Friday, October 12, 2007


I've referred to Jimbo Wales so much on this blog, it's time that I should give my unvarnished on the WP god-king. That mock-title might make me look like a Jimbo-basher, but I'm really not. After all, he got the whole ball of [fill in nice or naughty noun] going, and I'm having fun contributing to it.

By and large, I have no complaints with Jimbo's hands-off style. A micro-manager would be a horrendous misfit for such a free-wheeling project as Wikipedia, which literally depends on the kindness of strangers. Sorry for the invidious comparison, but Larry Sanger's tight squeeze, a la Citizendium, would drive me to figurative drink and literal vandalism. Jimbo usually sits back and lets the good, bad and indifferent times roll at Wikipedia. He seems to be a lot more interested in Wikia nowadays, and that's oh so fine with me.

I once partially reverted an edit by Jimbo, with some trepidation. He screwed up a bunch of footnotes, and that had to be fixed. (Yes, I've done the same thing myself.) I almost reverted the entire edit but decided that discretion was the better part of saving my ass. You can read my sorry hemming and hawing on the revert here.

Jimbo did step hip-deep into it with the Essjay hoohah, and I haven't been kind to him in my edits on the WP article about the mess. At least he recovered and did the Right Thing...eventually. Wales also gets a bee in his bonnet about Larry Sanger's claim to be Wikipedia's co-founder, which doesn't make either gentleman look good. I wish they would both laugh off the silly spat - because lots of other people are laughing at them over it.

The most convincing complaint about Jimbo is that he often expresses an airy wish for something on Wikipedia, and then lets others do the dirty work of carrying out the semi-command. For instance, after the Seigenthaler disaster Jimbo mouthed platitudes about better sourcing for WP biographies. But it took a lot of effort by other people to improve the encyclopedia's treatment of those pesky persons who get upset when their WP articles announce that they're baby-killers or Carrot Top fans.

I'd still rather have Jimbo play aloof monarch instead of nagging boss. He gives great interview, can laugh at himself, and handles the media well. He makes a nice figurehead most of the time, and a competent manager when necessary.


Larry Sanger said...

I think you don't understand the situation nearly as well as you think you do, Casey.

If I had not, in Wikipedia's first year, insisted strongly on various practices that you and other Wikipedians now take for granted, they simply wouldn't have come about, and Wikipedia wouldn't exist. You might assume that Wikipedia's practices simply sprang into being fully clothed--as I was there, I assure you that such an assumption would be completely wrong.

For example, I early on insisted that Wikipedia is not a dictionary. This was actually controversial at the time, among people who insisted that Wikipedia should be whatever anybody wanted it to be. I also insisted that comments about articles be moved to /Talk subpages (before there were namespaces). That was also somewhat controversial, among people who thought Wikipedia should be a regular wiki, and regular wikis did not have "talk pages."

I could go on with many examples; basically, almost everything that makes up the fundamentals of Wikipedia had to be initially enforced and, as project coordinator, I was the only one who had the moral authority to enforce them. (Jimmy certainly didn't bother; he was relatively inactive, as he was busy with Bomis.) But the in-the-trenches participation from the top that you ignorantly dismiss as "micro-management" was actually instrumental in creating the project you are praising.

Not surprisingly, it is also essential to the success of the Citizendium.

Casey Abell said...

Larry, all I can do is reiterate my comments on the blog. I don't want an enforcer on Wikipedia, as you italicize. And I'm glad that Jimbo isn't one, most of the time. If he was busy with Bomis then and Wikia now, that is very, very fine with me. If this attitude makes me "ignorant" in your elegant phrase, then I'll ignorantly believe that ignorance is bliss.

Larry Sanger said...

Let's try this: if there weren't an enforcer in Wikipedia's first year, Wikipedia wouldn't exist. How and why might that be? That's what you're ignorant of. Since you've already got it all figured out, you refuse to come to grips with such basic truths about how the project you love came to be.

Casey Abell said...

Larry, we'll just have to agree to disagree on how essential an "enforcer" was, or is, to Wikipedia's success. I think that the contributions of gazillions of volunteers have always been far, far, far (did I say far) more important to Wikipedia than any enforcement of bureaucratic rules. That goes for the first year of the project, the second year, the third get the idea. Or maybe you don't get the idea, but we're probably never going to convince each other.

Larry Sanger said...

For me to say "we'll agree to disagree" means that I respect your position, which I don't. It is based in ignorance.

Of course the contributors as a whole are far more important to the success of the project than the role of the project organizer. I've always said so. That's also completely irrelevant to my criticism of your post.

Anyway, I'm done with you, as you have demonstrated that you're still trying to score points instead of actually learn something.

Casey Abell said...

Larry, too bad this isn't Citizendium and you can't "enforce" me off the site. You'll have to find somebody else to "enforce" around. And I'm done with you, too, which will break both our hearts.

Larry Sanger said...

"Larry, too bad this isn't Citizendium and you can't 'enforce' me off the site."

That doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, Casey. I came to your blog, despite the fact that I'm very busy, to correct you. If I were inclined to silence you, I would have ignored you in the first place. Indeed, I probably should have, since you have not made the slightest attempt to engage what I've offered to your blog in any meaningful way. But I have always been open to discussing things with all sorts of people, and I hope I always will.

Casey Abell said...

Larry, what you've "offered" to my blog is a thrice-repeated assertion that I'm ignorant. I've tried to "engage" this "contribution" with self-deprecating humor. But your bossy ways - which you proudly cited in your account of how you "enforced" your views on Wikipedia - are getting dull. Please go back to Citizendium, where you can "enforce" all you want. You can have the last word, which no doubt will be another assertion that I'm ignorant and you're "correct."

Casey Abell said...

Okay, I lied about the last word. I'll leave that to Reason magazine, which published this account of Wikipedia's early days:

"Bomis didn't make it big-it was no Yahoo-but in March 2000 the site hosted Nupedia, Wales' first attempt to build a free online encyclopedia. Wales hired Larry Sanger, at the time a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Ohio State, to edit encyclopedia articles submitted voluntarily by scholars, and to manage a multistage peer review process. After a slow start, Wales and Sanger decided to try something more radical. In 2001 they bracketed the Nupedia project and started a new venture built on the same foundations. The twist: It would be an open-source encyclopedia. Any user could exercise editorial control, and no one person or group would have ultimate authority.

"Sanger resigned from the project in 2002 and since then has been in an ongoing low-grade war with Wales over who founded Wikipedia. Everyone agrees that Sanger came up with the name while Wales wrote the checks and provided the underlying open-source philosophy. But who thought of powering the site with a wiki?

"Wikis are simple software that allow anyone to create or edit a webpage. The first wikis were developed by Ward Cunningham, a programmer who created the WikiWikiWeb, a collaborative software guide, in 1995. ("Wiki wiki" means "quick" in Hawaiian.) Gradually adopted by a variety of companies to facilitate internal collaboration (IBM and Google, for instance, use wikis for project management and document version control), wikis were spreading under the radar until Wikipedia started using the software.

"Wales characterizes the dispute with Sanger as a fight over the "project's radically open nature" and the question of "whether there was a role for an editor in chief" in the new project. Sanger says he wanted to implement the "common-sense" rules that "experts and specialists should be given some particular respect when writing in their areas of expertise." (Sanger has since launched a competitor to Wikipedia called Citizendium, with stricter rules about editors' credentials.) They also differed over whether advertising should be permitted on the site."

Is this a fair account? I'm not sure - it's part of an article written with Wales' cooperation, but not Sanger's. But it does offer a third-person view of WP's early days, strikingly different from Larry's comments about how he almost single-handedly built Wikipedia by "enforcing" his views on the project.