Who Founded Wikipedia? These Two Need to Get Their Story Straight

Who founded Wikipedia? The guy from the Time's 100 most influential people list–Jimmy Wales–or this other guy–Larry Sanger–that nobody knows about?
Who Founded Wikipedia? These Two Need to Get Their Story Straight
Petr Svab

It is a question as old as intellectual property ownership itself: You hire a guy to come up with a project idea. He comes up with an idea. Your resources make the project happen. Who founded the project?

Your money, his idea–probably both, right?

Yet one was among Time's 100 Most Influential People, among Forbes Web Celebs 25, and The Daily Telegraph's 25 Web Superstars, while the other… Who actually is the other guy?

The talk is about Jimmy Wales, the founder/co-founder of Wikipedia, and Larry Sanger, the co-founder/former employee of Wikipedia.

The story begins with Jimmy Wales as a former options trader and Chief Executive Officer of Bomis, an adult content-oriented search engine provider.

In January 2000, Wales hired Larry Sanger to Bomis to start an on-line volunteer-created encyclopedia–the Nupedia.

Sanger, a philosophy Ph.D., took a rigorous approach with multiple levels of academic review to ensure quality. In its first year, Nupedia published a meager 12 articles.

Sanger and Wales were trying to figure out a way to rapidly supply content to Nupedia, but struggled to find a platform that wouldn't require an extensive investment or programming.

Then, on Jan. 2, 2001, Sanger met with his friend and computer programmer Ben Kovitz, who introduced him to the concept of "wiki."

Wiki is a Hawaiian word for "quick" and was used by programmer Ward Cunningham to name his 1995 creation–a website where anybody can make a page or edit a page. The idea was intriguing to Sanger.

"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," he wrote in his memoir posted on SlashDot.org in 2005.

But then the story gets convoluted.

Sanger states he returned home and wrote a short proposal to use wiki to invite people to write encyclopedia content–in short, the idea of Wikipedia. He then sent the proposal to Wales.

Ben Kovitz, the one who incepted the idea, remembers it differently. According to him, they both went to Sanger's home and Sanger called Wales. After the call, Kovitz stated, Sanger seemed optimistic Wales would back the idea.

At the time, Wales seemed to agree.

"Larry [Sanger] had the idea to use Wiki software for a separate project specifically for people like you (and me!) who are intimidated and bored (sorry, Nupedia!) with the tedium of the process," he wrote on Oct. 30, 2001 on Wikipedia mailing list.

But several years later Wales changed the story, stating it wasn't Sanger, but a Bomis employee Jeremy Rosenfeld who came to him with an idea to use wiki as an encyclopedia platform.

"Larry Sanger was my employee working under my direct supervision during the entire process of launching Wikipedia. He was not the originator of the proposal to use a wiki for the encyclopedia project—that was Jeremy Rosenfeld," Wales stated in an email to the NewAssignment.net editor Jay Rosen.

Sanger doubted that Rosenfeld's suggestion, if it happened, had any impact on creation of Wikipedia.

"He certainly never mentioned the idea to me, and Jimmy [Wales] himself certainly didn't act on the suggestion somehow independently of me," Sanger stated on his Wikipedia user page.

Since Sanger couldn't produce the wiki proposal he claims to have written on that fateful night, we may never know.

What we do know is that Wales had a wiki platform set up almost immediately and Sanger was put in charge of it.

On Wednesday Jan. 10, 2001, Sanger posted to Nupedia chat board a message titled, "Let's make a wiki," inviting the "nupedists" to check out the new feature that allows anybody to try create an encyclopedia entry.

Both Sanger and Wales agree on what happened next: Sanger came up with the name "Wikipedia." In a week the domain was set up and on Jan. 17 Sanger posted another message: "Wikipedia is up!"

"Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes," the short message read, preceded with a link to Wikipedia.com.

But wait–isn't it Wikipedia.org?

Wales originally planned to recover his costs (hundreds of thousands of dollars) through ads on Wikipedia. It seemed dishonest to claim the ".org" domain reserved for non-profits if the site would eventually turn into a for-profit, Sanger explained.

Only in 2003, did Wales decide to donate all property rights of Wikipedia to a non-profit he created, the Wikimedia Foundation.

And that's the story. In a month Wikipedia had 1,000 articles. In eight months it was 10,000, and in a year and a half 40,000. As the number of contributors rose, Sanger was credited with formulating first iterations of the basic rules of Wikipedia, such as Neutral Point of View, No Original Research, and Verifiable Sources.

But there's still a loose end, isn't there? Why did Wales change his story to begin with? He even went so far as to attempt to edit out Sanger's role by rewriting the Wikipedia page about himself–something intrinsically frowned upon in the Wikipedians' community.

Well, it may have something to do with a difference in opinion the two struggled with soon after Wikipedia took off.

While Wales wanted the volunteer contributors to police themselves, Sanger believed disruptive and trolling contributors were given too much leeway.

In 2002, with the dot-com bubble bursting, Bomis couldn't support Sanger's job anymore and Sanger left Wikipedia.

Sanger criticized Wikipedia on multiple occasions and deemed it imperfect and forever doomed to amateurism. In 2006, he founded the Citizendium, an open encyclopedia focusing on increased reliability. Almost all contributors have to sign up with real names, disruptive behavior is strictly moderated, and articles can go through an expert review marking them as "approved" and citable.

Alas, the site today has less than 17,000 articles and less than 200 approved ones.

So, who founded Wikipedia? You be the judge.

A comment from Jimmy Wales was solicited through the Wikimedia Foundation. There was no response by the time of publication.

Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.