The Hive

Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge
Top-Down and Bottom-Up

In the mid-1990s, the great dream of Internet entrepreneurs was to create the entry point on the Web. “Portals,” as they were called, would provide everything: e-mail, news, entertainment, and, most important, the tools to help users find what they wanted on the Web. As Google later showed, if you build the best “finding aid,” you’ll be a dominant player. In 1996, the smart money was on “Web directories,” man-made guides to the Internet. Both Netscape and Yahoo relied on Web directories as their primary finding aids, and their IPOs in the mid-1990s suggested a bright future. In 1996, Wales and two partners founded a Web directory called Bomis.

chart
Source: Wikimedia Foundation

Initially, the idea was to build a universal directory, like Yahoo’s. The question was how to build it. At the time, there were two dominant models: top-down and bottom-up. The former is best exemplified by Yahoo, which began as Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. Jerry—in this case Jerry Yang, Yahoo’s cofounder—set up a system of categories and began to classify Web sites accordingly. Web surfers flocked to the site because no one could find anything on the Web in the early 1990s. So Yang and his partner, David Filo, spent a mountain of venture capital to hire a team of surfers to classify the Web. Yahoo (“Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”) was born.

Other would-be classifiers approached the problem of Web chaos more democratically. Beginning from the sound premise that it’s good to share, a seventeen-year-old Oregonian named Sage Weil created the first “Web ring” at about the time Yang and Filo were assembling their army of paid Web librarians. A Web ring is nothing more than a set of topically related Web sites that have been linked together for ease of surfing. Rings are easy to find, easy to join, and easy to create; by 1997, they numbered 10,000.

Wales focused on the bottom-up strategy using Web rings, and it worked. Bomis users built hundreds of rings—on cars, computers, sports, and especially “babes” (e.g., the Anna Kournikova Web ring), effectively creating an index of the “laddie” Web. Instead of helping all users find all content, Bomis found itself positioned as the Playboy of the Internet, helping guys find guy stuff. Wales’s experience with Web rings reinforced the lesson he had learned with MUDs: given the right technology, large groups of self-interested individuals will unite to create something they could not produce by themselves, be it a sword-and-sorcery world or an index of Web sites on Pamela Anderson. He saw the power of what we now call “peer-to-peer,” or “distributed,” content production.

Wales was not alone: Rich Skrenta and Bob Truel, two programmers at Sun Microsystems, saw it too. In June 1998, along with three partners, they launched GnuHoo, an all- volunteer alternative to the Yahoo Directory. (GNU, a recursive acronym for “GNUs Not Unix,” is a free operating system created by the über-hacker Richard Stallman.) The project was an immediate success, and it quickly drew the attention of Netscape, which was eager to find a directory capable of competing with Yahoo’s index. In November 1998, Netscape acquired GnuHoo (then called NewHoo), promising to both develop it and release it under an “open content” license, which meant anyone could use it. At the date of Netscape’s acquisition, the directory had indexed some 100,000 URLs; a year later, it included about a million.

Wales clearly had the open-content movement in mind when, in the fall of 1999, he began thinking about a “volunteer-built” online encyclopedia. The idea—explored most prominently in Stallman’s 1999 essay “The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource”—had been around for some time. Wales says he had no direct knowledge of Stallman’s essay when he embarked on his encyclopedia project, but two bits of evidence suggest that he was thinking of Stallman’s GNU free documentation license. First, the name Wales adopted for his encyclopedia—Nupedia.org—strongly suggested a Stallman-esque venture. Second, he took the trouble of leasing a related domain name, GNUpedia.org. By January 2000, his encyclopedia project had acquired funding from Bomis and hired its first employee: Larry Sanger.

The Philosopher

Sanger was born in 1968 in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. When he was seven, his father, a marine biologist, moved the family to Anchorage, Alaska, where Sanger spent his youth. He excelled in high school, and in 1986 he enrolled at Reed College. Reed is the sort of school you attend if you are intelligent, are not interested in investment banking, and wonder a lot about truth. There Sanger found a question that fired his imagination: What is knowledge? He embarked on that most unremunerative of careers, epistemology, and entered a doctoral program in philosophy at Ohio State.

Sanger fits the profile of almost every Internet early adopter: he’d been a good student, played Dungeons & Dragons, and tinkered with PCs as a youth—going so far as to code a text-based adventure game in BASIC, the first popular programming language. He was drawn into the world of philosophy discussion lists and, in the early 1990s, was an active participant in Wales’s objectivism forum. Sanger also hosted a mailing list as part of his own online philosophy project (eventually named the Association for Systematic Philosophy). The mission and mien of Sanger’s list stood in stark contrast to Wales’s Rand forum. Sanger was far more programmatic. As he wrote in his opening manifesto, dated March 22, 1994:

The history of philosophy is full of disagreement and confusion. One reaction by philosophers to this state of things is to doubt whether the truth about philosophy can ever be known, or whether there is any such thing as the truth about philosophy. But there is another reaction: one may set out to think more carefully and methodically than one’s intellectual forebears.

Wales’s Rand forum was generally serious, but it was also a place for philosophically inclined laypeople to shoot the breeze: Wales permitted discussion of “objectivism in the movies” or “objectivism in Rush lyrics.” Sanger’s list was more disciplined, but he soon began to feel it, too, was of limited philosophical worth. He resigned after little more than a year. “I think that my time could really be better spent in the real world,” Sanger wrote in his resignation letter, “as opposed to cyberspace, and in thinking to myself, rather than out loud to a bunch of other people.” Sanger was seriously considering abandoning his academic career.

As the decade and the century came to a close, another opportunity arose, one that would let Sanger make a living away from academia, using the acumen he had developed on the Internet. In 1998, Sanger created a digest of news reports relating to the “Y2K problem.” Sanger’s Review of Y2K News Reports became a staple of IT managers across the globe. It also set him to thinking about how he might make a living in the new millennium. In January 2000, he sent Wales a business proposal for what was in essence a cultural news blog. Sanger’s timing was excellent.

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Marshall Poe is the founder of MemoryArchive, a universal encyclopedia of memories.

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