Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger says website has been 'taken over by trolls'

46-year-old says he walked away from the internet phenomenon in 2001 because 'the inmates were running the asylum'

Paul Gallagher
Thursday 12 November 2015 19:23
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Sanger went on to establish the rival 'free knowledge project' Citizendium
Sanger went on to establish the rival 'free knowledge project' Citizendium

Wikipedia’s co-founder has said that mob rule and anti-elitism ruined the website he helped set up leading to “inmates running the asylum”.

Larry Sanger said that he walked away from the internet phenomenon just one year after it began life in 2001 because it quickly became “taken over by trolls”.

The 46-year-old went on to establish Citizendium, a rival “free knowledge project” where user generated content would have to be approved by editors with minimum levels of qualifications, such as college diplomas or degrees.

“Wikipedia never solved the problem of how to organize itself in a way that didn’t lead to mob rule,” the Ohio-based internet project developer told Vice.com. “On the one hand, it isn’t a mob at all. It’s highly organized and structured and there’s a lot of rules, so it seems like the very opposite of that, right?

“But on the other hand, the way that the community is organized isn’t codified or decided upon in any type of constitutional way. So there might be some people who selectively apply rules according to positions that other people take on their pet issues. And that’s inherently unfair, right?

“I think a small amount of that goes on. A lot of the behaviours that people associate with so-called social justice warriors today, I remember seeing back in 2001, 2002, with the new arrivals.

Mr Sanger says he would have insisted on a more academic system of approving articles (AFP/Getty)

“I don’t want to be in the business of Wikipedia-bashing anymore. But I do think it has a root problem that’s social. People that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the asylum.”

Fellow Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who still oversees the website, was one of three founders of a free online encyclopaedia called Nupedia when he brought Mr Sanger on board to develop the project. The latter’s background in philosophy, especially the theory of knowledge, was seen as critical to its development.

Having synthesised emerging “wiki” technology, a website which can be edited directly from the web browser, by anyone, Mr Sanger came up with the name Wikipedia. He also wrote its founding documents and spent the next 14 months as the site’s sole paid editor and philosophical leader.

People that I would say are trolls sort of took over. The inmates started running the asylum

&#13; <p>Larry Sanger</p>&#13;

If he could go back to his time at Wikipedia again Mr Sanger would have insisted on a more academic system of approving articles and edits as “credible” – but he said a lack of leadership meant it never happened.

He told Vice.com: “But by the time the new recruits arrived—the anarchist crowd, as I called it at the time—all that stuff became deeply unpopular. Because there wasn’t anyone who was really leading the project, including Jimmy Wales—he just sort of let the thing run itself after I left—there needed to be a way for new ideas to be proposed and voted on by the community.

“And right now, I think Wikipedia is sort of stuck, and has long been stuck. They’re very slow to adapt, because they don’t have any community-approved mechanism for proposing and approving new changes. So there needed to be a constitutional system for doing that. And I think it could have been added, but never was.”

The English Wikipedia currently has almost 27 million users who have registered a username. Of these almost 130,000 could be classified as “Wikipedians”, volunteer contributors who write and edit Wikipedia articles, having edited a page over the last 30 days and more than half of them (53 per cent) are aged 29 or under.

Although the rival homepages look similar, Citizendium has only published almost 17,000 articles in English compared to Wikipedia’s five million plus.

Although he has often berated the website over its accuracy Mr Sanger said he remained “moderately proud” of his role in Wikipedia’s history.

“I always sort of felt like we just got lucky with the right idea at the right time, and we had a reasonably successful implementation of the idea,” he said. “A lot of the success of Wikipedia was exactly what we hoped and dreamed. And some of the policy choices that we made were definitely the right ones. I think the neutrality policy is absolutely instrumental, for example. The changes that we made to the way that wikis work was instrumental. So we definitely did some right things that we can take credit for. But I don’t know."

A spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation said: “Wikipedia has been edited by millions of people around the world who have contributed more than 35 million articles across 291 languages. These volunteers make up a vast, diverse community that can’t be defined by any single set of characteristics. No single group controls Wikipedia -- editors come from a variety of backgrounds, and each person has unique reasons for editing.”

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