The Nupedia Idea (Wikipedia)

The computing power and capital to take on new projects at Bomis made it the right time to fulfill a dream of Wales’s: creating an online encyclopedia. He wanted to call it Nupedia, again sticking with a GNU-inspired name, but without wanting to step on Stallman’s toes.

Wales had always been a fan of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, and his activities in various Internet forums discussing her ideas would be formative. In addition to the usual Internet bulletin board systems like Usenet, in 1992 Wales announced the creation of his own Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy, what he described as "the most scholarly of all Objectivist discussions available on the networks."

Rand would inform Wales’s thinking on many ideas. He would even name his daughter Kira after the protagonist in Rand’s book We the Living, Kira Argounova. Gaining objective knowledge from perception by measurement was one of the ideas Wales admired and debated at great length in his online forums. This inspired faith in the idea of measurement by the masses creating an online reference work.

Wales and Shell had originally met via online philosophy mailing lists. And the colloquium of online objectivists would yield another fruitful partnership for Wales. This time it would be with online denizen Larry Sanger, a Ph.D. student in philosophy.

Sanger was born in the state of Washington and grew up in Alaska after the age of seven. He would stay in the Pacific Northwest to attend Reed College, before deciding to study philosophy at graduate school. He seemed straight out of central casting for the role of academic egghead. He would find himself at the much bigger campus of Ohio State University during the years of the Internet boom, studying philosophy and epistemology.

But the short, bespectacled Sanger wasn’t just sitting up in the ivory tower studying abstract ideas. He engaged in online discussions about his philosophy interests, in newsgroups and mailing lists, exercising a skill for writing long, detailed essays about his views.

Now, as the year 1999 came around, Sanger wasn’t partying. He took on the specter of the most famous non-crisis crisis in modern times: the Y2K bug. In the late 1990s, there was a panic in the information industry about the millions of lines of computer code in various corners of the world that might not be ready for the flip from ’99 to ’00. Computer code that compared years would suddenly find that 00 was less than 99, and markets would collapse, insurance would be gone, banks would go haywire. Or so the theory went. As companies scrambled to disarm possible ticking time bombs in their computer code, the news reports were getting more urgent. Even the experts didn’t know how big a problem it might be.

Seizing on interest in this phenomenon, Sanger, with a friend, created a Web site called Sanger & Shannon’s Review of Y2K News Reports. It attempted to aggregate all the reporting on the issue in a digested form. From 1998 to 2000, the Web site gained a healthy following. The good news at the time was that Sanger was gaining a great reputation for it and attracting loyal readers and followers. The bad news was that if the world did not melt down in a computer-induced Armageddon, he would be irrelevant after January 1, 2000.

Well, the world did not implode. In fact, Y2K was one of the biggest nonevents in the history of computing. Within weeks, Larry was looking for something else to do.

Shortly after New Year’s Day 2000, Larry sent a private email to a group of acquaintances for feedback on a new "blog" project he had in mind. Wales was one of those recipients, but he had something else in mind for the young philosophy student. "To my great surprise, Jimmy replied to my email describing his idea of a free encyclopedia, and asking if I might be interested in leading the project," said Sanger. "He was specifically interested in finding a philosopher to lead the project."9

Wales wanted to build something based on the Open Directory Project idea, but have it be an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, using volunteer contributors on the Internet. But since Bomis was a commercial company, the intention was not simply to give the encyclopedia away, but eventually to generate revenue by selling advertising on the site.

Sanger thought it was a great opportunity, but it would interfere with his ongoing Ph.D. studies at the time. Wales provided some impetus to accept the job. "He made it a condition of my employment that I would finish my Ph.D. quickly (whereupon I would get a raise)—which I did, in June 2000. I am still grateful for the extra incentive," Sanger recalls.

So Sanger piled his belongings into a well-traveled, trusty gray Toyota Corolla wagon, a car he would push to more than 100,000 miles, and drove across the country. Within a month of his email exchange with Wales, he had gone from the cold Ohio winter to the sunny shores of San Diego. The new editor in chief of Nupedia was settled and ready to work. Wales had always thought an academic should head the effort, and he provided Sanger wide latitude.

The idea of an Internet-based encyclopedia was not unique to Wales or Bomis. The most widely recognized early example of the concept was the Inter-pedia proposed by Rick Gates.

In the 1990s, Gates was a graduate student and lecturer at the University of Arizona’s library school, and was seeing the emerging power of the Internet as an information tool. To get people familiar with the new information repository, in September of 1992, for fun, he started a contest called the Internet Hunt that became well known and popular. The idea was to get people to try to use the traditional text-based Internet tools of the time—FTP, Gopher, WAIS—to answer questions posed by Gates. This was the era before the World Wide Web.

The first questions in the Hunt, with the number of points beside them in parentheses, included:

(4) I’m leaving for Japan tomorrow. Approximately how many yen can I get for my dollar, give or take a few yen?

(7) A hurricane just blew in! Where can I find satellite photos of its progress?

(6) I’m taking a job as a social studies teacher at a high school in Denver, CO. Where can I find a list of local environmental organizations that could come speak to my classes?

Today, they seem ridiculously easy to figure out with a quick trip to any Web search site. But in 1992, the term "search engine" was unknown, and it would be a year before ALIWEB and Excite, the first well-known search sites, would be used. Google would not be established for another six years. It took smarts, a lot of scavenging, and a bit of luck to answer these questions. For each set of roughly a dozen, Gates gave people a week to find the answers.

Seeing his scavenger hunt gain popularity, and seeing people flail at finding this information, in October 1993, he circulated his thoughts on a project called "Interpedia," widely seen as the first high-profile proposal to build an electronic encyclopedia on the Internet. In a long post to other citizens of the Usenet system, Gates wrote:

It can be said that the Interpedia will be a reference source for people who have connectivity to the internet. It will encompass, at the least, articles submitted by individuals, and articles gleaned from non-copyrighted material. It will have mechanisms for submission, browsing, and authentication of articles. It is, currently, a completely volunteer project with no source of funding except for the contributions of the volunteers and their respective institutions. It also has no governing structure except for a group of people who have volunteered to do specific tasks or who have made major contributions to the discussion (see list, below). Everyone is encouraged to make a contribution, small or large.

It sounds remarkably like what we see today, yet this was imagined before the advent of the World Wide Web or wiki software. Because of that, Interpedia was a project perhaps too far ahead of its time and never got out of the planning stages. But it did start circulating the idea that an Internet-based encyclopedia had interest and potential.

In the meantime, other projects that involved harnessing "crowds" would take shape on the Internet. One was related to Project Gutenberg, a movement to have public domain print works available for free on the Internet. Project Gutenberg actually started in 1971 on mainframe computers; now it is one of the oldest online text repositories. The problem it faced was that starting in 1989 it digitized books using optical character recognition systems to automatically turn images of book pages into computer text. The problem was that OCR was imperfect, and there were small, but numerous, errors because of smudges, bad image quality, or dust. That gave Charles Franks the idea to start Distributed Proofreaders in 2000, where people from anywhere on the Internet could help proofread these imperfect OCR texts and fix the problems. It was a good marriage—computers doing the bulk of the data entry, but humans doing the fine-tuning and fixing.

Wales was determined that his encyclopedia project would follow the spirit of open source software, so that everyone could contribute and content could be copied freely. He created a Nupedia Open Content License, based directly on the Open Directory License, that would go quite far in doing this, though, still clinging to his corporate roots, he kept Bomis as the ultimate copyright holder. (This would change eventually to a completely free license.)

Sanger was given freedom to explore specific ways to get the project done, and he discussed his ideas with Wales and Shell along the way.

Next post:

Previous post: