This article was published on November 19, 2011

Larry Sanger on co-founding Wikipedia and how online education could change the world

Larry Sanger on co-founding Wikipedia and how online education could change the world
Paul Sawers
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Paul Sawers

Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check h Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check him out on Google+.

Jimmy Wales may be the ‘face’ of Wikipedia, but you may not know that the online encyclopedia also has a co-founder in the form of Larry Sanger, who helped develop the project but left in 2002 shortly after it was launched.

Wales has been omitting the ‘co’ part of co-founder in his own biography for some years now, though on Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia page Larry Sanger is listed as his co-founder and, indeed, Sanger has pulled together a fairly comprehensive list of online resources to back-up his claims to co-founder status. But more on that later.

The Next Web covered one of Larry’s new projects a couple of weeks ago, Reading Bear, which is an online phonics tutorial for kids. Two weeks on from this, we caught up with Larry for an in-depth interview on what he’s been up to post-Wikipedia, and we also discussed some of his other projects too.

Here’s what Larry had to say.

Larry Sanger and early education

With Reading Bear still fresh out of the starting blocks and still very much a work in progress, how are things going so far with the platform?

“The reception has been pretty positive. A lot of parents and teachers have retweeted us to help get the word out”, says Larry. “My experience of launching things, especially since Citizendium in 2006, is that there are so many new websites being launched. It’s not like it was in the early days of the Web”, says Larry. “It’s much harder to get traction up against so many other websites. But Reading Bear is growing, and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Larry’s now a work-at-home dad, who’s adopting a home-schooling philosophy for his 5-year old son. So what’s a typical day like for Larry? “Well, I get up. I eat breakfast. And then I spend around an hour with my son”, he says. “Basically just doing home-schooling stuff. Both me and my wife are home-based, so it works for us. I then work through to the afternoon and work on various other small projects in the evening. I have to finish Reading Bear, which is a priority at the moment. It launched with 14 presentations, and we still need to increase the number to 50 to cover all the rules of phonics. That will probably take me several more months.”

So how far is Larry wanting to take his interest in early education? “There really aren’t any multimedia encyclopedias for kids”, says Larry. “Not that I’m aware of at least. Not even for purchase, let alone free. I’ve created a load of videos, such as The Moon for Kids. The idea is I can make a zillion of those kind of videos, and I like doing it and I have experience using them. They’re extremely effective learning tools, and everybody who uses them likes them. I think they would work even better on Reading Bear. So I could put together a multimedia encyclopedia for children, and this would require changing the software of Reading Bear, but most of the features needed are already there.”

“When I was getting into early education with my son, I was really struck by the existence of what people call ‘concept books'”, says Larry. “They basically teach concepts explicitly, they try to explain what Fall is, for example, using a sentence, and then associate it with a picture. And it seems to me that such concept books really belong online in digital form. It’s much more effective to incorporate videos and to use things like synchronized highlighting of text in the same way as Reading Bear does. There’s a real opportunity to teach little kids a lot more than they have been taught using technology. Right now, that’s what I’m interested in doing.”

What about Citizendium?

Citizendium was launched as a pilot in October 2006, before going public in March 2007. Citizendium – the citizens’ compendium of everything – is an English wiki-based online encyclopedia that aims to improve on what Wikipedia offers by providing increased reliability through stricter moderation and ‘expert oversight’. I asked Larry what the state of play with the project is in 2011 “Citizendium is still active”, he says. “It’s still being developed in the sense that people are still writing articles for it, and it’s still being maintained. I’m not overly concerned about funding at the moment, we got some nice donations in the last month, enough to keep us going for several months. And we’re probably going to start looking for some free hosting at some point.”

Larry the philosopher

With a Ph.D in Philosophy, Larry isn’t what you’d call your typical Internet entrepreneur. But I was curious as to what role, if any, a background in philosophy can play when working in the digital space. “I think training in philosophy has given me certain habits of thinking”, says Larry. “Philosophers are all about trying to understand a problem in as clear a way as possible, and arriving at the most elegant solution to it. Whether it’s a purely abstract problem about the analysis of thought, or something practical such as how to drive more traffic to a website, a lot of the same thinking goes into this.”

“When launching Wikipedia, for example, I did have to draw on things I learned during my education, for determining the requirements of a good encyclopedia article looks likes”, continues Larry. “And, in a few cases, how to resolve subject-matter disputes. For my work now, I can’t really say that training in philosophy is especially relevant to making a great reading website for kids. I like to think I’m going to be good at explaining concepts in a very simple ways to kids. I know it sounds odd, that someone with a Ph.D in Philosophy would want to write explanations of basic concept to kids. I really like it though.”

Larry Sanger’s Y2K

From 1998 to 2000 Larry Sanger ran a website called “Sanger’s Review of Y2K News Reports”, which was a resource for Y2K watchers. For the uninitiated, the Y2K issue was the belief that the turn of the millennium would herald a huge catastrophe, with the world’s electronics thrown into disarray, resulting from the practice of abbreviating a 4-digit year to 2 digits.

So was Larry one of the scare-mongers? “Officially I was a skeptic”, he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. There was an awful lot of smart people who thought there was a chance that something serious would happen. A lot of people made a lot of money out of the whole thing. My website was an early blog, summarizing what was being written elsewhere online. I got a fair bit of traffic actually, it was one of the best known Y2k news sites.”

It was around this time that the Larry Sanger/Jimmy Wales partnership was fostered. “I was going to transfer into what would probably now be called a cultural blog”, says Larry. “It would be a review of developments in politics, culture and so forth. I sent ’round a sort of proposal, looking for people to feed in some ideas for this, and one of the people I sent it to was an acquaintance called Jimmy Wales. He then responded to ask if I wanted to go and work for him instead. I was amazed at that.”

Nupedia to Wikipedia

Nupedia launched as a vetted, edited online encyclopedia at first, but given that it was taking so long to progress, they looked at other means of speeding up the process. “I had been casting around for ways to supplement Nupedia that would help speed up the process”, says Larry. “We needed to find ways for more people to contribute.”

“Sometimes Jimmy Wales likes to say that this was a problem that he saw and assigned me to solve it”, continued Larry. “But this was a problem I could see perfectly well by myself, that it simply wasn’t growing fast enough. I could see that as early as the summer of 2000. The first change we made was to change it from an email only system – which is what it was in the beginning – to a software system. But that didn’t solve the problem either.”

So that was the basic problem they were trying to circumvent. How could they involve more people and make it easier for ‘Joe Public’ to contribute? “I actually proposed a number of other things first”, continued Larry. “Ways that would be much more appealing to the public, but they all involved a lot of programming at our end. Jimmy Wales was a tight-wad, he was a typical CEO. He’d already spent all the money he had essentially set aside for Nupedia – which wasn’t making him any money, so you can’t really blame him. He didn’t want to spend any more money on software.”

“When Wikis came onto our radar, suddenly it became thinkable that we could expand the Nupedia project because we didn’t have to do any new programming”, says Larry. And so Wikipedia was launched as a separate project, and within a few days it had already exceeded the number of articles available on Nupedia. “Of course, the articles were not as long as the Nupedia articles”, adds Larry. “But within a couple of weeks, we did have more longer articles. And then after several more month we had more longer articles that were of as good quality as the Nupedia ones.”

So did the Wikipedia phenomenon surprise Larry? “I don’t want to say it was a total surprise”, he says. “But the fact it happened as well as it did, and as quickly as it did…I guess that was a surprise”, says Larry.

Larry leaves Wikipedia

I asked Larry if he was still asked a lot of questions about his involvement with Wikipedia. “Not too much any more”, he said. “My story has been told as much as people want to hear it. But there’s currently a book being written about Wikipedia, I believe it’s a critical expose, and I have been talking to the author about that.”

Larry left Wikipedia in 2002, and whilst I didn’t really want to go over old ground, I felt it was important to delve a little bit into the reasons behind it. “I left the community in two stages”, says Larry. “At first I resigned as Chief Organizer of Wikipedia – that was my title, by the way. I was never called ‘Editor’. If I’m being honest, I needed time to look for a job. Then, we were right at the very bottom of the first dotcom bust and the collapse of the Internet. I had bills to pay, I was newly married. I didn’t feel like I could do it part-time.”

Were there any bad feelings in the Wiki camp leading up to his departure? “There were some acrimonious feelings between me and certain elements”, says Larry. “There were elements of Wikipedia that had arrived on the scene, people that I would consider as trolls or borderline trolls, that ended up being in positions of authority in the Wikipedia community. I could see this was already happening in 2002.”

Despite the direction Wikipedia was clearly going in, Larry was still exploring other options to bring the online encyclopedia into line with how he thought it should be operated. “I’d half-heartedly started working on a system where experts could be invited to create a set of approved articles”, says Larry. “But I couldn’t, in good conscience, invite serious academics and other experts to spend time on this website when I knew they would waste a large chunk of their time dealing with difficult people. There was someone on the Wikipedia mailing list who said ‘if you do this, don’t expect any special treatment to be given to the experts’. It became clear to me that there would be a significant element of the community who would take this hostile attitude towards people who had made it their life’s work to know things. It just completely turned me off.”

“There was a very strange back-and-forth between Jimmy Wales and I”, added Larry. “I said ‘there’s these two problems that you really need to solve’. One of them was making it easier to get rid of the real troublemakers on Wikipedia – they had essentially run rampant in the system, and it was very rare for anyone to be banned. And the second problem, as I’ve said, is there needed to be some way of encouraging experts to participate. Without that, I felt Wikipedia would always be an amateur resource. Which is how I think it worked out.”

According to Larry, Jimmy Wales denied that these were problems and “dismissed them contemptuously”. And since then, as we’ve noted already, Jimmy Wales has attempted to distance the Wikipedia project from Larry Sanger, from a founder’s perspective at least. “He’s been quite shameless about this, amusingly so”, says Larry. “It doesn’t really bother me that much any more. I’ve never really obsessed about it. You know, I left the project after 14 months, and I don’t expect to be heaped with laurel for my involvement in Wikipedia.”

For the record, a Wikipedia press release from 2002 clearly points to both Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger as founders. But when all is said and done, there doesn’t seem to be much bitterness there, though it’s clear that Larry simply wants his role in the development of Wikipedia acknowledged. Much in the same way as, say, Eduardo Saverin fought to have his name re-associated with Facebook, despite his active involvement in the social network ending quite early on.

“The last communication I had with Jimmy Wales of any sort was an open letter which I tried to place on Wikipedia in 2009″, says Larry. “But this was deleted from his user page. It was in response to an interview he did with Hot Press where he claimed to be the sole founder. My last face-to-face encounter with Jimmy, I think, was in 2006 when I was working on Digital Universe”, says Larry. “I thought we’d left on good terms, he seemed to be unusually friendly, despite the fact that by that time he had started denying my involvement in Wikipedia.”

Ten years on from Wikipedia’s launch, the online encyclopedia recently surpassed 420m unique monthly visitors, and there are now over 20 million articles across almost 300 languages. With that in mind, does Larry have any regrets about jumping ship?

“I’m not at all sorry that I got out when I did”, says Larry. “I could’ve done many different things with my life, I could be earning a lot more money than I am now. But, you know, I like to do things my own way and I’d find it difficult working for other people. I’ve had offers recently to go work for companies, but I guess I’d just rather be developing free tools for education. Of course others are doing that too, but are they doing anything like what I’ll be doing? I don’t think so.”

The future according to Larry

“There’s one more thing I have a burning desire to do, if someone was to give me a large amount of funding for, and that’s Textop“, says Larry, referring to a previous academic project he started working on prior to Citizendium. “But there’s one part in particular of that which really excites me, and it’s what I call the Collation Project. Nobody else is doing anything like it, it’s the kind of thing I think nobody will work on until I do. But it has the potential to change education and research…especially in the humanities. It’s a way of creating an outline of knowledge, and attaching paragraph-sized texts to the outline. It makes it possible for people who are working on the same topic in different fields, to talk to each other. It’s actually really hard to describe quickly!”

For now, however, early education is where Larry’s passion lies. “I was amazed when my son learned the alphabet before he was 2-years-old”, he says. “Obviously, that’s one of the prerequisites for reading and I was amazed to find out that children can learn to read so young – this made a big impression on me, and I wondered why this wasn’t more widely known. The early education movement – and, to be honest, it isn’t much of a movement yet – could really change the world in a great way. It’s something I think more people should be working on.”

The Next Web interviews Jimmy Wales

The Next Web also interviewed Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales a couple of weeks back during Internet Week Europe. You can catch that interview again here:

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