History, Wikinomics, and Causation

An issue related to the question of priority, noted in a previous entry, is the general historical question of causality. Priority, who first had an idea or published it, can be a trivial question relative to a claim about who or what caused something. Niels Bohr modeled the atom, but how did the US come to drop the bomb on Japan?

In the history of technology, the question of “founding” is of particular interest to me. Given the spat between Wikipedia’s cofounders on the balance of credit, I note with interest how Wikipedia’s “creation story” is told. The new book, Wikinomics (Tapscott and Williams 2006), tells the story as follows:

Wales first ventured into the world of encyclopedic content in 1998, when he established Nupedia with former employee Larry Sanger. Like Wikipedia, Nupedia allowed anyone to submit articles and content. Unlike Wikipedia, it was a centralized, top-down hierarchy: paid academics and topic experts follow the laborious seven-step process to review and approve content. One year and $120,000 into the project, Nupedia had only published twenty-four articles, and Wales decided to scrap it.

One of Wales’ employees then introduced him to the Wiki, a concept invented by Ward Cunningham in March 1995, and Wales started again with a much more open way of organizing the site that would allow anyone with the inclination to participate. In the first month, Wikipedia published 200 articles, and in the first year the total reached 18,000 (p.72).

This is the only reference to Sanger in the book, and omits his well-known and public role in Wikipedia’s launch in favor of the undocumented claim that Bomis employee Jeremy Rosenfeld proposed a wiki as a way to solve Nupedia’s problems before Sanger did. Despite Sanger’s strident efforts to defend his claim, I expect that in the popular press he will only be known as the authority-mad academic of Wikipedia’s failed predecessor.

(I don’t necessarily discount Wales’ claim, but one can’t deny that the historical documentation shows Sanger played a prominent role in launching Wikipedia. Nor do I believe Sanger was the right leader for Wikipedia; with regards to the original vision and eventual success of Wikipedia, we have Wales to thank.)

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