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Larry Sanger’s Knowledge Free-for-All

Wikipedia’s founder likes the mess.
January 1, 2005

Wikipedia is the world’s newest, largest, most varied, most participatory, and most controversial encyclopedia. It is composed and edited entirely by volunteer netizens; as of November 2004, there were some 29,000 “Wikipedians” writing for it in 109 different languages. The site’s massive archive, including 380,000 articles in English alone, puts even Britannica to shame. If you don’t see an article addressing your passion for miniature-teapot collecting, don’t fret. Just write one.

Among Wikipedia’s many unusual aspects is that its cocreator, Larry Sanger, is a professional epistemologist – a philosopher who explores the very nature and sources of knowledge and who, like many before him, once questioned the possibility of knowing anything with certainty. Sanger says that as a bookish teenager growing up in Anchorage, AK, he decided to model himself after Descartes and become a devout doubter, believing only the things that he could directly perceive or that could be logically derived from what he perceived. “These were the thoughts of a 17-year-old,” smiles Sanger, who’s now 36. But eventually, he says, he began to realize that some truths cannot be observed: “If the very project of seeking the truth required that I assumed something, then I would assume that.”

This more pragmatic view sustained him through his college and graduate years as a philosophy student and even became the focus of his dissertation. But by that time, Sanger says, he was also becoming intrigued by the Internet and its possibilities as a publishing medium. And this convergence of interests helped him to realize that a newly invented type of website called a wiki – a forum that “allows a user to add content…but also allows that content to be edited by any other user,” to quote the Wikipedia definition – could be used to assemble the contributions of thousands of amateurs into a reasonably truthful online encyclopedia.

How? “The subject of an encyclopedia is received knowledge,” Sanger says, not absolute knowledge. The former, he says, consists of “the sort of claims one can make in the form ‘It is generally known that….’ It could be false, but it could still be ‘generally known,’ in the sense that people thought it was true.” This idea underlay the nonbias policy that Sanger instituted for Nupedia, the expert-written online encyclopedia he was hired to edit in 2000. The policy says that contentious subjects should be described in a way that fairly represents every party’s point of view. Wikipedia kept the policy when it spun off of Nupedia, and Sanger cites it as a main reason for the new site’s success.

Nonbias is a difficult ideal to live up to. Indeed, the most common complaint against Wikipedia is that it is unreliable; since anyone can publish or edit any article instantly, there’s nothing except the diligence of other contributors to keep favoritism, misinformation, vandalism, or sheer stupidity out of the encyclopedia’s pages. But Wikipedia’s “staff” of volunteers is “better than any full-time staff you could imagine, because there are so many people involved,” Sanger says. Any malicious or mistaken entry “is going to be instantly noticed” and corrected.

But there’s a second complaint against Wikipedia that bothers Sanger more deeply – the fractiousness among Wikipedians themselves. Sanger says participants often become embroiled in “revert wars” in which overprotective authors undo the changes others try to make to their articles. He says he’s afraid that this kind of behavior drives away academics and other experts whose contributions would otherwise raise Wikipedia’s quality.

Sanger may be speaking from the heart. He left Wikipedia in 2002 when funding for his position ran out and no longer contributes, in part because of the lingering sting of some particularly nasty revert wars. He now lives in a suburb of Columbus, and lectures in the philosophy department at Ohio State University, his alma mater. To build a public encyclopedia, you don’t need faith in the possibility of knowledge, he says. “What you have to have faith in is human beings being able to work together.”

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