I have posted an open letter to Jimmy Wales on his Wikipedia “user talk” page. (NOTE: link won’t work. Deleted. See below.)
NOTE: consider this letter GFDL. Feel free to post it far and wide.
UPDATES: I’ve moved quite a few updates about this here. Jimmy Wales deleted this letter personally, as well as a brief exchange in which he and I both participated.
Jimmy, I don’t know a better place than this for an open letter to you [i.e., than on your user talk page on Wikipedia]. I recently read the Hot Press interview with you. The lies and distortions it contains are, for me, the last straw, especially after this came to light, in which you described yourself as “co-founder” in 2002.
I’ve reached out to you on a couple of occasions to coordinate our “versions” — well, my version and your fanciful inventions — about how Wikipedia got started. Last year I read about a speech in which you represented me as being more or less opposed to Wikipedia from the start — despite it being my own baby, really — and I wrote to you saying that if you keep this up, I will speak out. Well, I’m finally speaking out.
In Wikipedia’s first three years, it was clear to everyone working on it that not only had I named the project, I came up with and promoted the idea of making a wiki encyclopedia, wrote the first policy pages and many more policy pages in the following year, led the project, and enforced many rules that are now taken for granted. I came up with a lot of stuff that is regarded as standard operating procedure. For instance, I argued that talk should go on talk pages and got people into that habit. Similarly, after meta-discussion started taking up so much of Wikipedia’s time and energy, I shepherded talk about the project to meta.wikipedia.org — and after that, to Wikipedia-L and WikiEN-L. I insisted that we were working on an encyclopedia, not on the many other things one can use a wiki for. I came up with the name “Wikipedian” and other Wikipedia jargon. I had devised a neutrality policy for Nupedia, and I elaborated it in a form that stood for several years on Wikipedia. I did a lot of explaining and evangelizing for Wikipedia — what it is about, why we are here, and so forth — for example, in Wikipedia:Our Replies to Our Critics and a couple of well-known posts on kuro5hin.org like this one and this. I also recall introducing many specific policy details, the evidence for which is in archives (such as on archive.org) and no doubt in the memories of some of the more active early Wikipedians.
These are only some examples of ways in which I led the project in its first 14 months; after I left, there was a lot of soul-searching in the project about what would happen now that it was “leaderless” (see the quotations linked from this page). When I was involved in the project, I was regarded as its chief organizer. As you can still see in the archives, I called myself “Chief Instigator” and “Chief Organizer” and the like (not editor).
I also want to correct you on something that tends to harm me: your repeated insinuations that I was “fired.” In the Hot Press interview, you said I left Wikipedia because you “didn’t want to pay him any more.” You know — and so does everyone else who worked at Bomis, Inc., around a dozen people — that at the end of 2001, you had to go back to Bomis’ original 4-5 employees, because of the tech market bust, when Bomis suddenly lost a million-dollar ad deal. Tim Shell told me I was the last person to be laid off. He told me — the day I arrived back from my honeymoon, as I recall — that I should probably start looking for new work, because of the market. I was made to believe, and always did until a few years ago when you started implying otherwise, that I had been laid off just like all the other Bomis employees.
In those first three years, Wikipedia did three press releases, in which we are both given credit as founders of the project. I drafted the first press release in January 2002; you read and approved it before posting it on the wires. Moreover, you must have read the many early news articles that called us both founders. You could have complained then — when you were CEO of the company that paid my paycheck. But you didn’t. In fact, you called yourself “co-founder” from time to time. Evidence of this has surfaced in the form of this post to xodp in which you begin, “Hello, let me introduce myself. I’m Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Nupedia and Wikipedia, the open content encyclopedias.” While your company supplied the funding and you supplied some guidance, I supplied the main leadership of the early project. This is why Wikipedia’s second press release also called me “founder,” in 2003 — just after I broke permanently with you and the Wikipedia community — and the Wikimedia Foundation’s first press release described me the same way, in early 2004.
I had nothing to do with the second and third press releases, and, as Bomis CEO and Wikimedia Chair, you approved all three. But now read what you told Hot Press recently. The interviewer asked: “Sanger said that proof of his being co-founder is on the initial press releases. Are you saying that he basically just put himself down as co-founder on these press releases?” You answered “Yes.” How could I “put myself down as co-founder” in 2003 and 2004, when I wasn’t even part of the organization? This is an attempt to buff your reputation while making me look like a liar — but your simple “Yes” answer can be refuted with a few URLs; you were a contact on all three press releases.
Beginning in 2004, you began leaving me out of the story of Wikipedia’s origin. You began implying, to reporters, that you had done a lot of the sort of work that, in fact, you hired me to do. You have even implied that I was opposed to various ideas that were crucial to Wikipedia’s popular success — when those were, for all intents and purposes, my own ideas. A good example is Daniel Pink’s article for Wired Magazine — in which you implied that I had little or nothing to do with Wikipedia.
You still do this. You told the Hot Press interviewer, “Larry was never comfortable with the open-editing model of Wikipedia and he very early on wanted to start locking things down and giving certain people special authority — you know, recruit experts to supervise certain areas of the encyclopaedia and things like that.” This is a lie. I was perfectly comfortable with the “open-editing model of Wikipedia.” After all, that was my idea. I did not want to “start locking things down” — or to “recruit experts to supervise certain areas of the encyclopaedia.” I challenge anyone to find any evidence in the archive that I did any such thing. For my early attitude toward expert involvement, see this column, written a year after the project started. Besides, your claim doesn’t make sense. Even after a year, I was hoping that a revitalized Nupedia would work in tandem with Wikipedia as its vetting service. Though you increasingly disliked Nupedia as Wikipedia’s star rose, it was always my assumption that you felt the same way about at least the potential of the two projects working together.
It was one thing, in 2004, to leave me out of the story of Wikipedia. It was another to assert in 2005, (1) for the very first time, that somebody else had the idea for the project, contrary to what had been on the books since 2001, or (2) that I am not co-founder of the project. But in both cases, people scanning the Wikipedia-L mailing list archives found old mails in which you contradicted yourself. One embarrassing mail has you giving me credit — as, of course, I always had been given credit — for the idea of Wikipedia, and another embarrassing mail surfaced just a few days ago in which you called yourself “co-founder” of Wikipedia.
I find your behavior since 2004 transparently self-serving, considering that this rewriting of history began in 2004, just as Wikia.com was getting started, and you started promoting your reputation as the brains behind Wikipedia. There is a long “paper trail” establishing virtually all of my claims about Wikipedia, and which refute your various attempts to rewrite history.
I have not publicly confronted you about this before, to this extent. Public controversies are emotionally wrenching and time-consuming. I know I might be (verbally) attacked more viciously than ever by your fans and Wikipedia’s. (To them, I just point out that Wikipedia is bigger than Jimmy Wales.) I have mainly limited myself to answering reporters’ questions — keeping my more harshly-worded statements off the record — and to this page on my personal site. Occasionally I couldn’t help objecting to some particularly outrageous claim, but I never went all out.
I thought that the evidence against your claims about me would shame you into changing your behavior. But, five years since you started misrepresenting my role in the founding of Wikipedia, you’re still at it.
I have been content to watch you reap the rewards of the project I started for you, largely without comment. You (with Tim Shell and Michael Davis, the Bomis partners) did, after all, sponsor the project. After leaving Wikipedia, I went back to academia and, after that, worked for a succession of nonprofit projects — these days, Citizendium.org and now also WatchKnow.org. I have not tried to cash in on my own reputation. I have been approached by a number of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and publishers and have always told them that I have my own plans. If I had wanted to cash in myself, I wouldn’t have moved away from Silicon Valley back to Ohio, as I did, in order to lower my costs in supporting the non-profit projects which I’ve made my life’s work.
The Hot Press interview is the straw that broke this camel’s back. I resent being the victim of another person’s self-serving lies. Besides, I don’t want to set a poor example in my failure to defend myself.
Please don’t say I’m making mountains out of molehills. When you go out of your way to edit Wikipedia articles to remove the fact that I am a co-founder, or ask others to do so, I don’t call that correcting “very simple errors,” as you told Hot Press. What angers me is not any one error, but the accumulated weight of your lies about me — I’ve mentioned only a few of them here.
Finally, you might protest that you have said, several times, that I am not credited enough. For example, you told Hot Press:
I feel that Larry’s work is often under-appreciated. He really did a lot in the first year to think through editorial policy. … I would actually love to have it on the record that I said: I think Larry’s work should be more appreciated. He’s a really brilliant guy.
This sounds like a fine sentiment. But how could it be sincere? What better way to ensure that I am “under-appreciated” than to contradict your own first three press releases and tell the Boston Globe, just two years later, that it’s “preposterous” that I am called co-founder?
I have two further requests, not of you, but of those who deal with you: the Wikimedia Foundation and reporters.
First, I ask the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation to reiterate the Foundation’s original position (as expressed in its first press release) that we are both, in fact, founders of Wikipedia. (I note that the author of the recent history of Wikipedia, Andrew “fuzheado” Lih, was among the authors and contacts for this press release.) If the Foundation is unwilling, I request an explanation why its corporate view has changed. Is it simply because Jimmy Wales has made his wishes known and you enforce them?
Second, I request any reporter who interviews you about the early history of Wikipedia and Nupedia to interview me as well, so I can correct anything misleading. They should know that there are many details in my 2005 memoir of Nupedia and Wikipedia, and my story has never varied. I would also appreciate it if a reporter were to inquire about my request, above, to the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation.
— Larry Sanger (email@example.com)
(Here is a WebCite copy of the post made a few minutes after posting, and a copy of the revision history of the page.)