Citizendium: A New Vision for Online Knowledge Communities
Speech delivered at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan,
Feb. 7, 2008, as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Lecture Series,
“Wikipedia – Democratization of Knowledge or Triumph of Amateurs,” hosted by
Five or ten years ago, if I were introducing a new wiki encyclopedia project, I would have to argue and explain at great length about the advantages of mass collaboration. And you all would be very skeptical. I would explain how people can come together online from around the world and donate their labor to create something that everyone can access freely, and which is controlled by the contributors themselves. I would have to teach lessons about bottom-up methods and free content. But today, most of you are all firm believers that enormous amounts of reasonably good, if not perfect, content can be created by online communities. Everybody knows what giant online communities can create, because everyone can see the results in Wikipedia, YouTube, and the many other community-built websites.
So my task isn’t to explain everything about how the Citizendium, this new project, works, because in many ways it works similarly to many other Internet community content projects. It is open to everyone–or, everyone willing to work under our rules, anyway. It is built collaboratively, by people working together on a wiki. It is built bottom-up, which means no one is assigning articles, and generally, no one in authority needs to be consulted except when really difficult disputes need to be resolved; instead, the people who make decisions about an article are the people who happen to show up. The resulting content is free, meaning anyone can read and republish it, at will and free of charge. And it is run by a non-profit.
This is familiar territory. It would be boring and banal for me to point out that collaboration on free content represents an interesting opportunity. Of course it does. The Internet has been exploiting that opportunity for almost ten years, at least ever since the Open Directory Project got started in 1998. The real question is whether there are any interesting new free content opportunities. And there is, I think. The most interesting unexploited opportunity before the Internet today is high quality and high relevance. In short, if developing sheer quantity of content was the big exciting problem ten years ago, we’ve licked that one. The big exciting problem now is quality: how to create enormous amounts of high-quality and highly-relevant content. And this is–I guarantee it–a much more difficult problem, and one that not nearly as many online projects will be able to solve.
This is a problem that just cannot be solved by “more of the same.” For example, simply throwing more people at the problem of quality will not solve it, for the simple reason that many people do poor quality work in the existing community content systems. Simply look at the results that come up from a typical Google search. It is estimated that there are over one billion people online now. If number of people were the answer to the problem of high quality, wouldn’t we have a brilliantly pristine Internet? But, of course, we don’t. Instead, the Internet reflects a wonderfully diverse humanity, from the lows of porn websites on up to professionally edited, highly interesting content collections, written by some of the most brilliant minds. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I think that, for example, Wikipedia is very useful, and the contributions of hundreds of thousands of amateurs is crucial to its usefulness. But there is a big difference between being highly useful, on the one hand, and of really high quality, on the other.
The problem of quality and relevance won’t be solved by more of the same. You could make projects even more free–you could release them into the public domain, instead of using a Creative Commons license. But this would not solve the quality problem. And again, you could make projects as wonderfully collaborative as you want–even more collaborative than Wikipedia is now–but that still wouldn’t help establish reliability or relevance.
Clearly, something really important has been left out of the Web 2.0 equation. What? What needs to be added so that our communities produce content that is not merely abundant, useful, and interesting, but also reliable and relevant?
I have three principles, which I will state briefly first but then elaborate, because it is very easy to misunderstand in all three cases. They are:
- Find a meaningful role for experts within the project.
- Require contributors to use their real-world identities.
- Establish the rule of law by committing contributors to a social contract that makes them full partners in the project.
Adopting these three principles will help transform Web 2.0 into Web 3.0. Leveraged intelligently, these principles will allow an online community to produce high quality and relevance, without necessarily compromising high productivity. They will, in short, help the Internet to grow up.
Let’s consider these principles each briefly in turn.
First, experts are needed to play meaningful roles, in short, because only they can be counted on to recognize when some content represents the latest expert knowledge. Amateurs and dilettantes are sometimes perfectly capable of creating excellent and reliable material on many subjects, especially if they’re good writers and researchers; but they are inconsistent in doing so, and they generally lack the expert’s ability to judge when some content actually represents the latest expert opinion on a subject. It seems obvious that the intelligent use of experts in a collaborative project can help to improve the quality of the output.
To this there are some common reactions, which I want to address directly, though I don’t have time to do them justice.
Whenever I suggest that experts need a place in some online communities, one of the first things someone says in reply is that there’s no way to tell who the experts are. But I find this very puzzling. Society has many ways to identify experts. And not all of them are jokes! There are even better ways than “a person from out of town with slides.” To identify its expert editors, the Citizendium asks people to send a CV and we have certain objective criteria, such as terminal degrees and publishing, and other relevant evidence of expertise.
A second thing that people often imply, or assume, is that if one makes a place for experts, that will make the community a top-down, command-and-control system, which is a step backwards. Now, I fully admit that professionals of all sorts have a bit of a fetish for hierarchy and bureaucracy. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot participate in a relatively flat, bottom-up community. And this is what the Citizendium does. Our editors have the general authority to make decisions about articles, but they rarely “pull rank.” They can also approve articles. Neither of these functions compromises the bottom-up, collaborative, productive nature of the project.
Third, there is the confused thought, which is alarmingly common, that the very concept of expertise is somehow passe, and that experts have been somehow rendered unnecessary in a world that could produce Wikipedia. This sentiment is very confused, as I say. It stems from the insight that the open source community, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and so forth have all been able to produce enormous amounts of interesting, useful stuff–all without experts. This is actually incorrect. All of those Internet projects have produced interesting, useful content in part because they have experts who are comfortable working in a perfectly open system. What is true is that those projects generally do not have expert supervisors, people chosen specifically because they are qualified to manage content of a certain type. But more importantly, the mere fact that interesting, useful content can be created without expert supervision simply doesn’t mean that humanity can’t do any better. It is very obvious to me that can do better than Wikipedia, YouTube, and all the rest.
The second of the three principles I stated above is that we should require contributors to use their real-world identities. In other words, when you contribute to a project, you can’t call yourself “hipster45”; you have to use your own real name and identity. You can’t lie about who you are. I don’t say that this is necessary for every Internet community. After all, there are some people who will simply never contribute under their own identities, because they are concerned about privacy matters; or they don’t want to be embarrassed later by their bad behavior online. Sometimes it might be better not to require the use of real-world identities. I admit that.
But in the case of strongly collaborative knowledge community like the Citizendium, it makes good sense to require real names. There are at least three reasons. First, it improves the credibility of the output: people can see who contributed some content, and whether they appear to know anything about the subject. Second, by making people take real-world personal responsibility for their contributions, it becomes possible to enforce rules. When problem contributors can make up a new pseudonym as soon as they get out of line, this makes it in principle impossible to enforce rules effectively. But if you can enforce rules effectively, you can do the work of a project a lot more efficiently. Third, people do tend to behave themselves better when their identities are known and their behavior is out in the open, and good behavior is crucial to a smoothly running knowledge community.
Again, however, there are some common objections to the principle that I want to address. Some people assume that I think there should never be anonymity online. That is simply wrong; I think that anonymity is one of the great advantages of the Internet, actually, and I believe it reinforces the value of free speech. I merely think that, in knowledge communities like the Citizendium, the advantages of requiring real names strongly outweighs the advantages of permitting pseudonyms.
Some might find it unusual that I would claim that the advantage lies in requiring real names. After all, one might well point out that many people will never contribute to the Citizendium simply because we do require real names. And I do have to admit that there are probably quite a few people involved in Wikipedia who will never get involved in the Citizendium precisely because they can’t use a pseudonym. How do I respond to that?
Well, I have no data to back me up on this, of course, because it is speculative, but I think that in the long run, there will be more people willing to work as identified, responsible members of an Internet community connected to the real world, than as unidentified avatars, disconnected from the real world. In fact, in the long run, I think there could be more people who will insist on a real names requirement, precisely because it makes the community more mature, and those who use their real names are not at an disadvantage to those who use fake names.
There are also some understandable questions about how we can manage to confirm a person’s real name on the Internet. I don’t have time to go into that in great detail, but suffice it to say that we merely require some proof. We don’t pretend to have an fallible system, which I would think would be impossible to have while remaining truly open and efficient. But so far, very, very few contributors have been exposed as having used an unregistered pseudonym.
Now to the third principle. Anyone who has spent a lot of time working in online communities is familiar with certain types of problematic characters and certain patterns of bad behavior. Governance of online communities, according to Internet scholar Clay Shirky, is a “certified hard problem.” I agree. But what makes it hard is that such communities are generally volunteer communities of equals, and in such communities, it is hard to get buy-in from participants for resting some decisionmaking authority in anyone’s hands. I actually think that this is a problem about the Internet’s radical egalitarianism. As political philosophers sometimes observe, if you take egalitarianism to an extreme, you’ve got anarchy. After all, if everyone is supposed to be totally equal, they should all be equal in power; and that means that no one can be a decisionmaking authority, because the decisionmaking authority would have more power than the average person.
Well, I don’t mean to go into that, as much as I’d like to. I only wanted to bring up that subject to explain why I think it is so important that online communities adopt constitutions, as it were, just as real, offline communities do. If you think about it, it is bizarre that online communities don’t demand this more often, just as offline communities do. Of course, there are many online communities that announce basic ground rules in advance–especially listservs (mailing list discussions).
I think that online communities should go beyond basic ground rules. I think they should require their members to sign onto the rules explicitly, and then give the members a key stake in the governance of the project. In my experience, giving members an active stake in governance gets them personally invested, and great things can result.
But this isn’t how many Web 2.0 projects work. Many of them are actually for-profit businesses that essentially exploit their contributors. This has struck me increasingly as a very strange and morally problematic situation. I think that we could be accomplishing a great deal more, and potentially avoid many abuses that plague MySpace and YouTube, if there were mature community governance. But probably, the owners of such websites would not stand for it.
These might appear to you to be three unrelated principles, but they are in fact closely related and mutually supporting, and together they represent a different vision of what online communities should look like.
I’ve found that it’s very difficult to get experts involved in open projects. Experts generally tend not to take a venue seriously unless it is closed and exclusive. I do note that Wikipedia has had a fair bit of expert involvement, largely owing to the broad influence that it has a resource, being #8 in the Alexa rankings. But I also note that they tend not to stick around for very long. Most experts are not going to stay involved in an open project if their views are not respected, and frankly, their views aren’t going to be respected unless it is a project policy that their views be respected. That’s because most people simply assume that online communities are perfectly egalitarian, and no special consideration should to be given to expertise. So that’s the first principle: respect expertise.
But if there is to be a policy that in some way requires respect of expert knowledge, there has to be an effective way to enforce that policy. So the project first needs to secure the support of participants for the policy, or it will be unenforceable. An excellent way to secure support for basic policies is to require participants to sign onto an explicit “social contract”–that’s the third principle.
Some people will go to surprising lengths to disrupt a project–it’s literally a hobby for them–if they can hide behind anonymity or pseudonymity. So it isn’t enough to get people to say, “I agree with your fundamental policies.” The very most disruptive people will say they agree, and then proceed to get the whole community up in arms; some people just thrive on chaos that way. If you attempt to ban such people from the community, but anonymity is allowed, they can and, in some communities, do return–and commit the same offenses all over again. This basically means that anonymity makes it impossible to enforce rules effectively. So if you want to have fundamental rules at all, if you want to have the rule of law, you must require people to reveal their identities, at least to project organizers. That’s the second principle.
Let’s take a step back. Imagine what a successful online community that adopts these three principles would look like. It could still be radically collaborative, bottom-up, free, dynamic, and productive. But it would also welcome experts and give them the credit due to their long years of study and experience. They need not bark orders; they could work alongside the rank-and-file contributors and act as guides rather than as top-down managers. As a result, the quality of the content could be expected to be considerably more reliable, or at least considerably more faithful to the latest expert knowledge, than the typical Web 2.0 project.
Not only would content be more reliable in this way, it would also be more credible. That is because people would be required to use their own real names, and content that comes with a name attached is for that reason at least slightly more credible. I’m sure you all remember the hubbub that the “WikiScanner” caused. For a month or so there was story after story about how different corporations and politicians had removed all negative information about them
from Wikipedia. That of course was a result of Wikipedia’s anonymity policy. Well, imagine a more reliable wiki encyclopedia that required people to take responsibility for their additions–and their deletions. The sort of abuses that are epidemic in Wikipedia would be much less likely to happen in the new sort of project.
Finally, consider the community from the point of view of the participants. With gentle guidance from experts and their relative maturity, with the requirement of real names, and with the requirement that people agree to the basic project rules, the community that results can be expected to be much cooler, calmer, and saner. I think of this new sort of community like a friendly, open county fair with expert judges, where many older-style communities resemble a street fight between rival gangs, or a free-for-all barroom brawl.
The new sort of online community I’ve described is a significant opportunity, as I see it–it is the next step in the development, or the maturation, of the Internet. I think in another ten years, this will be regarded by most people as the only sensible sort of online community, at least for knowledge projects.
This is the opportunity that the Citizendium project leverages. We employ all three principles. So, of course, you might be interested to know how we’re doing. I will conclude by giving you a progress report.
First, I should clarify that we are open to virtually everyone who is willing to work under our rules. If you give us your real name, convincing evidence of who you are, a coherent brief biography about yourself, and you agree with our fundamental policies, then you’re in. We have something like 250 editors and over 2,000 authors registered.
A private pilot project got started in November 2006, and we opened the project up to public viewing and broader participation in March 2007, a little less than a year ago. While thousands of people have created accounts, each month over 200 people edit the wiki, and on any given day you can expect to see 40 different people, who we call Citizens, on the wiki. These Citizens are all named, so that when you examine the Citizendium recent changes page, you see nothing but real names. To someone familiar with regular wikis, this is a very unusual and refreshing sight.
By various measures, our rate of production has been increasing, which is to say that production is accelerating. One way of measuring production is the rate at which new articles are created. A year ago, we were creating about five new articles per day; now we’re up to 15 per day, and we’re on a decided upward trend. We also added, in our first year, over five million words. That is more words than Wikipedia produced in its first year.
And how many articles? Because some people have uploaded articles from Wikipedia without working on them, we don’t take credit for those. We take credit only for those articles that we have started ourselves, which is most of them, and articles to which we’ve made significant changes. Well, we have 5,200 articles under development, and we added our most recent 2,000 articles in about the last three months. So we are definitely accelerating.
In all honesty, we aren’t doing so well approving new articles; we only have about 50 approved articles. I think this is mostly because our editors are more interested in working on new articles than approving old ones. I also think we can make our article approval process much more efficient, and that’s something I hope to organize soon, if no one else does.
So much for our productivity. What about our community? What’s our quality of life, so to speak? Well, here, I think we really shine. Outside of a short time last year in which we experimented with self-enrollment, we have had virtually no vandalism. That’s right, despite being as productive and open as it is, the Citizendium is basically vandalism-free.
As can be expected in any community, online or offline, the Citizendium community has its share of personal unpleasantness. But typically I find people interacting politely and reasonably pleasantly, even when they are disagreeing. I also find very little indeed of what I used to describe on Wikipedia as “trolling”–in other words, hardly anyone ever appears to be disrupting the community just for the sake of doing so, or just to call attention to himself.
There are many developments I lack the time to tell you about, but I’d like to highlight one in particular, because it applies to the university context. Last semester we started a project called “Eduzendium.” Essentially, we’re inviting college instructors to assign their students Citizendium articles for class assignments. The students get extra help from the Citizendium community with their articles, and are motivated to do a good job not only because their work is visible publicly, but because it will actually be of good use to the whole world. Instructors get a new assignment type in their repertoire. And the Citizendium benefits, of course, from the added activity and content. Well, last semester we had courses at Purdue and the University of the Witwatersrand (in South Africa), and others. This semester, larger classes at University of Colorado, Temple University, and CUNY are engaged in the program. I think the Eduzendium project will inevitably expand, and in a few more years actually become a large source of our content.
Well, that’s my report. I think we’re doing very well for being about a year old. If we continue to accelerate our growth, you can expect us to be have over 100,000 articles within a few years.
So, why don’t you help us toward that goal? I would like to conclude by inviting you all, everyone in this audience, to join the Citizendium and start a new article tomorrow.
Thank you very much.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.