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reed magazine logoJune 2010

Deconstructing Wikipedia

Larry Sanger ’91 launched a revolution. Why does he want to start over?

By Chris Lydgate

Larry Sanger

Philosopher Larry Sanger: something went awry with Wikipedia.

photograph by Charles Gullung

Larry Sanger was shocked but not surprised.

A septuagenarian journalist from Nashville named John Seigenthaler was on the line, and he wasn’t happy.

An elder statesman of Southern journalism, Seigenthaler spent many years as reporter, editor, and publisher of the Tennessean and served as editorials editor of USA Today. He also worked for Robert F. Kennedy, founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, and wrote several books, including a biography of President James K. Polk.

But Seigenthaler wasn’t calling to discuss his résumé. In a deliberate, courtly drawl, he said that he had been the victim of character assassination, and that he held Sanger responsible—at least indirectly.

For several months, Seigenthaler’s biographical entry on Wikipedia had made the outrageous claim that he was complicit in the assassination of both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, a particularly spiteful defamation because he had in fact been one of Robert Kennedy’s pallbearers. Because Wikipedia contributors are anonymous, Seigenthaler had no way of tracing the author—but he was able to track down the original architects of the system, which is why he was calling Sanger.

At the time of the call, in fall 2005, Sanger no longer had any connection to Wikipedia. He was living in a house in the redwoods above Santa Cruz working on other projects. Still, he was dismayed by what he heard. “I had seen all sorts of abusive, wrong, and silly things written in Wikipedia before,” he says. “But I never had a distinguished old gentleman harangue me on the phone for an hour like this.”

In November 2005, Seigenthaler published an editorial in USA Today blasting Wikipedia. “What purports to be helpful fact may well be harmful fiction,” he wrote. “And, there is no way to tell the difference.”

The criticism stung, but Sanger hoped that the incident would push Wikipedia to confront its problems—problems he had been warning about for years. Instead, the Wikipedia community responded with a collective shrug. “What no one would admit was that the episode suggested something wrong with the basic model that Wikipedia operates under,” he says.

Sanger had always been proud of his creation. Now, however, he was beginning to fear that it suffered from a fundamental flaw.

puzzle illustration

IllustratIOns by howell golson

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Sitting in an iron chair in the Commons breezeway on a sunny spring afternoon, sipping a decaf latté from the Paradox Café, Sanger exudes an air of restlessness. His long, nimble fingers fiddle with a pencil while he rocks his foot under the table. From time to time, he taps a couple of candy Nerds into his hand. He is wearing a red-checked short-sleeved oxford, blue jeans, black leather shoes, and enormous eyeglasses that lend him an air of bemused detachment. Since the age of eight, Sanger has suffered from mild hearing loss, a deficit that is “one reason that I am who I am,” he says. “It has definitely made me more introspective.”

Sanger grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. His father was a seabird biologist; his mother took care of the children. His family attended Lutheran Church twice a week. Listening to Bible readings, he often used to wonder about the difference between mind, soul, and spirit. “The way my parents spoke about it, I thought there had to be a clear distinction,” he says. “But I was disappointed with the answers they gave.”

reed magazine logoJune 2010