“Wikipedia made a real effort at neutrality for, I would say, its first five years or so. And then … it began a long, slow slide into what I would call leftist propaganda,” says Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.
What was the original vision for Wikipedia? And why did its neutrality policy collapse?
Sanger says he’s now working on creating a new decentralized network, a “superset of all encyclopedias.”
“We need a democratic revolution in tech,” he says.
Jan Jekielek: Larry Sanger, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Larry Sanger: Well thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Larry, while you are the co-founder of Wikipedia, and sometimes you call yourself the ex-founder. And I can’t help wondering if that isn’t a great place to actually start our conversation. Why would you say that?
Mr. Sanger: Well, there’s a couple of reasons. One is that, for many years, Jimmy Wales has denied me that honorific, and so I thought out of respect to him, I’ll go ahead and let him be the sole founder and then I’m ex-founder because I was once. And then the other reason is just that I am increasingly wanting to distance myself from Wikipedia. There are a lot of issues with it, and I guess it’s my way of disowning my baby.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ll tell you when I realized that something was wrong with Wikipedia, okay? I’ve been working with Epoch Times for the better part of 15 years. And, there’s been a Wikipedia page about Epoch Times for quite some time. There you could watch the battles of different editors on the talk pages. I’m gonna get you to tell me a little bit about the talk pages because a lot of people don’t even know about that.
Mr. Sanger: Sure.
Mr. Jekielek: Right? Between these different editors trying to get at what I always assumed was the truth, okay? But you’ve taught me something different, we’re gonna talk about that too. But in the end it seemed to actually work out, okay?
The entry was something that I felt was somewhat fair, up until about 2015, 2016, when it seemed like all hell broke loose on there. And basically, one very dominant, frankly, incredibly misinformed view dominated.
And then I started looking at other pages and I found similar things. I probably, like most people, looked at Wikipedia and thought, “This is a place where I can get good, honest information, a good, reasonable, balanced view, and so forth.” But certainly not on everything.
Mr. Sanger: All right. Well, it’s interesting that you should begin that way simply because that’s how a lot of interviewers have begun interviewing me in the last few years. Everybody seems to have a complaint about the article about themselves. That didn’t used to be the case.
But now, essentially anyone who is on the right, or even contrarian actually, finds themselves with an article on Wikipedia that grossly misrepresents their achievements, often just leaves out important bits of their work, and misrepresents their motives, casts them as conspiracy theorists or far right, or whatever, when they and their friends, and people who know them well would never describe them in that way.
Yeah, I hear you and I’ve been apologizing for that for many years now, for that sort of issue. It’s just gotten a lot worse, as you say, basically in the last five years or so.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a big area here, right? We can talk, I’d like to talk about the original vision, right, and then this sort of distinction. I find this so fascinating between neutrality and pursuit of objective truth. Because I don’t. I think that distinction might be, well, it took me a while to figure out the distinction. So that’s one piece, but another piece is kind of how did we get here to the point that you’re describing?
Mr. Sanger: Right. Well, where do you want to begin?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, why don’t we start with the vision, and then let’s talk about where things went wrong.
Mr. Sanger: Okay. Right. I’ll begin by telling you about the assignment that I was given. I was hired by Jimmy Wales’ company, Bomis. He was the CEO. I was hired as Editor-in-Chief of Nupedia, and I was given the following assignment. We want to start a new encyclopedia. Basically we want you to be the guy to start it. It will be free. It will be open to anyone to contribute to, but we want it to be respectable. And finally, we want it constructed according to open source principles.
What that meant was, essentially anyone can share their own copy of it, and they can fork it, which means to make a copy and then start developing it in a different direction. That’s like Linux works and various other kinds of open source software. But it’s called open content because we’re not talking about software, now we’re talking about content. So that was the initial sort of assignment.
Now, the vision was essentially of a giant encyclopedia that millions of people could contribute to, would freely be eventually motivated to contribute to. Initially we considered whether there should be multiple articles per topic or just one article per topic. We went with one article per topic, but that’s only because there weren’t enough people to work on it to begin with, right?
Now, I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have multiple articles per topic. But anyway, that was the original vision. And obviously a big part of the original vision, especially because it was supposed to be collaborative, especially when we moved from Nupedia to Wikipedia which was a year later. It was supposed to be collaborative in order for people who are collaborating to work well together.
Obviously they can’t agree on everything, so you have to agree to disagree and represent lots of different competing positions within the same article. And not just that, the whole idea of neutrality, because that’s what it is.
The idea behind neutrality is to allow people to make up their own minds. And that is a big part of my notion of what a reliable, useful reference work should be like. So we can talk a little bit more about that, but that’s the basic.
There were other things. I mean, we obviously wanted it to be very meaty and very big. There’s a whole long laundry list actually, of descriptions of a good encyclopedia, but you can guess at those.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me a little bit more, because this obviously was a pretty revolutionary idea for media—the idea of a user-driven encyclopedia. How is it that you ended up getting this job?
Mr. Sanger: Well, I knew Jimmy Wales. I mean, we weren’t like good friends or anything, but acquaintances. I hit him up for his opinion on a website that I was starting, or I was thinking about starting anyway. He said, “Well, don’t work on that. I have something you should work on. You could come and work for me and be Editor-in-Chief of this new website, Nupedia.”
Nupedia was very top heavy, and had a lot of problems with it in terms of the amount of content that it was producing. So we cast around for different ways of supplementing the content streams so there’s just more coming into the system. And all of the ideas that I was proposing required new programmers. Jimmy Wales was a typical tightwad CEO, who didn’t want to spend any more money on that.
Finally, over a Mexican dinner at a San Diego restaurant with another friend of mine, I learned about wikis. So my friend was telling me about how there were these websites where you could go, and you could press an Edit button, and you could start changing the text of the web page itself that you are reading. You hit Save, and the page changes.
And it was like, wow, that’s a weird idea. How could it possibly work? He said it’s actually really robust because there are more people who want to keep the pages in good shape than who want to destroy them. So it’s actually easy for the pages to get better and better.
I said, okay, I was willing to sort of trust him on that enough to give it a try. I immediately had the notion that we ought to create a wiki encyclopedia as a supplementary content stream for Nupedia. It was going to be called the Nupedia Wiki. But the Nupedia editors didn’t want to have anything to do with anything called a wiki. And the whole idea that anybody could edit the site was just an obvious non-starter.
It was just ridiculous, because these are relatively straight laced academics with very specific ideas about how intellectually credible work is produced. So we went ahead, and made another website under a domain that I chose that was more devoted to intellectually incredible work. I’m being flippant here.
But yeah, it actually ended up working quite well to, I think, the surprise of many people, including Jimmy Wales, actually, by the way. In the beginning, he wasn’t that big of a fan of the idea, especially because it seemed to be putting off so many of the editors.
II was saying, “Oh, we should really try this. I think it could really work.” And it would actually have this ready stream of content that would go to Nupedia. Well what happened was that the tail started wagging the dog. The Wikipedia quickly became much bigger than Nupedia, and Nupedia was unfortunately left to wither.
I didn’t have enough time to work on it, and Wikipedia needed all the time that I could give it. So it became my full-time job, in that the first year of Wikipedia.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about this neutrality, okay, because I think I mentioned this when I was speaking earlier that I just assumed I would come to Wikipedia and I could get the truth, right? That’s kind of what people expect they’re getting from the media to some extent. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know.
I remember reading when I saw some of your work, maybe a half year ago, actually, in fact, the vision wasn’t the objective truth. The vision was neutrality. And that’s different somehow. So explain that to me.
Mr. Sanger: Well, the difference between neutrality and objective truth as in the aims of pieces of writing, is that the objective truth is generally something that people disagree about. I personally think there is an objective truth about any clearly defined question, right? And it would be absolutely wonderful to have a reference work that contained all and only objective truth. That would be fantastic. The problem is that no two people will ever agree about what such a work should contain.
Neutrality, on the other hand, is an attempt to explain all the different points of view on a subject with sufficient detail, with sufficient concern about the evidence, and the citations, and the detail needed for a person to make up his own mind on any issues of controversy.
So just imagine that you are a Wikipedia editor, and you’re looking at a mess of an article. You have the option of correcting it in a way so that it reflects what you think is the objective truth. Basically giving a catalog, essentially, but a well-ordered catalog of views.
If you go with the first notion, you’re going to anger a lot of people in your community if you have a very wide ranging community, right? And you probably should, because you are presuming to decide the facts for them, right? Now, and that’s a problem. The more that we write articles that tout a single point of view, the more that our writing resembles propaganda, especially to the people who don’t have that point of view.
The function of propaganda is to, as it were, beat people over the head to get them to believe the way that you want them to believe, not necessarily for good reasons, because good reasons are always informed by and often in response to other points of view, right? You can’t ultimately have really good reasons to believe something if you haven’t considered other points of view.
So propaganda has the tendency of making people stupider, and less objective. So if you want to approach a subject from an objective point of view, what you need is a neutral piece of writing.
Mr. Jekielek: Well okay, that’s fascinating. This is a great explanation that I think I’m gonna be using myself. You have said that currently, Wikipedia contains the establishment point of view. What does that mean exactly?
Mr. Sanger: Well, we can see by reading the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and watching broadcast news, and reading the books that are touted by the New York Review of Books and whatever, that there are certain things that powerful people, in many cases, well educated people want us to believe that minorities, or what those people want to believe are minorities that people disagree with. So that’s the establishment view. It’s the view that is touted by the powerful.
Mr. Jekielek: I guess the big question is, how did that happen? Because as far as I know, this neutrality policy is still in effect.
Mr. Sanger: Yeah. We introduced the neutrality policy before Wikipedia was even conceived of, and then Wikipedia inherited it from Nupedia. Wikipedia made a real effort at neutrality for, I would say its first five years or so. Then it began a long slow slide into what I would call a leftist propaganda. That’s a harsh description to put on Wikipedia, but at least a lot of the political articles read that way now.
But that’s because they follow the news media—at least they have done in the last 10 years or so, 10 or 15 years. They’ve gradually gotten rid of all blogs, and then more recently, they’ve gotten rid of almost all conservative news sources as sources for their articles. So as the news media has shifted, and as the establishment has shifted more to the left, the content of Wikipedia has followed suit.
It would have been hard for me to accept that this would happen, and that it would be so striking, even 10 years ago. I mean already there was this decline and the slide to a center left point of view by 2010.
Mr. Jekielek: Another thing you told me when we were speaking in the past, is you see a kind of mob rule on Wikipedia. And so presumably that wasn’t the intent.
Mr. Sanger: Yeah, this is hard. It’s collaborative to begin with. Wikis before—Wikipedia isn’t the first wiki, first of all. The wiki software was invented in about 1995. And there was this culture that was associated with wikis, where people work together on pages, and there’s a lot of give and take, and try to be fair to each other, try to be reasonable, and you reach a consensus view essentially.
So Wikipedia inherited that notion. But ultimately, it didn’t work. As soon as Wikipedia became very powerful, as soon as it attracted enough eyeballs, then the ideologues moved in, on both sides in the beginning, for sure, and went to battle, right? You can’t have a consensus among people who are ideological enemies. One side is ultimately going to win, unless there’s a really strong neutrality policy.
Ultimately what happened was that the enforcement of that neutrality policy essentially collapsed. And one side did win. If people are trying to come to an agreement with each other, but there is no set way of resolving their editorial differences other than just talk, right? There’s de facto—a power vacuum.
And what developed in the absence of any sort of established editorial apparatus, any sort of hierarchy, any sort of decision-making process of any sort. What happened was certain people gained more influence. They had more friends within the community, and a kind of behind the scenes game developed.
Certain people just mastered the game better than others, and they had more friends, they said the right things, and they were able to get more people on their side. That kind of describes what happens when there is a mob rule, and when there’s a power vacuum.
I think that’s essentially what happened. But then it descended even further into authoritarianism. It’s not a free for all anymore. It used to be, right? Back in 2003, 2005, even as late as 2009, on some pages anyway, it was kind of a free for all. You could go in and just start shooting off your mouth, and people would engage in debate with you for days sometimes. It doesn’t work that way anymore at all, for sure.
If you just have the temerity to make a few small edits on certain popular articles that haven’t been locked down completely, you can be booted off the project entirely—in the wrong circumstances anyway. And people have complained to me about that happening. It’s not a welcoming sort of place at all. I call that authoritarian, right?
There are a few people who have admin, administrative permissions in this system, and basically they use that to make sure that only the right sorts of people contribute to their articles. You have to agree with them, you have to butter them up, you have to say the right things, and toe the party line essentially. Sometimes literally the democratic party line, but this, I have heard applies just as well in other languages with other political parties.
Mr. Jekielek: People are actually reaching out to you to talk about these sorts of realities.
Mr. Sanger: Oh, all the time, all the time. I mean I hear from people complaining about Wikipedia on a weekly basis, if not more often, for over a period of years and years.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve outlined how important the media sources are to Wikipedia. Basically any fact or statement has to be supported by some source, which is accepted in Wikipedia, right, and you said that the–
Mr. Sanger: If it’s non-obvious there’s certain things you can say without a source, but yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And that those sources have been pruned considerably over the years.
Mr. Sanger: Yes, the number of sources seems to have been narrowed down quite a bit on ideological grounds.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically, you’re arguing Wikipedia is a great source for the establishment perspective, but if you don’t want that, you have to go somewhere else. Is that what you’re saying?
Mr. Sanger: That’s what I’m saying.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay.
Mr. Sanger: Didn’t used to be that way, but yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I mean, it’s also really interesting to me that, for example, on Facebook, very often when you type in one of those hot links and so forth, and there isn’t a page associated with that person or topic, it’s the Wikipedia page that will come up. And then and similarly in Google, Wikipedia pages rank incredibly highly. I guess, expectedly, ’cause it’s one of the top 10 websites in the world. But also kind of get this special treatment, right, in Google as if it were more authoritative.
Mr. Sanger: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. So it goes quite a bit beyond Wikipedia, the giant social media apparatus, the search engine that most people use globally.
Mr. Sanger: Sure. I mean Apple, for example, will push Wikipedia articles when you ask it certain kinds of questions. Wikipedia has been, I don’t know if it still is today, but they’ve been used as sort of background articles beneath YouTube videos, sure.
And yes, clearly it’s pushed a lot by Google. To what extent, that is a policy of the corporation, as opposed to just a reflection of how their algorithms work, I’m not gonna apine, but it probably doesn’t matter very much, so.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. So I guess what I’m getting at is that the Wikipedia perspective is a very powerful and wide-reaching perspective.
Mr. Sanger: Yep.
Mr. Jekielek: That has a profound impact that seems to me on how we understand the truth around us—the knowledge and everything else.
Mr. Sanger: So Wikipedia has been constructing its own reality for a long time. It’s sharing an establishment reality today, but it wasn’t always. Back in 2006, Stephen Colbert famously coined a term, “Wikiality”, right? And I don’t think he was that happy with Wikipedia at the time. He was mocking it.
And a lot of people were mocking it because it was a new thing, and everybody thought it was weird that there was this thing called an encyclopedia that anybody could edit, which was true back then. It really isn’t true today.
I don’t know that Stephen Colbert really liked some of the perspectives that he was seeing in Wikipedia at the time, because it was more neutral back then. And I have a feeling that Stephen Colbert likes Wikiality now. I’d like to ask him that.
Mr. Jekielek: But the question about having… I mean, basically the argument here is that the attempt at having a successful open source, or open content encyclopedia seems to have failed. You’re making that claim.
Mr. Sanger: I’m not saying that they’re all doomed to failure, not by–
Mr. Jekielek: Oh okay, not necessarily all.
Mr. Sanger: No.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay.
Mr. Sanger: Why think so? Yeah. I think that what we have learned is that Wikipedia is and always was going to be centralized, simply because it’s a single website, and has one article on each topic. It was always going to be difficult, at the very least, for such a resource to fairly represent all points of view.
What ought to exist essentially, is a new kind of network that reaches out and brings together articles on the same topic, from lots of different sources and makes them equally available— perhaps similarly formatted. But it needs to be a decentralized sort of network.
In other words, I’m not talking about a new project, a new platform, right, that could be dominated by some new group. I’m talking about a truly decentralized, leaderless, centerless network—kind of like blogs.
Together they make a thing called the blogosphere, right? And one reason why there is no Jimmy Wales, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Jack Dorsey of the blogosphere is that it uses a standard. It’s a technical standard that allows anybody with a blog to take their blogging data and move it somewhere else to a different platform or whatever.
Mr. Jekielek: RSS is what you’re talking about here.
Mr. Sanger: What’s that?
Mr. Jekielek: You’re talking about RSS here?
Mr. Sanger: That’s correct. I’m talking about RSS, and Adam, that’s really essential to the existence of that technical standard, is essential to the blogosphere being as decentralized, that’s the word, as it is. I think basically there ought to be a standard for encyclopedias. Perhaps there should be standards for other categories of content, right? Then we should make it easy to distribute encyclopedic content according to that standard.
Then we can imagine lots of different apps essentially aggregating the content from different sources, and having multiple different collections of encyclopedia articles, all of them being, to get back to your question, open content, right? So there’s no reason, there’s nothing about an open source or open content encyclopedia that is doomed to failure.
It’s just this particular dominant instance of the idea. In 20 years, I think possibly Wikipedia will be just one of many influential encyclopedias that are all interlinked and made available according to a common standard.
Mr. Jekielek: Here’s the question, right. This is where I think we, I don’t know, we all get stuck, right? For example, we have had this proliferation of fact-checkers, right, which has its own series of big issues. I mean, I give an example being, I remember our documentary from early 2020, which talked about the potential of a rat lab origin for coronavirus, or CCP viruses we call it at the Epoch Times. That was fact checked on Facebook, but it turned out that the person doing the fact checking was actually associated with the Wuhan lab.
But the thing that people want to know is how much value can I put on a particular source as to the veracity of the information, or at least even the perspective of the information? That’s the challenge, right? So some people say, well, all this stuff over here, as Wikipedia editors, all this stuff over here, we’re not listening to that because that’s a perspective we don’t respect, right?
This is, we accept these sources because these sources we respect. Then someone else might have a completely different perspective. In this sort of very loose aggregation, how can someone simply, most people don’t want to have to go into the nuance of all these things.
Mr. Sanger: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: They want to be able to come and say, okay, so I wanna get a reasonable assessment of this topic, a reasonable perspective or series of perspectives. How can I really trust that today?
Mr. Sanger: So there’s different ways to solve that problem. And the organization that I started last year to tackle this project, to create standards for encyclopedias, has been working with a certain concept that there would also be ratings standards as well. So anyone could publish their own ratings of various articles.
What I imagine is, for example, the American Medical Association, identifying all of their members, and essentially weighting the ratings that their members give of different articles, and using those together to create a selection of the best articles on medical topics online. So it becomes a sort of decentralized way of peer review.
Of course, a similar sort of system can be generalized and could be used by anyone, not just the American Medical Association. That’s just an example.
I imagine that there would have to be something like whitelists in order to keep people honest. You don’t want people to game this sort of system. As I say, probably there would have to be whitelists of approved respected people. But different people would make their own whitelists essentially and then share those lists.
There would be not just ratings of articles, but then there would be metaratings of the raters. I guess. It’s just an idea. There’s other ways of variance on that idea. One thing that I want to exist, that the Knowledge Standards Foundation is going to develop a reader for encyclopedias, for the encyclosphere, as it’s called.
This would collect articles from all over the web. Now, we don’t wanna publish our own reader, by the way, we just wanna make the software and let other people make their own readers. We don’t wanna actually get into the business of that—we just wanna supply the tools.
You can imagine readers that collect articles from lots of different sources, and then a particular reader’s selections of articles can be published as a resource for people to use. Well, the National Geographic has published its list of approved articles, and they aren’t all from Britannica or from National Geographic itself, or from Wikipedia, but they actually are from all kinds of different sources.
The thing that would make this possible, as I was saying, is that all of those articles would have a common format, right? That’s actually the thing that, it’s a little thing, right? It’s just a technical detail almost, but it would enable these sorts of representations of knowledge to draw from a common pool, a common knowledge repository that spans the entire world, every point of view, all nationalities.
Mr. Jekielek: And frankly, this is quite fascinating because I think I was thinking to myself as you were describing this, that this seems to be having all the same trappings of Wikipedia until you mentioned that. It’s kind of like a metaverse, so to speak, of these different rating structures and so forth, and then it suddenly starts making sense, because the cream might actually rise to the top among the people who are actually seeking to get a reasonable perspective on the world.
Mr. Sanger: Right. And right away too. Like if a Nobel Prize winner writes an article and just happens to put it on his blog, and doesn’t bother trying to get it published by some academic encyclopedia or whatever. But if it happens to be the best thing written online, it shouldn’t be buried down in the Google results. It should shoot right up to the top, as soon as enough people who have credible opinions on the subject decide that it belongs there.
So again there can be different groups of people with completely different notions of what the truth is, or what the best article on a subject would be. And you can easily imagine how a selection of the best articles from an American conservative point of view would be very different from like a Chinese communist point of view.
It might be very interesting to compare them side by side, and see how they differ. So I’d like to create the system whereby we can start thinking of all the world’s encyclopedias, and all the world’s encyclopedia articles as part of a common pool, right? I’d like to challenge Wikipedia also, “why the hell are you not actually allowing people to write more than one article per topic? Isn’t there a need for that? You really think there isn’t a need for that right now?” Seriously, that’s ridiculous.
Mr. Jekielek: So how would you know which article to go to in this model that you’re proposing?
Mr. Sanger: Right, okay. That was your earlier question. I think people would. It would be like the internet is now. It’s the same problem. There’s the massive fire hose of information coming at you, and there’s lots of different ways to solve that problem, right? You can trust particular brands. You can trust editors and to select the articles for you.
‘d like to create a system that supports all different solutions to that problem, right? I don’t want Google deciding for me though—that’s for damn sure.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s right. I was gonna say, you can come watch American Thought Leaders and find out what Larry Sanger thinks. You do have a solution, and what’s interesting about your solution is that it’s not fully baked. Like this is something that you’re actually working on, developing the standards for.
And I thought this was really interesting, because figuring these sorts of things out actually takes time, and insight, and discourse, and arguing and it’s messy, right? Democracy, I guess it’s kind of democratic in a way—messy that way.
Mr. Sanger: I’m glad you say that—it’s very important. It’s a point that is near and dear to my heart, because I regret not doing certain things when I was starting Wikipedia. I look at Wikipedia as a missed opportunity. And certain problems with it are my fault. Like I could have pushed a lot harder for a more of a democratic decision-making process, and I didn’t. I just didn’t try to solve that problem in the project’s first year.
And there are other things as well. I think it’s really important that there be an organization, like the Knowledge Standards Foundation, that has a forum in which we sit down with a lot of different experts, and we think through exactly what we want to do. We try to get the encyclopedia publishers and the general public on the same page. The basic ideas perhaps aren’t going to change very much.
We know that we want a decentralized network, that’s true. That’s part of the unchangeable core idea. Also we know for sure that there isn’t going to be a central editorial apparatus that pushes a bias. But there’s lots of different variables that need to be considered. Frankly, I’m very worried that if this is such a great idea, that it too might end up being captured by the establishment in various ways.
So one of the questions that we’re gonna be taking up in the next year, next years really, is how do we prevent that from happening? How do you keep it decentralized? Not just make it decentralized in the beginning, how do you guarantee that it stays that way, constitutionally as it were?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s a fascinating question. As we’re discussing now, I’m thinking to myself, Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, these are actually websites that dominate the whole internet—the World Wide Web, right? And they’re the entry points for so many people globally for almost all of their information. And they’ve gone in a particular ideological way, right? And so how can these small initiatives in the face of limitless money, and audience, and how can they hope to pierce that somehow?
Mr. Sanger: Yeah. That’s a good question. It’s hard. I think that ultimately it is possible for newer, better ideas to win. That’s how the internet was built, right? That’s what people said about Wikipedia itself. How can you possibly take down Britannica? How could you go head to head with them? Especially because when we were launching, Britannica had made its content free. They locked it down or put it behind a paywall later on.
Yeah, it’s daunting, but as I see it, just look at what we are proposing. So we’re gonna be putting all of the encyclopedic content in the world in a single network. That’s an extremely compelling vision. It’s easy to do. The technical problems aren’t hard to solve, we just need to do the work. It’s easy in the sense that we understand how it would work. It’s not easy in the sense that it could be done overnight, it couldn’t.
But all of those open content encyclopedias will be included in this system, whether they want to or not, because they declared themselves open content. But we’re gonna be working with them. I actually had a meeting with five encyclopedias. You can find it on YouTube actually, last Monday. It was very thought-provoking and a lot of fun, and we look forward to working with more of them.
We just combine their content and their resources in something that is bigger than the whole and better because it is like this super set of all encyclopedias. I don’t really see how Wikipedia can compete with that, especially when Wikipedia is just part of the same network, because we’re gonna do the same thing to Wikipedia. We’re gonna put the content of Wikipedia in the same format, and make it just as easily available to app writers to make their own encyclopedia apps.
Mr. Jekielek: As I was preparing for our interview today, I guess it’s about a year ago, you published a book of your essays. Briefly tell me what you’re trying to accomplish with this book. I think it’s just as relevant today as it was a year ago.
Mr. Sanger: Right, so it’s called “Essays on Free Knowledge”. I view the ability to publish and to work together online as one of the most revolutionary ideas and opportunities that humankind has had to develop our resources ever, really. I still think that’s true. But there’s a lot of hard thinking that needs to be done about all the policies that go into making that a reality—a proper reality.
I talk about the lessons learned from Wikipedia. I give the history of it. I have a couple of essays about neutrality because that’s such an important part of a free collaborative encyclopedia, or any encyclopedia— think. And then I talk in a different section of the book about the importance of staying true to the ideals of knowledge, when knowledge becomes easier, information becomes so easy.
We live in an age of infolite, and this has been the case since the beginning of the internet. It’s a perennial problem and it will continue to be a problem. It has implications for not just how we build our encyclopedias, and like what sort of policies we should adopt there, but also how we educate kids. Have old dusty, old books written by white men become irrelevant in 2021? Well, no actually. All of the old arguments for a liberal arts education—they remain perfectly valid. I go into that.
Then in the last section, I sort of bring those topics up to date. I already print something that’s actually free to read on my website, Declaration of Digital Independence, in which I talk about how big tech has essentially violated systematically rights to free speech, autonomy, and privacy. We need to move in the direction of decentralized content networks if we want to fight back against them.
Decentralized social media, I introduced the idea of the Encyclosphere there. So I have something to read about that. And then finally, I have a sort of retrospective analysis of what the problems were that led to that information disaster that we’re now in today. I think we were naive.
We were incredibly naive to give up our private information to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. We didn’t think hard enough. People who knew. Well, we should’ve listened closer to them. They should have been given bigger platforms. It should have been made a much bigger deal.
Now instead, these centralizing corporations were enabled to get into a position where they could dominate us. And that’s a terrible problem today. So I talk again about what the solution to that is, and again, it’s about decentralization. But decentralization is just a technical gloss on the notion of power to the people basically.
So for information to be decentralized, means that it’s scattered in the hands of many different independently operating entities, individuals, and organizations, right? That’s power to the people, that’s technical power to the people. So that’s the solution. We need a democratic revolution in tech.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Sanger: Yeah, if you are interested in keeping abreast of the developments, then I would have you go to Encyclosphere. Just like it sounds, encyclosphere.org. And there’s a Sign Up form there just to get general info about the Encyclosphere project, and also about the seminar, which goes into more depth. We’re gonna have a video series, and discussions about important policy questions and so forth. I push people in that direction.
We’re also gonna try to do the same thing for social media. That’s something we haven’t talked about, but we actually have a WordPress plugin that allows people to publish their social media feeds via WordPress. You’ll own your own posts. Then you can push them out to Twitter and to other sources.
The next version actually is going to have feeds, to incorporate feeds from lots of people that you’re following. You’ll be able to follow people who have this similar setups on WordPress, and we’ll also be able to subscribe to Twitter feeds, and Instagram feeds, and the rest of that, and all within the comfort of your own blog essentially.
But a blog that has been transformed into a social media platform that you own. So that basically is gonna decentralize social media. And if we don’t do it, somebody’s got to do that, because that’s another huge problem. Decentralization is the answer as far as I’m concerned.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Larry Sanger, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Sanger: Thank you.
Narration: The Wikimedia Foundation did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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