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Next Wikipedia, take a right

Wikipedia, Citizendium, and the politics of knowledge: An interview with Larry Sanger


8.1.2007
Sometimes, it's better to ask the experts, says Larry Sanger. The co-founder of Wikipedia wants to start a fork of the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia – with expert control. In his interview, he explains the why's and how's.

Lawrence M. SangerLawrence M. Sanger (© Larry Sanger)
Google, MySpace, YouTube: There is a band of brothers behind many success stories of the net, and as with many great stories, fraternity often ends in fraternal strife. In the case of the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Cain and Abel bear the names of Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Today, Jimmy Wales is Chairman Emeritus of the WikiMedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. Until 2002, Larry Sanger was editor-in-chief of Wikipedia, and is one of its most outspoken critics today.

  • Interview in German

  • In 2000, Sanger, then a Ph.D. student in philosophy, was taken onboard the "Nupedia" project by Jimmy Wales. Nupedia started 1999 and was financed by a Californian dotcom enterprise named Bomis. Together with Wales, Sanger developed the basic concepts of this first free online encyclopedia, set up a board of scientists which developed a seven step review process in the following months, and recruited interested contributors – in the end, more than 2.000, which later became the cadre of the Wikipedia community.Mainly because of the review process, Nupedia dragged along – at the end of 2000, the project had used up 250.000 US-$, and about 20 articles online. Wales and Sanger looked for alternatives and decided to start a radically simplified version parallel to Nupedia, based on the then-infant "wiki" technology.In January, 2001, Wikipedia went online and literally exploded. At the same time, Nupedia silted up silently. In the end of 2001, Nupedia had about 25 articles online (150 more were in different stages of the review process), whereas Wikipedia already counted 18.000. Sanger left his official position at Wikipedia and Nupedia in 2002, since Bomis couldn't continue to pay him.The rest is history. Nowadays, Wikipedia amounts to over six million articles in 250 languages, of which 500.000 are found in the German version. About 27.000 active "Wikipedians" world wide contribute regularly to the different language versions. Under the roof of the WikiMedia foundation, Wikipedia has grown numerous offsprings; using the wiki technology, they create free dictionaries (Wiktionary), books (WikiBooks), collections of quotations (WikiQuotes), news sites (Wikinews), multimedia collections (WikiCommons), and a university (Wikiversity). The separate project "Campaigns Wikia" wants to help social and political movements to organize themselves via wikis. And even an own parody is nursed with equal diligence and care: The »Uncyclopedia« now counts over 20.000 articles.

    The enormous success of Wikipedia did not remain without critique. While universities and schools complain that students increasingly replace their own mental efforts with copy-and-paste from Wikipedia, traditional encyclopedias (such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the German Brockhaus) saw themselves threatened with extinction, and stressed the lacking quality and reliability of Wikipedia.

    But then, "Nature", maybe the most renowned science journal of all, published the results of a »study« in December 2005, according to which the accuracy of scientific articles in Wikipedia came close to that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica (in a »long counterstatement«) and Nature (in an official response and its »editorial«) exchanged a series of blows, without resolution.

    Sanger himself joind the choir of criticism in December, 2004, with an entry at the populat technology website »"Kuro5hin"«. Already, he stated that if Wikipedia could not "jettison its anti-elitism", that is, give due authority to designated experts in editing articles in their field of expertise, a Wikipedia "fork" would become necessary. He repeated this idea in »several« »other« online articles, and finally put it into practice: In Sepetmber, 2006, at the »"Wizards of OS 4"« in Berlin, he announced the start of the »"Citizendium"«.


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