After both Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales found out about WikiWikiWeb software and its use for collaboration, both were keen on it helping kick-start Nupedia’s lackluster pace. Nupedia was simply not working, because people were not collaborating efficiently and articles were not being generated fast enough. The wiki software might just get existing Nupedians to work better, while also allowing more participants from the outside world.

On January 10, 2001, Wales installed the same wiki software that Ben Kovitz described at the time—a "script" called UseModWiki that ran on a Web server.

Surprisingly, it was not a complex software system. UseModWiki was a simple program that did just the most basic things for a wiki Web site. By merely placing the program file on the Web server, you immediately created a fully functioning environment where anyone could edit any page. Pages could be created very easily and stored as simple files on the server.

The provenance of UseModWiki is a classic example of how open source software works—building something better on top of other people’s work and releasing for more improvement. UseModWiki traces its heritage back to Ward’s original wiki software through many intermediate modifications:

Clifford Adams started developing UseModWiki in 1999 for his Usenet Moderation Project (Usemod).

UseModWiki was based on the code of AtisWiki 0.3 by Markus Denker.

AtisWiki was based on CvWiki by Peter Merel.

CvWiki was based on Wiki Base, the wiki engine of the WikiWikiWeb by Ward Cunningham.

Just like Ward’s original wiki, UseModWiki was meant to be quick and easy to learn. Anyone could edit any page by simply clicking on the edit button. Creating a username and logging in were entirely optional. As for making the page look more interesting, bold text could be created by placing three single quotes around a word; italics by putting two single quotes:

”’Bold text”’

”Italic text”

The magic of creating a link to another page was performed by using CamelCase, by removing spaces and "pressing" words together. A small letter followed immediately by a capital letter would be interpreted as a link word. If the UseModWiki software saw this, it would create a link automatically to a page of that name. This was the easy-to-use, "accidental linking" that Cunningham liked. If the page did not exist, there would be a question mark next to the name, indicating that clicking on it would create the page.

For programmers, CamelCase was an acceptable shorthand, but for the kind of contributors writing a credible encyclopedia, it was ghastly. Kovitz recalled how the CamelCase word abominations made the academic, exacting editor in chief Larry Sanger "cringe."

Despite the wiki project’s tech roots, Sanger and Wales launched it knowing it was an experiment, even with the bizarre CamelCase. But it wasn’t simply a bit odd. There were real practical problems. While it’s quite obvious CamelCase works fine for articles like AlbertEinstein, it required Nupedians to be imaginative for article names that were short. For one-word articles, funny-looking titles like NepTune and MatheMatics started to crop up. The CamelCase titles for even shorter articles looked more ridiculous, like ApE or EgG, but it was the only solution with the UseModWiki software, out of the box.

The wiki experiment was done under the auspices of the Nupedia project and was originally meant as a development proving ground for Nupedia. Sanger made an announcement to the Nupedia mailing list, called Nupedia-L, with the title "Let’s make a wiki":

No, this is not an indecent proposal. It’s an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not.

. . . What it means is a VERY open, VERY publicly-editable series of web pages. For example, I can start a page called EpistemicCircularity and write anything I want in it. Anyone else (yes, absolutely anyone else) can come along and make absolutely any changes to it that he wants to.

(The editing interface is very simple; anyone intelligent enough to write or edit a Nupedia article will be able to figure it out without any trouble.) On the page I create, I can link to any other pages, and of course anyone can link to mine. The project is billed and pursued as a public resource. There are a few announced suggestions or rules. The concept actually seems to work well, as you can see here with the original wiki:

Links are indicated by using CapitalizedWordsBunchedTogether LikeThis.

If a wiki page exists, the word is underlined; if not, there is a question mark after the word, which is clickable, and which anyone can use to go and write something about the topic.20

After hearing positive feedback, later that day Sanger announced to the mailing list

Here’s the URL for Nupedia’s wiki:

Told you we could make it fast. It hasn’t yet been linked from the website, so if you’re very concerned that we’re going to make utter jackasses of ourselves and you want to stop us from doing this, speak up! :-)


Nupedians started to trickle in to try the new creation. At first it looked like the wiki experiment would be just the right thing to help Nupedians to generate more content. But this didn’t last long.

Whether it was the offputting CamelCase, or the wiki’s radical inclusiveness, allowing anyone into the inner circle of creating encyclopedia articles, the Nupedians generally didn’t like the new wiki project. Sanger saw that his elite editors were not happy sharing their project with the masses. "They (some of them) evidently thought that a wiki could not resemble an encyclopedia at all, that it would be too informal and unstructured."

After vigorous complaints from the Nupedia advisory board, just one week after the wiki project began, it would have to be spun off into its own parallel project. Even after the split, Wikipedia was still viewed as simply a breeding ground for content to be eventually moved into the commercial Nupedia. It was launched as on January 15, 2001, and Sanger took to promoting it in the mailing lists and Internet forums.

The first article to be created on the new was about the letter "U"—the origins, history, and significance of the twenty-first letter of the English alphabet. But how do you apply CamelCase to a single letter? They settled on the bizarre convention, naming it "UuU"—which contained consecutive lowercase and uppercase letters to indicate a CamelCase link for the software. It was the simplest solution even if it was not pretty.

Articles started to take shape with the Nupedians who chose to help out, and by people who heard about Wikipedia from the mailing lists that Sanger posted to. Back then, the tools for tracking what was happening on the site were fairly primitive, but the most important tool was the Recent Changes page listing all edits in reverse chronological order. Each line read like an entry in a logbook:

* SunirShah at 13:32:34 (1 change)…..SunirShah 12:30am, January 23, 2001

* EnglishWikipedia at 08:06:38 (1 change)…..BrianKeegan

* Update article number

Each entry contained the name of the page, the time of the edit, and the associated person making the edit, or the Internet address of the computer making the edit.

The irony was that "anonymous" editors who did not have a username and instead had their Internet protocol addresses recorded actually revealed quite a bit about themselves. This IP address provides the identification of a computer on the Net, and consists of four numbers (each up to 255) separated by dots (e.g., One could usually figure out what country the IP address came from, and in many cases the city and company associated with it.

After a few weeks, legions of folks started to visit the site, and it was clear it was going to be more than just a small silly project. A spot check on January 30, 2001, saw 224 IP addresses as visitors to the site, and 4,871 accesses that day. Not bad for less than a month of operation.

Larry worked on both Nupedia and Wikipedia at the same time, though he was increasingly spending more time on Wikipedia, with its more chaotic and loose structure needing oversight. The pressures of this dual role were evident in the message that had to be posted to the Nupedia Web site:

Please note: the editorial processes and policies of Wikipedia and Nu-pedia are totally separate; Nupedia editors and peer reviewers do not necessarily endorse the Wikipedia project, and Wikipedia contributors do not necessarily endorse the Nupedia project. Larry Sanger is working on both projects, as are a number of Nupedia members. The projects might eventually develop a very interesting symbiotic relationship. But nothing along those lines is official, and no changes are anticipated in the near future.

As more people came to the Wikipedia site and started to contribute, there was a pressing need for the editors to comment on and discuss each other’s changes. That’s where there was a bit of a culture clash.

Ward’s Wiki had been designed as a scratchpad for discussion and consensus, not for displaying "finished" work as with Wikipedia’s encyclopedia articles.

The established wiki tradition held that people would engage in dialogue directly on the page, with all the scribbles and casual conversation visible. Later, someone would come to "refactor" or summarize and consolidate the viewpoints into the prose. This was clearly not a good model for writing an article that was expected to be coherent and readable at any given time. It would be like seeing all the editor’s marks, pencil scratches, and Post-it notes all over a finished work.

Tim Shell, Jimmy Wales’s original Bomis partner, who was active in the early days of Wikipedia, pointed this out on the mailing list within weeks of the project starting:

If Wikipedia is to be an encyclopedia, then it probably is not appropriate to have threaded discussions on a subject page. See for example AlTruism, where one person gives a flame bait description of the concept, and numerous people then argue back about that description. If a discussion is appropriate, perhaps there should be a standard discussion page, as AltruismDiscussion or AltruismDebate, that is linked to from the subject page.

Editors familiar with the established wiki culture felt that discussions should stay on the page. It’s a wiki after all, and that’s how wikis are done. This led to serious discussion within the group about the nature of Wikipedia: Was it going to be a wiki, strictly adhering to the existing wiki culture and conventions? After all, many of the early contributors were attracted because of their familiarity with wikis. Or was Wikipedia simply launching with wiki software and then evolving its own norms for encyclopedia writing?

Fortunately, UseModWiki creator Clifford Adams was a subscriber to the Wikipedia mailing list, watching intently as Wikipedia started. He had no qualms about jumping in to help customize his program for Wikipedia’s needs.

The use of CamelCase, while familiar to note-jotting techies, was entirely a bad fit for an encyclopedia shooting for accuracy and readability. "Someone unfamiliar with the local wiki conventions," Adams says, "might guess otherwise on another page and link to a separate ‘DemoCracy’ or even ‘DeMocracy.’ Ick."

Adams proposed a new "syntax" that he called free linking. Instead of writing links in CamelCase, this new convention would use double brackets around the words, as with [[George W. Bush]] or [[Ski]].

Out of the blue, he posted a note to the Wikipedia mailing list on January 27, saying he’d been watching the Wikipedia community struggle with CamelCase and had created a solution:

To make a longish story short, I added code (about 150 new lines of Perl) to my development copy to allow (site-optional) "Free" linking within [[double brackets]]. You can use spaces, numbers, commas, dashes, and the period character in these kinds of links. Valid link names include [[George W. Bush]], [[China-Soviet Relations]], [[Physics]], [[music]], and [[Year 2000 bug]].

Adams did something unexpected for the academic community, but common in open source culture—release early and release often. Within weeks of its launch, one of the biggest annoyances of Wikipedia was resolved directly by the software’s author. It was not because of monetary compensation or any formal request, but simply because the author was interested in solving it on his own time, and sharing it with others. It was the hacker ethos, and it had crossed from the domain of tech programmers into the world of encyclopedias.

At the end of the month, Wikipedia managed to accumulate an impressive six hundred or so articles. There were some missing pieces, certainly. It was still largely a text-only project, as there was no way to upload pictures to Wikipedia. Also, the so-called housecleaning chores, such as renaming, moving, or deleting articles, required someone with the master "administrator" password, something not many people were allowed access to.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia achieved more in weeks, by volume, than Nupedia had in one year. It was a profound message.

"Wikipedia has definitely taken [on] a life of its own; new people are arriving every day and the project seems to be getting only more popular. Long live Wikipedia!" announced Sanger. He also set a goal: "I predict 1,000 [articles] by February 15."

In fact, they hit it three days early.

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