By Gregory Kohs
Wikipedia is one of the world’s ten most-used websites, right up there with the likes of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and Amazon. However, it is the only non-profit, educational site in the top 50, inspiring at least some of its hundreds of millions of monthly readers to pitch in and edit their way to an even better repository of the world’s knowledge. Every year in December, the face of Jimmy Wales appears on the site, making his annual appeal for cash donations. He has become a sort of global ambassador for Wikipedia, recognized by millions of people.
However, Wales is not the man who truly launched Wikipedia.
The honorable distinction of bringing life to Wikipedia rests with a philosopher and educator named Dr. Larry Sanger. You see, what Wales had co-created was another encyclopedia called Nupedia. Wales hired Sanger to work as Nupedia’s editor-in-chief. But using a strict process that limited to experts the contribution of articles, Nupedia wasn’t going anywhere. So, on January 2, 2001, at a burrito dinner shared with a computer programmer, Sanger was introduced to a new revision-storing editing software called “wiki”. Over the next few days, Sanger championed what was considered a crazy idea at the time — what if the encyclopedia were opened up so that anyone could write and modify it?
Sanger asked Wales to install some wiki freeware on the Nupedia server, Sanger named the new encyclopedia project “Wikipedia”, and Sanger issued the first public call for participation in the Wikipedia adventure, with a fateful yet humble mailing list post:
Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes.
Knowledge management taken out of the hands of experts and turned over to the online masses could have been a catastrophe, but somehow, the wild and open process mostly worked, thanks to the ensuing months and months of hard work that Sanger put into the project, devising and ironing out various guidelines and policies like “Ignore all rules” and “Neutral point of view“, which still govern Wikipedia to this day. Sanger even initiated Wikipedia’s first article deletion policy. Sanger tells Examiner:
“I take credit most importantly for insisting that we were working on an encyclopedia, not something else. Believe me, if I had not so insisted, it would have developed into a melange of all sorts of garbage.”
A culture of irresponsibility
However, as time went on and Wikipedia became more and more popular with zealous proponents of things like “free culture” and an “anti-expert” philosophy, Sanger grew weary of “people getting off-mission by posting irrelevant political screeds, personal pseudo-scientific crap, making personal attacks, and trolling in other ways.” Sanger became concerned about how little support from Jimmy Wales he had in dealing with this nonsense, and so Sanger became the target of attacks by many of the project’s trolls, kooks, and anarchists.
After a little more than a year, Wales began drawing down his company’s financial support of Sanger. The creator of Wikipedia would ultimately leave the project, having been its only paid editor from January 2001 to March 2002. Without Sanger, Wikipedia became less reliable over time, although continuing to grow in popularity. While Jimmy Wales began to accept five- and even six-figure paid speaking gigs and ramped up a for-profit spin-off to “commercialize the hell” out of Wikipedia, he very sadly began to publicly minimize Larry Sanger’s instrumental role in Wikipedia’s creation and growth. At one point, Wales could be found stomping around various Internet chat rooms, declaring that he was the “sole founder” of Wikipedia, and asking his loyal followers to begin re-writing Sanger out of the established histories of Wikipedia. Wales would not only get caught knowingly hiring someone who had entirely defrauded the Wikipedia community with a fake professional resume, but he also got caught in an embarrassing sexual tryst with a political pundit whose Wikipedia biography he had massaged. Wales’ second divorce followed in due time.
What has happened to Sanger’s legacy since his launch of Wikipedia is shameful. While Wales and Sanger can and should be considered at least equal co-founders of Wikipedia (in this author’s opinion, Sanger is the “leading” co-founder, as he prompted the wiki installation, gave the project its name, and issued the first public announcement of it), a recent survey of high school students showed that 45% can identify Wales as a co-founder of Wikipedia, but only 10% similarly can place that checkmark next to Sanger’s name. It would appear Wales’ scheme to deprecate Sanger has succeeded.
All the while, Sanger’s passion for helping to expand human knowledge never ceased. When he left Wikipedia, he concluded that one of the most tiresome aspects of the project was its tendency to reject the contributions of subject experts. So, Sanger founded Citizendium.org, where experts would be welcomed and cherished for their ability to present information in a more stable and truthful manner than what’s typically presented on Wikipedia. Citizendium struggles in the shadow of Wikipedia, but there is no denying, for example, that its article about an obscure subject like block ciphers is far better than Wikipedia’s version, even though Google will return Wikipedia’s page as the #1 search result for the term, while putting Citizendium’s on page 7 of the search results.
Teaching kids to read and learn
In 2009, Dr. Sanger began to turn over control of Citizendium to a committee of peers, and he moved on enthusiastically to a non-profit project called WatchKnowLearn, where he became Executive Director. WatchKnowLearn is a phenomenal resource, an index of over 30,000 educational videos, placed into a directory. You can watch the videos without any registration process, for free. The directory is organized both by subject matter and age level.
If you’ve ever seen the amazing feat of Sanger’s four-year-old child reading a college textbook, then it’s not much of a surprise that Sanger also launched a spin-off non-profit project from WatchKnowLearn, called Reading Bear. Using simple graphics and an attractive speaker, young minds are engaged from the start. Reading Bear is the first free program online to teach very early readers vocabulary and concepts while strengthening phonetic patterns of textual English.
Sanger lives in suburban Columbus, Ohio with his wife and two young children. He even plays a pretty mean fiddle. Not content to rest on the laurels of launching the world’s most popular encyclopedia, his passion for learning — and helping young minds develop the skills for learning — is unsurpassed. It was no shock to this reporter that when told about the possibility of winning a $50,000 America Inspired prize from Examiner, Sanger said, “I would donate it — most likely to the fund that pays for Reading Bear!” Inspired in turn, if this article wins any share of prize money, the journalist will donate all of the proceeds to a local food bank and a summer camp for special needs youth. Sanger has that just that sort of persuasive power for good deeds.
Photo credit: Image used with permission from Dr. Sanger’s Twitter profile