In Memoriam: Charles Boone, Philanthropist Responsible for Reading Bear and WatchKnowLearn

This day before Thanksgiving, I sit to write about a man I am thankful for. I celebrate the contributions to online knowledge of Memphis-area philanthropist Charles Boone. Now that he has passed away—August 28, 2020, at the age of 85—I feel privileged to be able to share something he asked me to keep private, until after he died.

In particular, Charles was the mysterious benefactor behind WatchKnowLearn and Reading Bear. When I was working for him, he lived alone with his dogs on a nice estate in a big house, two ponds (one stocked), and lots of woods in Lakeland, a distant suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. When I first met him, he was around 71 and already bragging about how he had outlived everyone in his family. Charles was a remarkably open and nice guy, although he could sometimes be a tightwad, as I have found many rich folks are. The first time I met him, he said he'd take me to lunch. I thought we were going to some restaurant, maybe a nice one. He took me to the local Costco and we ate a bunch of free samples. Maybe it was a test. I think I passed, if so. He was very unpretentious that way. He was very easy to like. I remember driving hither and yon, including out to the state capital once to lobby someone, and discussing the projects and much else, besides. I don't think he really had a mean bone in his body.

Our association began in 2007, when I was still working hard on Citizendium. He said he wanted someone to organize an "American Idol for teachers." He said he wanted to hire the guy who started Wikipedia. I told him I didn't have time for another project, but I asked him to help support Citizendium. He agreed to, but asked me to consult a bit for his project. Over the next year, he asked me to do more and more, which is one of the main reasons I was doing less and less on Citizendium throughout 2008. By late 2008 I was working more or less full time developing a new project. He invited me to come live in the Memphis area, but it wasn't necessary, and my wife and I had already settled in the Columbus area. I ended up worked for him at a distance for something like five years.

The new project wasn't an American Idol for teachers. I persuaded Charles to let me organize a directory of the best educational videos online, reasoning that there was already plenty of great stuff online, it just needed to be made more findable. It was called WatchKnow—later, under new management and after I started working on Reading Bear, renamed WatchKnowLearn. It launched in 2009 and remained in active development until 2011 or so. It quickly gained tens of thousands of videos in a large directory of videos, in a format that teachers say they found very useful. It was (and is) 100% free of charge to everyone, and ad-free. That's because Charles paid for it.

In 2010, I showed Charles a video I had made of my toddler son reading. He was amazed and said he wanted me to make a digital version of the program I had used to teach my son to read. So he hired a new CEO for WatchKnowLearn and I switched to start developing Reading Bear, which I did for two years. I began by doing background research, among other things writing this free book. Then I dove into the project, which was hard work, designing the software and working closely with the developers, making the word lists, collecting the pictures and videos (after arranging to get them donated by an early exec of Shutterstock), and then actually producing 50 presentations. Every separate sound of all 1,200 words and corresponding sentences had to be matched, by hand, so that the right part of the words were being highlighted while the audio was heard. Truly it was a labor of love. But I hear that many kids as well as ESL students used it to learn to read. My second son was one of the first beta-testers; he was using it as I was still making it, when he was a baby. Like his big brother, he was reading picture books by age two and chapter books by age three. Anyway, Reading Bear got many good reviews and helped a lot of people learn to read English. Charles paid for that and he rightly took pride in it.

By late 2012, Charles had gotten married, again, he was passing ownership to a third party (who, sadly, haven't done much with them since; they're 100% out of my hands). So Charles' interests took him elsewhere for half a dozen years. Both projects were finished, and Charles wasn't ready to develop them any further. I moved on to other projects.

Interestingly, it was just last summer, 2020, when we got back in touch for the first time in a while. He said he wanted to get back into developing a new project. Would I be interested in developing that old "American Idol for teachers idea" for him—for real this time? I was consulting at the time, so it was easy for me to say yes (although I have since moved on to full time starting the Knowledge Standards Foundation). We even said, sometime in early August, that we would negotiate a salary and get started very soon. But then I stopped hearing from him. A few weeks passed, I got worried, and I contacted a mutual acquaintance, who told me the bad news. Apparently, Charles had passed away just a couple days after our last call. It warms my heart to know that he was wanting to develop more free educational content projects until the very end.

The "American Idol for teachers" idea, by the way, is a very good one. It would not just be another Khan Academy. We would do a search, probably in the form of an actual competition with cash prizes and an employment contract, for the very best K-12 teachers. Then we would work with the teachers and professional videographers and produce professional videos covering the entire K-12 curriculum, complete with supplementary material like lesson plans and worksheets, and make it all available online for free. The result would be something like TheGreatCoursesPlus.com, but for kids, and absolutely free.

Someone ought to do that project. It always amazes me that so many philanthropic dollars are spent on education, and so few are spent on actual content that students can learn from. What a waste. Listen, education philanthropists—what the world needs are boatloads of high-quality free educational material. That really is of great benefit to the world. There still isn't enough really good free educational stuff. Yes, even still. Not enough people understand this. Charles understood it, though.

Charles had other philanthropic activities as well. He used to talk about how he bought expensive smart boards (interactive displays for education) for classrooms in poor areas that couldn't afford them. He had other projects, too. I'm sure he didn't tell me about all of them.

Charles wasn't perfect, as he himself admitted early and often. He was a Christian man who cared deeply about improving the lives of poor kids, especially around the very poor Mississippi Delta region. He was unassuming and, for religious and other reasons, asked me not to publicize his name until after he was dead. Since he has passed away, I feel happy to be able to share about his work. RIP, Charles.


How to Solve Email

Universal problem, circa 2000: you move around from school to school, job to job, Internet provider to Internet provider. They all give you email addresses, which of course constantly change. What a headache. If you're over 30 or so, you remember having to tell people regularly about how your email address has changed. Annoying.

The 2010 solution was oh-so-clever: use some giant, professional email service like Yahoo!, but soon it was Gmail. For a number of years, Gmail dominated email services because, as everybody seemed to say, it just had the best design. But then, around 2011, stories started appearing that Google was spying on your email. That is still happening; they let other companies read your mail, too. Are you happy about that? Of course not.

So in 2020, we have a new set of problems—and a new (but old) solution. Yes, we expect the same email to be the available on different devices, as we did in 2000. Yes, we expect a more-or-less permanent email address and email clients that are super-easy to use, as we did in 2010. But today we also expect to be in control. We expect not to have to compromise on privacy or (shudder) on basic freedom of speech in our own private communications. It is absolutely frightening that we must now actually consider the possibility that even that basic freedom might be under threat.

In response to these worries, naturally, a lot of people have left Gmail and other Big Tech mail services. I did, and I never looked back.

The 2020 solution: buy your own domain, and pay for hosting. Owning your own, permanent domain is not as hard as you might think. You just have to pay a small annual fee for your own domain ($10-15/year) and mail hosting (could be $12/year, more typically $30/year, and up). And since your correspondents' mail to you can be read by Big Tech if you are on Gmail (and a few others), you really owe it to them to leave.

By the way, you might say, "But I love Gmail. No other app is as good!" That might have been true in 2010. It is no longer true today. There are loads of great email apps with fast search and loads of great features.

"But...host my own email? How?" Glad you asked.

(By the way, I have no financial connection to anyone doing business on this stuff. This is my 100% uninfluenced, honest, and considered opinion.)

STEP ONE: Buy your own domain name for email. Mine is sanger.io. This can be the domain not just for you personally, but for your whole family, even your extended family.

If YourLastName.com is unavailable (try searching on something like NameCheap.com), try something other than ".com" (that is a "top level domain" or TLD). People in nonprofits might like ".org". Geeks (maybe especially crypto geeks) might like ".io" or ".net". There are a zillion TLDs (.xyz, .me, .news, etc.) available today. I rather like my family's domain, sanger.io, which registered almost two years ago now. My email address is my first name @sanger.io. Pretty cool and easy for people to remember.

Another option is to add "mail", "net", "post" to your name. Like, I could buy sangermail.com if I wanted; it is available.

Buying a domain name is easy. You can do it through many, many different services. I would avoid GoDaddy. I use NameCheap, but there are many others that I am sure are excellent. Shop around.

STEP TWO: Choose a mail hosting provider. In other words, if you own MyLastName.com now, you need to pay a company to receive and store your email (at your new domain!) and make it available to you. I have already written about this. There is quite a bit of cheap email hosting out there to be had, and that would help you (a) have a personalized, permanent email address, and (b) escape Big Tech. But if you also want to (c) guarantee your privacy, then you need your email encrypted, and for that you will have to pay a premium, it looks like (the price is €6.25/mo/user on Protonmail, $5.99/mo/user on Hushmail, but you might find cheaper ones). I expect the cost of encrypted email hosting will come down further; prices have certainly come down since I was last shopping for this a couple years ago.

STEP THREE: Set up your new hosting, and actually make the move. You do not have to be a geek to set it up. Your hosting provider should be able to do most if not all of the set-up for you, if you have trouble. I mean, they are making money from hosting you, so they make it pretty easy. Just remember to follow instructions carefully and you will be fine. If it gets very complex and technical, just have the hosting company do it for you. If they will not, other hosts will; you can check in advance. This is how I set up my hosting and made the switch, but your experience may be different. Hosts do have different instructions, so pay attention to what they say, or you might have trouble with mail delivery. Make sure that your mail will not go into your friend's spam folder; your mail hosting company should be experts at setting this up for you, with all the SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records and whatnot. You should not have to set it up for yourself; that piece of the puzzle really is complicated, so they will do it for you.

Exporting email from Gmail (and other email hosts) to your new service is a common sort of task, and it is not that hard. You can do it. Many hosts will help with this too, and might even have automated tools for doing it. You do not have to import your mail at all, by the way. You can just leave it all there, on Gmail, and tell people to use your new address.

Of course, you will have to go to all your accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, etc., etc.) and give them your new address. This might sound like a pain, but when I did it, I found it to be remarkably pleasurable. "Another company that will not be sending me mail at my hated old Gmail address! Instead I am telling them to use my new, permanent, personalized address!" It really gives you a feeling of being in control of your destiny.

You still have the freedom to do this. Use it!

This is another installment in my series on how I’m locking down my cyber-life.


My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare "what we all know" and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?

What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Two Early Articles about Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.

But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?

Wikipedia's Original Neutrality Policy

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Why Neutrality?

To ... put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. ...

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—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 are tolerated).

How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know

[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. ... [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.

Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge

[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?

The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.

But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.

Introducing the Encyclosphere

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

Declaration of Digital Independence

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.

The Future of the Free Internet

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.

Buy it!


How to Fix Social Media in Three Easy Steps

The social media bullies—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more—constantly violate our digital rights. That is the problem. The solution is to wean us off these social media giants, somehow. You own your own data and decide what you see (or not) for yourself. You subscribe to people, period, not to people's accounts on this-or-that service. That is the dream of "decentralizing social media."

This sounds nice, but it turns out to be too vague and complicated to be helpful. So I have been thinking about this. I have been asking, "What do I want?" Here is my answer, and if it works for me, it should work for everyone.

(1) I want a plugin to let me post on social media from this WordPress blog. I want to be able to go to a sparkly new, easy-to-use page that allows me to post from here—from my completely self-owned web space—to my Twitter and Facebook feeds and also (this is actually the important part) to a new reusable feed, like this blog feed. I do not want to have to go to Twitter to get my message out. Why should I have to? I should be able to post from here. Nobody can censor me or throttle me here. And you can have this same plugin yourself. Maybe you are a nasty troll, and you get kicked off everywhere, but I happen to like you, and I want the unadulterated you. I can come look at your feed, or better yet, I can get a feed reader that does not censor you, unless I decide I want you removed from my feed (see the next point). Come on, how hard should that be?

(2) I want to be able to view other people's posts from here, too. In other words, I want this plugin to go about and fetch posts wherever they are (well, maybe it will be more complicated than that; see (3)), bring them back here, and show them all in a feed that I can rearrange however I like. I can make posts public or private. I can arrange posts by social media service, or combine them all together. I can combine Twitter, Facebook, Parler, Mastodon, and pretty much everything. Why should I not be able to? And here is the really great part. I can subscribe to other people's feeds of the sort described under (1) above. It should be an open network, not a bunch of separate silos. I can arrange posts chronologically or according to fancy algorithms, including ones I build myself. Of course, I should also be able to reply to people from here. Again, this is an obviously useful thing. Why does it not already exist? Come on, developers, make it already. I want to start using it!

(3) Tools facilitating this need to be built. There are two main tools that will make this system feasible. The first tool is some social media content standard, like ActivityPub, but for individual posters like you and me, not whole social media servers like Mastodon.social or Gab.com, let alone giant silos Twitter. The second tool is an aggregator. Developers will need a massive, constantly growing database that slurps up all the social media content, coupled with an amazing API that and acts as a back end that serves the posts. This way my little blog does not have to go and separately fetch all the feeds individually. At scale, that would be super-slow; it would not work. If I follow 1,000 people my little server is not going to individually ping 1,000 feeds. It needs someone to constantly be doing that on behalf of all the blogs and other apps built on top of this decentralized social media network. And then of course if one aggregator censors certain people, fine; I should be able to use a different, more open aggregator.

And that, boys and girls, is how to decentralize social media!

So, developers, can I have that as a Christmas present this year? OK? Thanks.

If you like this idea, share it far and wide, and maybe some developer will see it and actually make it for all of us. Wouldn't that be great?


The Future of the Free Internet


I AM—I flatter myself—a truth-seeker. That is part of the reason I have spent so much of my life studying the standards of truth. So, when given the opportunity to start a free encyclopedia, I began to philosophize about free encyclopedias; I developed a vision. The task is fascinating since an encyclopedia is, after all, a compendium of truths.

You might well think my vision came to fruition. After all, Wikipedia now stands triumphant, seemingly, as the largest, most popular, most global encyclopedia in history. But, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, my vision appears to me in a twisted, monstrous form, which I disown. Wikipedia is of no great help to truth-seekers. I would prefer to be known as the project’s ex-founder.

Wikipedia now defends Establishment views, and the Establishment loves it for that reason. But it began as an idealistic, democratic project, one that would bring the world together to represent all of human knowledge, in all its messy, fascinating glory, on a neutral playing field. No more. It has been transformed into a thuggish defender of the epistemic prerogatives of the powerful. It began as an outgrowth of the open source software movement and its deeply decentralizing and democratic tendencies. In time, its operations became a black box, an enigma thriving on anonymity and the dark arts of dishonest social games and back-room deals. It is a mockery of an “encyclopedia anybody can edit.”

Wikipedia’s moral decline—for its decline is as much moral as epistemological—reflects that of the larger Internet. The short text and visual nature of social media is a poor replacement for the relatively long-form intellectual discussions we used to have on blogs, Usenet, and mailing lists. This is not necessarily what all users wanted, but it is what Big Tech corporate executives pushed on us with their careful experiments in gamification and user experience. It is a machine, of which so many of us are cogs, brilliantly and dangerously addictive and attention-hogging, dumbing us down, radicalizing us,1 and amplifying voices in our ideologically separate silos. This state of affairs is similar to that of Wikipedia, which promotes a single silo, that of the Establishment. It absolutely refuses to consult the opinions and needs of readers, and in so doing, radicalizes its true believers and would simplify our grasp of complex many-sided truths, if we let it.2

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now. [more]

Excerpt From
Larry Sanger, Essays On Free Knowledge, Ch. 12, “The Future of the Free Internet”
Purchase here


Essays on Free Knowledge (book)

New book: Essays on Free Knowledge

I published my first book this morning. The current cost is $9.95. It is a 270-page ebook, first published on Gumroad, where I'll get a higher percentage. A paperback should arrive in about a month on Amazon if I don't get distracted by other things.

Buy via the embedded ad below, and after that, I'll have a few notes for my regular blog readers.




I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. I decided to do it now because I was thinking of combining fundraising for the Encyclosphere with a course. But to get publicity for a course, I thought it would be good first to remind folks of my writings (and qualifications) to teach something like this. A book would help publicize both the Encyclosphere and the course. I also thought if I were going to keep plugging away at my (time-consuming) consulting business, a book would help spread the word for that as well (although I have had more business than I have had time for). Finally, the fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.

I hope you will get your hands on it (or rather, get it on your handheld) soon, but I will have a paperback available hopefully in about a month, if that is more your style.


How and Why to Decentralize the Internet: a Course

I am thinking of offering a new, independent online course about decentralization and freedom. The focus would be social media; perhaps a future course would focus on free encyclopedias. Or maybe we would do the encyclopedia course first. A proposed reading list is below. Interested? Have ideas about what we should read for this?

This could be considered an outgrowth of last year's work on the Declaration of Digital Independence and the social media strike. As I said in this Wired article, at some point after we do the strike, we should organize mass try-outs of a bunch of social media tools. I wanted to, but I never did this last year because doing it properly would take time, and time takes money.

A course could help pay for this, though. Maybe we could fund proper deliberations over social media tools by combining such deliberative work with a course. That seems like a good idea. My worry has been that I'd be on the hook to offer a course that not many people were interested in. But a friend just told me about a Gumroad.com feature: you can let people pre-order a product, but the user is not charged until the course begins. If enrollment gets up to a certain number, I will green-light the course, and people are charged when it starts. If there is insufficient interest, they are never charged. Perfect!

Combining deliberation about the best social media tools with a course seems like a good idea for an additional reason: I do not actually want to deliberate seriously about this important decision with people who are ignorant of the relevant issues. Indeed, I would like to seriously review all the relevant issues myself. We got into this Big Social Media mess by going in half-cocked. I propose that we should not do that as we decide what to replace Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter with.

General Course Information (tentative)

Tentative title: How and Why to Decentralize the Internet

Description: A two-to-three month upper-division-to-graduate-level course. focused on reading and discussion. You will read and closely analyze and evaluate many important source texts that go into understanding, appreciating, and making decisions about component projects of the free, decentralized Internet in general and social media in particular. There will be a dual focus on the relevant technology and on practical philosophy (or applied theory). The technical decisions before us must be made based on deep principles.

Instructor: Larry Sanger (Ph.D. philosophy from Ohio State, 2000; ex-founder, Wikipedia; serial Internet project starter-upper; Internet consultant). Maybe also guests/interviewees.

Possible course requirements: most importantly, weekly readings as well as online written, moderated discussions in a forum, blog, or mailing list (haven't decided yet), focused on the readings; probably a weekly video session; maybe 2-3 short papers (feedback offered if desired); probably, participation in choosing and trying out various social media tools, and then later helping to launch larger try-outs of our top choices of social media tools.

Grading: n/a
If you want a grade, I am willing to give you one based on written work.

Prerequisites: None checked, but you should be able to do upper-division college-level work, including (especially) coherent writing and careful reading; you must also be a "power user," someone who is not afraid to read about sometimes difficult technology concepts

Texts: all distributed free of charge; Larry Sanger's first book, Essays on Free Knowledge, will be given to all students.

Reading/Topic List (tentative, unfinished, additions requested)

NOTE: the following is not finalized in any way. If there are topics and readings you want included, please let me know!

I. Background

Internet Governance: History and Recent Developments

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Standards-setting bodies: W3C, IETF, IEEE, etc.
  • Governance/policy bodies: ICANN, WSIS, IGF, Dept. of Commerce, etc.

Technical Background: Internet Protocols and Standards

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • SIntroduction to the Internet's protocols and standards
  • Languages in which standards are written: XML and JSON
  • Decentralized content standards: RSS and Atom
  • Older identity standards: oAuth and SAML
  • Self-owned(?) identity standards: DIDs
  • ActivityPub, ActivityStreams

Technical Background: Content Networks

  • Laura DeNardis, The Global War for Internet Governance selections
  • Old-fashioned P2P networks
  • CDNs
  • Modern torrent networks
  • Blockchain content networks and IPFS

II. The Theoretical Principles

Internet Freedom: Principles and Software

  • The very idea of Internet freedom
  • Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”
  • Larry Sanger, "The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir"
  • The rise of git, Github, and modern open source software

Free Culture and Self-Ownership

  • The GNU FDL
  • Selections from Creative Commons website materials
  • Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, selections
  • The "own your own data" movement

Internet Privacy

  • Wacks, Privacy: A Very Short Introduction maybe
  • Schneier, Data and Goliath selections (maybe)
  • Selection from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What is digital privacy?
  • Why is digital privacy important?
  • European and Californian legislation
  • The NSA's spy programs
  • The Chinese social credit system

Free Speech, Censorship, and Neutrality

  • Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 2
  • Sanger, "Why Neutrality"
  • Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet selections (maybe)

Online Anonymity and Pseudonymity

  • Selections from Mitnick, The Art of Invisibility
  • What encryption is, what it's for, why it's important, whether it's "too dangerous"
  • (maybe) Larry Sanger, "A Defense of Real Name Requirements"
  • (maybe) "The Rise of Digital Pseudonymity"

Digital Autonomy

  • Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget selections
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion selections

Decentralization and Digital Identity

  • What is decentralization, anyway?
  • Gilder, Life After Google selections
  • What is “self-sovereign” identity mean and require?
  • The essential necessity of DID
  • The grave dangers of DID

III. Social Media or maybe Encyclopedias

Critique of Social Media

  • The Social Network (2010 film)
  • Carr, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains selections
  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now selections
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism selections
  • Newport, Digital Minimalism selections (maybe)

Decentralized Social Media Projects

  • IndieWeb and Mastodon
  • Conservative social media: Gab, Minds, Bitchute, and Parler

What Next?

  • Larry Sanger, "Toward a Declaration of Digital Independence" and "Declaration of Digital Independence"
  • Fair methods for organizing mass try-outs of social media tools


Toward a Superior News Service

Do you run a news startup that features original reporting—not just news aggregated from other sources? Do you want to make it a standout, the sort of service people will point to as "the best solution to all the problems with fake news"? Then I want to give you some free advice. And look in the comments to see if anyone agrees that this is a good idea. Maybe not. We will see.


No sensible reader accepts the claims of journalists without question anymore, if ever they did. Considering their track record, especially in recent years, this is only appropriate. Journalists might not like this state of affairs, but it is not likely to go away anytime soon. The reason we are more aware of journalistic malpractice today than ever before is that sources are often as close as the reporters who report on them. Besides, reporters wear their bias on their sleeve. It follows that responsible news consumption must be critical.

It follows that we need new and better tools to decide whether various claims made are actually accurate. And that is really the root of the insight I want to give you:

Stop thinking of journalism as writing a story. Start thinking of it as sharing research notes.

What does this mean?

Well, what is the purpose of journalism in the first place? I propose to back to basics: let us set aside the ideological purposes of journalism and think about the more essential function or activity, both from the reporter's and from the reader's perspective. The reporter is trying to introduce the reader to some new facts as accurately and efficiently, preferably in a narrative that captures the reader's interest, perhaps while advancing an editorial angle (not that I approve of the latter). Surely, as old school journalists think, that is enough.

The reader is indeed trying to apprise himself of new facts. But he has to negotiate at least three issues that are at the forefront of his mind:

  1. Importance: How important is this news, really? What might make it important, if it is? Has it been blown out of proportion?
  2. Credibility: Is the purported news credible? Is there adequate evidence, especially in terms of sourcing, to believe it? What is the confidence level of the news?
  3. Neutrality: Are there important facts being left out? Would other sources disagree?

I do not think reporters dwell much on these needs of the reader. For one thing, standard journalistic practice in 2020 is fixated on creating narrative, as if they were novelists or something. In so doing, a reporter might give enough background necessary to appreciate the importance of the story; it might say enough about sources to establish the credibility of the information; it might lay out the context sufficiently that the reader can appreciate that a complete, appropriate range of views are being presented in a way that invites the reader to make up his own mind.

But these days, most news stories do none of this. Stories are presented as if they were all uniformly important, for often undisclosed reasons. Articles tend to lead with sensational claims, without considering why sources (or journalists) might exaggerate. Sources are frequently anonymous, and even when a source is fully identified, key information—specifically why they are in a position to know—is hidden or obscured. The most relevant scientific data, video evidence, documents, etc., are only sometimes included. As to neutrality, that has mostly gone the way of the dodo; but it is still something readers desperately want. This is not a quirk. Responsible readers know they must have the whole story, told from all sides, if they are to come to a rational opinion about it. Otherwise they know they are probably being manipulated.

Imagine, instead of this sort of hit-or-miss news article, readers were presented a news research summary, which featured:

  • Bullet points summarizing the main facts, in order of importance (together with sources).
  • A collection of key quotations from source interviews and documents.
  • A list of sources (people), with their most specific relevant qualifications in the relevant subject matter fully stated, at the top of the article. If a source is anonymous, then as much information as possible (such as that a person is "a retired U.S. intelligence official").
  • A list of any available supporting media, including images, videos, links to or copies of documents and polls, etc. A nice subsection would be a list of relevant tweets and other social media sources (assuming they are newsworthy).
  • A list of previous reporting consulted.
  • A background narrative or, perhaps better, answers to likely questions about matters necessary to understand in order to appreciate the news, its importance, relevant controversies, etc.
  • Recent commentary on the issues involved, scrupulously divided into competing sides as necessary.
  • Now, if in addition to this you wanted to have a traditional news narrative, that would be OK, as a "nice-to-have"; but I suspect that, once all these other resources were marshaled, the narrative would be regarded as a boring aside that is better skipped.

In short, what we really need is a resource that we can use to research and come to our own conclusions. Of course, a news research summary could be made just as biased as traditional journalism; but if done well, it would be exactly the sort of thing professional fact-checkers need to do their work. In any event, a startup that developed such resource pages should use trial and error to determine precisely the best format; it is not especially clear to me what the very best format would look like. Certain kinds of reports would have specific requirements; for example, a report about a poll should include a section, with both summary and details, about polling methodology and about the pollster.

If done well, I and I think many people would be willing to put down good money for such reporting.

Theoretically, this could be crowdsourced, e.g., on a wiki, but offhand I am inclined to think a crowdsourced version would not work out very well for the simple reason that people do not generally volunteer to do difficult gruntwork, and compiling this sort of resource would be quite difficult work indeed. But maybe; I could be wrong.


God Exists

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Wikipedia Is Badly Biased

The Uncyclopedia logo. Maybe more appropriate for Wikipedia itself now.

Wikipedia's "NPOV" is dead.((The misbegotten phrase "neutral point of view" is a Jimmy Wales coinage I never supported. If a text is neutral with regard to an issue, it lacks any "point of view" with regard to the issue; it does not take a "neutral point of view." My preferred phrase was always "the neutrality policy" or "the nonbias policy.")) The original policy long since forgotten, Wikipedia no longer has an effective neutrality policy. There is a rewritten policy, but it endorses the utterly bankrupt canard that journalists should avoid what they call "false balance."((On this, see my "Why Neutrality?", published 2015 by Ballotpedia.)) The notion that we should avoid "false balance" is directly contradictory to the original neutrality policy. As a result, even as journalists turn to opinion and activism, Wikipedia now touts controversial points of view on politics, religion, and science. Here are some examples from each of these subjects, which were easy to find, no hunting around. Many, many more could be given.

Wikipedia's favorite president?

Examples have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing "Obamagate" story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump. A fair article about a major political figure certainly must include the bad with the good. The only scandals that I could find that were mentioned were a few that the left finds at least a little scandalous, such as Snowden's revelations about NSA activities under Obama. In short, the article is almost a total whitewash. You might find this to be objectively correct; but you cannot claim that this is a neutral treatment, considering that the other major U.S. party would treat the subject very differently. On such a topic, neutrality in any sense worth the name essentially requires that readers not be able to detect the editors' political alignment.

Not Wikipedia's favorite president

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the idea that the Donald Trump article is neutral is a joke. Just for example, there are 5,224 none-too-flattering words in the "Presidency" section. By contrast, the following "Public Profile" (which the Obama article entirely lacks), "Investigations," and "Impeachment" sections are unrelentingly negative, and together add up to some 4,545 words—in other words, the controversy sections are almost as long as the sections about his presidency. Common words in the article are "false" and "falsely" (46 instances): Wikipedia frequently asserts, in its own voice, that many of Trump's statements are "false." Well, perhaps they are. But even if they are, it is not exactly neutral for an encyclopedia article to say so, especially without attribution. You might approve of Wikipedia describing Trump's incorrect statements as "false," very well; but then you must admit that you no longer support a policy of neutrality on Wikipedia.

I leave the glowing Hillary Clinton article as an exercise for the reader.

On political topics it is easiest to argue for the profound benefits—even the moral necessity—of eliminating bias in reference works. As I argue in my 2015 essay, "Why Neutrality," we naturally desire neutrality on political and many other topics because we want to be left free to make up our own minds. Reference, news, and educational resources aimed at laying out a subject in general should give us the tools we need to rationally decide what we want to think. Only those who want to force the minds of others can be opposed to neutrality.

"Prior to prohibition, cannabis was available freely in a variety of forms," says Wikipedia, helpfully.

Wikipedia can be counted on to cover not just political figures, but political issues as well from a liberal-left point of view. No conservative would write, in an abortion article, "When properly done, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine," a claim that is questionable on its face, considering what an invasive, psychologically distressing, and sometimes lengthy procedure it can be even when done according to modern medical practices. More to the point, abortion opponents consider the fetus to be a human being with rights; their view, that it is not safe for the baby, is utterly ignored. To pick another, random issue, drug legalization, dubbed drug liberalization by Wikipedia, has only a little information about any potential hazards of drug legalization policies; it mostly serves as a brief for legalization, followed by a catalog of drug policies worldwide. Or to take an up-to-the-minute issue, the LGBT adoption article includes several talking points in favor of LGBT adoption rights, but omits any arguments against. On all such issues, the point is that true neutrality, to be carefully distinguished from objectivity, requires that the article be written in a way that makes it impossible to determine the editors' position on the important controversies the article touches on.

Gospel reliability is "uncertain," Wikipedia says, neutrally.

What about articles on religious topics? The first article I thought to look at had some pretty egregious instances of bias: the Jesus article. It simply asserts, again in its own voice, that "the quest for the historical Jesus has yielded major uncertainty on the historical reliability of the Gospels and on how closely the Jesus portrayed in the Bible reflects the historical Jesus." In another place, the article simply asserts, "the gospels are not independent nor consistent records of Jesus' life." A great many Christians would take issue with such statements, which means it is not neutral for that reason—in other words, the very fact that most Christians believe in the historical reliability of the Gospels, and that they are wholly consistent, means that the article is biased if it simply asserts, without attribution or qualification, that this is a matter of "major uncertainty." In other respects, the article can be fairly described as a "liberal" academic discussion of Jesus, focusing especially on assorted difficulties and controversies, while failing to explain traditional or orthodox views of those issues. So it might be "academic," but what it is not is neutral, not in the original sense we defined for Wikipedia.

Of course, similarly tendentious claims can be found in other articles on religious topics, as when the Christ (title) article claims,

Although the original followers of Jesus believed Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, e.g. in the Confession of Peter, Jesus was usually referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus, son of Joseph".[11] Jesus came to be called "Jesus Christ" (meaning "Jesus the Khristós", i.e. "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed") by later Christians, who believe that his crucifixion and resurrection fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

This article weirdly claims, or implies, a thing that no serious Biblical scholar of any sort would claim, viz., that Jesus was not given the title "Christ" by the original apostles in the New Testament. The Wikipedia article itself later contradicts that claim, so perhaps the editors of the above paragraph simply meant the two conjoined words "Jesus Christ," and that Jesus was rarely referred two with those two conjoined words in the New Testament. But this is false, too: the two words are found together in that form throughout the New Testament.

But the effect of the above-quoted paragraph is to cast doubt that the title "Christ" was used much at all by the original apostles and disciples. That would be silly if so. These supposed "later Christians" who used "Christ" would have to include the apostles Peter (Jesus' first apostle), Paul (converted a few years after Jesus' crucifixion), and Jude (Jesus' brother), who were the authors of the bulk of the epistles of the New Testament. The word "Christ" can, of course, be found frequently in the epistles, including very early epistles, thought to be the first texts written about Jesus.((Both in the form "Jesus Christ" (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1) and in the form "Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 1:2). "Christ" is found throughout three epistles widely held to be among the first written, including Galatian and 1 Thessalonians, and twice in James.)) Of course, those are not exactly "later Christians." If the claim is simply that the word "Christ" does not appear at all or much in the Gospels, that is false, as a simple text search uncovers dozens of instances in all four Gospels,((I mistakenly conceded this false point in an earlier draft of this article, after not searching enough. Nominative Χριστόν, accusative Χριστόν, and genitive Χριστοῦ can be found throughout.)) and about 550 instances in the entire New Testament. If it is used somewhat less in the Gospels, that would be a reflection of the fact that the authors of the Gospels were, argumentatively, using "Messiah" to persuade that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. But the word means much the same as "Christ": the anointed one, God's chosen. So, in any event, the basic claim here is simply false. He is called "Jesus Christ" (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) in the very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) and in the first verse of the gospel sometimes thought to be the first-written, Mark (1:1), as well.((If you look at the footnote Wikipedia cites in support of its weird claim, you will find a sensible and not-misleading article by Britannica, the context of which makes it perfectly clear that the authors were not making any claim about the use of the title "Christ" but instead the two-word combination "Jesus Christ," as applied directly to Jesus in his own lifetime. It seems likely that that two-word name was used rarely, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with his having the title "Christ," but a reflection of the fact that "Ancient Jews usually had only one name, and, when greater specificity was needed, it was customary to add the father’s name or the place of origin." Wikipedians may have missed that bit.))

Clearly, Wikipedia's claims are tendentious if not false, and represent a point of view that many if not most Christians would rightly dispute.

It may seem more problematic to speak of the bias of scientific articles, because many people do not want to see "unscientific" views covered in encyclopedia articles. If such articles are "biased in favor of science," some people naturally find that to be a feature, not a bug. The problem, though, is that scientists sometimes do not agree on which theories are and are not scientific. On such issues, the "scientific point of view" and the "objective point of view" according to the Establishment might be very much opposed to neutrality. So when the Establishment seems unified on a certain view of a scientific controversy, then that is the view that is taken for granted, and often aggressively asserted, by Wikipedia.

Neutral information, representing a scientific consensus with no dissent, I'm sure.

The global warming and MMR vaccine articles are examples; I hardly need to dive into these pages, since it is quite enough to say that they endorse definite positions that scientific minorities reject. Another example is how Wikipedia treats various topics in alternative medicine—often dismissively, and frequently labeled as "pseudoscience" in Wikipedia's own voice. Indeed, Wikipedia defines the very term as follows: "Alternative medicine describes any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective." In all these cases, genuine neutrality requires a different sort of treatment.

Again, other examples could be found, in no doubt thousands of other, perfectly unexciting topics. These are just the first topics that came to mind, associated as they are with the culture wars, and their articles on those topics put Wikipedia very decidedly on one side of that war. You should not be able to say that about an encyclopedia that claims to be neutral.

It is time for Wikipedia to come clean and admit that it has abandoned NPOV (i.e., neutrality as a policy). At the very least they should admit that that they have redefined the term in a way that makes it utterly incompatible with its original notion of neutrality, which is the ordinary and common one.((That it was Wikipedia's original notion, see the Nupedia "Lack of Bias" policy, which was the source of Wikipedia's policy, and see also my final (2001) version of the Wikipedia neutrality policy. Read my "Why Neutrality?" for a lengthy discussion of this notion.)) It might be better to embrace a "credibility" policy and admit that their notion of what is credible does, in fact, bias them against conservatism, traditional religiosity, and minority perspectives on science and medicine—to say nothing of many other topics on which Wikipedia has biases.

Of course, Wikipedians are unlikely to make any such change; they live in a fantasy world of their own making.((UPDATE: In an earlier version of this blog post, I included some screenshots of Wikipedia Alexa rankings, showing a drop from 5 to 12 or 13. While this is perfectly accurate, the traffic to the site has been more or less flat for years, until the last few months, in which traffic spiked probably because of the Covid-19 virus. But since the drop in Alexa rankings do not seem to reflect a drop in traffic, I decided to remove the screenshots and a couple accompanying sentences.))

The world would be better served by an independent and decentralized encyclopedia network, such as I proposed with the Encyclosphere. We will certainly develop such a network, but if it is to remain fully independent of all governmental and big corporate interests, funds are naturally scarce and it will take time.