WIKI ORIGINS (Wikipedia)

Nupedia was at a standstill at the end of 2000, even though it had gathered a sizeable set of volunteers. Larry and Jimmy knew their concept was not working, because after a year’s worth of work, all the finished articles bound together would have produced only a booklet. Still believing the project had to be centrally edited, they were stuck for new ideas.

What the world would come to know as Wikipedia would start just one month later, but not without some controversy.

Sanger was still new to San Diego, having moved there in February 2000. He spent that year trying to get Nupedia on track by recruiting Internet volunteers and ushering articles through the site’s rigorous seven-step process. As 2001 started, he was looking for ways to speed things along.

An old friend of his, Ben Kovitz, was arriving in town to take up a job in the area. Kovitz was a computer programmer Sanger had known since the 1990s, from their days on Internet mailing lists about philosophy—a common bond among Sanger, Wales, and many Nupedians. On January 2, 2001, they met up in Pacific Beach in San Diego. At a small Mexican taco house not far from the Bomis office, they caught up on "jobs, techie stuff, and philosophy," Sanger recalls.

While commiserating over Nupedia’s difficulties, Kovitz mentioned that he had come across something that might be of interest. Called WikiWikiWeb, it was a Web site built with a simple idea—it allowed anyone to directly edit any page at any time. No special software was needed, and no log-in or password was required. Anyone could alter content on a page, and changes would immediately be recorded. It was a way to collaborate—a way for many people to edit the same documents—and it was extremely easy to use.

Normally, editing Web pages is a complex operation. It requires a tedious cycle of copying the page to your computer, modifying the HTML code of the document, then uploading the changes to the Web server with a file transfer program. It’s cumbersome enough that only a fraction of Internet users ever engaged in the authoring of Web pages from scratch.

WikiWikiWeb was different because all the changes happened simply by pressing an "edit" button, and all editing took place within the user’s Web browser with a very simple "markup" language to make links within the Web site and to other places on the Internet. This new WikiWikiWeb existed in only a handful of places. The most notable site was created by its inventor, a computer programmer named Ward Cunningham, based in Portland, Oregon.

On the face of it, it was a pretty crazy idea: Open up an entire Web site where anyone, even strangers, could modify any page. The conventional wisdom about Internet safety was that everything had to be locked down. Quality meant being selective and restricting who could participate in editing. But WikiWikiWeb completely tore down this barrier to entry, and encouraged people to create or change information, immediately.

After discussing it for an hour with Kovitz, Sanger thought it was a revelation: "Instantly I was considering whether wiki would work as a more open and simple editorial system for a free, collaborative encyclopedia, and it seemed exactly right."

Sanger was so excited about the idea, the two raced back to his apartment and called Wales with the prospect of using it in Nupedia. Not able to reach him on the phone, Sanger left a voice-mail message. Sanger and Kovitz hung around until Wales called back within an hour, and they talked it over.

"After about a fifteen-minute conversation, Larry had a big smile on his face," says Kovitz. "Larry said that he felt very optimistic that the idea would proceed, and that Jimbo was quite open to it." By the next morning, Sanger had written up a proposal to use a wiki system to solve the problems they were having with collaboration and generating articles at Nupedia.

This is where the Wikipedia history starts to diverge. Each founder claims to have stumbled across Ward Cunningham’s creation through a different channel. Wales says he was told of the same wiki concept by fellow Bomis employee Jeremy Rosenfeld. Which story to believe has been a lasting source of consternation between Wales and Sanger in recent years. The earliest press releases and announcements from Bomis on the subject attribute the idea of applying wikis to Sanger. And there is no dispute that it was Sanger who came up with the name Wikipedia, "a silly name for what was at first a very silly project."

In the end, however Wales and Sanger came upon it, it was clear that, through Wikipedia, Ward Cunningham’s simple creation was going to make a big mark on the world, far beyond what he’d expected.

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