, a "consensus" appeared to consist of (1) widespread common practice, (2) many vocal defenders, and (3) virtually no detractors.
But that way of settling upon policy proposals--viz., by alleged consensus--did not scale, in my opinion. After about nine months or so, there were so many contributors, and especially brand new contributors, that nothing like a consensus could be reached, for the simple reason that condition (3) above was never achievable: there would after that always be somebody who insisted on expressing disagreement. There was, then, a non-scaling policy adoption procedure, and a crying need to continue to adopt sensible policies. This led to some pretty serious problems in the community, which I will relate below. But first, something more positive.
It's a cliff-hanger; you'll have to wait until tomorrow to read about what made Wikipedia start to work.