The Citizendium one year on: a strong start and an amazing future

It's been exactly one year since work on the Citizendium wiki started ramping up.  I said then that I was properly skeptical about our chances and that the project was experimental.  Well, no longer.  Now it's time to report the results of the experiment: we've made a very strong start and an amazing future likely lies ahead of us.

In the first several weeks of the Citizendium's existence, the project's chances were dismissed by the likes of TechCrunch's Marshall Kirkpatrick, BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow, and Clay Shirky--among others.  A lot of such Web 2.0 cognoscenti weren't just skeptical; they clearly disliked the idea itself.  It sounded too elitist for their taste.  (But we ain't elitist, really.)  It completely upset their notions of what Web communities are supposed to be like.  As Kirkpatrick put it, "Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds?"

We shrugged and got to work demonstrating a better wiki model.  It launched publicly last March, boosted by an Associated Press story and other press coverage.  And as it turns out, a year after the pilot wiki was started, the project is actually exciting and refreshing--so that, increasingly and ironically, it is the received wisdom of the digerati that is looking dogmatic and hidebound.

Debunking some myths

There are some myths about the Citizendium floating around that might be keeping some people from getting involved.  We can't have that--so let's debunk those myths.

Myth: it's too hard to get on board the Citizendium. There's a long and complicated application process.

In fact, it's now simple and automated.  You fill out a short Web form, then a human being (a "constable") will respond--with a "yes" in the vast majority of cases--within a few hours, sometimes minutes.  All the constable has to do is press a button, and you're in.

Myth: the Citizendium is experts-only; it's an elitist project.

Outrageously false.  How many times do we have to say this?  We ain't elitist.  This myth does a huge disservice to the project, because it leads "non-experts" to think that the project isn't open to them.  It is.  In fact, we have roles for the general public, which may become authors, as well as for experts, which may become editors.  They work together very well every day in an open, bottom-up wiki project.  If you didn't know that was possible, we're here to show you that it is.

Here's a hint: just because we have a role for experts, it does not follow that the Citizendium is experts-only or elitist.  Particularly in an encyclopedia project, a role for experts isn't elitist, it's merely good sense!

Myth: the Citizendium is simply a revival of the failed Nupedia project.

Ridiculously false.  The only significant similarities that the project has to Nupedia are that we have a role for experts, and that we require contributors to use their real names.  But the differences are huge.  We are a cutting-edge, grassroots, open wiki, and we feature instant publishing; Nupedia had a fairly old-fashioned, top-down seven-step publishing process.  Anyone can start an article on Citizendium; articles had to be assigned by Nupedia editors.  After a year, we have over 3,200 "live" articles [Nov. 20, three weeks later: now 3,900] and nearly 5 million words; after a year, Nupedia had a few dozen articles.

The Citizendium was started with intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of both Nupedia and Wikipedia, by the person who engineered both of those systems.  Why on Earth would I revive failed systems?

Myth: the Citizendium uses old-fashioned, top-down editorial control, so it is going nowhere.  We can safely ignore it.

Wrong.  As much as some critics might wish this were true, it isn't.  The Citizendium is very much open and bottom-up and, as a result, it will become harder and harder to ignore, as our growth accelerates in the next year.

There is a crucial difference between the Citizendium and other expert wiki encyclopedia projects that have started recently, like Scholarpedia and the Encyclopedia of Earth: we invite the general public, we make no work assignments, and our progress, warts and all, is highly visible.  The fact that we require real names and that we have a role for experts doesn't change that!

Not only have we grown nicely in our first year, our growth is accelerating.  With nearly 5 million words and over 3,200 articles, we have tripled our article count since the conclusion of our pilot project last spring--and that is despite a predictable summer slowdown, and without the benefit of many press or blog mentions, as we had in our first six months.  In the fall, predictably, activity has started heating up again, and without any help from the press this time.

We have doubled our rate of article creation, from 7 to 14 per day, in the last 100 days, and quadrupled it since January.  [Nov. 20, three weeks later: rate in the last month has been over 20/day.]   This rate is almost certain to continue growing, because we have started a (so far very effective) recruitment push.  More people, more articles.

In short, not only have we been growing steadily, our growth is accelerating.  For more, see "The coming explosion," below.

Myth: who cares?  Even if the Citizendium is growing, there's still no point to it.  Wikipedia has already won.  Nobody can catch up.

This unfortunate attitude is confused on many levels.  Suppose we had said that about Encyclopedia Britannica when we were starting Wikipedia?

There's no doubting Wikipedia's present popularity and dominance, and we don't begrudge them their successes.  But those successes do not mean there is no point to the Citizendium. After all, most importantly, we are rapidly ramping up to a level of reliability that, without an expert approval system and a more responsible governance system, Wikipedia will never be able to achieve..

Moreover, it is hardly as if Wikipedia's popularity means the Citizendium cannot find many able contributors; there are already many people at work on the Citizendium who simply would not consider working on Wikipedia.  The world is big enough to sustain two general encyclopedia projects.  The existence of one popular resource does not make all other resources pointless.

Finally, there is no good reason to think that the Citizendium will not grow at accelerating rates and, in time, have millions of articles itself.  Again, see below.  Moreover, I think that our model will prove to be far more attractive to more people than Wikipedia's.  I will not be at all surprised if, after some years, there are more active Citizens than Wikipedians.

Myth: the Citizendium has only 3,200 articles after one year.  This is a sign of failure, because Wikipedia had 20,000 after its first year.

There are several reasons why this is a faulty inference and comparison.

First, the first six months of the project were a private pilot project.  Wikipedia had no such pilot project.  So, a more meaningful comparison might be made in March 2008, after the Citizendium had been publicly launched for one year.  By then, I suspect we'll have something like 6-7,000 articles.

Second, our average article length is 1,173 words, while our median article length is 476 words--fairly substantial.  I don't have the statistics on what the typical number of words in Wikipedia articles was in 2001, but I do know it was substantially fewer. I suspect you can triple our article count if you want to use article count to compare our amount of content to Wikipedia in 2001.  I believe we also have many more images and other kinds of content than Wikipedia did in 2001.

Third, throughout our first year, it usually took at least 24 hours to get people on board.  But we've just added an automatic account approval system.  Getting on board is still not instant, but usually, accounts are approved within a few hours of being requested--and new people are contributing more, as a result.  This alone will accelerate our growth.

Fourth, our articles are far better quality than Wikipedia's were, and many of our articles are already better than Wikipedia's articles at present.  Here there is no contest whatsoever.  This, I hope you'll agree, counts for something.

Myth: learning how to edit the Citizendium, like all wikis, is too complicated for my poor, nontechnical brain.

Wikis aren't nearly as complicated as they might seem.  "Wikiwiki" means "fast" in Hawaiian--wikis are fast to edit, fast to update, and fast to learn.  All you have to do is get in the system, go to the page you want to edit (or if you want to start a new page, check out the easy way), and start writing your brilliant prose, just as you would an e-mail.  That is really all you need to know, to get started.  Really!  The rest you can learn "by osmosis" and in bits and pieces.  No one requires you to be a Wiki Master.  Some of us find Wiki Masters slightly annoying anyway--they're always fiddling with arcane code, and not adding content.  We prefer the content.  For that, no arcane code is needed.  It really is easy to dive in!

(Just kidding, you Wiki Masters.  We need you, badly, too.)

What we have demonstrated in our first year

We're doing well.

We have pioneered a way to use wikis that is new and importantly different.  Even more striking is the fact that ours is perhaps the best model yet for using wikis.  A lot of people don't realize this yet.  But they will--just wait--because this is all under-reported news.  Consider what we have demonstrated already:

An expert-public hybrid wiki leads to high quality.

We ask experts and the public to work together in an open collaborative project, and as a result, we've produced many long, meaty articles--in just one year.  (Nearly 5 million words.)

A role for experts is consistent with solid growth, even on a wiki.

A project that asks experts to work side-by-side with the general public can survive, grow, and even accelerate its growth.  Making a meaningful role for experts in an open project really is a viable option for Web 2.0 communities, as I thought it would be.  That's news!

Requiring real identities is consistent with solid growth, even on a wiki.

A wiki that requires real names can grow nicely and even accelerate.  Requiring real identities will not, in fact, doom an open online community to failure.  Actually, it's nice to know who you're working with.

Eliminating anonymity eliminates a lot of "funny business."

Just as one would suspect, eliminating anonymous and pseudonymous contribution goes a very long way to preventing vandalism, uncivil behavior, and trolling.  We have had virtually none.  Yes, you read that right.  That's news, too.

It's possible to enforce behavioral rules on an open wiki effectively.  Imagine that!

Taking basic behavioral rules--like no personal insults--seriously, and putting rules enforcement in the hands of relatively mature, educated people, tends to make it easy to deal with disruption when it does occur.  Hooray for our constables!

Signing a social contract reduces distractions.

Requiring that contributors "sign" an explicit social contract greatly reduces pointless debates with people who would argue for a radically different version of the project, allowing contributors to focus on "live issues" (not dead ones).

Parliamentary procedure can be digitized.

The Citizendium Editorial Council has passed six resolutions according to a version of parliamentary procedure that makes use of a mailing list, wiki, and Web forum.  As far as we know, this is unprecedented and has many interesting potential applications.  (We want to automate this, though--we're looking for someone who can code it up.)

Subpages can be used to organize a variety of info types.

We conceive of our purpose as extending beyond purely encyclopedic information into reference information of all sorts.  We are organizing various kind of reference info logically on "subpages," with all the subpages on a given topic making up one big "cluster."  For an example, see our Biology article (click the green "tabs" at the top of the page).  We've only just started with this--but so far, so good.

We've also had some accomplishments that aren't exactly pathbreaking, but they're still worth bragging about:

Nonprofit Web 2.0 projects can be started on a shoestring.

When we made the announcement of the Citizendium and secured the use of our first server free of charge from Steadfast Networks, we had a $0 budget.  We bootstrapped everything into existence.  Perhaps some people need reminding that large, active Web 2.0 projects don't necessarily require a huge amount of money and a half-dozen strategists.  We have gotten by with one full-time employee (me) and $40,000.  But it helps that I've been supported via speaking and writing fees, and frankly, we do need more money.  (More on that later.)

Many people are willing to support this sort of project with their labor.

If you needed proof that there are many people who are willing to put in many hours on a project like the Citizendium, then look at this post on the Citizendium-L mailing list.  There, I thank dozens of people for their contributions and a number of organizations for their support.

Our new initiatives

But enough boasting.  Other than the usual plugging away, what are are we doing now?

Subpages. While we are still focused first and foremost on encyclopedia articles, we have opened our doors to other sorts of reference information, which we place on "subpages."  For an example, see New York City.  The Citizendium's subpages include the information normally found on good encyclopedia articles, such as Related Articles (example: civil society), Bibliography (example: Harry S. Truman), and External Links (example: airship), but in the fullness of time will include further bibliographic material (example: filmography of Joe Louis), almanac-like catalogs or lists of data (example: famous tennis players), image galleries (example: linguistics), timelines (example: Tony Blair), and more.

Core Articles. For each of around 35 workgroup subjects, we are now making lists of 99 (or 198) top-priority articles to write.  We're specifically inviting people to come and start those articles, and have even started awarding "points" (redeemable for bragging rights).  We've only recently started this initiative, but it's growing  steadily.  (Why not have a look and see if you're inspired to write about one of those topics?)

Recruitment. We've just started getting the word out about the Citizendium--we've sent calls for participation to only 10 mailing lists (recently).  Believe it or not, virtually all of our growth has been as a result of press coverage.  We have done very little of the sort of digital recruitment we used to get Nupedia and Wikipedia going.  Well, now that we have an automated registration system, we can handle a lot more applications.  So we've finally started seriously inviting them.

Eduzendium. The Citizendium is the perfect venue for professors who want their students to do public writing.  It's perfect because most topics are wide open, and the project is managed in a way that will appeal to most professors. Already, we have had a half-dozen or more articles contributed by students of Citizendium editors, as part of course assignments.  We hope to do serious recruitment for the program later this year and next year.

Fundraiser. In November and December 2007 we'll be doing a fundraiser.  Our goal is $10,000.  Please help us toward this goal! We hope to raise much more than that, and we know we might raise less--but we have not in fact done any fundraisers since an aborted effort in January 2007.  We badly need help from a full-time technical guru, and our full-time Editor-in-Chief (yours truly) is at the moment an unpaid volunteer, just like everyone else.  (My little family living off of my writing and speaking income, but this isn't much.)

Short-term plans

Within the next several months, we have a lot to do indeed.

Adoption of new license. The Citizendium will, finally, adopt a license (GFDL, CC-by-sa, or CC-by-nc-sa).  A number of essays have been submitted to help us decide.  We've set November 15 as the deadline for making the decision.

Governance solidification and regularization. Further development of many governance policies has been "on hold," as we have focused on other things.  At the same time that these policies are developed or reworked, we will do a "changing of the guard," meaning that people in positions of responsibility in the project may move about.  For example, our Editorial Council is likely to impose a requirement of a minimum number of edits in order to participate in the Council, and then several editors will exit and several newer editors will join.  To take another example, we will be establishing a Judicial Board.

Expansion of subpages. We've got a fairly elaborate plan for expanding and maturing the use of subpages on the Citizendium.

Advisory Board and Board of Directors. The Citizendium Statement of Fundamental Policies provides that the Editor-in-Chief will appoint an Advisory Board which will approve a binding community charter as well the first Board of Directors.  I hope to choose the Advisory Board by the end of the year.

Adoption of a Citizendium Charter. Shortly thereafter, my main task will be to draft the Citizendium Charter, with input from the entire community.  (No draft yet exists.)  This will supersede the Statement of Fundamental Policies.

Launch SharedKnowing (a mailing list). While this discussion-and-announcement list is hosted by the Citizendium, it is a distinct service, and non-Citizens are welcome to join the list.  It is devoted to "Well-reasoned, polite discussion of the nature of online knowledge production communities, with special but not exclusive focus on community policy (production, governance, management) questions; 'the new politics of knowledge' broadly speaking. Though participation is by no means restricted to philosophers, we would like the list to have a more theoretical or philosophical focus, as opposed to being concerned with the specific minutia of specific communities (such as Wikipedia)."

Longer-term plans

In 2008 and 2009, what do we hope to do, in addition to growing at an accelerating rate?

Major MediaWiki improvements. We badly need to make several improvements to our system.  One way or another--either through donations or with help from a technology partner--we hope to dig into these improvements next year.  For example:

  • Convert the subpage-and-metadata system we've recently added to a built-in system.  This will allow people to change large amounts of metadata--and even do things like rate articles--by simply filling out a form.
  • Build in the workgroup apparatus into the wiki system.
  • Create a one-click article approval system, as well as a way to solicit approval or comments from the right editors quickly and automatically.
  • Create an account management system that allows people to subscribe and unsubscribe to project mailing lists from one spot, manage various kinds of reminders, and designate themselves as "active" or "inactive," etc.
  • Convert our talk pages into threaded forums.
  • Add a public feedback system.  There has been some demand for this, but it's a non-trivial request.
  • Display "thank you" messages from donors at the bottom of every page in proportion to the amount (and recency) the donor has given.

Search for technology partner? If we do not soon receive sufficient funding to enable us to make the significant changes to MediaWiki that really need to be made, we might invite a special relationship with a technology company.  It seems likely that, if we achieve the success we hope for, the wiki software as configured for the Citizendium will be in some demand.  This could motivate a technology firm to supply us with the coding hours needed to make all the changes that we need to make; they then become the key service provider for the Citizendium configuration of MediaWiki.

The Citizendium in other languages. Because an online republic actually requires a mature governance framework and an editor-in-chief, starting the Citizendium in other languages will not be very easy.  Still, it is something that we are committed to doing, or helping with, at least.  We will probably not have time to devote to this until 2008, however.  It will require considerable time and attention from the Editor-in-Chief and the new Board of Directors.

Independence from the Tides Center. In December 2006, the Citizendium Foundation joined the non-profit Tides Center as one of their projects.  We did this only because Tides enabled us to accept donations immediately and assisted with administrative (office) details.  However, this is a temporary arrangement.  We wish to be our own, completely independent 501(c)(3) non-profit.  We will make time to do this once our Board of Directors is in place.

Launch new projects. In 2008 or 2009, I will turn toward other, brand new content production projects on behalf of the Citizendium Foundation and integrated (as much as possible) with the Citizendium wiki.

Sanger turns to fundraising. At some point in 2008 or 2009, I will move away from active management of the wiki--which at this point still seems necessary--and use more of my time for fundraising.  Given our fundamentals and success so far, I feel confident that we could be raising hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.  I worked on the project itself, however, to make sure that there is something to raise money for. I don't regret the decision, despite our having a very small budget indeed!--Of course, if we have funds to hire a professional development director, I may not have to do this.

New editor-in-chief when funds are located. Finally, in 2008 or 2009, consistently with the promise I made when first launching the project, I will step down as Editor-in-Chief and help guarantee the start of a regular, rule-governed, meaningful transition of management.  I want this position to be reasonably well-funded, however.

The coming explosion of growth

I want to make a prediction about the next year.  At some point, possibly very soon, the Citizendium will grow explosively--say, quadruple the number of its active contributors, or even grow by an order of magnitude.  And it will experience that growth over the course of a month or two, and its growth will continue to accelerate from that higher rate.  Yeah, maybe this is a little wishful thinking of my own.  But there is actually good reason to expect this; I am not merely trying to make a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Let me explain why it's reasonable to expect explosive growth in the not-too-distant future.

First, many people now know about us, but are watching and waiting before they get involved.  They're not early adopters; they'll join only after we're more proven or popular.  There are a lot of people who were motivated to make accounts (we have well over 2,000 "CZ Authors"), but very many haven't been actually motivated to start seriously editing the wiki.  (Over 200 accounts are used to make edits every month.)  I regularly find people online who say, "I support what you're doing, it looks neat, maybe I'll get involved, but..."

But what?  But they're not convinced we're a going concern, of course.  Why should they contribute to the Citizendium if it's always going to be small and unimportant?

This leads me to my second point. We will soon have developed to the point where a bunch of people can, all at once, prove to each other that the Citizendium is something really exciting.  The Internet is famously subject to "crowd" phenomena.  A news story, an endorsement from a famous person, or something more mysterious can cause massive migration to a new Web project--especially if there is an unfulfilled need for it.  When that happens, there is a sudden spike in activity--and those involved can observe the spike, and if the fundamentals are solid, that will feed on itself and lead to sustained growth.

Well, our fundamentals are extremely solid.  There is an unfulfilled need for an expert-guided, open, free encyclopedia under responsible management.  A huge number of people know about us, and they just need a little push to get involved.  When enough of them do, we will reach a tipping point--our visible growth will cause an avalanche of interest among our inactive supporters, who will then be convinced that, indeed, we really are a going concern.  And worth contributing to.

We're close to such a tipping point now, I think.  Here's a push, then.

The rate at which we have started new articles has actually tripled since January and doubled since July (the last 100 days).  In mid-January, just when we "un-forked," we were adding just 4.3 articles per day; in mid-July, we were at 7; and by mid-October we reached 14. We have tripled our creation rate since January and doubled it since July.

To put it simply, we aren't just growing; our growth is accelerating.

(Technical note: it is actually difficult to say precisely what our growth rate has been.  The total number of articles, including ones that are not "live," is currently 4,070, and the above growth rates include the growth rates for all of these, not just live articles. But the growth rate of live articles is probably even higher, because I think over the course of 2007, we have imported fewer and fewer unimproved Wikipedia articles.  Anyway, the increase in growth rate for "live" articles is also very probably close to 300% since January and 200% since July.)

Suppose that we continue to accelerate our growth.  This is not unreasonable.  The only question is how quickly we will accelerate.  If we were to continue to triple our article count each year, then we would break 100,000 articles by 2010, and one million articles by 2012.

Suppose we merely double our article count every year. Then we'll still break 100,000 articles by 2011 and one million by 2015.

Suppose we merely add 50% more articles every year.  We would break 50,000 articles by 2011, 100,000 articles by 2013, and one million by 2019.  Even this relatively slow pace would be well worth working toward, considering the other advantages of the Citizendium.

In short, if you assume that we will continue to accelerate our growth rate by at least 50% per year, you can expect us to have over 100,000 articles in about five years.  Frankly, accelerating our growth rate by 50% would be, by the standards of thriving and proven Web 2.0 projects--like the Citizendium--on the slow side.  I'd be willing to go out on a limb and say we'll do better.  I think we'll at least double our article creation rate every year.  So I think we'll probably have at least 100,000 by 2011, and one million by 2015.

And that's without any such "explosion of growth" as I mentioned earlier.  If we do reach a "tipping point" where loads of new people join all at once, we can increase our growth rate not by 200% or 300% in one year, but by 1000%, or more.

Of course, I don't claim to be able to predict what our rate of acceleration will be.  It's still possible that the project will, from here until eternity, muddle on creating 14 articles per day.  It's even possible that the project will simply collapse and our rate will go to 0.  I just don't think that these latter possibilities are at all likely.  Why?

The project's fundamentals are solid and growing stronger through motivated, diligent effort. Most of our active contributors show no signs of giving up.  I'm not giving up. Lots of new people are getting active, especially with our recruitment drive.  Getting on board is now quick and easy.  We become more and more credible, both as a productive community and as an information source, every day.  Citizendium articles are also rising in the Google rankings, which in time will create viral growth through the Google effect, as I argued last spring.  Finally, as I explained above, we might reach a tipping point sometime fairly soon, and increase our growth rate explosively.

A possibility you may not have considered

I've had a particularly fascinating idea in mind since before the Citizendium was conceived.  It is one of my deep motivations for starting the project.

Consider a possibility.  What would content shared in common look like if it were subject to open review and collaborative development from really large numbers of specialists, and other smart people with valuable input, from around the world?  Imagine particularly if versions of this content could be approved and displayed, while further work could continue, under expert guidance, indefinitely?

Given enough time and enough people, the results would surely be amazing.  The world has never seen anything like the picture I have in my mind's eye.  It is hard to predict for sure the quality of the content, but I suspect, based on my experience so far, that virtually every article created this way would, after some years, be wonderfully readable, yet also extremely detailed, perfectly representative of the range of expert opinion, and in general, magisterial.  What if we had hundreds of thousands of articles like that, on every subject?  A central storehouse of really reliable information would change the world, I suspect, in ways we can't even guess now.

If this possibility is amazing, it is even more amazing that it's within our grasp.  We're still in our infancy, but I see no reason to think that the Citizendium cannot seize this opportunity.  We are laying the foundations for it, and every day it seems more likely.

I suspect that even many rank-and-file Citizens (contributors to the Citizendium) do not fully grasp this potential.  Almost certainly, the vast majority of people who are casually tracking our progress haven't got an inkling of where the project might lead.  Those who do don't really care about what strike them as wild possibilities.  Perhaps it's a weakness of mine that I do care about wild possibilities.  But given two reasonable assumptions--merely time and further development along the path we've already struck out on--the outcome described seems not just possible, not just likely, but inevitable.

Of course, I could just have a surfeit of imagination.  Time will tell.  What I do know is that if we do have a good chance to create something so stupefyingly useful for humanity, we must try.

Do you agree?  Then join up and pitch in!

For more information on the Citizendium project, see the citizendium.org website.  You can easily join here.


The New Politics of Knowledge

Speech delivered at the Jefferson Society, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, November 9, 2007, and at the Institute of European Affairs, Dublin, Ireland, September 28, 2007, as the inaugural talk for the IEA's "Our Digital Futures" program.

I want to begin by asking a question that might strike you as perhaps a little absurd. The question is, "Why haven't governments tried to regulate online communities more?" To be sure, there have been instances where governments have stepped in. For instance, in January of last year in Germany, the father of a deceased computer hacker used the German court system to try to have an article about his son removed from the German Wikipedia. As a result, wikipedia.de actually went offline for a brief period. It's come back online, of course, and in fact the article in question is still up.

Here's another example. In May of last year, attorneys general from eight U.S. states demanded that MySpace turn over the names of registered sex offenders lurking on the website, which as you probably know is heavily frequented by teenagers. The website deleted pages of some 7,000 registered sex offenders. And the following July, they said that in fact some 29,000 registered sex offenders had accounts, which were subsequently deleted.

Those are just a few examples. But we can make some generalizations. The Internet is famously full of outrageously false, defamatory, and offensive information, and is said to be a haven for criminal activity. This leads back to the question I asked earlier: why haven't governments tried to regulate online communities even more than they have?

We might well find this question a little absurd, especially if we champion the liberal ideals that form the foundation of Western civil society. Indeed, no doubt one reason is our widespread commitment to freedom of speech. But consider another possible reason—one that, I think, is very interesting.

Governments, and everyone else, implicitly recognize that social groups, however new and different, have their own interests and are usually capable of regulating themselves. It is a truly striking thing that people come together from across the globe and, out of their freely donated labor and strings of electrons, form a powerful new corporate body. When they do so—as I have repeatedly observed—they develop a sense of themselves as a group, in which they invest some time and can take some pride, and which they govern by rules.

In fact, these groups are a new kind of political entity, the birth of which our generation has been privileged to witness. Such groups are not like supra-national organizations, like the United Nations; nor are they like international aid organizations, like Doctors Without Borders; nor are they quite like international scientific groups, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The existence and primary activity of these online communities is all online. Their membership is self-selecting, international, and connected online in real time. This makes it possible for enormous numbers and varieties of groups to arise, of arbitrary size and arbitrary nationality, to achieve arbitrary purposes. They essentially make up a new kind of political community, a cyber-polity if you will, and so there is a presumption that they can regulate themselves. Government steps in, as in the case of MySpace, only when they cannot regulate themselves responsibly.

The idea that online communities are a kind of polity is, I think, very suggestive and fruitful. I want to talk in particular about how online communities, considered as polities, are engaged in a certain new kind of politics—a politics of knowledge. Let me explain what I mean by this.

Speaking of a "politics of knowledge," I assume that what passes for knowledge, or what we in some sense take ourselves to know as a society, is determined by those who have authority or power of a sort. You don't of course have to like this situation, and you might disagree with the authorities, or scoff at their authority in some cases. Nevertheless, when for example professors at the University of Virginia say that something is well known and not seriously doubted by anyone who knows about the subject, those professors are in effect establishing what "we all know," or what we as a society take ourselves to know. Since those professors, and many others, speak from a position of authority about knowledge—a powerful force in society—surely it makes some sense to speak of a politics of knowledge. I just hope you won't understand me to be saying that what really is known, in fact, is determined by whoever happens to be in authority. I'm no relativist, and I think the authorities can be, and frequently are, wrong.

If we talk about a politics of knowledge, and we take the analogy with politics seriously, then we assume that there is a sort of hierarchy of authority, with authority in matters of knowledge emanating from some agency that is "sovereign." In short, if we put stock in the notion of the politics of knowledge, then we're saying that, when it comes to knowing stuff, some people are at the top of the heap.

Our new online communities—our cyber-polities—are increasingly influential forces, when it comes to the politics of knowledge. When Wikipedia speaks, like it or not, people listen. So in this talk I want to discuss in particular something I call the new politics of knowledge. Any talk of a new politics of knowledge raises questions about what agency is sovereign. Well, it is often said that in the brave new world of online communities, everyone is in charge. Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" is, by practice, usually some influential political figure. When its "Person of the Year" last year was "You," Time didn't break its practice. Time was rightly claiming that, through Internet communities we are all newly empowered. In the new politics of knowledge, we can all, through blogs, wikis, and many other venues, compete with real experts for epistemic authority—for power over what is considered to be known.

If this sounds like a political revolution, that's because it is. It is frequently described as a democratic revolution. So what I'm going to do in the rest of this talk is examine exactly what sense in which the new cyber-polities, like Wikipedia, do indeed represent a sort of democratic revolution. This discussion will have the interesting result that we should be more concerned than we might already be about the internal governance of Internet communities—because that internal governance has real-world effects. And I will conclude by making some recommendations for how cyber-polities should be internally governed.

As a philosopher, I find myself impelled to ask: what exactly is democratic about the so-called Internet revolution?

Democracy in one very basic sense means that sovereignty rests ultimately with the people, that is, with all of us. Bearing that in mind, the new Internet revolution might be democratic, I think, both in a narrow sense and in a broad sense. The narrow sense concerns project governance: the new content production systems are themselves governed ultimately by the participants, and for that reason can be called democratic. In the broad sense, the Internet revolution gives everyone "a voice" which formerly many did not have, a stake in determining "what is known" not just for a narrow website or Internet practice, but for society as a whole. To draw the distinction by analogy, we might say that each online community has a domestic policy, about its own internal affairs, and a foreign policy, through which it manages its influence on the world at large.

Now, I'd like to point something out that you might not immediately notice. It is that the broad sense depends in a certain way on the narrow sense. The contributors are ultimately sovereign in various Internet projects, and that is precisely why they are able to have their newfound broader influence over society. Let's take Digg.com as an example. This is a website that allows people to post any link, and then others vote, a simple up or down, on whether they "digg" the link. It's one person, one vote. Of course, no one checks anybody's credentials on Digg. The highest-voted links are placed most prominently on the website. So the importance of a Web article, and presumably whatever the article has to say, is determined democratically, at least as far as the Digg community goes. But Digg's influence goes beyond its own community. A relatively obscure story can become important by being highly rated on Digg. In this way, all those people voting on Digg—and these can be as expert as you hope, or as uneducated, ignorant, biased, immature, and foolish as you fear—they can wield a power to highlight different news stories, a power hitherto usually reserved only to professional journalists.

Similarly, Wikipedia articles are now well-known for being the #1 Google search result for many popular searches. Any website with that much reach is, like it or not, very influential. That is, in effect, practical epistemic authority. That is real authority, given to anyone who has the time and patience to work on Wikipedia and do the hand-to-hand battle necessary to get your edits to "stick" in Wikipedia articles. That power, to define what is known about a general topic, was formerly reserved only to the professional intellectuals who wrote and edited encyclopedias, and more broadly to experts generally speaking. And again, of course, no one checks anybody's credentials before they get on Wikipedia. So amateurs are to some extent displacing experts, in the new politics of knowledge.

So that's why we call the Internet revolution democratic. But this needs some qualification. There is one fundamental reason that we describe as "democratic" such websites as Digg, Wikipedia, MySpace, YouTube, and all the rest, and that is that anyone can, virtually without restriction, go to the website and get involved. This, however, is only to say that they have a certain benchmark level of "user empowerment," which we might call the "right to contribute." But frequently, a large variety of governance structures are superimposed upon this basic "right to contribute." While the content is generally determined by largely self-governing contributors, some policies and decisions are left in the hands of the website owners, like Slashdot and YouTube, who are officially answerable to no one else within the project. Granted, if these privileged persons anger their contributors, the contributors can vote with their feet—and this has happened on numerous occasions. And in some cases, such as Wikipedia, the community is almost completely self-governing. Still, we probably should qualify claims about the democratic nature of cyber-polities: just because there is a basic right to contribute, it does not follow that there will also be an equal right to determine the project's internal governance.

So, as I said before, the Internet revolution is democratic in the broad sense because it is democratic, however qualifiedly, in the narrow sense. In other words, internal Web project governance bears directly on real-world political influence. But how closely connected are Web community politics and real-world influence?

Consider Wikipedia again—and I think this is particularly interesting. If you've followed the news about Wikipedia at all in the last few years, you have might noticed that when they make larger changes to their policy, it is no longer of interest just to their contributors. It is of interest to the rest of the world, too. It gets reported on. Two recent news items illustrate this very well.

First item. A few months ago, a student posted a website, called the WikiScanner, that allows people to look up government agencies and corporations to see just who has been editing which Wikipedia articles. This was fairly big news—all around the world. I was asked to comment about the story by reporters in Canada and Australia. Journalists think it's absolutely fascinating that someone from a politician's office made a certain edit to an article about that politician, or that a corporation's computers were used to remove criticisms about the corporation. At the same time, reporters and others observe that Wikipedia's anonymity has allowed people to engage in such PR fiddling with impunity. And that is the interesting internal policy point: anyone can contribute to Wikipedia without identifying him- or herself. You can even mask your IP address, which those political aids and corporation employees should have done; all they had to do was make up some random username, which one can still do without giving Wikipedia an e-mail address, and then the WikiScanner couldn't track the IP address. Nobody who was signed in was caught by the WikiScanner. Anyway, it was an internal policy that has had some very interesting external ramifications.

Second item. It was reported recently by the London Times that the German Wikipedia would be changing its editing system. In the future, all edits by unregistered and newer contributors will have to be approved by the older contributors before they can appear on the website. In fact, this was old news—the system described has been under development for well over a year, and it still hasn't been put into use. Nevertheless, it has been touted as a very big concession on the part of Wikipedia. It's said now that Wikipedia has a role for "trusted editors" on the website, but this is incorrect; it has a role only for people who have been in the system for a while, and these can be very untrustworthy indeed. However unlikely this is to have any significant effect, it was still touted as important news. And again, what was touted as big news was a change in internal policy, the policy about how the wiki can be edited by newer and anonymous contributors. This is supposed to be important, because it might help make Wikipedia a more responsible global citizen.

In general, it is becoming increasingly clear that the "domestic policy," so to speak, of cyber-polities is closely connected with their real-world impact. Wikipedia isn't the only example I might give. Here's another—although in this case, the effect is economic, not epistemic. There is an amazingly huge website, called craigslist, which lists, they say, over 12 million new classified ads every month. This website has proven to be a real thorn in the side of local newspapers, which depend on revenue from ads. Increasingly, people are posting their classified ads in craigslist instead of in their local newspapers. This is the effect of a policy, an internal policy, that anyone can post an ad for free, except for employment ads in certain markets. What might have originally seemed to be an optional feature of a small Web community has turned out, in fact, to cost jobs at newspapers.

But let's get back to the politics of knowledge. In the intellectual sphere, I think the full power of collaboration and aggregation has yet to be demonstrated. Try to imagine Wikipedia done right—not just enormous, but credible and well-written. If this sounds impossible to believe, consider that just a few years ago, Wikipedia itself, a reasonably useful general encyclopedia with over two millions articles in English, would have sounded equally impossible to believe. I can tell you that, when Wikipedia was first starting out, there were many people who sneered that we didn't have a chance.

Let me describe briefly my new project, which is relevant here. It is called the Citizendium, or the Citizens' Compendium. It is a non-profit, free wiki encyclopedia that invites contributions from the general public—and to that extent it's like Wikipedia. There are three very important differences, however. First, we require the use of real names and do not allow anonymous contribution; we also require contributors to submit at least a brief biography. So we all know who we're actually working with. Second, we distinguish between rank-and-file authors, which do not require any special qualifications, and editors, who must demonstrate expertise in a field; our editors may approve articles, and they may make decisions about content in their areas of expertise. Still, they work side-by-side with authors on the wiki. Nobody assigns anybody any work; it's still very much a bottom-up process. Third, we are a rather more mature community. All contributors must sign onto a sort of social contract, which states the rules of the community; we expect people to behave professionally; and we have people called "constables" who are actually willing to enforce our rules by kicking out troublemakers.

So how is the project going? We started a pilot project just over a year ago, and in that time we created 3,500 articles, and we have over 2,000 authors and well over 200 expert editors on board. We also have more words than Wikipedia did after its first year—our average article is six times as long as the average Wikipedia article after its first year. Our pace of article production has accelerated—it has doubled in the past 100 days or so and tripled since last January. And we are pretty much free of vandalism, and I think our articles are pretty high-quality for such a wide-open project. The project is doing rather well, and I think that we are probably, with continued development, poised to replicate Wikipedia's sort of growth. We too could have a million articles in under ten years.

Well, imagine that the Citizendium had a million articles, together with loads of ancillary reference material such as images, tables, tutorials, and so forth—all free, credible, and managed by experts. The sort of influence that such a website would wield would, I think, far outweigh Wikipedia's. The one thing that really holds Wikipedia back, from the end user's perspective, is its reliability. So suppose there were a similar website that solved that problem.

If you ask me, this is somewhat of a frightening prospect. After all, already, far too many students and even members of the general public treat Wikipedia as if it were reliable. Already, for far too many students, Wikipedia is their only source of reference information. If humanity were to produce a similarly giant encyclopedia that were really reliable, you can just imagine how it would probably be received by the general public. It would become, essentially, the world's textbook and omnipresent reference library. There would be a general presumption that what it says is correct, and that if anyone asserts something in contradiction to it, they would have to explain in as much detail as they would have to do if they contradicted the Encyclopedia Britannica today. Sure, a good encyclopedia can be wrong; but it usually isn't. Unlike Wikipedia, it's innocent until proven guilty.

This is frightening, I say, precisely because of how powerful such a resource would be. Imagine the article about, for example, the Iraq War, after it had been written and rewritten, and checked and rechecked, by hundreds of real experts. It would no doubt be a thing of beauty, as I think the Citizendium's best articles are. But it would also be taken as the starting-point for serious conversation. What claims it makes could have real-world political ramifications, as much as, if not more than, any U.N. report. So you can easily imagine the attention given to major changes of policy, or to internal rulings on controversial cases in the project. Again: the internal policymaking for a truly successful collaborative reference project would have major external consequences.

We don't want governments to take over or closely regulate collaborative projects, but if they continue to act as irresponsibly as Wikipedia has, I fear that they might attempt to do so. That is, for me, a disturbing scenario, because in a civilized, modern, liberal society—one that deeply values the freedom of speech—the authority to say what we know is one power that should not be in the hands of the government. Every government regulation of online collaborative communities is a direct threat to the sovereignty of that community, and an implicit threat to the free speech of its members.

It is, therefore, extremely important that online projects, ones with any influence, be well-governed. We want to remove every excuse governments might have for exerting their own political authority. At this point I might argue that Wikipedia's governance has failed in various ways, but the root problem is that Wikipedia is absolutely committed to anonymous contribution; this ultimately makes it impossible to enforce many rules effectively. However much oppressive bureaucracy Wikipedia layers on, it will always be possible for people to sidestep rules, simply by creating a new identity. The unreliability of Wikipedia's enforcement of its own rules, in turn, provides a deep explanation of the unreliability of its information. The pretentious mediocrities and ideologues, as well as the powerful vested interests—generally, anyone with a strong motive to make Wikipedia articles read their way—can always create new accounts if they are ousted. Wikipedia's content will remain unreliable, and it will continue to have various public scandals, because its governance is unreliable. And this, I'm afraid, opens Wikipedia up to the threat of government regulation. I wouldn't wish that on them, of course, and I don't mean to give anyone ideas.

After all, if the Citizendium's more sensible system succeeds, it will have the power to do far more damage than Wikipedia can. To get an idea of the damage Wikipedia can do, consider another example. In late 2005, John Seigenthaler, Sr., long-time editor of the American newspaper The Tennessean, was accused in a Wikipedia article of being complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Well, it was rather easy for him to protect his reputation by pointing out publicly how unreliable Wikipedia is. He simply shamed Wikipedia, and he came off looking quite good.

But imagine that Seigenthaler were accused by some better, more reliable source. Then he couldn't have gotten relief in this way; he no doubt would have had to sue. I hate the thought, but I have to concede that it is barely possible that the Citizendium could be sued for defamation. After all, the effect of defamation by a more credible source would be much more serious. Then the government might be called in, and this worries me.

As I said, my horror scenario is that the Citizendium grows up to be as influential as its potential implies, only to be overregulated by zealous governments with a weak notion of free speech. As I said at the beginning of this talk, I think cyber-polities can generally regulate themselves. But communities with poor internal governance may well incur some necessary correction by governments, if they violate copyright on a massive scale or if they permit, irresponsibly, a pattern of libel. Why should this be disturbing to me? Government intervention is perhaps all right when we are talking about child molesters on MySpace; but when we are talking about projects to sum up what is known, that is when more serious issues of free speech enter in.

You can think of government intervention in something like Wikipedia or the Citizendium as akin to government intervention in the content of academic lectures and the governance of universities. When this happens, what should be an unimpeded search for the truth risks becoming politicized and politically controlled.

But you can imagine, perhaps, a series of enormous scandals on Wikipedia that has government leaders calling for the project to be taken over by the Department of Education, or by some private entity that is nevertheless implicitly answerable to the government. Wikipedia is far from being in such a position now, but it is conceivable. The argument would go as follows:

Wikipedia is not like a university or a private club. It is open to everyone, and its content is visible around the globe, via the Internet. Therefore, it is a special kind of public trust. It is not unlike a public utility. Moreover, it has demonstrated its utter incapacity to manage itself responsibly, and this of genuine public concern. The government is obligated, therefore, to place the management of Wikipedia in the care of the government.

End of argument. Nationalization might seem hard to conceive, but it has happened quite a bit in the last century. Why couldn't it happen to something that is already a free, public trust?

As both an academic (or former academic, anyway) and as an online project organizer, the thought of this scenario bothers me greatly, and in fact I must admit that I have given it no small amount of thought in the last few years. Fear of government intrusions on what should be a fully independent enterprise is one reason that I have spent so much time in the last year working on a sensible governance framework for the Citizendium. In short, the best protection against undue government interference in open content projects is good internal governance. So let me describe the Citizendium's current governance and its future plans.

The Citizendium works now under an explicit Statement of Fundamental Policies, which calls for the adoption of a Charter, not unlike a constitution, within the next few months. The Charter will no doubt solidify the governance system we are developing right now. This system involves an Editorial Council which is responsible for content policy; a Constabulary which gets new people on board and encourages good behavior; and a Judicial Board which will handle conflict resolution and appeals. While editors will make up the bulk of our Editorial Council, both authors and editors may participate in each of these bodies. Each of these bodies will have mutually exclusive membership, to help ensure a separation of powers, and there will be some other checks and balances. In addition, I as Editor-in-Chief am head of an Executive Committee. But to set a positive precedent, before even launching the Citizendium I have committed to stepping down within two to three years, so that we have an appropriate and regular succession of leadership.

Another perhaps interesting point concerns the Editorial Council. It has actually adopted a digitized version of Robert's Rules of Order, and we have passed five resolutions using e‑mail and the wiki exclusively. Recall that contributors must agree to uphold this system, as a condition of their participation. They must also be identified by their real-world identity if they wish to participate—although we will make exceptions in truly extraordinary cases.

I think you can recognize what we are trying to build: a traditional constitutional republic, but moved online. Only time will tell, but my hope is that this nascent governance structure will help us to avoid some of the problems that have beset not just Wikipedia, but a wide variety of Web communities.

I have covered a pretty wide variety of topics in my talk. I hope you have been able to follow the thread, at least a little; I doubt I have spent all the time I would need to make everything perfectly clear. But let me sum up my main argument anyway. Online communities, I say, are political entities. As such, they can govern their own "domestic" affairs, as well have various "foreign" or external effects. And so they can be democratic insofar as their members have authority internally or externally. I've discussed mainly one kind of authority, namely epistemic authority, or the authority over what society takes to be knowledge.

Then I pointed out that the external authority a project has depends on its internal governance—and so, the more externally influential, the more important it is that we get the internal governance right. I pointed to Wikipedia as an example of a cyber-polity that is not particularly well-governed. I worried a fair bit about the fallout, in terms of government regulation, that this might incur. In part to help avoid such fallout, I have briefly sketched a governance system that the Citizendium uses, which is a traditional constitutional, representative republic—mapped online.


What Strong Collaboration Means for Scholarly Publishing

Keynote delivered at the Annual Meeting, Society for Scholarly Publishing, "Imagining the Future: Scholarly Communication 2.0," San Francisco, California, June 7, 2007.

When I was asked to speak to you, the Society for Scholarly Publishing, I have to admit that I found this puzzling, because I don’t know anything about scholarly publishing. Why should someone who knows so little about scholarly publishing be asked to give a speech to the Society for Scholarly Publishing? That’s a paradox.

I found a similar paradox in an article by John Thompson in the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2005. Thompson wrote: “academic publishers can survive today only if they become something other than academic publishers” (June 17, 2005).

The quote actually explains why I’m here. I’m here because I can tell you about a way to become something other than academic publishers. I suppose this is a little absurd, but as a philosopher, I am trained to take joy in life’s little absurdities.

So I’m going to try to make the case that scholarly publishers should start expert Web 2.0 projects. Here’s my plan for the talk.

  • I’m going to begin by painting a picture, a vision of what information online could look like in ten or twenty years. In short, I’m going to build a castle in the air. But then I will try to put a foundation underneath it.
  • I’ll go over a number of examples of free encyclopedia projects from which we can learn.
  • Then I’ll draw out some general principles.
  • I’ll consider various business models for projects started by scholarly publishers.
  • Finally, I’ll give you some ideas for projects you might start.

Here’s the question I want to answer first: what might the world of free vetted, reliable, edited information online look like in ten years? What sort of free resources might we see? Suppose it’s the year 2017, and we’re looking at the best-case scenario.

In the best-case scenario, the Encyclopedia of Life would be an enormous success—it was recently announced, by the way, with a commitment of $100 million in grants. It has articles on the 1.8 million named and known species on Earth, with a detailed article, pictures, video where available, links to news articles, and various other resources. Basically, if you want to know about a species, you know where to go.

Next, consider the Citizendium, which you can think of as Wikipedia with editors and real names. In the best-case scenario, it would have added millions of articles in hundreds of languages, but unlike Wikipedia itself, the articles have undergone a process of continual improvement, and there are now hundreds of thousands of expert-approved articles—and much other supporting information as well.

In 2007, you can find some information about virtually any topic you like, on Wikipedia—but you’re not sure if you can trust it. In 2017, you can find information on those same topics, but information that you know has been checked by actual experts, on Citizendium.

So much for general encyclopedias. What about other kinds of information? By 2017, the library digitization projects have gone brilliantly. The entire contents of major libraries—millions of volumes of both books and journals—have been digitized. Most copyrighted books still aren’t available for free viewing, except at some libraries, but they make research much easier. And it is possible for an individual to buy a subscription to services that give you full-text searching of nearly every book and periodical you could possibly want.

The advantages of digitization have finally come home to archives, in 2017. It is a rare archive that has not digitized its entire stock, and made at least part of it available for free. So there are now enormous vetted and well-tagged and ‑organized sets of free photographs, video, and audio, which put Flickr and YouTube to shame.

Meanwhile, scholarly publishers have spearheaded countless fascinating new scholarly projects, creating certain kinds of reference and academic work for the first time ever—made possible by the scale and dynamism of global collaboration.

I could go on, but I suspect you’ve heard it all before. Sure, it’s exciting.

But one gets tired of all the “vision.” I do, anyway. Let’s come back to Earth. I want to ask two practical questions.

  • First, how can humanity possibly get from here to there?
  • And second, what role might scholarly publishers play in getting us from here to there?

It’s important, I think, to look at where you’ve been, if you want to know how to get where you want to go. So, let’s look at a series of free Internet encyclopedia projects, in roughly chronological order.

First, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is one of my favorite reference works. It lives online. Its articles are excellent, high-level introductions to all sorts of philosophical topics. They’re written and updated by experts and the whole production is edited by a veritable who’s who of contemporary philosophers.

It’s a thing of beauty.  And it's free to read.

The problem with SEP, however, is that it got started in 1995 and, after a dozen years, still numbers its articles in the hundreds, not the thousands. This is probably a function of the fact that there just aren’t that many top experts on the topics that SEP wants articles about.

They won’t assign an article to just anybody.

Back in 2000, a peer-reviewed general encyclopedia project got started, called Nupedia. I was its editor-in-chief and organizer.

Unlike SEP, Nupedia allowed anyone to volunteer to write an article, but articles still had to be assigned by an editor. We had a tiny budget and did manage to produce a few dozen articles within a year or so, and the articles were very high-quality. After a few years, particularly after I had to resign due to lack of funding, the project withered away.

The problem was the same as with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: slow pace of production. Here the problem was that not enough people wanted to go through Nupedia’s extremely rigorous, seven-step editorial process.

It was when I was trying to think of a way to improve upon Nupedia’s slow process that a friend told me about wikis—websites that allow anybody to edit any page instantly. Without even having seen a wiki, I saw that this could be the tool we were looking for, to make a simpler and more open method of content development.

I guess many of you know what happened then. Wikipedia took off, and it never added any credible method of approving or certifying articles. In fact, without the influence of Nupedia, Wikipedia became actually contemptuous of expertise. Moreover, they didn’t require the use of real names, and they never developed any effective ways of reining in abusive behavior.

As a result, while Wikipedia is an amazingly huge and useful resource, it remains of questionable reliability, and, as a community, it is off-putting to many people online who might be willing to contribute to a project like it.

Next in our catalog of projects is the Encyclopedia of Earth(EoE). This one got its start in the fall of 2005; I actually wrote some of the original project plans and policy documents for it. It’s a wiki encyclopedia devoted to everything concerning the Earth’s environment.

But it differs from Wikipedia in several important ways. While articles are not assigned by editors, a byline is given to what authors happen to show up; a person has to be an expert on some aspect of environmental studies in order to contribute; and you can’t “watch the sausage being made,” that is, non-contributors can’t see page histories or the wiki-wide “recent changes” page.

As a result, there isn’t much actual collabortion going on on the Encyclopedia of Earth. There is some, and they’re steadily growing, but largely because they’re aggregating content, by hand, from a number of different credible sources.

The Scholarpedia got its start in early 2006. I won’t say too much about this because it’s somewhat similar to SEP and EoE. It’s a specialized encyclopedia, concerning (at present) certain topics within neuroscience, mathematics, and computer science.

It differs from EoE, and from Wikipedia, in that the articles are not open content; still, they are free to read.

Articles are written by some really excellent experts, and reviewed by experts; as a result, however, like the philosophy articles in SEP, the articles are not really accessible to non-experts.

Also, it uses a wiki, but there is very little actual collaboration going on. And as a result, there are only a few hundred articles developed, though I’m sure they’re quite excellent articles.

Next, imagine a free, specialized encyclopedia “strictly by the experts,” like SEP, EoE, and Scholarpedia. But imagine that it had $100 million to spend. Then you’d have the recently-announced Encyclopedia of Life—the encyclopedia project aiming to list 1.8 million species. It’s hard to say exactly how it will work, but their FAQ says, “Unlike conventional encyclopedias, where an editorial team sits down and writes the entries, the Encyclopedia will be developed by bringing together (‘mashing up’) content from a wide variety of sources. This material will then be authenticated by scientists, so that users will have authoritative information.”

I have no critical remarks about the Encyclopedia of Life to make, because it doesn’t exist yet, and if you throw $100 million at a publishing problem, there’s a good chance you’ll solve it. It’s very exciting in any case.

The last example is one that started getting organized most recently: the Citizendium,a project I first announced last September, and which launched in a public beta version last March. Think of it as Wikipedia with editors and real names.

As such, it occupies a unique niche.

It’s a general encyclopedia, and makes full use of the wiki software and development model. Unlike several other examples given so far, articles really are developed collaboratively.

But, like them, it makes a special place for experts. We call them “editors.” Our editors have two primary functions at present. First, they can review and approve articles; second, they can make decisions about questions of controversy, as necessary. But they can and do also play the role of author. A good part of our day-to-day authoring work on the wiki is done by editors.

Nevertheless, we also invite contributions from the general public, who work as authors, shoulder-to-shoulder with the editors. You might think this would be a recipe for expert/amateur conflict, but so far we’ve seen little of that.

The wiki has been under development for about seven months. In that time, we have added

  • about 1700 authors
  • about 240 editors
  • about 2000 articles

If we continue to grow—I mean, to increase our rate of growth—as we have been, we should have hundreds of thousands of articles within a few years. We have a similar amount of content to what Wikipedia had after seven months—fewer actual articles, but our articles are longer, on average. We’ll also be expanding the number of approved articles we have, which right now is just over 20.

What, then, can we learn from these projects? Before I draw a few lessons, I want to make a few stipulations.

I’m going to stipulate, first, that an encyclopedia is better the larger it is and the more reliable it is: both quantity and quality.

Second, I also want to stipulate that the community that creates the encyclopedia is also important; and the community is better if it is not constantly engaged in acrimonious controversy.

Few of the encyclopedia projects we reviewed have grown very rapidly. Wikipedia and Citizendium have done pretty well so far, on that score. But the other projects grew slowly for various different reasons.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Scholarpedia have grown slowly, I think, mainly due to the fact that they are so exclusive. They insist that article authors be not merely competent and knowledgeable scholars, but actually distinguished in their fields.

If they were to expand the set of possible contributors, they would of course have more contributors. My view is that it is only genuine good old-fashioned elitism that can justify the exclusion of competent scholars. I think this explains in part, by the way, why the Citizendium has done rather better, in terms of numbers of articles created, than the other expert-driven projects.

So I advance this principle: expand your base of contributors as widely as is reasonable.

Nupedia grew too slowly primarily due to a complex workflow. I’ve discovered time and time again that, when presented with a problem, scholars tend to want to create a new process, a new workflow, a new committee, to deal with it. This might solve the problem, but it also slows down production.

The lesson here is: radically simplify your workflow. A wiki is an example, but only one example, of a tool that encourages a simple workflow.

Next, consider those relatively recent projects that use wikis, but which don’t really operate as wikis—here I think especially of the Encyclopedia of Earth and Scholarpedia. They could, I think, grow much more quickly, if they really were collaborative—that is, if they had a relatively energized collaborative community.

Well, how do you energize a collaborative community? Several ways.

  • First, don’t sign articles. Leave them unsigned. The reason is that, if you do sign articles, a few things happen that make collaboration difficult and unlikely. The author will discourage and resent input from others. And others will avoid collaborating on articles, because they don’t want to offend the author.
  • Second, for the same reason, actively discourage the idea of exclusive personal control over articles. Even if the project’s articles aren’t signed, some people will act as if an article he started really is his own, and discourage others from contributing. So you have to actually tell those people, “You may have written a draft of this article, but it isn’t yours.”
  • Third, positively encourage people to edit everyone else’s submissions. There are various ways to do this. You can put it in policy and help documents. You can have your most active and distinguished authors ask for help with articles they’ve started. Editors can ask one author to help another author. And so forth. Eventually, I think people will get the idea.
  • Fourth and finally, something that the Encyclopedia of Earth does, but which Scholarpedia does not do, is to use an open content license. This also helps to build a more dynamic community, because such a license is a guarantee to contributors that their collective work will always be free; it won’t disappear when the managing organization disappears. I think you might be surprised at how important this is to some people.

It would be a huge mistake to think that experts and scholars are unable to collaborate, Wikipedia-style. The Citizendium project has demonstrated that the articles that result from such collaborations can be truly wonderful.

Next, there is the problem of the lack of reliability, which I think is a problem mainly with Wikipedia. Here, the solution I recommend has made me a heretic in the Web 2.0 world, but it’s the obvious old-fashioned one for everyone else: if you want to be sure that some content is reliable, then you get experts to review your content. So, find a place for experts.

The last problem I see is another problem of Wikipedia’s. Namely, it has an off-putting community, due to its immaturity and failure to enforce its own rules. Here, again, I recommend some heretical yet old-fashioned solutions: have contributors identify themselves with their real names, not pseudonyms, and, also, empower and require moderators to enforce rules consistently.

So here is a run-down of the lessons learned from the free encyclopedia projects listed above:

1.     Expand your base of contributors as widely as is reasonable.

2.     Radically simplify your workflow.

3.     Don’t sign articles.

4.     Moreover, actively discourage the idea of personal ownership of articles.

5.     Positively encourage people to edit everyone else’s submissions.

6.     Use an open content license.

7.     Have contributors identify themselves with their real names, not pseudonyms.

8.     Require moderators to enforce rules consistently.

The only project that actually follows all of these principles is the Citizendium. I guess that’s not surprising since I’m the editor of the Citizendium and I wrote these principles. But I do practice what I preach, in this case.

So, I know this is going to sound terribly immodest, but I guess what I’m recommending is that you start projects like the Citizendium.

I can’t expect you to take this recommendation very seriously, partly because the Citizendium is free, and you, as publishers, are in business to make money.

But, you know, people do make money by publishing free stuff online. I don’t, but other people do. Personally—and I know this must sound bizarre—but I’m really not in it for the money myself. The Citizendium is a non-profit, and I don’t expect to get rich, at least, not off of this. Still, other people do get rich by publishing free stuff online. Just think of the founders of Google, Yahoo, YouTube, and MySpace.

Their business model, of course, is advertising. As you must know, online advertising is increasingly lucrative. As to the ethics of the thing, newspapers have been supported for years by advertising, and only radicals have complained about the ethics of their advertising. So, in principle, I personally don’t have a problem about supporting a project with advertising.

Still, you might wonder why Wikipedia, Citizendium, and virtually all other of the encyclopedia projects I listed—except for Scholarpedia—don’t use advertising. I think the main reason is that their organizers and/or contributors hold the view that advertising equals corporate bias and corporate control. I don’t personally hold this view, but I respect it, and if it means I can’t have as many contributors, I will not run advertisements.

Another business model, one that seems particularly viable in the world of scholarly publishing, is the “pay-to-play” model. The idea here is that if a university department wants to participate in some scholarly project to produce free information, organized by a publisher, then the department pays the publisher, and then the faculty and grad students can participate. This basically is the “open access” model, expropriated from journal publishing, and applied to collaborative content production.

Another business model involves selling “premium content” to subscribers—for scholarly publishers, this again is not a stretch. I assume I don’t need to elaborate on this one, because it’s something you already do as a matter of course.

Finally, a business model that is worth a try, though few people have actually tried it, is a sort of patronage program. The idea is that, as a publisher, you are hooked in to a large network of scholars. Suppose you were to invite people to pay for free content, created by your network?

In other words, you, as publishers, solicit donations—from individuals and from institutions—and the donors can specify a few details about what they want. For example, suppose they want to support the creation of an anthology of important popular writings about global warming. Then they approach you with the money, and if it seems to be enough for the job, then you tap into your network, wrangle the content, and publish a collection of essays. The essays are free online; the funders get credit as patrons.

I don’t know whether this is a viable model, but it seems like an interesting way to pay for free, expert-produced content. I think it’s worth a try. Eventually, perhaps very soon, the Citizendium will give it a try, by the way. I’ve written an essay developing the idea. It’s linked from larrysanger.org, and it’s called “The Role of Content Brokers in the Era of Free Content.”

Finally, I promised you some ideas for projects. There are countless interestingly different ideas for expert-led collaborations; I’ll give you just two.

So, you’re an academic publishing house. Let me assume that you think the collaboration train is leaving the station, and you want on. What can you do to develop your firm’s expertise in this area, and explore new business models? What sort of project should you start?

Here an idea: a literature review. But not just any old literature review. A really thorough, comprehensive, and balanced review of every part of the literature of a field. In other words, a comprehensive account of the latest advances in the last, say, year.

It is very labor-intensive for just one person to create this sort of overview of the literature even about some very narrow topic within a given field.

But, of course, experts together know the literature of their fields far better than any one of them knows it individually. Furthermore, if they are writing summaries of the latest research, their summaries will be far better if they can correct each others’ mistakes.

And bear in mind, also, that anyone who is a real expert in a field has to keep up with the latest advances—they all have to go over a lot of the same material, so they’re all doing the same thing. So a collaboratively-written, comprehensive summary of the literature of a field makes sense.

I would absolutely love to see such reviews of the literature about my own interests of philosophy, the Internet, and Irish traditional music. I think it is only a matter of time before people start very regularly producing literature reviews collaboratively. It could be done using a wiki, and so wouldn’t be technically difficult to set up.

And, perhaps for obvious reasons, scholarly publishers are the perfect organizations to spearhead (or help spearhead) such an effort.

For the next idea, let me give a little background.

There are many different ideas about collaboratively creating supplementary research material related to classic, public domain texts. Just think of the conjunction of three facts.

Fact one: most of the important classic texts in all fields have already been digitized—and digitizing new versions of classic texts has been automated and made cost-effective.

Fact two: access to these texts—and to a single version of a text—can be virtually universal among scholars, since they’re virtually all on the Internet.

Fact three: in recent years, scholars in large numbers have finally begun to “get” the idea of strong, wiki-style collaboration.

What follows from these three facts is that it is possible for scholars to work together in huge numbers on supplementary study materials for classic, public domain texts. In itself, digital study aids for classic and public domain texts are nothing new. The wonderful Perseus Project is one prominent example. But the Perseus Project isn’t really very strongly collaborative.

So here’s an idea that I have developed on the textop.org domain.

Imagine a scholar working through a digital copy of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, dividing it into chunks of approximately one paragraph in length. Imagine the scholar labelling the chunks by function, summarizing them, and placing them into a single outline, reordered, beginning with the most abstract topics, like Metaphysics, and working down to applied topics, such as Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law.

Imagine the scholar repeating this process, summarizing and as it were filing away paragraphs of text for, say, the fifty most influential works of philosophy, with all the chunks of texts summarized and collated into the same outline. This would require a scholar on the order of 5-10 years, depending on diligence. But if many scholars were to work on the project together, the amount of time required would be a fraction.

Next imagine doing this sort of text collation for other fields beyond philosophy, and texts in languages other than English. The result would be an unprecedented, highly interesting, and fantastically useful resource.

But, obviously, this would require a massive collaborative effort. It seems to me that this is the sort of collaborative project that scholarly publishers could take on. Now, if you want to use this particular idea, I want in, because I absolutely love this idea, and eventually I plan to do it myself. I’ve actually prototyped it.

I hope you have found this useful. I’ve covered a lot of topics very quickly and roughly. I briefly painted a picture of what scholarly collaboration might produce by the year 2017. Then I reported on a series of free online encyclopedia projects, and from them I drew a series of principles about how to organize a successful collaborative project. I offered a few business model ideas that a publisher might use to fund collaborative projects. And, finally, I gave you a couple of what I think are fairly intriguing ideas about what scholars can do together.

Maybe they are just waiting for you to bring them together to collaborate online.


Why the Citizendium Will (Probably) Succeed

This essay argues that the Citizendium is feasible.  The wiki is in public view, or will be within a few days.  You can join now.

1. So far, so good.

The Citizendium pilot project wiki got under way privately at the start of last November.  In the intervening months, we have steadily grown to some 1,100 "CZ Live" articles--that's approximately how many articles we have done significant work on.  A fairly large percentage of these, I believe well over half, are either original articles or have been significantly changed from Wikipedia sources.  We have steadily added authors and editors in this period, so that we have 820 authors and 180 editors (some of whom also have listed themselves as authors).  Our activity has grown from 100 edits per day in the first month to over 500 prior to launch.  Every day, a large variety of people from many fields sign on and do some work.  This is all in a period in which the project has been visible only to those who have applied to the project.  In addition, while it has received a fair bit of press, we have done very little in the way of recruitment--but with good results when we have.  More aggressive recruitment is our trump card, which we haven't played.

Some will take this progress report to show that we are a roaring success; others will take it as evidence of our impending doom.  In fact, the progress report shows merely that the fundamentals of the project are sound, many basic doubts are now dismissible on the basis of solid experience--and little more than that.  It shows that that experts can be quite good at wiki-style strong collaboration; that they can work well together with the general public; that a wide variety of people have a substantial desire to work on this sort of project; that a largely collegial and pleasant community can be built on principles of the use of real names and gentle expert guidance; that, so long as we avoid wide-open self-registration as we tried for about three weeks, this sort of project can be free of vandalism.  In short, there are no "gotchas"--nothing that makes me think this project can't work--and quite a bit of good news.  We are obviously a long way off from "unseat[ing] Wikipedia as the go-to destination for general information online," as our first press release said we're trying to do.  But our progress does show that we're well justified in moving out of a pilot project phase and into a new "beta project" phase.

The question on everyone's mind, no doubt--and which determines one's willingness to work on the project at all--is whether we will thrive in the long term. In this essay, I want to advance what are, I think, some strong arguments that we will thrive in the long term.  I will also respond to a passel of ill-founded doubts.  What will this argumentation establish?  No guarantees; it would be silly to make guarantees, because future human behavior is hard to predict.  I expressed no small skepticism about our prospects myself last September, and I am still skeptical, but now less so.  So I would say that the arguments here should establish that involvement as an "early adopter" is well justified.  In other words: dive on in, the water's fine!

2. The Google effect.

It is worth reviewing why Wikipedia grew so well, because I think we will grow in a similar way and for similar reasons.  At some point, Google started spidering Wikipedia, that is, it indexed the whole wiki and started serving up pages among its search results.  The first time we noticed this, I think sometime in the spring of 2001, we saw a spike in traffic as well as in activity on the wiki.  With the new people on board, the rate of article production increased.  The next time Google spidered the wiki, more pages were indexed, and we got even more traffic.  It was an enormously productive feedback loop.

Obviously, not all wikis enjoy this Google effect; many die on the vine.  There are, I theorize, at least four requirements to enjoy the effect.  First, there needs to be a reasonably large fund of content to begin with.  Second, this content needs to be spiderable (by Google) and readable (by the general public).  Third, registration needs to be fairly easy and open.  Fourth, the project itself needs broad appeal to users who are also potential participants.

(You might think that the search results have to be fairly high up, as well.  Well, in fact, that doesn't seem to have been the case.  I remember being quite excited, in 2001, when a Wikipedia article appeared on the first page of results--and that was certainly some time after the Google effect had kicked in.  Our success seems to have had a lot more to do with the sheer quantity of pages indexed by Google.)

So let's see how the Citizendium stacks up against these requirements.

First, we may not have millions of articles, but as of this writing we do have about 1,600 pages in the Main namespace, and about 1,100 "CZ Live" articles; that's enough, I think, to begin a positive feedback loop with Google.  And there's no reason to think we won't continue to grow at least as fast as we have been growing.  Indeed, after opening up, we should grow, I hope, at least somewhat faster.  (That's the conservative prediction.)  That means that, if we need a few thousand more articles before the Google effect kicks in, we merely need to wait a few months.

Second, we should have launched into publicly-viewable and -joinable beta project by the end of March.  Google will be able to spider the wiki then.

Third, getting on board will typically be as easy as filling out a Web form.  Right now, users need only send an e-mail that, since a biography is required, might take five or ten minutes to prepare.  It is not necessary to have any special qualifications to get on board.  Most applicants are given a username and password within 24 hours, and many within just a few hours.  Whether this is "easy and open" enough to support the Google effect is debatable; I think it will be, but time will tell.

Fourth, the Citizendium has, I think, an immediate and broad appeal to many readers who are also potential writers.  The appeal to readers is obvious.  Finding factual or "encyclopedic" information about general topics is one of the main things people use search engines to do.  This no doubt is why we click on Wikipedia links so frequently: regardless of how dodgy the information might be, it does, after all, purport to be accurate information, which is what we're looking for.

If we add reliability to this basic, winning formula, the appeal to readers increases hugely.  I suppose the reason Wikipedia articles are as attractive to search engine users as they are, is simply that they sum up a lot of information.  That implies a high signal-to-noise ratio.  But if an entry has been overseen by experts--that is, if the project as a whole is evidently devoted not just to boatloads of information, but boatloads of credible, expert-vetted information--then it becomes much more attractive.  Imagine if Britannica were somehow (magically) to produce 1.5 million articles in English of the same average length as Wikipedia articles, and imagine that it made those articles free for all to view.  People would obviously turn to the Britannica articles first--because their first concern is credible information.

In addition, the potential appeal of the Citizendium to contributors is sizable, and growing, as I will argue.  This is important enough that I want to develop the argument at some length.

3. The latent demand is sizable and growing.

The latent demand among potential contributors for something like the Citizendium is tremendous.  This demand has been created, in general, by the availability of so much information on the Internet and the lack of few easy, effective ways to pick out what's credible.  More particularly, the demand for the Citizendium has been created by Wikipedia's problems.  With each new Wikipedia scandal, there is a growing outcry: "Can't we do any better than this?"

This outcry is loudest among professors, teachers, and librarians, who with increasing alarm have observed their charges using Wikipedia uncritically, as if it were just like Encyclopedia Britannica--only free, and bigger.  Every plugged-in student and researcher in the world has been given a giant "encyclopedia" that, despite lacking authoritativeness, is just so darned useful that it seems inefficient to consult anything else.  Wikipedia isn't going away, either.  Therefore, those professors, teachers, and librarians have every reason to root for and support the Citizendium. Once it looks to them like we're a going concern--which, arguably, we already are--there's a good chance that increasing numbers of these information professionals will join us and recommend that others join us.  And once we have enough of the educators of the world on our side, we'll have an unstoppable momentum.

The news media will probably help as well.  They have already given the Citizendium some much-needed publicity; many of our early contributors have come via news articles.  The reasons for the press interest are obvious.  Having reported on Wikipedia's many problems, they understand its drawbacks, and they themselves are professionals and so naturally appreciate the value of professional involvement.  So journalists naturally think that Wikipedia could use some competition.  That's us.  The Citizendium, organized by the same person who organized Wikipedia, is perhaps the most viable free alternative to Wikipedia under development.  It has been growing respectably in its private pilot project phase, and is now launching into public view.  The story seems compelling, and it will become only more so as we grow.  The result will be that news coverage will probably continue to send many new people our way.  This is very important since only a tiny fraction of our potential contributors have even heard of us, let alone visited the site and considered joining.

Not all of the attention we've received, however, has been positive.  We have plenty of fans in the Blogosphere, but also a good many detractors.  A lot of the negative posts only help prove some points we've made and help establish us in our (quite desirable) niche more firmly.  Too often, these posts are poorly-reasoned, written in ignorance of basic, easy-to-find facts, and exude contempt for anyone who would even suggest that experts be given a special role, or that Wikipedia needs competition.  Know us by our opponents.  To the extent to which our opponents reveal themselves to be closed-minded, more open-minded people will want to know what we're all about.  The more that the dogmatists spout off, the more potential allies will rally to our cause.

A good number of disaffected Wikipedians have joined us.  Our increasing activity will bring over even more.  These are frequently the sort of people we want.  After all, our natural contributors like the idea of Wikipedia.  They love the ease of contribution, the instant visibility of their work, the sense of shared purpose inherent in strong collaboration, the gradually improving quality, and so on.  They love working with Wikipedia's many excellent contributors.  Despite all that, they even more strongly dislike having to deal with its many problem users--disrespectful, immature, ideologically driven, or  unstable people, that administrators are unable to rein in.  Indeed, if the many complaints are to be believed, such people are to be found among Wikipedia's administrators.

So there are a lot of good reasons to think the Citizendium is filling a demand for a new alternative, and that that demand is growing.  So, given what I said earlier, there's an excellent chance that we will enjoy the same Google effect that helped Wikipedia to grow.

4. Objections and replies.

A lot of doubt about the viability of our enterprise has been generated over the last six months.  As I hope to make clear, these doubts are generally poorly founded.

Objection. You can never overtake Wikipedia.  It's growing at a staggering rate and has a head start.  You'll never be able to catch up.  As long as Wikipedia remains so much huger, why should anyone contribute to the Citizendium?

Reply. First of all, it is a huge mistake to think that as long as Wikipedia remains bigger, nobody will see a need for another resource.  Plainly, our many supporters and growing roster of contributors see the need.  Second, we can become more useful and more reliable than Wikipedia with fewer articles.  Success is not directly tied to quantity of information--and many of our writers implicitly understand this.  But, third, the real question is how many people will want to contribute to the Citizendium after a few more years, once we've grown more and the project has been better publicized--once the word has gotten out better to our potential contributors.  This is an empirical question.  If you ask me to give an answer a priori, I'll hazard a guess that, in the long run, there will be more people who will want to contribute to a free encyclopedia under our rules than under Wikipedia's.  That's just because our system is likely to be more civil and pleasant and actually focused on the work of creating a credible encyclopedia.

Objection. Citizendium articles right now are often short, or derivative of Wikipedia, or in other ways unimpressive.  Wikipedia is actually of higher quality than the Citizendium!

Reply. Well, make sure you make the correct comparison.  You should have seen Wikipedia after its first few months!  The quality of its articles, at the time, was laughable.  Besides, in our new "article checklist" that tracks various statistics, almost half of our articles are either approved, developed, or developing articles, which means they are beyond the (very short) "stub" stage, and they are not merely copies of Wikipedia articles.  That is way better than Wikipedia was after its first few months.  Our most active editors tend to put enormous amounts of effort into relatively few articles, with excellent results.

Objection. You have nearly 1,000 contributors signed up, but (as I write this, just prior to launch) you are dancing around 500 edits per day.  Surely you should have more than that.

Reply. There are two effective replies to this.  The first is that very many people who have joined us did so simply out of curiosity--to see what we're all about while the project is still in its pilot project phase.  I have no idea what percentage of our registrants of which this is true, but it's probably sizable.  Second, there's the old 80-20 rule: 20% of your participants will make 80% of the edits.  And that rule has got it about right in our case.  I'm told that about 250 people have made 10 or more edits to the Citizendium pilot project wiki, while total number of accounts making edits is over 1,200--which must mean that there are a lot of people who made edits without actually adding the "CZ Author" tag to their user pages.

Objection. Professionals don't work without compensation.  They require either personal credit that can be used in tenure and advancement committees, or else money.  You're offering neither.  How can you possibly expect to get enough experts to make this a viable project?

Reply. Wikipedia itself has collected quite a few actual experts (i.e., people who would be invited to be editors here, if they were to apply).  How were they motivated to do their work, particularly when the discovery that they're contributing to Wikipedia would, if anything, be more likely to harm their careers more than help them?  It seems a lot of people, including a lot of experts, are strongly motivated either to show off their knowledge or to teach; it's fun, or fulfilling.  Wikipedia and the Citizendium are outlets for this laudable behavior, and the Citizendium is likely to become increasingly more attractive to experts than Wikipedia.  Moreover, it's likely that success in writing decent articles will lead to more success at recruiting editors, who will want to have their say about topics that we have not quite gotten right, by their lights.  It's also worth pointing out that in the few forays into recruitment we have done, we've had decent success.  Therefore, if we really feel that lack of expert participation is a concern, the problem is easily solved by doing more directed recruitment.

It is an empirical matter whether we'll collect enough active editors to be able to create a large enough collection of approved articles.  We won't know until we try, and try we will.  I have to admit that it would be astonishing, really, if we found enough experts to approve on the order of millions of articles, which is our goal.  It's more likely that we'll have a decent set of approved articles which is always a fraction of the total number of articles we are working on.  This, at least, would be a decided improvement over Wikipedia, and it's something I am hopeful we can achieve.

Objection. Anonymity is really the main reason for Wikipedia's growth.  Unless you are open to people who refuse to give out their real names, you're doomed to be small and irrelevant.

Reply. Anonymous contribution is not the main reason for Wikipedia's rapid growth--virality is.  And virality doesn't require anonymity.  The "six degrees" friend websites, some of which have worked quite well because they are viral, generally make use of real names.  The Citizendium is devoted to the proposition that we can grow a large community of named, responsible individuals virally.  We think it's worth a try.

Objection. The Citizendium is doomed, because it's "credentialist."  You're using credentials to give people special rights in a wiki encyclopedia project?  Nobody can take that seriously.

Reply. This is a uniquely Wikipedian objection, and it is little better than wishful thinking.  I gave a speech debunking the underlying view.  You are free to disagree with whatever threatens absolute, pristine, radical egalitarianism.  But even if we were philosophically wrong, which we aren't, does it really follow that we won't be able to find enough participants?  Of course not, that's a total nonsequitur.  Since a lot of people do like the notion (correct or not) of an expert-led wiki encyclopedia, it is not unlikely that we'll be able to get enough contributors.

Objection. (From Clay Shirky.)  "The costs of certifying experts and insuring deference to them--the costs of creating and sustaining the necessary social facts--will sandbag the system, making it too annoying to use. ... The Citizendium project assumes that the desire of ordinary users to work alongside and be guided by experts is high, but everything in the proposal seems to raise the costs of contribution, relative to Wikipedia. If users do not want to participate in a system where the costs of participating are high, Citizendium will simply fail to grow."

Reply. When Shirky originally wrote this, I fully intended to reply, but I got sidetracked by doing what was apparently impossible.  Now, some six months later, we're in a better position to evaluate his argument.  I note two facts.  (1) A few hundred people did participate in our system over the several months of the pilot project.  (2) The Citizendium has grown rather nicely, particularly considering that it has been a private pilot project for which we did rather little active recruitment.  Since Shirky's conclusion looks false, where did his argument go wrong?  I think it's this assumption: "The costs of certifying experts and insuring deference to them...will...mak[e] it too annoying to use."  In fact, it hasn't been that hard for people to send in e-mail applications with biographies and supporting Web links.  Lots of people have done so.  We're going to be semi-automating this process, too, so that constables can approve new applications with the press of a button.

Moreover, the cost of "insuring deference" to experts isn't as high as Shirky thought it would be.  Our constables have had to do very little indeed, to my recollection, to "insure deference" of authors to editors.  This might have something to do with the fact that we require our contributors to endorse a Statement of Fundamental Policies that says, basically, that editors have certain privileges.  But I think it has more to do with the fact that people who are committed to the elegant expression of expert opinion tend to have the common sense and politeness necessary to ensure that they can collaborate with others very productively.  One of the things that I personally was a little surprised at was just how well our editors took to collaboration.  For some reason, many people just assume that professionals just won't be so good at wiki-style collaboration.  But I've repeatedly observed that those editors who tried it just got it right away.  Perhaps the reason they get it is that successful collaboration is all about being collegial, and true professionals are naturally collegial and reasonable.  And, to come back to the point, when you've got such collegial, reasonable people serving as editors, it's not hard to defer to them when necessary.

Objection. (From Cory Doctorow, citing Clay Shirky again.)  "...as Shirky shows, an expert-focused Wikipedia would likely devolve into interminable pissing matches over who was and was not qualified to be called an expert, because expertise isn't a measurable quantity, but rather something that is socially constructed."

Reply. It hasn't so devolved yet.  While we've had many a polite dispute, I'm not sure I can recall a single "pissing match" between editors over expertise.  This isn't surprising to me.  Most experts are pretty comfortable in their expertise; they don't have to prove it to anyone.  It seems Doctorow assumed that editors would often try to settle disputes by citing their credentials, as Wikipedia's Essjay infamously did.  Few actual tenured professors would say things like, "This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it's [sic] credibility."  True professionals rarely say such things, and that Essjay did should have been a dead giveaway that he was a fraud.

Objection. Won't experts and authors be endlessly at war?  Isn't the idea of giving experts a "gentle oversight" role in an otherwise open Web 2.0 "bazaar" a recipe for social disaster?

Reply. If this were true, we would have already seen some inkling of it.  But the fact is that we've seen very little author-vs.-editor conflict.  Disagreements tend to be editor-on-editor and author-on-author, and actually, we have seen very little acrimonious conflict, period.  Experts and people who want to work with them tend to be boringly, yet refreshingly polite, which is how we like it.

Objection. What about dealing with difficult users, whether editors or authors?  The typical personal attacks and other disruptive behavior will inevitably drive off editors, who have a low tolerance for such nonsense.

Reply. This objection assumes that we will have many similar social problems to Wikipedia's.  This is unlikely and, in fact, we have had all such problems well in hand.  There are several excellent reasons to think that we won't have as many difficult users, and that they'll be easier to deal with.  Here's a brief run-down: we require people to use their own real names, which tends to make them behave better; we have strict rules against abuse and disruption, and constables aren't afraid to ban people because of it (we've already done so in a few cases); the project's editors set the tone, which has kept things fairly collegial; and contributors are required to endorse a Statement of Fundamental Policies, which requires would-be disruptors to recognize the authority of editors and constables.


Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (longer version)

1. Thinkers of the world, start imagining.

According to one source, there are over one billion (a thousand million) people on the Internet.  That means there must be tens of millions of intellectuals online--I mean educated, thinking people who read about science or ideas regularly.  Tens of millions of intellectuals can work together, if they so choose. Technologically, there is nothing standing in their way.  This is truly a dumbfounding, incredible situation.  Humanity has not even begun to explore the possibilities inherent in this situation.  For all the endless talk about "Web 2.0," we have hardly even begun to think about harnessing this intellectual power for knowledge-building projects, much less actually act on it.

Imagine what is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects.  (The trouble, of course, is actually getting them together--"herding cats" is the operative phrase.)  What could attract them to pool their intellectual power?  What content creation systems would best harness this power?  What fantastic things might result?  Imagine the discussions, the journalism, the news summaries, the textbooks and educational material, the encyclopedias, the libraries, the multimedia, the 3D universes, not to mention brand new sorts of resources possible for the first time and only through massive collaboration.  The paltry first steps we have made on such resources are admirable, but ultimately will prove to be laughable compared to what will exist in five or ten years.  It will resemble the difference between the first PCs and the firepower of the latest business-class desktops.

Whenever I think about this now, I literally quiver with excitement, and I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers.  Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.

But this is changing very rapidly, and I want to make a prediction.  In the next year, by the end of 2007, every major university, library, museum, archive, professional organization, government, and corporation will be asking themselves with increasing urgency: how, using what systems and methods, can we pool the entire world's intellectual resources to create the ideal information resource?  What worldwide projects and organizations should we join or help to create?

2. Wikipedia.

We may take Wikipedia as an early prototype of the application of open source hacker principles to content rather than code.  I want to argue that it is just that, an early prototype, rather than a mature model of how such principles should be applied to reference, scholarly, and educational content.

Wikipedia, started only five years ago, now has millions of articles in over one hundred languages, and has nearly singlehandedly introduced the world's intellectuals to the possibilities of enormous collaborative efforts.  It is a project that shouldn't work, but does--who could have expected such a radically open project to produce anything of value?  But, by giving intellectuals the world over an open platform on which to work together, a clear task, and a simple interface, Wikipedia has shown a global audience what enormous, distributed knowledge collaboration can achieve.  The work of the Wikipedians has astounded the world.

I always have been an enormous fan of Wikipedia, and I still am.  But I have achieved notoriety with some of Wikipedia's community and supporters by declaring that we can and should do better.  I now want to help launch something better, if that's possible.  Let me explain why I am doing so, and then I will describe the project itself.

When on January 2, 2001 I first had the idea for Wikipedia, and then got to work defining policies and leading the community that built it, I was also employed as editor-in-chief of Nupedia, a more straight-laced, peer-reviewed free encyclopedia project.  Wikipedia was to be a free-wheeling, fun side project, a dynamic source of content, for the more serious Nupedia project.  Wikipedia was closer in spirit to the old open source, hacker ways, where Nupedia was essentially an academic project.  But together, Nupedia and Wikipedia were going to be an "unstoppable high-quality article-creation juggernaut," or so I said in 2001.

I will not go into the history very much, which I've done elsewhere, but I want to recount a few relevant details.  Contrary to popular belief, Nupedia did not fail simply because its system was too complicated and closed.  Rather, in 2001 and the beginning of 2002, I was working so hard on Wikipedia that I was greatly overextended--and so, Nupedia effectively lost its editor-in-chief.  Few people know, or remember that: Nupedia withered in large part precisely because I was focusing on Wikipedia instead.  But by the end of 2001, the Nupedia Advisory Board had agreed to relaunch the project with a greatly simplified two-step system.  That's another thing a lot of people don't know about Nupedia.  However, by that time, the Internet economy had collapsed and so Bomis, the company of which Jimmy Wales was CEO, and which hired me to start these encyclopedia projects, lost the ability to pay me.  I had to resign.  This hit Nupedia much harder than Wikipedia, since Nupedia was much more of a top-down project.

After that I twice offered Jimmy Wales a way to keep Nupedia alive.  Once, I offered to find an academic sponsor--a university or foundation--for Nupedia.  Another time, I offered to find the money to buy the domain name and subscriber list myself.  Jimmy essentially turned down both offers.  I could have saved it, and I wanted to save it, but Jimmy did not support the idea.  It seems that with Wikipedia, he had found the only model that he wanted to survive.  But the result was that only half of the original conception of "the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind"--the wild-and-woolly half--was preserved.

Not surprisingly, with only one-half of the original design, some problems with Wikipedia--problems that continue to this day--emerged.  Wikipedia quickly showed itself to have a wonderful system for producing massive amounts of reasonably good content quickly.  But that does not mean that, as an encyclopedia and as a community, it is free of serious and endemic problems:

  • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently.  Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
  • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not--in other words, the troll problem.
  • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
  • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics.  Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with.  As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism.  Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism.  In an encyclopedia, there's something wrong with that.

Can Wikipedia recover from these problems?  The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place.  Wikipedia's most passionate defenders, if they react at all, will probably do nothing but explain why I am mistaken in each of these criticisms.  There are some active Wikipedians who are able admit at least some of these criticisms.  But could the Wikipedia community as a whole admit any of them, with enough force actually to do anything about them?  I am now, I fully admit, an outsider looking in on the project.  But I do still watch the project a fair bit, follow the news about it, and read mailing list posts and events on the wiki.  So I know of course that there are movements afoot to reform Wikipedia in various ways.  But I see little evidence that the community, whatever its discontents, will go so far as to admit the problems I've listed.

The failure to recognize these serious problems is a reflection of the fact that, at bottom, they are political problems.  Like all open communities online, Wikipedia's community is self-selecting, and its policies have determined who stays and who leaves (or is driven away).  For this reason, online communities tend to become rather conservative in their attitudes toward their own systems, and Wikipedia is certainly no different.  So it is not surprising that, as anyone who is aware of how Wikipedia works knows, the changes made to the system recently have been mostly cosmetic, and even the bolder of these changes have little chance of solving the problems I outlined earlier.  The first step to solving a problem is to admit that it's a problem; and much of the Wikipedia community will not admit the problems I've listed, unless they have a massive collective change of heart.  And, I think, that is very unlikely ever to happen.  In fact, you could say that I have waited for several years for it to happen, and it never has.

3. A new community and a new project: the Citizendium.

[Note, January 2007: while we are still full steam ahead with a fork of Wikipedia's processes, we are having second thoughts about forking Wikipedia's articles.  We've decided as an experiment actually to delete all the unedited Wikipedia articles from our database, to encourage people to start new articles altogether.  We think this might encourage even more activity than we've had--though we're pleased with the amount of activity we've had so far--and help us to create a more distinctive Citizendium culture.]

Often (not always), if you wish to make any very important changes to an open source or open content project that has an entrenched community, the only way to do it is to start a new community.  And that is what I propose.

I propose a fork of Wikipedia to be called the Citizendium, that is, the Citizens' Compendium.  I doubt I have to remind many people in the audience of this, but the open content license, the GNU Free Documentation License, permits other communities to work on their own versions of the content from the parent project.  So, legally, this project is clearly permitted.  I think it is also morally permitted--perhaps even morally recommended--if there is a chance of retaining Wikipedia's virtues while eliminating the problems I just mentioned.

I propose to start what we might call a "progressive fork." A progressive fork works like this: we will begin with all of Wikipedia's articles, so that the Citizendium will begin as, simply, a mirror of Wikipedia.  Then people start making changes to articles in the Citizendium. On a very regular basis, we will refresh our database with the latest versions of Wikipedia articles.  If the Citizendium has not changed an article, while Wikipedia has, then we proceed to upload the most recent Wikipedia article.  But if the Citizendium has changed an article, then it is not refreshed.  That's when that particular article is forked.  Of course, I have no doubt that tools will be written immediately that will allow users to compare the differences between the Wikipedia article and the corresponding Citizendium article side-by-side.  In addition, of course, people will be able to start brand new articles on topics Wikipedia has not yet covered.

Obviously, you want to know how the Citizendium editorial system will differ from Wikipedia's system.  There will be three main areas of dissimilarity.  First, the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors.  Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter.  Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the "feature creep" that has developed in Wikipedia.  Allow me to elaborate these differences.

Before I elaborate, however, let me assure you that I do not think that I necessarily have all of these details right.  Obviously, I am fallible and, like all of us, my understanding is limited.  Clearly, this project needs as much intelligent input as it can get.  So I want to start a debate among people who agree with me about Wikipedia's problems and with at least many of the suggestions here.  Together we can settle upon, and get broad community buy-in for, the best set of policies.

First, here are some details of the editorial system I propose:

  • We will have a new role in the system: that of editor. Others will be called authors. Generally, authors will defer to editors when editors are speaking about their areas of specialization.  When authors get into a dispute, they may work out a compromise, or they may consult an editor.  Editors' decisions will be logged in a new, standard part of each article's discussion page.
  • For the most part, editors will work in the system just as everyone else does, "shoulder-to-shoulder" with ordinary authors.  Editors will not be able to direct work in a top-down fashion, or to "squat" on articles and prevent others from making any changes.  Editors who are not comfortable with this arrangement should not participate.  Those who attempt to make articles their personal bailiwicks, shooing off everyone else, will be ejected from the project, no matter what their qualifications.
  • Editors will be self-selecting, in a certain way.  There will be no editor selection process.  Rather, editors will be invited to come to the website and simply declare themselves to be editors, if they meet certain benchmark requirements--the same straight-up credentials that the offline world relies on.  Editors will be required to state their credentials on their user pages, for everyone to examine.
  • It is not the case that there will be one editor per topic or subject.  There can be as many editors on a subject as arrive: the more the merrier.
  • Editors will not place their names on articles, thereby claiming ownership over them.  They must, however, sign editorial decisions that they articulate on article discussion pages.
  • Disputes among editors, and long-standing and difficult content issues, will be settled by discipline-oriented editorial workgroups.
  • Editors will have the right to place articles in an "approved" category.  Other (qualified) editors may remove articles from the "approved" category; again, disputes are to be settled by discipline-oriented editorial workgroups.
  • These editorial workgroups will be staffed only by editors.  They will not be top-down, bureaucratic structures, but flat communities of equals that operate democratically.  There will be Chief Subject Editors, but they will serve the role of facilitators and organizers, not dictators.

Second, some differences in the community:

  • There will be no logged-out editing and no anonymous editing.  Anyone may participate, but all must be logged in under their own real names (we will use the honor principle to begin with), and with a working e-mail address.  Where Wikipedia shares the culture of anonymity found in the broader Internet, the Citizendium will have a culture of real-world, personal responsibility.
  • The community will launch with a charter that articulates the project's goals, fundamental policies, governance, and the rights of participants and of the public.  As with most charters, the Citizendium community charter will be relatively brief and vague, difficult to change, and regarded as "binding law" of the project.
  • All contributors will, as a condition of their participation, be expected to support the community charter.  If they cannot do this, they are not welcome to participate and may be ejected from the project.
  • The charter and rules will be enforced by "constables."  In time, an effective and fair "legal" system will be established.  It will be made up of people who are mature, well-educated, possessed of something of a legal mind, with a record free of major infractions, respected by their peers, and clearly committed to the community charter.
  • Constables will rapidly eject the project's inevitable, tiresome trolls, without going through a long, painful process of the sort Wikipedia suffers under--which it euphemistically calls its "arbitration" process.  A fair and open system of clear rules will allow them to do.  Decisions will, of course, be appealable.
  • Constables will not have any special authority to make editorial decisions, unless they are also editors.
  • Those constables that are also editors will not be permitted to enforce the decisions and recommendations that they make in their capacity as editors.

Third, over the years, Wikipedia has suffered some feature creep.  The Citizendium will be deliberately simplified and kept simple:

  • Subject categories will very probably be eliminated.  Citizendium articles serve as their own category pages, so to speak.  So, when someone edits a Wikipedia-imported article for the first time, he will be instructed to remove all subject category information.
  • The "Wikiproject" method of organizing work will be simplified in the Citizendium.
  • "Portal" pages will probably not exist.
  • Project news will be officially reported in one place: a blog, to which a large number of people will have posting rights.  (This blog has not yet been set up, but will be soon.)
  • So-called user boxes, which have been controversial and much-abused on Wikipedia, will not be permitted.
  • No doubt there will be other simplifications as well.

Fourth, copyright and libel abuses will be handled quite differently.  There will be a zero tolerance policy toward such abuses.  Moreover, the living subjects of Citizendium articles will receive much more courteous treatment than they have sometimes received from the Wikipedia community.  Among other things, this might mean that they would be able to request removal of biographies about themselves--if they are not politicians or other prominent public persons--or even to have a crucial editorial role in the articles about themselves.  Essentially, I want to make the Citizendium a project with which John Seigenthaler, Sr. and Bernard Haisch are comfortable.

Finally, the Citizendium won't officially call itself an encyclopedia.  We might call it an experimental workspace, to start articles and to improve article quality.  It will require a vote of the project's future governing body or bodies for us to call ourselves an "encyclopedia" officially.  Until then, we will be a "compendium."

So much for the differences, and as I hope you can see, they are significant.  But it is important to note that the system will still work very much the way Wikipedia does, in many respects.

Areas of similarity include:

  • It's more or less, kind of like, an encyclopedia.  It's a wiki that aspires to be as good as a real encyclopedia.
  • It's open to virtually everyone.  Virtually anyone can come to the website and, within a few minutes, be working on an article.  It is not Expertpedia.  It's for people who want to work with and under the direction of genuine subject-area experts.  Virtually everyone who is interested in working on an encyclopedia using their real identities, and who agree with the ground rules and aims of the project, will be welcome.  The authors will probably greatly outnumber the editors.
  • People will be able to add significant content while temporarily "breaking"  certain patterns or article flow, and ignore complicated formatting rules, etc.; others can then be expected to do the necessary formatting.  There will still be this sort of informality and division of labor in the Citizendium.
  • It will be free to read and to copy (it will use the same license, the GFDL).
  • There will be no advertisements.  There may be unobtrusive non-profit sponsorship statements.  (See the FAQ for details.)
  • It will come under the control of a non-profit foundation (yet to be either determined or formed).
  • The neutrality policy will be virtually the same, and the rule against original research will be virtually the same.  (These policies go back to Nupedia days.)
  • Many other article policies (e.g., bolding the topic) will be the same.
  • The MediaWiki software will be the same (though some settings will be different) and there are no plans to fork it.

4. The way forward.

[Note, Jan. 2007: this section is now old news entirely and may be safely skipped.]

Finally, I want to discuss the way forward--in other words, how to get the project started.  First, let's talk about the short term, the medium term, and the long term.

I stipulate that, whatever else we do, we should have the servers and the wiki software set up, and available at least to some beta testers, as soon as possible.

While waiting for the wiki to be set up, what can the ordinary rank-and-file future authors or editors do?  Three things: first, join the project forums or a project mailing list (the list called Citizendium-L at least); second, contribute your thoughts to the discussion; and, third, wait for the announcement that the wiki is ready to edit.  I want to start the project with a bang.  I would like to strain the limits of whatever server configuration we put in place.  Also, a donation at this crucial juncture would help get this venture off the ground.

So much for the short term.  As to the medium term, over the coming weeks, I hope the Citizendium project will be contacted by individuals as well as universities, foundations, and companies.  My personal belief, which I do not hold very strongly, is that the latent interest in and support for this project will allow us to collect a truly stellar group of advisors and partner institutions; if so, this experiment might succeed brilliantly.  As to what we need, precisely, please see the project FAQ for some ideas.

Once the wiki has launched, we should begin to form discipline-specific editorial groups.  They will have their own forums or mailing lists and eventually their own meetings.  I want to emphasize at the outset to potential editors that their role in the wiki is not to control the wiki with an iron fist, not to throw up roadblocks to work, but instead to facilitate work by making binding decisions as needed.  There will be rules to this effect.  Editors and editorial workgroups alike must be committed to working within the wiki format--they must not try to change it into something that it is not.

Also once the wiki has launched, I think we should immediately hold a series of monthly face-to-face meetings in about a half-dozen major cities in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia (or New Zealand)--English-speaking countries, because the plan is to organize the English language project.  I hope the first meeting will be in the San Francisco Bay area (close to where I live) in October, but nothing has been set.

I think perhaps the best way to get these meetings started is if academic departments send the Citizendium project leadership an invitation to host a workshop about the Citizendium. Based on the invitations we receive, we will establish a workgroup to decide when and where these meetings will take place.  At the meetings themselves, then, we will get to know each other and talk about the project.  At the same time, I, and other project leaders who join the project, will hammer out constructive, operational partnerships, do interviews, and so forth.  We will also use the meetings as platforms to promote the project itself to the larger community of intellectuals.

But note that since the project is necessarily widely distributed, and almost no one will be able to attend all meetings, important decisions will not be made at these meetings.  Except for the last meeting.  I conceive of the last of these meetings--perhaps in March, 2007--as a constitutional convention, in which the essential policies of the project and its governance are hammered out and adopted by the advisory committee.

My notion--and at this point, I could be persuaded to do things differently--is to focus first on organizing the English language project formally.  The other Citizendium wikis, in other languages, could be launched at the same time as the English Citizendium wiki.  But my current thinking is that if the management of the non-English Citizendia require my personal assistance, that assistance would probably be best rendered after going through a pilot process in the English language.

But I hope you will interpret (correctly) the fact that I am making this announcement in Germany as indicating my personal commitment to making this project fully international as quickly as is feasible and responsible to do.  On the other hand, I do not want to presume to speak for the interested German-speaking community online.  Knowing as you now do that I personally am getting behind a fork of the English language Wikipedia, I put the question to you: should we also make similar forks of the Wikipedias in other languages?

Anyway, I think that, whatever Citizendia actually are created, each different Citizendium should probably adopt its own charter and have a separate management.  Once the Citizendia in a dozen or so major languages have reached that stage of development, we can have fully international meetings, with delegates from each organization.

By the way, I am not averse to considering the argument that we ought to have these organizational meetings all around the world.  I just want to make sure that the resulting projects have some important, baseline principles in common, and are interoperable.  The whole question of how to achieve internationalization is one I hope we will discuss on one of the project's mailing lists, Citizendium-World.

While this organizational work is going on, I wish to put together the finest possible set of advisors for this project.  Their role as advisors will give them a special platform from which to advise the project and speak on its behalf.  Moreover, it is this group of people who will meet at the constitutional convention to ratify the project's charter.

So, let us create a vibrant yet responsible new community.  Together we will, I think, have an amazing journey.  To the extent that I can influence this new community--which will, I am sure, nearly instantly take on a life of its own--I want to encourage a set of values.  These values may be grouped into sets, as follows:

  • freedom, independence, and neutrality
  • the love of knowledge, critical thinking, and respect for both expertise and for the value and ability of uncredentialed people
  • maturity, personal responsibility, common sense
  • compromise, consensus, and collegiality
  • openness, rejection of insularity, and respect for the rule of law
  • a love of simplicity, a robust dislike for bureaucracy, and not using computer algorithms (or aggregation) where individual judgment is required

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

Wikipedia has started to hit the big time. Accordingly, several critical articles have come out, including "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia" by a former editor-in-chief of Britannica and a very widely-syndicated AP article that was given such titles as "When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive".

These articles are written by people who appear not to appreciate the merits of Wikipedia fully. I do, however; I co-founded Wikipedia. (I have since left the project.)

Wikipedia does have two big problems, and attention to them is long overdue. These problems could be eliminated by eliminating a single root problem. If the project's managers are not willing to solve it, I fear a fork (a new edition under new management, for the non-techies reading this) will probably be necessary.

Let me preface this by saying that I know Wikipedia is very cool. A lot of people do not think so, but of course they are wrong. So the following must be taken in the spirit of someone who knows and supports the mission and broad policy outlines of Wikipedia very well.

First problem: lack of public perception of credibility, particularly in areas of detail. The problem I would like to point out is not that Wikipedia is unreliable. The alleged unreliability of Wikipedia is something that the above (TechCentralStation and AP) articles make much of, but that is not my point, and I am not interested in discussing that point per se.

My point is that, regardless of whether Wikipedia actually is more or less reliable than the average encyclopedia, it is not perceived as adequately reliable by many librarians, teachers, and academics. The reason for this is not far to seek: those librarians etc. note that anybody can contribute and that there are no traditional review processes. You might hasten to reply that it does work nonetheless, and I would agree with you to a large extent, but your assurances will not put this concern to rest.

You might maintain that people are already using Wikipedia a lot, and that that implies a great deal of trust. This is true, as far as it goes; but people use many sources that they themselves believe to be unreliable, via Google searches, for example. (I do so all the time, though perhaps I shouldn't.) Perhaps Wikipedia is better described as one of those sources regarded as unreliable which people read anyway. And in this case, one might say, there's no problem: Wikipedia is being read, and it is of minimally adequate and increasing reliability. What more could you ask? In other words, why does a perception of unreliability matter?

I am willing to grant much of this reply. I think merely that there are a great many benefits that accrue from robust credibility to the public. One benefit, but only one, is support and participation by academia. I am on the academic job market now and I felt it was necessary to explain my views about Wikipedia's credibility for potential employers. A great many of my colleagues are not at all impressed with the project; but more about that in a bit.

Another benefit accruing from robust public credibility is even more widespread use and support by teachers, schools, libraries, and the general public--precisely the people who want to use what they believe to be a credible encyclopedia. To the extent that the project is not reaching, and being supported by, these people, it is not succeeding as well as it might.

Perhaps you might also maintain that, while Wikipedia does not now have a reputation for reliability, it will eventually, once enough studies proving its reliability are done, and once people are more familiar with the concept behind the project. This is hard to argue with; but it is also hard to support, because it involves predicting the future, and the future, when it comes to public opinion, is extremely unpredictable. It would be better to do something to help guarantee a reputation for reliability.

Wikipedia has another sort of credibility problem, mentioned in passing above, and I fear that time is not a solution to this problem, the way it might be to the foregoing one. Namely, one can make a good case that, when it comes to relatively specialized topics (outside of the interests of most of the contributors), the project's credibility is very uneven. If the project was lucky enough to have a writer or two well-informed about some specialized subject, and if their work was not degraded in quality by the majority of people, whose knowledge of the subject is based on paragraphs in books and mere mentions in college classes, then there might be a good, credible article on that specialized subject. Otherwise, there will be no article at all, a very amateurish-sounding article, or an article that looks like it might once have been pretty good, but which has been hacked to bits by hoi polloi. (Am I sounding elitist enough for you yet? Just wait.) One has only to compare the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to Wikipedia's Philosophy section. From the point of view of a specialist, let's just say that Wikipedia needs a lot of work.

Second problem: the dominance of difficult people, trolls, and their enablers. I stopped participating in Wikipedia when funding for my position ran out. That does not mean that I am merely mercenary; I might have continued to participate, were it not for a certain poisonous social or political atmosphere in the project.

There are many ways to explain this problem, and I will start with just one. Far too much credence and respect accorded to people who in other Internet contexts would be labelled "trolls." There is a certain mindset associated with unmoderated Usenet groups and mailing lists that infects the collectively-managed Wikipedia project: if you react strongly to trolling, that reflects poorly on you, not (necessarily) on the troll. If you attempt to take trolls to task or demand that something be done about constant disruption by trollish behavior, the other listmembers will cry "censorship," attack you, and even come to the defense of the troll. This drama has played out thousands of times over the years on unmoderated Internet groups, and since about the fall of 2001 on the unmoderated Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has, to its credit, done something about the most serious trolling and other kinds of abuse: there is an Arbitration Committee that provides a process whereby the most disruptive users of Wikipedia can be ejected from the project.

But there are myriad abuses and problems that never make it to mediation, let alone arbitration. A few of the project's participants can be, not to put a nice word on it, pretty nasty. And this is tolerated. So, for any person who can and wants to work politely with well-meaning, rational, reasonably well-informed people--which is to say, to be sure, most people working on Wikipedia--the constant fighting can be so off-putting as to drive them away from the project. This explains why I am gone; it also explains why many others, including some extremely knowledgeable and helpful people, have left the project.

The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem--or I, at least, regard it as a problem--which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia's first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)

I need not recount the history of how this nascent policy eventually withered and died. Ultimately, it became very clear that the most active and influential members of the project--beginning with Jimmy Wales, who hired me to start a free encyclopedia project and who now manages Wikipedia and Wikimedia--were decidedly anti-elitist in the above-described sense.

Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will--at least if they are editing articles on articles that are subject to any sort of controversy--be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts. This is not perhaps so bad in itself. But if the expert should have the gall to complain to the community about the problem, he or she will be shouted down (at worst) or politely asked to "work with" persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best).

This lack of respect for expertise explains the first problem, because if the project participants had greater respect for expertise, they would have long since invited a board of academics and researchers to manage a culled version of Wikipedia (one that, I think, would not directly affect the way the main project is run). But because project participants have such a horror of the traditional deference to expertise, this sort of proposal has never been taken very seriously by most Wikipedians leading the project now. And so much the worse for Wikipedia and its reputation.

This lack of respect for expertise and authority also explains the second problem, because again if the project participants had greater respect for expertise, there would necessarily be very little patience for those who deliberately disrupt the project. This is perhaps not obvious, so let me explain. To attact and retain the participation of experts, there would have to be little patience for those who do not understand or agree with Wikipedia's mission, or even for those pretentious mediocrities who are not able to work with others constructively and recognize when there are holes in their knowledge (collectively, probably the most disruptive group of all). A less tolerant attitude toward disruption would make the project more polite, welcoming, and indeed open to the vast majority of intelligent, well-meaning people on the Internet. As it is, there are far fewer genuine experts involved in the project (though there are some, of course) than there could and should be.

It will probably be objected by some that, since I am not 100% committed to the most radical sort of openness, I do not understand why the project that I founded works: it works, I will be told, precisely because it is radically open--even anarchical.

I know, of course, that Wikipedia works because it is radically open. I recognized that as soon as anyone; indeed, it was part of the original plan. But I firmly disagree with the notion that that Wikipedia-fertilizing openness requires disrespect toward expertise. The project can both prize and praise its most knowledgeable contributors, and permit contribution by persons with no credentials whatsoever. That, in fact, was my original conception of the project. It is sad that the project did not go in that direction.

One thing that Wikipedia could do now, although I doubt that it is possible in the current atmosphere and with the current management, is to adopt an official policy of respect of and deference to expertise. Wikipedia's "key policies" have not changed since I was associated with the project; but if a policy of respect of and deference to expertise were adopted at that level, and if it were enforced somehow, perhaps the project would solve the problems described above.

But don't hold your breath. Unless there is the equivalent of a revolution in the ranks of Wikipedia, the project will not adopt this sort of policy and make it a "key policy"; or if it does, the policy will probably be not be enforced. I certainly do not expect Jimmy Wales to change his mind. I have known him since 1994 and he is a smart and thoughtful guy; I am sure he has thought through his support of radical openness and his (what I call) anti-elitism. I doubt he will change his mind about these things. And unless he does change his mind, the project itself will probably not change.

Nevertheless, everyone familiar with Wikipedia can now see the power of the basic Wikipedia idea and the crying need to get more experts on board and a publicly credible review process in place (so that there is a subset of "approved" articles--not a heavy-handed, complicated process, of course). The only way Wikipedia can achieve these things is to jettison its anti-elitism and to moderate its openness to trolls and fools; but it will almost certainly not do these things. Consequently, as Wikipedia increases in popularity and strength, I do not see how there can not be a more academic fork of the project in the future.

I hope that a university, academic consortium, or thinktank can be found to pursue a project to release vetted versions of Wikipedia articles, and I hope that the new project's managers will understand very well what has made Wikipedia work as well as it has, before they adopt any policies.