Hey there! Have you ever pondered the early internet pioneers who paved the way for the open knowledge resources we rely on today? Well, strap in, because I‘m excited to walk you through the fascinating career of Larry Sanger – the philosopher and historian who co-founded Wikipedia and became a controversial but influential voice in shaping how we share information online.
From College Professor to Nupedia Editor-in-Chief: Sanger‘s Early Journey to Open Knowledge
Sanger was born on July 16, 1968 in Bellevue, Washington and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He became enthralled with the educational potential of the burgeoning internet while studying philosophy and history at Reed College in the late 1980s.
After graduating in 1991, Sanger even set up one of the earliest online tutoring services, connecting Reed students through email lists and forums. This pioneering project gave him a taste of the power online communities would soon wield in democratizing knowledge exchange.
Sanger went on to earn a masters and PhD from Ohio State University, becoming a philosophy professor there in 1995. But the draw of the net was strong. In 2000, he left academia to join entrepreneur Jimmy Wales‘ startup Bomis as editor-in-chief of Nupedia – aspiring to be the world‘s first free online encyclopedia written and edited entirely by experts.
However, as Sanger quickly realized, Nupedia‘s highly rigorous seven-step review process led to glacial growth. After a year, Nupedia only published 21 articles, far from the ambitious scope Sanger and Wales had envisioned.
The Explosive Growth of Wikipedia Left Sanger Feeling Cautious
By January 2001, Sanger was itching for a faster solution. He proposed utilizing new wiki technology to allow the public to quickly submit article drafts to be vetted by Nupedia‘s expert editors. This led Sanger and Wales to create Wikipedia as an experimental side-project under the Nupedia umbrella.
Sanger formulated foundational Wikipedia policies like the "neutral point of view" and came up with its memorable name. As its first editor-in-chief, he nurtured the nascent community and helped bootstrap the site to over 20,000 articles by the end of 2001. But he also felt troubled by Wikipedia‘s exponential growth.
Without the oversight of expert editors, Sanger felt Wikipedia became vulnerable to inaccuracies, biases, and misinformation. He watched warily as anonymous new editors overturned existing articles and added questionable content.
Sanger pleaded for more robust vetting processes, but Wales and much of the community preferred Wikipedia‘s radically open, decentralized model. As Bomis cut his salary amidst the 2000 dot-com bust, Sanger reluctantly left the project in 2002 – setting Wikipedia on a path to global ubiquity propelled by volunteer crowdsourcing.
Sanger‘s Alternative Vision: Citizendium‘s Attempt to Balance Openness and Reliability
After departing Wikipedia, Sanger continued developing open education projects like Reading Bear. But he remained convinced that unconstrained crowdsourcing alone could not produce authoritative knowledge.
In 2006, Sanger founded Citizendium to implement his vision of an online encyclopedia combining public participation with expert guidance. Launched in 2007, Citizendium only allowed contributors using their real names – banning anonymous editing. It had a hierarchical structure with editors possessing different powers based on their credentials.
Despite some initial fanfare even from experts, Citizendium never come close to Wikipedia‘s viral expansion. By 2010, it had under 16,000 articles compared to Wikipedia‘s millions. Sanger gradually reduced his role, and Citizendium limped on as a niche alternative before he sold the domain in 2020.
Sanger‘s Prescient Warnings: Balancing Freedom and Accuracy in Open Systems
While Sanger‘s alternative models largely floundered, his advocacy for expert-led curation proved prescient. As misinformation swelled on Web 2.0, many acknowledged the flaws in radically open communities like Wikipedia. Outlandish edits and vandalism remained recurring issues despite volunteer anti-abuse efforts.
Studies like a 2012 paper in the American Sociological Review found Wikipedia‘s model resulted in uneven article quality and systemic biases reinforcing traditional power structures. Critics argued Sanger‘s calls for more robust, hierarchical oversight could have reduced these problems.
Sanger himself remained a prominent critic, writing essays warning Wikipedia‘s lack of editorial controls undermined its reliability and integrity. But proposals to increase vetting continue to face resistance from those fearing bureaucracy and elitism. The tussle between open freedom and expert guidance remains a key challenge in democratizing knowledge.
Lasting Accomplishments: Wikipedia Co-Founder and Open Knowledge Pioneer
Despite his controversial stances, Sanger‘s co-founding of Wikipedia assured him a prominent place among internet pioneers. Awarded the Erasmus Prize in 2015 alongside Wales and the broader Wikipedia community, the site has become one of history‘s largest collaborative knowledge ecosystems with over 50 million articles in 300 languages.
Sanger also helped spawn the principles and philosophies underpinning the free culture movement. His advocacy of broad public participation in growing open knowledge foreshadowed the age of user-generated content.
Even through tumultuous projects like Citizendium, Sanger advanced conceptual models on balancing freedom and editorial control in online communities. His imprint continues through initiatives like Encyclosphere, which seeks to apply blockchain technology to manage expertise hierarchies.
So the next time you happily dive into Wikipedia‘s endless rabbit holes, take a moment to appreciate the intriguing intellectual journey of Larry Sanger. Despite their divergent paths, perhaps the philosopher would agree those cavernous depths of hyperlinked discovery do reflect a central hope of his vision – the boundless potential of open knowledge.