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Larry Sanger's The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia

An excellent two-part article by Larry Sanger on his experience with WikiPedia:

I found the article very clearly presented and rather convincing. After thinking about it for a minute or two, I think that it effectively makes an argument for ruling a project by benevolent dictatorship (GodKing), the best argument in that direction that I’ve ever heard (I don’t mean to say that I’m convinced that this is the way to go, just that this is a strong argument).

The article perhaps had extra force for me because I see parallels with some situations on MeatBall 1, so I’ve directly witnessed some of the phenomena that Larry is describing. Whether or not there’s another side to Larry’s story (I don’t have any experience with WikiPedia2, so I can’t say), the fact that I’ve independently seen some of this happen somewhere else lends credence to his general analysis.

It’s late; perhaps I’ll find time to describe the parallels in more detail another day.

But, I will say what my conclusion was:

  • There must be some way for an online community to legislate its rules

Larry seems to be saying3 4 that things that the earliest members of the community considered basic communal norms were met with resistance from later community members who fought for a more tolerant approach in dealing with trolls. The idea of wiki consensus was too slippery to effectively legislate, because a persistent minority can always claim that there is no consensus 5 (and in a large organization there is often a persistent minority).

So, I conclude that there must be some well-defined system for determining what the rules really are (a system that allows a large majority to overrule a persistent minority). This isn’t surprising coming from me, since I thought that before reading Larry’s article, and hence I guess I may just be using the article as evidence to bolster what I already thought.

The article suggests that the founders should lay down the law and maintain control, but I think that this is just one way to meet the condition of having a well-defined legislative system 6. Personally, I’m in favor of democratic voting (see WikiVoting, and AboutVoting), and of having a “constitution” to define the procedure for creating rules7. I am in favor of requiring a large supermajority to pass laws (say, 80%?) rather than a simple 51% majority; but don’t think votes should require 100% (consensus), because in a large enough organization there will always be at least one person who disagrees.

As noted on CorporateMembership, I think there is a strong cultural difference between central European countries and the United States. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all have a very similar strong traditions of having associations as legal entities, where as the US have a strong tradition of using IRS 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, tax-exempt corporations. Those are usually foundations with a board of directors but without democratic control.

Using an existing framework such as the Swiss law has the benefit of long years of experience and tons of legal tradition.

Yes, the Swiss type of association sounds cool. Do you happen to know if there is any barrier to online meetings?

Yes, it says in Art 67 that the simple majority of the members present is used for decisions of the general assembly. According to Art 63, the following articles including 67 take effect unless the bylaws say otherwise. Some articles may not be invalidated by the bylaws, eg. Art 63.3 which says that 20% of all the members can call for a general assembly at any time. The bylaws may not change this. I therefore conclude that we we can state in our bylaws that meeting on IRC is equivalent to being present.




1. Note: although I feel that Meatball’s culture, unlike WikiPedia’s (at least according to Larry), successfully survived the challenge, perhaps due to its smaller size
2. except as a passive reader
3. “Any attempt to enforce what should have been set policy--neutrality, no original research, and no wholesale deletion without explanation--was frequently if not usually met with resistance. It was difficult to claim the moral high ground in a dispute, because the basic project principles were constantly coming under attack. “
4. “it is one thing to lack any equivalent to “police” and “courts” that can quickly and effectively eliminate abuse; such enforcement systems were rarely entertained in Wikipedia’s early years, because according to the wiki ideal, users can effectively police each other. It is another thing altogether to lack a community ethos that is unified in its commitment to its basic ideals, so that the community’s champions could claim a moral high ground.”
5. “So why was there no such unified community ethos and no uncontroversial “moral high ground”? I think it was a simple consequence of the fact that the community was to be largely self-organizing and to set its own policy by consensus. Any loud minority, even a persistent minority of one person, can remove the appearance of consensus.”
6. Although perhaps Larry is not insisting on a GodKing, but rather is just saying the same thing I am; he says, “And for a community attempting to achieve something, to be serious, effective, and fair, a charter seems necessary. In short, a collaborative community would do well to think of itself as a polity with everything that that entails: a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter.”
7. Lest I be blamed for a huge complex legal system years from now on some wiki, I’d like to note that I am also strongly in favor of the principal of MinimalLaw; that means I would favor keeping the constitution very simple, and not passing a law unless it was really necessary; I’d prefer for the community to run itself informally whenever possible, and only resort to its formal process when necessary

EditNearLinks: GodKing MeatBall


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