Blockchain Wikipedia is a dish best served cold
“You really shouldn’t be interviewing me. I don’t want to fuck it all up again.”
We’re standing in a greenroom for panelists at StartEngine ICO 2.0, a blockchain conference held in Santa Monica, California, in April 2018. Mahbod Moghadam grabs me and insists, “Really, don’t interview me. Do this interview entirely on Larry Sanger.”
Moghadam, 36, the co-founder of lyrics annotation and media site Genius, is referring to Larry Sanger, 50, the co-founder of Wikipedia. Both were ousted from their respective sites — Moghadam was forced to resign, Sanger was laid off — and in the years since, both have traded shots with their intellectual spawn. They’re now co-founders of Everipedia, a blockchain-based encyclopedia and competitor to Wikipedia.
In the past year, Everipedia has achieved several milestones. It raised $30 million from Galaxy Digital. It decentralized and became the largest project on the EOS blockchain. As of January 2019, Everipedia is the largest English-language encyclopedia to ever exist — though, as Wikipedia notes, the majority of articles are clones of Wikipedia articles.
Moghadam mills about the greenroom, sunglassed and ebullient. He tells panelists that they’ll receive a wiki page afterward or that they already have a wiki. He explains the slang meaning of “Chad”: a tall, suave, alpha-looking guy, which most crypto-attendees are decidedly not. “And then ‘Thot’ is the female version of Chad,” he jokes.
Finally, an usher arrives to escort the group out. “Wish me luck,” Moghadam says, and walks onto the stage.
Epistemology, according to Wikipedia and Everipedia, is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Epistemologists ask questions like “What makes justifications valid?” and “What is the ultimate truth?” A good epistemologist likes an argument, but a great epistemologist loves a citation.
Larry Sanger first learned he was interested in philosophy as a high school student in Anchorage, Alaska. Cued by a debate class, he recalled discovering that one could construct interesting arguments on both sides of most issues. As a graduate student at Ohio State University, he would read A Companion to Epistemology and look up the various isms, savoring “the way the articles laid out each position, and it was just wonderful,” he said.
It was the early ’90s. Bright-eyed academics were coalescing around the World Wide Web. Sanger subscribed to Jimmy Wales’ philosophy discussion list, where he sparred with other philosophers including Ben Kovitz and Brian Kaplan. Sanger was more skeptical than Wales, he remembered, but the two formed a tenuous alliance over Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.
In 1999, Sanger pitched the group a vague idea for a “cultural news blog.” Wales, then the CEO of web advertising firm Bomis, wrote back: Why not come work on “Nupedia”? Wales had registered a domain, with the “vague notion” that it would be a free online encyclopedia, “with articles rigorously vetted and academically respectable,” built entirely by volunteers.
Sanger agreed to join. In January 2000, he moved to San Diego, California, to become Nupedia’s editor in chief. Nupedia, which required experts to verify articles, relied on a cumbersome, seven-step editorial process. By the end of the year, only about 100 articles had been completed.
“I wanted to foster a collegial atmosphere that would be welcoming to a lot of different people.”
In January 2001, Sanger dined with with old friend Ben Kovitz, who told him about wikis, web pages editable to anyone. Sanger had the idea to use wikis to supplement Nupedia’s article-creation process. He drafted the founding documents — much of which still bear his monumental tone — and named the side project Wikipedia.
Success came quickly. Less than a month after launching, on February 12, Wikipedia gained its 1,000th article. Implementing wikis had increased the quantity of articles generated but opened the gate to trolls — Sanger still spits out usernames like Cunctator with revulsion. “I wanted to foster a collegial atmosphere that would be welcoming to a lot of different people,” Sanger recalled. “But these characters showed up, and they focusing on getting quite personal with me.”
Most significantly, the money had dried up. In early 2002, Wales laid off Sanger. Embittered by trolls and played a bad hand by capitalism, Sanger returned to Ohio.
In the years since, Sanger has helmed other short-lived knowledge projects, most notably Citizendium, which removed anonymity and required article certification, and occasionally feuded with his progeny. He called Wikipedia “broken beyond repair,” citing its “serious management problems” and “dysfunctional community.” In 2010, he wrote a letter to the FBI concerning Wikimedia Commons hosting “obscene visual representations” of children.
“They don’t even realize how much of a missed opportunity Wikipedia presents,” he said. “The only reason why they don’t make it better is that they believe that there isn’t a startup on the horizon that can go head to head with Wikipedia. And why would they think there is? Who could pose a threat to Wikipedia?”
When Sanger first heard about Everipedia in late 2015, he was unenthused. The startup had invited him to its Santa Monica office in hopes of having him join. Sanger, a self-proclaimed “perpetual outsider,” admired the ragtag nature of the crew, but the idea “struck me as kind of a nonstarter, to be honest,” he recalled.
Besides, Sanger was working on his own latest competitor to Wikipedia: Greater Wiki, which aimed to collect all of the world’s encyclopedia articles and make them ratable and rankable. “You could go to a page about epistemology, and here are a dozen articles on epistemology,” he gestured like a mapmaker. “This is the top ranked one, and down near the bottom are the mediocre ones.” Sanger pitched Greater Wiki to Everipedia, but both sides dug in their heels.
The conversation left at an impasse.
Moghadam takes the stage as a panelist at StartEngine 2.0. He is introduced, and the room chatters. His reputation precedes him. Articles on phones are being passed around. But there is genuine hype for Everipedia: Several of the panelists call it their favorite decentralized application.
The moderator turns to Moghadam. She asks what the most exciting part of Everipedia has been.
For a moment, the flickering hologram of 2013 appears. Moghadam can easily turn a conference into a controversy. He can speak on drugs or beef or say something outlandish. He can explain the difference between “virgin Wikipedia” and “Chad Everipedia.” He can talk about the dating app he plans to build or diss his old co-founders.
Here, in front of the lights, he stops to think. “Well,” he says. His voice grows from thin to measured. “It was really exciting for me to become friends with Larry Sanger.”
The author of this article worked at Genius for several months in Spring 2014.
Five years ago, Moghadam walked onstage at a different conference — representing Genius at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2013 — and over the course of 30 minutes, punctured the $15 million bubble of respectability that Genius had raised in its Series A round. Moghadam, along with his two co-founders Ilan Zechory and Tom Lehman, bragged about doing “naked Adderall” and Vyvanse and speculated on the possibility of “Taliban Genius.” He also apologized for telling Mark Zuckerberg to “suck [his] dick.”
In hindsight, the event was the beginning of the end for Moghadam at Genius. His irreverent, sometimes crude tone — he lost his first job at Berkshire Hathaway because of a blog post he wrote mocking Warren Buffet — had been essential to the early days of the company, where it delighted and inspired legions of young contributors. “You’d go by [Mahbod’s] computer and there’d be ten Gchat windows open,” Zechory remarked. “And it would be some 14-year-old kid saying, ‘You fascinate me’ to Mahbod.”
But as Genius grew more legitimate — collaborating with outlets such as The Washington Post and receiving $30 million more from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert — his antics became unacceptable. The final straw came when Moghadam annotated the manifesto of 2014 Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger. Moghadam wrote that the document was “beautifully written” and that the shooter’s sister might be “smokin’ hot.”