Essay on Baby Reading

I started teaching my little boy to read beginning at 22 months, and by age four, he was decoding text (reading, in that sense) quite fluently at the sixth grade level, or above.

I've discovered that there isn't a lot written about the subject of baby reading.  So I have written a 45,000-word essay on the subject:

How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read
(the PDF is best)

I've worked on this for two years, off and on.  It is formatted as a 140-page book, which I'm presenting to the public free, under a Creative Commons (CC-by-nc-nd) license.  Here is a video of my boy reading to me when he was two, then three, then four.  At age 3 years, 10 months, he read the First Amendment of the Constitution (in the video at 2:47):

How'd we do it? We used a variety of methods: I read many books to him while pointing to the words, I showed him over 1,000 home-made flashcards (careful: 122 MB zip file) arranged in phonetic groupings, we watched the Your Baby Can Read videos, we used these (150+) PowerPoint presentations I made for him (here's an enormous 862MB zip file), and we did many other literacy-building activities.  All of this was done in a completely pressure-free way; I taught him to say “that’s enough” and immediately stopped when, if not before, he got tired of any activity. (UPDATE: these flashcards are in the process of being converted into a high-quality digital version at

I hope that by publicizing our case, we will raise awareness of the methods available that can, in fact, teach very small children to read with about as much ease as they can learn spoken language or sign language.

Working on early childhood educational content and issues is now my full-time job; among other things, I'm planning a new tool that will emulate the best aspects of Your Baby Can Read, but it will be free.  I've passed off leadership of to a new CEO, the very capable Dr. Joe Thomas.  Expect to see regular updates on this blog about my work, and I'll be asking for your feedback about my various plans and ideas.

Please use this page to comment on both the essay and the video.

UPDATE: if you want a copy of the essay on your handheld device (and can't figure out how to put the PDF on your device), you can buy it for $2.99 from the Amazon Store.  Someone asked for this, and I obliged!

UPDATE 2 (Oct. 3, 2011): my son is now five years old. He is now reading daily on his own, and has read himself a couple dozen chapter books, including The Story of the World, Vol. 1: The Ancient World (314 pgs.).

UPDATE 3 (Dec. 16, 2012): at six, my son switches between "serious" literature which he reads with a dictionary app, including Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and The Secret Garden, and easier literature including Beverly Cleary books, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown. If his answers to regular comprehension questions are any indication, he's understanding what he reads pretty well.

UPDATE 4 (Mar. 26, 2013): I'm delighted to report that my second son, following methods similar to those I used with my first, is now 2.5 years old and reading at a first grade level.

UPDATE 5 (Aug. 25, 2014): my second is following in his brother's footsteps, reading a version of the Odyssey (he's crazy about Greek mythology—go figure) at age 3.5:

A comment on Wikileaks

Over the weekend, I wrote a series of Tweets inspired by Wikileaks' then-upcoming release of U.S. diplomatic communiqués.  This caused quite an uproar, with people insulting me vociferously and demanding that I explain myself.  (A few people were supportive, and thanks to them.)  I am not going to write a whole essay in defense of my views; I don't have the time either to write one or to deal with the inevitable aftermath of such an essay.  Actually, I wish I didn't have to do even the following, because I'm busy with various new educational projects, and I have no desire to make myself into a political pundit.  But I suppose at this point it is my duty to post at least the following; I think I'm in a position where I could do some good, so I had better, if I want to follow my own advice.

Rather than write a long essay, I will put down just a few paragraphs explaining my views a little better.  This is obviously not, nor is it intended to be, a complete defense of the position I'll briefly describe.  That I leave to the policy wonks.

Here are the "offending" Tweets (from Nov. 25-26):

I'll go ahead and say the obvious: Wikileaks is an enemy of the U.S.—and not just the government. Deal with them accordingly.

How does Wikileaks repeatedly get massive troves of classified material?

Did a person or group in the U.S. govt have access to ALL these docs & leak them to Wikileaks? If so, that person or group is traitorous.

@wikileaks Speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people.

@wikileaks What you've been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can't be excused with pieties of free speech and openness.

First, let me say that my main complaint is against releasing secret diplomatic communiqués, not against Wikileaks' other work, which is less important for purposes of this discussion.  Also, when I said I was "speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder," I was distinguishing wikis generally from Wikileaks, which is not a wiki.  I was and am not speaking for Wikipedia, but only for myself.  To those who said that they'd stop contributing to Wikipedia, you might not know that I left Wikipedia a little over a year after I got it started, and have since founded a competitor.  I'm no longer even the editor-in-chief of this competitor; I'm now working on brand new things.

My argument is quite simple and commonsensical.  It goes something like this. (A policy wonk would be able to explain this better than I could, but I'm in the hot seat so I'll have a go.) Diplomatic communiqués are secret precisely because they contain information that it would be dangerous, or stupid, to make public. They disclose names and quotations that, for reasons either obvious or quite impossible for us to know, might get people killed. They also contain reports of actions that might lead to serious repercussions. They might even pinpoint locations of secret installations that might come under attack. They recount discussions of important plans and personalities—information that, if known to the wrong people, might lead to various military excursions, including war.

Does that sound acceptable to you?  Let's put it this way.  Wikileaks' actions, by releasing so much consequential, incendiary information, could easily lead to the deaths of people all around the world, and not just Americans. It could destabilize foreign relations that it benefits no one to have destabilized. It could—probably will not, but given that these are secret diplomatic communiqués in a very complex world, could—lead to war.

I find it incomprehensible that Wikileaks and its defenders are not given pause by such obvious considerations. I find it sad that so many people are not able to grasp such arguments intuitively.  Perhaps they ignore them, or perhaps they only pretend that such considerations do not exist.

Now, let's talk about three common fallacies about Wikileaks' latest disastrous actions. Again, this is going to have to be brief.

Fallacy: we can already see (less than 24 hours after release) that the leaks have no damaging information, and the information in the first leaks (about Iraq and Afghanistan) did not lead to any deaths. Well—not yet they didn't, not as far as we know.  But there is a big difference between the Iraq and Afghanistan leaks and the latest leak.  Since the latest leak contains huge numbers of secret diplomatic communiqués, they do, of course, concern intelligence.  Wikileaks' defenders seem not to realize the cumulative nature of intelligence.  Intelligence-gathering is like detective work.  In a detective story, often it is one tidbit of information that sheds light on a case and blows it wide open.  Similarly, a communiqué that looks to the uninformed to be completely innocuous might turn out to be exactly the tidbit needed for enemies of the U.S.—and others—to inflict death and serious destruction.  It amazes me that otherwise intelligent people, including journalists, think that they can make such judgments, let alone promote their obviously amateur judgments online.  This does not speak well for the judgment of the New York Times' editors.  To their credit, others, such as the Washington Post, would not make deals with Wikileaks.

Fallacy: the United States is an "empire" and needs to be reined in. Exposing the inner workings of this government's foreign policy is a good thing. It's not a bad thing that the leaks damage U.S. interests, because U.S. interests are contrary to the interests of a lot of the rest of the world. This argument is made by two different groups of people who are best addressed separately.

On the one hand, people on the radical left are of course deeply opposed to the American system of government. I am not one of these people—though occasionally, as an open-minded philosopher, I have considered some such people as my personal friends. Anyway, these people naturally regard the U.S. government, the main defender of this much-hated system, as enemy #1 in world politics.  I don't.  Obviously, radical leftists will be among Wikileaks' most vociferous supporters in the latest leaks, precisely because they want the U.S. undermined.  As a patriotic, loyal American citizen, I do not want my country undermined, and I'm not ashamed to say so.  Taking this openly pro-U.S. stance as I do, radical leftists cannot be expected to treat me nicely.  Fortunately, I couldn't care less about what they think, when they use playground insults and attempt to bait me into stupid exchanges of sentiments.  I'm not about to enter an exchange with such people about the merits of the American system and hence the defensibility of undermining it.

On the other hand, there are plenty of liberals, libertarians, and social democrats who support Wikileaks. My views are closer to theirs.  I agree with them that, as a rough generality, leakage of government documents is a good thing for open government, free speech, and democracy.  This is why, when Wikileaks first appeared, I was cautiously supportive.  But it is perfectly consistent for liberals, libertarians, and social democrats—and conservatives too, of course—to draw the distinction between positive leaks that improve government and irresponsible leaks that do nothing but cause all sorts of harm and pointless chaos.  If you are an anarchist, you might celebrate all leaks, but most of us aren't anarchists and are capable of making intelligent distinctions between good and bad leaks.

Let me put this another way.  There are a lot of things that the U.S. State Department does that democracy-loving people across the political landscape can agree are positive, or at least supportable.  But some of those things have to be done in secret.  That is the nature of diplomacy, espionage, and foreign policy in the real world, which is a dangerous, complex world.  To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.  Come on, folks—can't you see that?  It should be obvious, and it's very disappointing that it isn't more so to liberals.  Unless you count yourself as one of the aforementioned radical leftists, who want to see the U.S. lose, period, then you cannot support Wikileaks' action.  It is completely unsupportable.

Fallacy: Wikileaks is a force for openness and transparency.  Openness is good.  (Oh, how can a founder of Wikipedia fail to realize this?  The horror!) There are some people who think that all of government should be conducted "in the open," always.  Such people remind me of my radical libertarian friends: their theories sound nice, beautiful even, but they quite stubbornly refuse to take seriously the reasons for the things they criticize.  The fact is that some, only some, of democratic government has always been conducted without public exposure.  In this brief comment, I cannot elaborate the reasons for occasional government secrecy, but I'll give you a hint: it has to do with privacy, public safety, and national defense.  I disagree with those people who want government to be so "open"—open far beyond anything any government has ever experienced, open far beyond anything widely thought to be required—that they are perfectly willing to undermine privacy, public safety, and national defense in order to secure that openness.  Such people are ideologues, and they are fun for other ideologues to argue with, and occasionally for philosophers too, but they can be safely ignored by more sane, grounded people and those with little time on their hands for philosophy.

Finally, Julian Assange is no hero.  He is a twit.  He should not be made into a liberal icon.  He gives hackers a bad name.  He and his organization are indeed enemies of the U.S. government and the people represented by that government; they should be stopped, and they richly deserve to be punished for this latest leak.  And that goes double for the person or people in the U.S. government who leaked the documents in the first place.  None of these people deserve your support any longer.

Discussion of this comment

More replies about Wikimedia and the fallout of my report to the FBI

Background: on April 7, I posted the text of a report I made to the FBI to the EDTECH mailing list, in which I stated that, in my opinion, the Wikimedia Foundation may knowingly have posted "child pornography," by which I meant one common usage of the term, namely, "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children."  In short, the Wikimedia Commons "Category:Pedophilia" page hosted images with realistic and disturbing drawings of child molestation. The Register reported on this and it snowballed from there.  Among other venues, it was discussed on Slashdot, and I reproduced my reply to Slashdot on this site.

Then on April 27, covered the story. This elicited howls of protest from the Internet geek community, and some support from the broader online community. In addition, there was a reply from the Wikimedia Foundation both in their blog and in a widely-circulated AFP wire story, and Erik Moeller also posted a reply. Lastly there was some (rather misleading) coverage by techdirt and The Inquirer.

There was a huge spate of commentary--to put it nicely--following the coverage of my report to the FBI. The sheer amount of error and misinformation spread about the situation is predictable, but that won't stop me from, now, setting the record straight and offering replies on several points:

1. The images were (maybe still are) on Wikimedia Commons, not Wikipedia. The page I reported was Category:Pedophilia on Wikimedia Commons, not a Wikipedia article.  This matters because some people evidently went to the Wikipedia, looked at the pictures there, and concluded that my report was frivolous.  Indeed, if I had been talking about the pictures on Wikipedia's "Pedophilia" article, the report would have been frivolous, but it wasn't.

2. It isn't only photographs of real children that are against the law. Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children are against the law as well, and in fact, that's exactly what 18 USC §1466A addresses. You may disagree with it, but that is the law of the land at present. Quite a few commentators presented the fact that the images were not of real children as some sort of "gotcha." But I clarified perfectly well in my original FBI report that I was talking about drawings. I made sure that the statute I cited applied to the images I had stumbled upon.

3. The statute required me to make the FBI report. Many people commenting on my report don't seem to realize that the statute specifically states that violations must be " a law enforcement agency." This is, in fact, a necessary part of the affirmative defense stated by the statute itself. "But," you say (agreeing with techdirt), "you didn't need to make the report public."  Read on:

4. I posted the FBI report publicly for good reason. I discussed my motives earlier, and I encourage everyone who has glibly dismissed my motives as self-interested to read that. But I want to add something here. This nest of issues badly needed to be made public. A public debate about the mere morality of hosting either drawings of child molestation or pornography in general would have done no good. Knowing them as I do, I doubt the technology press would find my public complaints worth reporting about. As to the Wikipedians, for one thing, Wikipedia allows pornography by policy, and they're not going to get rid of it, or care too much about reliably labelling adult content, just because the much-maligned Larry Sanger has some objections to it. I have enough experience with that crowd to know that the dialogue would go nowhere. The only way to get any response, I thought--and all the sniping and derision after my report have made me only more sure of this--would have been to get the broader public to look at the problem carefully. As Justice Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. So, gritting my teeth, I made the report public. I knew I was burning bridges, but I felt that my obligation to standards and the law is higher than my own standing in the online/tech community.

5. Isn't this low priority for the FBI? Some have suggested that my report asked the FBI to focus on something that is lower-priority than catching actual purveyors of child porn. But in fact, I admitted something like that in my note to the FBI. I do not know, or pretend to have interesting opinions, about FBI priorities. I told them that of course I was leaving such decisions in their hands and will respect any decision they come to. But saying that violations of the statute by Commons (if the FBI agrees that they are violations) are low priority in this case surely implies that 18 USC §1466A should not be enforced. Besides, Wikimedia projects are now very high-profile. Long gone are the days when Wikipedia and sister projects were sites known only to geeks. If the FBI ignores violations of a statute on Wikimedia servers, that sends a message to the many others who collectively would be much harder to regulate.

6. The age of the images is irrelevant. Some of Wikimedia's defenders sniffed that some of the images in Category:Pedophilia are "historic." They supply no evidence or reasoning that the images are of historic importance; considering the truly outrageous nature of the smut they contain, I would be inclined to conclude that they are merely old, not "historic." The courts and FBI may disagre with me, but I'm fairly sure that the fact that an image is old does not mean that the statute does not apply. At first I too did not think that the images were that bad, until I actually clicked on the thumbnails and looked at them. Despite their age, they are gross and perverted, and just the sort of thing, I imagine, that the statute was designed to cover. Or will we say that images that are clearly covered by the statute today will be "historic" and therefore just fine in 100 years?

7. My concern about using pornography hosted by Wikimedia in schools is sincere and well justified. My main complaint was about the images of child abuse I saw on Wikimedia Commons, but I also discussed pornography generally, and this found its way into some reporting and discussions. Now, I support the Wikimedia Foundation's right to host (legal) pornography. I'm guessing that many of Wikipedia's most active supporters do not have school-aged children. So it is easy for them to ignore or make light of my claim that Wikipedia makes pornography accessible in schools where Wikipedia is not filtered. I think most teachers, and parents of school-aged children, are by contrast keenly aware of the difficulties of guiding their students' Internet use. They think it is important, and rightly so.

So, for those who lightly dismiss all issues about children's use of pornography on Wikipedia, let's get a few things straight. First, if there is any question about the amount and explicitness of the pornography on Wikipedia, have a look at this article and search on the page for "Clearly, it is hard to know". There you'll find some graphic descriptions of photos (not the images themselves). This is just a small amount of what can be found on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. If you don't mind looking at the pictures themselves, you might start your own search from Wikipedia's "sex positions" article and category. As to Wikimedia Commons' offerings, have a look at this list of its most popular pages. This (along with the above-mentioned pornography policy) clearly puts the lie to the Wikimedia Foundation spokeman's claim that "Our community abhors issues around pornography and pedophilia and they don't want to provide opportunities for these things to take place." If they don't want to provide opportunities for pornography to take place, then why do they specifically allow it and have so much of it?

Second, while some school districts block access to Wikipedia, quite a few do not. Any curious student, armed with a few ideas of things to search for, can use computers in those school districts to view images that most people would call porn, and with just a few mouseclicks. Believe it or not, some district filter managers apparently did not know this. This actually surprised me quite a bit.

Finally, I know very well that most students who want to find porn online will be able to find holes in fallible filters and via their own connectivity. But placing vast amounts of it on a supposed reference site, and giving students access to it through school system computers, is greatly frowned upon by most school officials, not to mention parents, in the U.S. You might not like that, but it's a fact and it is not likely to change. To be a good citizen, Wikipedia should label its mature content reliably and so that it can be blocked by school district filters.  Then, there would be more school districts and families using a kid-friendly version of Wikipedia, and fewer students doing their background reading on the unexpurgated version.

8. May be, not is, and other minor corrections of the article. First let me say that I appreciate the work--and dare I say the courage--of the journalist, and I think she did a good job overall. But she reported a few small things about me incorrectly, I'm afraid. I don't want people to get the wrong idea about what I believe, so I'm going to correct the record. (1) I did not say that the Wikimedia Foundation is knowingly distributing child pornography, I said they may be. I used this only because, not being any sort of legal expert, I didn't know if it really was in fact covered by the statute I cited. As they say online, "I am not a lawyer." I'm trying to be modest. But for what it's worth, I have been told by two different journalists that they tried to find some legal experts who would deny that the statute in question applied to the images in question, they could not. (2) I did not implore the FBI to investigate. If you read my original message to the FBI, you'll see that I concede that they may have higher priorities, and that of course I left it up to their expert judgment. (3) I am sure I did not say that Commons was rife with renderings of children performing sexual acts. I think "rife" implies a huge or widespread number.  I didn't claim that. (4) Category:Lolicon, when I saw it, had only one image that I thought violated the statute (this is described in the article; I am not going to repeat the description here). Other than that one, as far as I recall, it did not provide cartoons "similar in detail and depiction."

9. The AFP's presentation of my position falsely implied that I had backpedaled on my claim. The AFP wire story (which, by the way, they wrote without interviewing me), opened its coverage with the Wikimedia Foundation's rejection of the allegations of hosting child pornography.  When they got around to stating what the allegations were, in the fourth paragraph, they began by quoting my clarification that the term "child pornography" was misleading to some, because some people think it means only photographs. That's not my view, by the way. I think drawings of sexual abuse of children counts as child porn, and many people agree with me. But AFP did not even bother to state the main point, which was not at all affected by my small semantic concession, that the two Wikimedia Commons categories I reported to the FBI did seem to be in violation of 18 USC §1466A.

10. How dare I suggest the law be enforced? I really think what has a lot of people hot and bothered is that I have had the outrageous gall to suggest that the law and common, reasonable societal standards be enforced against a site that has, for Wikipedia's many true believers, been a model of self-regulation. The very opposite has been the case. The notion that the government might be called in to make the Wikimedia Foundation and its community play by the (legal) rules goes completely against the idealistic, anarchistic Wikipedia spirit. To put it another way, the real world threatens to interrupt the whole insulated Wikipedia game, which is a sort of collective delusion. My failure to believe in the game, and my willingness to denounce its results publicly, is what really crosses the line for Wikipedia's true believers. (That, and the fact that I'm speaking nearly alone against a whole mass movement; this makes me especially easy to demonize.) But I think Wikipedia must become more consistent with the somewhat higher standards of the world it is a part of, and I would think of myself as lacking courage if I did not say so. I hope others will join me.

By the way, I would like to thank the people who have sent me notes of appreciation by email, Facebook, and Twitter. Your support means a lot to me.

Reply to Slashdot about my report to the FBI

On April 7, I posted the text of a report I made to the FBI to the EDTECH mailing list, in which I stated that, in my opinion, the Wikimedia Foundation may knowingly have posted "child pornography," by which I meant "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children."  In short, the Wikimedia Commons "Category:Pedophilia" page hosted images with realistic and disturbing drawings of child molestation. The Register reported on this and it snowballed from there.  Among other venues, it was discussed on Slashdot, where I posted the following reply.  I decided to repost it here permanently.

I have added a more recent reply.

Larry Sanger here--let me clarify a few things.

First of all, what very few of the commenters (at least the first commenters) noticed was that the statute I cited, 18 U.S.C. §1466A, has the following title: "Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children."  It specifically states: "Any person who, in a circumstance described in subsection (d), knowingly produces, distributes, receives, or possesses with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that..."

That's drawings, cartoons, sculptures, and paintings.  "Visual depictions of any kind."  Many people who criticized my message to the FBI really seem to have a problem with the law, which I find interesting.

Anyway, I now realize with regret that "child pornography" was probably the wrong word to use.  I didn't realize that it would be so misleading.  I thought that "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children" (the title of the statute) was just what we mean when we say "child pornography."  It didn't occur to me until afterward that many people restrict "child pornography" to mean photographs of real children.  If I had realized this sooner, I would have used "depictions of child sexual abuse" instead.

So, why did I report Wikimedia to the FBI?  First some background.  I am broadly a libertarian, but I am also a sincere moralist (as opposed to a cynical amoralist).  Libertarianism and moralism are not--of course--contradictory.  Being a libertarian, I think we have the right to do a lot of things, including a lot of things that broadly coarsen society; that's the price we pay for freedom.  But, just as the law provides for, I do draw one line when it comes to photographs, or even merely realistic depictions, of child sexual abuse.  Most sane libertarians recognize that some speech should be restricted by the force of law--the hackneyed examples are shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, perjury, and libel.  But for me, depictions of child sexual abuse are another.  I respect the opinion of those who have a principled disagreement with me when it comes to depictions of child sexual abuse.  But pretending that it's just obvious, even for libertarians, that we have a right to publish such depictions is simply wrong, in my opinion.

Regarding my motives, yes, I thought I was doing my civic duty, one that I didn't really want to do, but which I felt I ought to do.  Partly this was because the statute in question required me to make the report if I thought the statute applied (and it seems to me it does--those drawings sure look like obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children to me).  But partly also it was because I think that this sort of thing--including some pictures of children being out-and-out raped--is completely wrong, and should not be allowed in a civilized society.  Call this censorship if you like, but I don't really think you have a constitutional right to publish and consume realistic drawings of child rape and molestation.

But what outcome am I aiming at?  Contrary to the insinuations of some, I have no interest in trying to get Wikimedia shut down; that would be unnecessary, and I doubt it would happen as a result of the violation of the statute.  But I think and hope it may cause pressure on Wikimedia from law enforcement, politicians, and the general public to eliminate this sort of content.  I also hope that Wikimedia will be persuaded, or if necessary forced, to label its "adult" content as such in a consistent and reliable way, so that it can be easily filtered by school system filters.  This would be a win-win, because then Wikipedia would be used in more schools--something I don't at all oppose, except for all the grossly inappropriate material for school children--and, when used in schools, children would be less likely to find content that their parents and teachers regard as grossly inappropriate for their age.

I know that in our cynical world, a lot of people will have trouble believing that my motives and aims as stated are sincere.  Many people have said that I am motivated by a desire to get my projects in the news.  In fact, in posting about my message to the FBI on EDTECH, I had no conviction that it would aid my projects.  Actually, I worried that it might damage them, for exactly the reasons so many Slashdotters are howling now: leveling accusations against a popular project is a highly unpopular thing to do.  But I'm afraid (and again, some will have trouble believing this, but I don't care) I am "old school" on this sort of thing.  When it comes to doing what is right, I often say "Damn the consequences."  This is why I am not very popular, and never have been; I must seem totally tone-deaf socially speaking, because I frequently find myself obligated to do and say unpopular things.  I take my inspiration from Socrates.  To the sort of people who think this claimed, alleged, supposed idealism is obviously false, or stupid, or terminally naive, there is little persuasive that I can say, because they live in a completely different world than mine.  I'm sure all of the things I've been saying now about my motives will just confirm their opinion of me that I'm just a jerk, an authoritarian, or whatever else comes to mind.  C'est la vie.

A lot of people shrieked with indignation that I mentioned my qualifications and--horrors--my websites.  Conflict of interest!  But they omitted to say where I mentioned this, which was grossly misleading on their part.  The context of the statement was: it was in the first paragraph of a message to the FBI.  I stated those things so that they understood exactly who I was, what qualifications I had to post the tip, and--believe it or not--what conflicts of interest I might have, should they find those to be relevant.  If they want to disregard what I say because I have started a newer project competing with the project I am reporting, I want to make it easy for them to do so and move on to other pressing government business.  I did not write the message with public consumption in mind; I posted it on EDTECH only as an afterthought, to underscore a point I had made in that forum.  It only occurred to me later that this might be misconstrued as a plug for my own sites.  Only later did I realize that I should not have quoted that part of the letter at all.

Those of you who think that I have a "conflict of interest" might reflect that with this move I have if anything completely burned the last of my bridges to working in the mainstream (deeply libertarian) world of Web 2.0.  That is something I did realize.  After this, I am sure I have permanently ruined my chances of getting a job (if I had wanted one) or getting funding for a successful for-profit in Silicon Valley.  I know I will probably get a reputation of being a fraud who will say anything for a little publicity, or (much worse) a self-styled moralist who is in favor of censorship.  Neither of these things is true, but I know it is the reputation I will probably have among that crowd.  Well, you see, that's the price you pay for living honestly in the world: you do what you must, even if you wished you didn't have to, and you let the chips fall where they may.  In the end, you have to trust that you will be rewarded in other ways, if only in having a relatively clear conscience.

So, sure, I know that our (pathetic) cynicism is such that many people will be unable to believe the above; they will think I am merely trying to appear noble, and they will mock the stupidity of it, because everyone is cynical and cool and maximally tolerant of sexual proclivities these days, and "noble" motives no longer exist, so any pretense to having such motives will be mocked or discarded out of hand.  Oh well--that's a pity for me.

Still, I hope I will have gotten the public to consider the issue.  As to my career, well, let's just say that I am now interested in the education sector, and in this sector, there aren't so many people who think we have a constitutional right to view drawings of child molestation.

I have just one last comment, in response to a few Slashdot comments.  Some of those comments were written by people who sound like complete creeps to me, people I would not trust anywhere near my little boy.  Here is an example, and not the only one: "why should anyone care if someone masturbates to an image of a drawn child? If that gets his/her kicks so that the person can be a normal productive member of society, all's good, or at least should be good - no child is ever harmed, and the person has taken care of his/her urges."  I find this chilling.  But maybe even more chilling is that Slashdot rated this "Score: 5, Interesting."  Interesting--sure, I'll grant it's that.  But its high rating is chilling because it indicates that one of the most influential sectors of industry today, the geek sector in control of the most massive media production system in history, as represented by Slashdot, is steadfastly non-judgmental when it comes to someone who all but admits that he gets his "kicks" by masturbating to an image of a drawn child.  It's that attitude that explains why Category:Pedophilia and its contents exists on Wikimedia Commons.  Such people should not be making policy for the seventh most popular website in the world.

I suspect the people who make such grotesque remarks (and not all the critical comments are this grotesque) are mostly sick puppies who grew up with little moral guidance, who believe that virtually all desires are brute facts that cannot be criticized and [must be] always respected.  They vainly imagine themselves to be very clever, but they have very little in the way of actual wisdom.  These people will be utterly mortified by their youthful remarks when they actually have children of their own.  But then of course there are the tiny number of some real perverts--let's call a spade a spade--who might be older, are probably childless, and who are actually confident in defending sexual relations with children.  They actually have the temerity to pretend that this is the next cutting-edge frontier of the broader movement toward civil rights and equality, and that those who disagree with them must be stupid, knuckle-dragging conservatives.  These people are simply tangled in their own web of rationalizations for behavior and inclinations that, on my view, are simply evil.  (And, yes, I did notice that some Slashdotters mocked the notion that child sexual molestation was "evil.")  I feel no desire whatsoever to dignify such people in any way at all, and I could not care less what they have to say about me.  I can only hope that the rest of society is not so far gone in the way of moral relativism, or pseudo-tolerance, or whatever you want to call it, that they feel they must tolerate the advocates of free sexual relations between adults and children.

I don't want to end on that note, because I really doubt that most of the people who have objected publicly to my position are, as I described them, "sick puppies" and pedophilia activists.  Actually, I think most of them are libertarians, most of whom probably again don't have children, and who are probably disgusted (as well they should be) by depictions of child sexual abuse.  Despite our disagreement on the philosophical issue of where to draw the line regarding free expression, I have some sympathy and affection for these sort of people, who are taking a principled stand, but one that is, I feel, nonetheless wrong.

Should Science Communication Be Collaborative?

Plenary address at PCST-10 (10th conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology), Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden, June 25, 2008.  A slightly abbreviated version of this was delivered.

I. The question, and some distinctions

Should science communication be collaborative?  There are two ways to understand this question, and so also two very different reactions to it.  One reaction is that science writing already is very collaborative.  Scientific articles are typically co-written by labs or by other collections of colleagues, because most experiments cannot be done by just one person; scientific discoveries are now typically made by several or many people cooperating.  So, of course science communication should be collaborative.

The other reaction understands me to be talking about collaboration in the wiki sense, or what I call radical collaboration.  And to that question there are typically mixed reactions.  On the one hand, what Wikipedia has done is very exciting, and if scientists can tap into the same sort of collaboration, perhaps great things will result.  On the other hand, scientists and scholars in general are very suspicious of the notion that anybody can edit our words.  Many scholars scoff at Wikipedia's motto—"you can edit this page"—as incontrovertible evidence that it cannot be very reliable.

The question I am interested in is actually the latter one: should science communication be radically collaborative?  So let me define this piece of jargon.  Collaboration is radical if it goes beyond two or more people merely working together.  In addition, the collaborators are self-selecting; they determine what they are going to do, and are not assigned their roles.  Finally, there is equal ownership or equal rights over the resulting work, or in other words, there is no "lead author."

So, should science communication be radically collaborative?  I cannot give you any simple answer to this question, but I do want to say that radical collaboration is part of our future, and will probably result in some amazing new scientific resources.  I'll be asking how big a part of our future it should be—as well as what we should not expect radical collaboration to do.

But first, it will be useful to draw a distinction between two kinds of scientific communication: original and derivative.  Original communication is aimed at advancing knowledge in the field with never-before-published findings, discoveries, first-hand accounts, survey data, theories, arguments, proofs, and so forth.  Typically, such communication takes the form of papers in peer-reviewed journals and online pre-print services, as well as conference presentations, posters, and some other things.  By contrast, derivative communication merely sums up what is already known, and takes the form of news and encyclopedia articles, textbooks, and popular science books and magazines.

I don't pretend that the distinction between original and derivative communication, if one examines it carefully, is easy to make.  One reason that it is difficult is that, whenever one reports scientific and other scholarly findings, analysis almost inevitably occurs; and sometimes, an analysis can be as interesting, challenging, and pathbreaking as the findings reported on.  So I imagine that such interesting analysis can be a borderline case between original and derivative communication.

There is another reason the distinction is difficult.  Frequently, we want to criticize certain published papers, which purport to present original findings, as being almost wholly derivative—they do not really advance the field at all.  I am told that this happens much more than it should, in scientific publishing.  So I admit that sometimes, purportedly original communication is actually derivative.

In fact, I will admit something more: it is far from clear what constitutes an advance in any given field.  If someone merely deduces something from previously published experimental findings, is that an advance?  Sometimes, sometimes not.  If someone does an experiment that is only trivially different from any of many already-published experiments, and obtains similar results, is that an advance?  Not necessarily, it seems to me.  If someone merely applies an established paradigm to a domain of knowledge for the first time in a published article, is that an advance?  Perhaps; but perhaps not, if the application was simply obvious.

So there are, I realize, several reasons to be critical of the distinction between original and derivative communication.  That admitted, I do think there are many perfectly clear cases of both original and derivative communication; in fact, I think most scientists and scholars would not have trouble classifying most communication in their fields as either original or derivative.  When Watson and Crick originally described the double helix, that was definitely original.  When Wikipedia, or a biology textbook, describes the double helix, that is definitely derivative.  And where we are uncertain, on philosophical grounds, about whether some finding really is original, at least we can tell whether the author is treating it as original.

I draw this distinction because I think that we might actually wish to give different answers to the question, "Should science communication be collaborative?" based on what type of science communication we're talking about.  In particular, I think it is very plausible that derivative science communication, like encyclopedia articles and science news reporting, are much more amenable to collaboration than original science communication.  I think, moreover, that in explaining this we will uncover some very interesting insights, or at least questions, about collaboration and perhaps even about science communication itself.

II. Derivative science communication

Let me begin with derivative science communication—again, things like encyclopedias, science news reporting, and textbooks.

Over the last few years, I have conversed with dozens of scholars and scientists about how to set up wikis or other collaborative knowledge communities.  There is a fascinating pattern to these conversations.  They go like this.  The scientist, impressed by the vast quantities of information in Wikipedia, tells me: "It is amazing what can be accomplished when many people come together, from around the world, to sum up what is known.  What would happen if we tried this in our field?  The resulting resource could be a central, authoritative clearing-house of information for everyone in the field, as well as for the general public.  So, what is the best way to set up ‘a Wikipedia' in our field?"

This is an interesting question, but it is not the question that they end up answering.  Instead, the scientist goes off and consults with his colleagues, and then I hear this: "We have a couple of concerns.  First, we are concerned about lack of credit in the Wikipedia system.  The careers of scientists depend on names being on their publications.  So we want to make sure that authors are properly named and identified on articles.  Second, we are a little nervous about the idea that just anybody can edit anybody's articles.  We understand that it's important to be collaborative, but we think it is reasonable to nominate a lead author or lead reviewer for each article, and restrict participation to experts.  So, what do you think of that?"

I think that the scientist and his colleagues are confused in a fascinating way.  I try to be diplomatic when I say this, of course.  But the scientist seems not to realize two facts:

  1. If you name authors, you award lead authorship or editorship for articles, and you carefully restrict who may participate, then you are not building a collaborative community in anything like the radical sense.  You are merely using a wiki to replicate an older sort of collaboration, common in scientific writing.
  2. It is precisely the newer, more radical sort of collaboration that explains Wikipedia's success.  Wikipedia is successful in large part precisely because everyone feels empowered to edit any article.  If you disempower people, they won't show up.

As a result, there is no reason to think that the scientist's group will enjoy success anything like Wikipedia's, because they have actually rejected the Wikipedia model.

I am not saying that using wiki software to replicate old-fashioned systems won't work at all. In fact, in 2005, I helped set up such a system myself, called the Encyclopedia of Earth, and it seems to be working reasonably well so far—but, as far as I know, not much actual collaboration goes on, and a large part of the few thousand articles that they have were imported from other sources.  Another scientist-run encyclopedia, Scholarpedia, has a somewhat similar set of policies, and has produced even fewer articles.  To be sure, the quality of the articles produced by these projects is good.  But it seems to me that the articles have little chance of ever fulfilling the original, high hopes of the project designers.  Many of them won't be incredibly detailed, balanced, authoritative, and a pleasure to read, which is what one might hope to get from a large group of experts coming together to work on a piece of text. Nor do such projects have any chance of achieving the depth of coverage that Wikipedia has.  In short, as far as I can tell, the most that projects like the Encyclopedia of Earth and Scholarpedia can hope to achieve is to produce a free version of old-fashioned sorts of encyclopedias.  I do not mean to say that there is something wrong with that.  I merely claim that they will not enjoy the advantages and potential that a radically collaborative project has, the advantages and potential that made them imitate the Wikipedia model in the first place.

This, then, raises a question.  Do those scientists, who have rejected the Wikipedia model, have a legitimate complaint about it?  Or have they made a mistake in rejecting it?  I think they are partly right in rejecting the Wikipedia model, but also partly mistaken.  Let me clarify, first by explaining what they have gotten right.

Essentially, the scientists I've advised are quite right to reject the wide-open Wikipedia model, according to which anyone can alter any article regardless even of whether the person has logged into the system or is using his or her real name.  Wikipedia's rock-solid commitment to anonymous contribution explains many of its problems, in my opinion.  It explains why Wikipedia has so much vandalism and people editing abusively and in bad faith; it also explains why the Wikipedians have never been able to enforce some of their own basic principles, such as neutrality and politeness.  Scientists and scholars generally are very well justified in rejecting Wikipedia's anonymity policy.  I have argued for this thesis elsewhere,[1] and can't spend the time to explain arguments now.

So that's why my scientist colleagues were right to reject the Wikipedia model.  But they are also mistaken to believe that articles must be signed by their authors, that they must have lead authors, and that participation should be restricted to experts.  They believe they must adopt these policies because, otherwise, the result will be unreliable or of poor quality.  They appear to think that, since all trustworthy encyclopedias in the past had signed articles, lead authors, and participation restricted to experts, there is no way to design an encyclopedia project that changes these features.

Now, I don't have time in this paper to argue for this point in detail, but I simply want to point to the example of the Citizendium, which is a wiki encyclopedia project I started a year and a half ago.  We do not sign articles; we do not have lead authors; and we open participation up to anyone who can make a positive contribution to the project.  But we do make a role for experts.  Despite the fact that we reject so much of the traditional model of content production, the quality of our articles is remarkably good, especially for such a young project.  The articles that have been approved by our expert editors, in particular, are extremely readable, as well as being authoritative.  My point, then, is that it is possible to have a radically collaborative system that produces high-quality, credible content.  So if my scientist colleagues rejected radical collaboration because they thought the results would necessarily be of substandard quality, they were simply mistaken, as our experience with the Citizendium shows.  Moreover, I should point out that we are far more productive than Scholarpedia or the Encyclopedia of Earth; we have over 7,000 articles and are growing daily.

I can imagine a reply to this, however.  One might concede that the Citizendium's articles are, or will be, of reasonably good quality.  But will they be better than articles written by small groups of experts?  Not necessarily, of course.  Still, I would like to give you some general reasons to think that they could be better.  More precisely, I want to answer this question: is there something about radical collaboration per se that improves the quality of articles?  I think so.

Given enough time, an article that is written with a large and diverse set of authors—particularly if it is under the gentle guidance of experts—can be expected to be lengthier, broader in its coverage, and fairer in its presentation of issues, than an article written by a single or a few hand-chosen authors.  It will be longer, because many collaborators will compete with each other to expand the article.  It will be broader in its coverage, because the collaborators often can fill up gaps in exposition that others leave.  It will be fairer in its presentation of issues, because self-selecting collaborators in a very open project will tend to have a diversity of views, and they must compromise in order to work together at all.

In short, radical collaboration naturally pushes articles in the direction of being longer, more detailed, and fairer.  When the collaboration is gently guided—not led and controlled—by experts, and when the collaborators respect the experts and are willing to defer to from time to time and when necessary, the resulting articles can be outstanding.  A number of the Citizendium's approved articles are outstanding for these very reasons.  We have quite a few outstanding unapproved articles as well.

So far, I have spoken only about one kind of derivative communication: encyclopedias.  But there are other kinds, as I said: journalism, textbooks, and popular science writing, for instance.  I could discuss each of these, but again I lack the time.  Instead, I want to make a general point about all of them.

Often, in expository writing and even more in fiction writing, we derive value from the text precisely because it is personal, because it presents a single, unique point of view that we find compelling.  We find the writing interesting because we find an individual mind interesting.  Why are we fascinated by the minds of Stephen Hawking, Richard Feyman, Stephen Jay Gould, or Steven Pinker?  (And for that matter, why are so many famous scientists named Stephen?)  Well, it seems that, in works by these authors, the addition of another author might subtract from the value of their text.  Why is that?  Why is it that we find individual minds interesting?  It is not because their thoughts are more accurate or more exhaustive.  Rather, a text with a single author, especially one who is expressing his personality, is a window into another mind, and so it represents how we, each of us individually, might also want to think.  Only an individual seems to be able to serve as a credible model of how to think about the world; and, for whatever reason, we do take other thinkers as models.  Collective productions can convey useful information, of course, but they necessarily do not express the views of any one person.  They are largely useless as complex, full-bodied, human models after which we can pattern our own thinking.

But almost all encyclopedia articles,[2] most news articles, and some textbooks are used just to get information, not to serve as an entrée into an interesting perspective on the world.  Idiosyncracy and personality are annoying when we merely want information.  When it's bare information we want, we don't care about persons—only facts.  The point, then, is that radical collaboration is suitable for gathering impersonal information.  That, we might say, is its proper function.

III. Original science communication

Up to this point, I've been talking about whether derivative science communication should be collaborative; the answer, in short, is yes and no.  So now let me talk about whether original science communication should be collaborative.  But first, I think we need to examine whether, and in what sense, original science communication, such as papers that express new research findings, can be radically collaborative.  Maybe a better question is this: to what extent can original science writing be collaborative?  We already know that scientific research can be collaborative in the old-fashioned sense, because it is so often is, in fact.  What is the feasibility of making it more collaborative?

Applying certain aspects of the Wikipedia model to original science communication—and even the Citizendium model—strikes me as simply impossible.  For instance, if research papers were not signed, but instead were attributed to a nameless collective, the traditional motive of scholarship—personal glory, the honor of one's peers and of history—would disappear.  In short, I very much doubt scientists would participate at all in a researech collective without definite personal credit.  We may not need prominent personal credit to create derivative works collaboratively, but original works are another matter entirely.  Indeed, the economics of the two kinds of communication are different, because our motives are different.  Many scholars and scientists will not write an encyclopedia article, news article, textbook, or a popular science book without some compensation.  But the same people routinely publish much more difficult research papers and monographs with no monetary compensation.  The glory and honor of discovery is the motivation for such work.  Wiki work is just not that glorious, or at least, not in the same way.

Another aspect of radical collaboration is open authorship, that is, the authors select themselves.  This again seems impossible, or very difficult at best, for original science communication.  For one thing, original communication expresses original thoughts, and such thoughts necessarily tend to be controversial and difficult.  To open up authorship of original work very wide would, hence, permit the participation of persons who disagree with the conclusions or who don't even understand them.  But if participation is limited to like-minded scholars who understand the research, the collaboration can no longer be called "radical."  It's just a variant on old-fashioned collaboration.

In fact, beyond issues of feasibility or difficulty, I detect an incoherence in the very idea that original research might be radically collaborative.  The act of publishing a research paper does more than merely convey some findings; it also stakes a claim, that is, it has the force or effect of attaching some definite name or names to the findings.  To make original science communication radically collaborative would be to nullify the act of taking credit.  If we were to list as co-authors people who are not responsible for the research, the author list would not longer be honoring those people actually responsible for the finding.  It would just be a list of people who happened to work on the paper that summed up the research, even if some of the people listed had none of the thoughts or conclusions contained in the paper.

One might say that open collaboration on communication of original research would help to elaborate the full range of arguments and analysis releated to the research.  But that already happens, I suppose, in the give-and-take of scientific and scholarly conversation that happens before and after a paper is published.  Indeed, it has often been observed that science and scholarship generally are massively collaborative in the sense that researchers build on each others' work; it was Newton who pointed this out when he said that he saw farther only because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  I have no doubt that new Internet methods can and already do facilitate this very old sort of scientific collaboration.  But I see no need, in addition, to permit others, who had nothing to do with some research, to participate in the writing itself of original research findings.

That said, there is at least one way that original science communication might be amenable to radical collaboration: I mean what has been called "open research" and "open science."  As I understand it, this involves inviting others to participate actively in a study—not merely collaborating on the writing, but actually doing the research for, designing, and performing experiments, surveys, and so forth.  This is something I know very little about, and I will not embarrass myself by pretending to know more than I do.  An example of such research, perhaps, was the lightning-fast investigation in multiple labs that identified the avian flu virus.  Such research can be somewhat open and self-selecting.  So perhaps that is one sense, and a very interesting sense, in which original science communication can be radically collaborative.  I'm afraid I can't presume to say anything else about that, though.

IV. Conclusion

So, to sum up, should scientific communication be collaborative?  I've made it clear, I hope, that it depends on the type of communication.  Derivative communication that merely aims to express impersonal information can, and in some cases perhaps should, become radically collaborative; the Citizendium system shows how.  But when a specific personality, or point of view, forms an important part of the value of the communication, collaboration is denaturing and devaluing.[3] And original scientific communication should be collaborative only to the extent that the research it reports has been collaborative.

In the interests of keeping this paper short and provocative, I have not answered many important questions.  Perhaps the most important unanswered question is: what constitutes a contribution to knowledge?  Also, I said that some derivative communication should not be collaborative, because its value depends on its coming from an individual mind; I said that the productions of individual minds sometimes have some special value because they "model" how to think about the world.  What do I mean by that, and what is valuable about it?  I also asserted that scientists would not participate in research programs without the expectation of credit.  That seems obvious, but perhaps I should have explained why not; that is really a core issue.  Finally, I only barely glanced at the prospects of open research, or open science.  What is such research, really?  Is it radically collaborative in anything like the wiki sense, or is it merely the practice of making our research available to others for free, and talking a lot?

Without having given clearer answers to these fundamental questions, I can't say I have adequately discussed whether science communication should be collaborative.  Clearly, this is a big question, with many ramifications.  But I do hope I have at least introduced a few of the salient issues and given you something interesting to think and talk about.

[1] "A Defense of Modest Real Names Requirements," delivered at the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 13th Annual Symposium: Altered Identities, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 13, 2008.  Available at

[2] Diderot's Encyclopedie and the 11th Encyclopedia Britannica could be notable exceptions.  Those encyclopedias, perhaps the best-known encyclopedia editions in English, both featured articles by famous contemporary thinkers who expressed their own idiosyncratic views.  To be sure, some people reject all notions of objectivity and neutrality and prefer the openly personal and idiosyncratic, even in encyclopedias.  This is not the norm, or the ideal at least, for reference work today.

[3] Lawrence Lessig's attempt to make a wiki out of his second version of his book Code (called Code 2.0), demonstrates the difficulty of watering down the ideas and voice of an interesting person.

A Defense of Modest Real Name Requirements

Lunchtime speech at the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 13th Annual Symposium: Altered Identities, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 13, 2008.

I. Introduction

Let me say up front, for the benefit of privacy advocates, that I agree entirely that it is possible to have an interesting discussion and productive collaborative effort among anonymous contributors, and I support the right to anonymity online, as a general rule. But, as I'm going to argue, such a right need not entail a right to be anonymous in every community online. After all, surely people also have the right to participate in communities in which real-world identities are required of all participants—that is, they have a right to join voluntary organizations in which everyone knows who everyone else really is. There are actually quite a few such communities online, although they tend to be academic communities.

Before I introduce my thesis, I want to distinguish two claims regarding anonymity: first, there is the claim that personal information should be available to the administrators of a website, but not necessarily publicly; and second, there's the claim that real names should appear publicly on one's contributions. I will be arguing for the latter claim, that real names should appear publicly.

But actually, I would like to put my thesis not in terms of how real names should appear, but instead in terms of what online communities are justified in requiring. Specifically in online knowledge communities—that is, Internet groups that are working to create publicly-accessible compendia of knowledge—organizers are justified in requiring that contributors use their own names, not pseudonyms. I maintain that if you want to log in and contribute to the world’s knowledge as part of an open, community project, it’s very reasonable to require that you use your real name. I don't want, right now, to make the more dramatic claim that we should require real names in online knowledge communities—I am saying merely that it is justified or warranted to do so.

Many Internet types would not give even this modest thesis a serious hearing. Most people who spend any time in online communities regard anonymity, or pseudonymity, as a right with very few exceptions. To these people, my love of real names makes me anathema. It is extremely unhip of me to suggest that people be required to use their real names in any online community. But since I have never been or aspired to be hip, that’s no great loss to me.

What I want to do in this talk is first to introduce the notion of an Internet knowledge community, and discuss how different types handle anonymity as a matter of policy. Then I will address some of the main arguments in favor of online anonymity. Finally, I will offer two arguments that it is justified to require real names for membership in online knowledge communities.

II. Some current practices in online knowledge communities

First, let me give you a definition for a phrase I'll be using throughout this talke. By online knowledge community I mean any group of people that gets organized via the Internet to create together what at least purports to be reliable information, or knowledge. And I distinguish between a community that purports to create reliable information from a community that is merely engaging in conversation or mutual entertainment. So this excludes social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook, as well as most blogs, forums, and mailing lists. might be a borderline case; calling that link rating website a “knowledge community” is again straining the definition, because I’m not sure that many people really purport to be passing out knowledge when they vote for a Web link. They’re merely stating their opinion about what they find interesting; that’s something different from offering up knowledge, it seems to me.

I want to give you a lot of examples of online knowledge communities, because I want to make a point. The first example that comes to mind, I suppose, would be Wikipedia, but also many other online encyclopedia projects, such as the Citizendium, Scholarpedia, Conservapedia, among many others (and these are only in English, of course). Then there are many single-subject encyclopedia projects, such as, in philosophy, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; in biology, there is now the Encyclopedia of Life; in mathematics, there is MathWorld; in the Earth Sciences, there is the Encyclopedia of Earth; and these are only a few examples.

But that’s just the encyclopedia projects. There are many other kinds of online knowledge communities. Another sort would be the Peer to Patent Project, started by NYU law professor Beth Noveck. Perhaps you could consider as an online knowledge community the various pre-print, or e-print, services, most notably arXiv, which has hundreds of thousands of papers in various scientific disciplines. This might be straining the definition, however. If you consider a pre-print service an online knowledge community, then perhaps you should consider any electronic journal such a community; indeed, perhaps we should, but I won’t argue the point. Anyway, I could go on multiplying examples, but I think it would get tedious, so I’ll stop there.

The examples I've given so far have been mostly academic and professional communities. And here I finally come to my point: out of all the projects named, the only ones in which real names are not required, or at least not strongly encouraged, are Wikipedia and Conservapedia. This, of course, proves only that when academics and professionals get online, they tend to use their real names, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.

But there are actually quite a few other online knowledge communities that don’t require the use of real names. I have contributed a fair bit to one that is a very useful database of Irish traditional music—it’s got information about tunes and recordings--it's called There are many other hobbyist communities that don’t require real names; just think of all the communities about games and fan fiction. Of course, then there are all the communities to support open source software projects. I doubt a single one of those requires the use of real names.

I haven't had time to do (or even find) a formal study of this, but I suspect that, as a general rule, academic projects either require or strongly encourage real names, while most other online knowledge communities do not. This should be no great surprise. Academics are used to publishing under their real names, but this is mostly for professional reasons; with the advent of the Internet, many other people are contributing to the world's knowledge, in various Internet projects, but they have no professional motivation to use their own real names. For some people--for example, a lot of Wikipedians--privacy concerns far outweigh any personal benefit they might get for putting their names on their contributions.

So, how should we think about this? Is it justifiable to demand anonymity in every online community, on grounds of privacy, or any other grounds? I don't think so.

III. Some arguments for anonymity

Next, let's consider some arguments for anonymity as a policy, and briefly outline some replies to them. By no means, of course, do I claim to have the last word here. I know I am going very quickly over some very complex issues.

A. The argument from the right to privacy. The most important and I think most persuasive argument that anonymous or pseudonymous contribution should be permitted in online communities is that this protects our right to privacy. The use of identities different from one’s real-world identity helps protect us against the harvesting of data by governments and corporations. Especially in open Internet projects, a sufficiently sophisticated search can produce vast amounts of data about what topics people are interested in, and much other information potentially of interest to one's employers, corporate competitors, criminals, government investigators, and marketers. This is a major and I think growing concern about Google, as well as many online communities like MySpace and FaceBook. Like many people, I share those concerns, even though personally my life is an open book online--maybe too open. Still, I think privacy is an important right.

But I want to draw a crucial distinction here. There is a difference between, on the one hand, using a search engine, or sharing messages, pictures, music, and video with one's friends and family, and on the other hand, adding to a database that is specifically intended to be consulted by the world as a knowledge reference. The difference is very obvious if you think about it. Namely, there is simply no need to make your name or other information publicly available, for you to do all the former activities. When you are contributing to YouTube, for example, you can achieve your aims, and others can enjoy your productions, regardless of the connection or lack thereof between your online persona and your real-world identity. So, in those contexts, the connection between your persona and your identity should be strictly up to you. For example, whether you let a certain other person, or a marketer, see your FaceBook profile also should be strictly up to you. These online services have become extensions of our real lives, the details of which have been and generally should remain private, if we want them to be.

We have a clear interest in controlling information about our private lives; we have that interest, of course, because it can be so easily abused, but also because we want to maintain our own reputations without having the harsh glare of public knowledge shone on everything we do. Lack of privacy changes how we behave, and indeed we might behave more authentically, and we might have more to offer our friends and family, if we can be sure that our behavior is not on display to the entire world.

I've tried to explain why I support online privacy rights in most contexts. But I say that there is a large difference between social networking communities like MySpace and FaceBook, on the one hand, and online knowledge communities like Wikipedia and the Citizendium, on the other hand. When you contribute to the latter communities, the public does have a strong interest in knowing your name and identity when you contribute. This is something I will come back to in the next part of this talk, when I give some positive arguments for real names requirements.

B. The argument from the freedom of speech. But back to the arguments for anonymity. A second argument has it that not having to reveal who you are strengthens the freedom of speech. If you can speak out against the government, or your employer, or other powerful or potentially threatening entities, without fear of repercussions, that allows you to reveal the full truth in all its ugliness. This is, of course, the classic libertarian argument for anonymous speech.

The most effective reply to this is to observe that, in general, there is no reason that online collaborative communities should serve as a platform for people who want to publish without personal repercussions. There are and will be many other platforms available for that. Indeed, specific online services, such as WikiLeaks, have been set up for anonymous free speech. Long may they flourish. Moreover, part of the beauty of the classical right to freedom of speech is that it provides maximum transparency. Anyone can say anything—but then, anyone else can put the first person’s remarks in context by (correctly) characterizing that person. Maximum transparency is the best way to secure the benefits of free speech.

I suspect it is a little disingenuous to suggest that anonymous speech is generally conducive to the truth in online knowledge communities. The WikiScanner, and the various mini-scandals it unearthed, actually helps to illustrate this point. It illustrated something that was perfectly obvious to anyone familiar with the Wikipedia system: that persons with a vested interest in a topic can and do make anonymous edits to information about that topic on Wikipedia. They are not telling truth to power under the cover of anonymity. Rather, they are using the cover of anonymity to obscure the truth. They would behave differently, and would be held to much more rigorous standards, if their identities were known. I want to suggest, as I'll elaborate later, that full transparency--including knowledge of contributor identities--is actually more truth-conducive than a policy permitting anonymity.

IV. Two reasons for real name requirements

Now I am going to shift gears, and advance two positive arguments for requiring real names in online knowledge communities. One argument is political: it is that communities are better governed if their members are identified by name. The other argument is epistemological: it is that the content created by an "identified" community will be more reliable than content created by an "anonymous" community.

A. The argument from enforcement. The first argument is one that I think you legal theorists might be able to sink your teeth into. Let me present it in a very abstract way first, and then give an example. Consider first that if you cannot identify a person who breaks a rule, it is impossible to punish that person, or enforce the rule in that case. Forgive me for getting metaphysical on you, but the sort of entity that is punished is a person. If you can't identify a specific person to punish, you obviously can't carry out the punishment. This is the case not just if you can't capture the perpetrator, but also if you have captured him but you can't prove that he really is the perpetrator. That's all obvious. But it's also the case that you can't carry out the punishment if the perpetrator is clearly identifiable in one disguise, but then changes to another disguise.

So far so good, I hope. Next, consider a principle that I understand is sometimes advanced in jurisprudence, which is that there is no law, in fact, unless it is effectively enforced. A law or rule on the books that is constantly broken and never enforced is not really, in some full-blooded important sense, a law. For example, the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit might not be a full-blooded rule, since you can drive 56 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone, and never get a ticket. Obviously I am not denying that the rule is on the books; obviously it is. I am merely saying that the words on the books lack the force of law.

Now suppose, if you will, that in your community, your worst offenders can only rarely be effectively identified. You have to go to superhuman lengths to be able to identify them. In that case, you've got no way to enforce your rules: your hands are tied by your failure to identify your perpetrators effectively. But then, if you cannot enforce your rules, your rules lack the force of law. In a real sense, your community lacks rules.

I want to suggest that the situation I've just described abstractly is pretty close to the situation that Wikipedia and some other online communities are in. On Wikipedia, you don't have to sign in to make any edits. Or, if you want to sign in, you can make up whatever sort of nonsense name you like; you don't have to supply a working e-mail address, and you can make as many Wikipedia usernames as your twisted heart desires. Of course, no one ever asks what your real name is. In fact, Wikipedia has a rule according to which you can be punished for revealing the real identity behind a pseudonym.

This all means that there is no effective way to identify many rulebreakers. Now, there is, of course, a way to identify what IP address a rulebreaker uses, but as anyone who knows about IP addresses knows, you can't match an IP address uniquely to a person. Sometimes, many people are using the same address; sometimes, one person is constantly bouncing around a range of addresses, and sharing that range with other people. So there is often collateral damage when you block the IP address, or a range of addresses, of a perpetrator. Besides, anyone with the slightest bit Internet sophistication can quickly find out how to get around this problem, by using an anonymizer or proxy.

That there is no effective way to identify some rulebreakers is a significant practical problem on Wikipedia, in fact. Wikipedians complain often and bitterly about anonymous, long-term, motivated trouble-makers who use what are called "sockpuppets"--that is, several accounts controlled by the same person. Indeed, this is Wikipedia's most serious problem, from the point of view of true-believer Wikipedians.

In this way, Wikipedia lacks enforceable rules because it permits anonymity. I think it's a serious problem that it lacks enforceable rules. Here's one way to explain why. Suppose that we say that polities are defined by their rules. If that is the case, then Wikipedia is not a true polity. In fact, no online community can be a polity if permits anonymous participation. But why care about being a polity? For one thing, Wikipedia and other online communities, which typically permit anonymity, are sometimes characterized as a sort of democratic revolution. On my view, this is an abuse of the term "democratic." How can something be democratic if it isn't even a polity?

There is another, shorter argument that anonymous communities cannot be democratic. First, observe that if it is not necessary to confirm a person’s identity, the person may vote multiple times in a system in which voting takes place. Moreover, if the identities of persons engaged in community deliberation need not be known, one person may create the appearance of a groundswell of support for a view simply by posting a lot of comments using different identities. But, for voting and deliberation to be fair and democratic, each person’s vote, and voice, must count for just one. Therefore, a system that does not take cognizance of identities is inherently unfair and undemocratic. I think anonymous communities cannot be fair and democratic.

But why should we care about our online communities being fair, democratic polities? Perhaps their governance is relatively unimportant. When it comes to whether a link is placed on the front page of, or what videos are highly rated on YouTube, does it really matter if it's not all quite on the up-and-up?

Maybe not. I am not going to argue about that now. But matters are very different, I want to maintain, with online knowledge communities, which is the subject of this paper. Knowledge communities, I think, must be operated as fair, democratic, and mature polities, if they are open to all sorts of contributors and they purport to contain reliable information that can be used as reference material for the world. It makes a difference, I claim, if an online community purports to collect knowledge, and not just talk and share media among friends and family.

Why does it matter if a community collects knowledge? First, it's because knowledge is important; we use information to make important decisions, so it is important that our information be reliable. If you are not convinced, consider that many people now believe that false information caused the United States to go to war in Iraq. Consider how many innocent people are in prison because of bad information. These days, two top issues for scientists are also political issues: global warming and teaching evolution in the schools. Scientists are very concerned that persons in politically-powerful positions do not have sufficient regard for well-established knowledge. Whatever you think of these specific cases, all of which are politically charged, it seems clear enough that there is no shortage of examples that demonstrate that we do, as a society, care very much that our information be reliable--that we do not merely have random unjustified beliefs, but that we know.

The trouble, of course, is that as a society--especially as a global Internet society--we do not all agree on what we know. Therefore, when we come together online from across the globe to create collections of what call knowledge, we need fair, sensible ways to settle our disputes. That means we must have rules; so we must have a mature polity that can successfully enforce rules. And, to come back to the point, that means we must identify the members of these polities; we are well justified to disallow anonymous membership.

B. The epistemological argument. Finally, I want to introduce briefly an epistemological argument for real names requirements, which is distinguishable from the argument which I just introduced, even though it had epistemological elements too. Now I want to argue that using our real identities not only makes a polity possible, it improves the reliability of the information that the community outputs.

Perhaps this is not obvious. As I said earlier, some people maintain that knowledge is improved when people are free to "speak truth to power" from a position of anonymity. But, as I said, I suspect that in online communities like Wikipedia, a position of anonymity is used specifically to obscure the truth more than reveal it. Now, in all honesty, I have to admit that this might be rather too glib. After all, most anonymous contributors to Wikipedia aren't trying to reveal controversial truths, or cover them up; they are simply adding information, which is more or less correct. Their anonymity doesn't shield them from wrongdoing, it merely shields their privacy. As a result, why not say that the vast quantity of information found in Wikipedia--which is very useful to a lot of people--is directly the result of Wikipedia's policy of anonymity? In that case, anonymity actually increases our knowledge--at least the sheer quantity of our knowledge.

Can I refute that argument? I'm not sure I can, nor would I want to if it is correct. The point being made is empirical, and I don't know what the facts are. If anonymity does in fact have that effect, hooray for anonymity. I merely want to make a few relevant points.

I think that in the next five to ten years, we will see whether huge numbers of people are also willing to come together to work under their own real names. I don't pretend to be unbiased on this point, but I think they will be. I don't think that anonymity is badly wanted or needed by the majority of the potential contributors to online knowledge communities in general. Having observed these communities for about fifteen years, my impression is that people get involved because they love the sense of excitement they get from being part of a growing, productive community. My guess is that anonymity is pretty much irrelevant to that excitement.

Regardless of the role of anonymity in the growth of online resources, a real names policy has a whole list of specific epistemological benefits that a policy of anonymity cannot secure. Consider a few such benefits.

First, the author of a piece of work will be more careful than if she puts her real name on it: her real-world reputation is on the line. And I suppose being more careful will lead to more reliable information. This is quickly stated, and very plausible, but it is a very important benefit.

Second, a community all of whose members use their real names will, as a whole, have a better reputation than one that is dominated by pseudonymous people. We naturally trust those who are willing to tell us who they are. As a result, the community naturally has a reputation to live up to. There are no similar expectations of good quality from an anonymous community, and hence no high expectations to live up to.

Third, it is much harder for partisans, PR people, and others to use the system to cover up unpleasant facts, or to present a one-sided view of a complex situation. When real names are used, the community can require the subjects of biographies and the principals of organizations to act as informants. The Citizendium does this. Wikipedia can't, because this would require that people identify themselves.

V. Conclusion

I'm going to wrap up now. I've covered a lot of ground and I went over some things rather fast, so here is a summary.

I began by defining "online knowledge community," and showing with a number of examples that online academic communities tend to use (or strongly emphasize the use of) real names. Other sorts of online communities generally permit or encourage anonymity, because there is no career benefit to being identified, while there is a definite interest in privacy. I considered two main arguments (though I know there are others) for permitting anonymity as a matter of policy. One argument starts from the premise that we have an interest in keeping our personal lives private; I admit that premise, but I say that, when it comes to knowledge communities in particular, society has an overriding interest in knowing your identity. Another argument is a version of the classical libertarian argument for anonymous speech. I grant that society needs venues in which anonymous speech can take place; I simply deny that all online knowledge communities need play that role. Besides, anonymity is probably used more as a way to burnish public images than it is to "speak truth to power."

In the second half of the paper, I considered two main arguments (though again, there are others) for requiring real names as matter of policy in online knowledge communities. In the first, I argued that rules cannot be effectively enforced when rule-breakers cannot be identified. This is a problem, because we would like online knowledge communities to be fair and democratic polities; but when community members cannot be uniquely identified, this violates the principle of one person, one voice, one vote. Then I argued that the requirement of real names actually increases the reliability of a community's output. Since we want the output of knowledge communities, in particular, to be maximally reliable, we are well justified in requiring real names in such communities.

A compromise position that I favor would involve requiring real users’ names to be visible to other contributors; allowing them to mask their real names to non-contributors; and legally forbidding the use of our database to mine personal information. This compromise does not settle the theoretical issue discussed in the arguments that follow, of course.

Citizendium: A New Vision for Online Knowledge Communities

Speech delivered at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan,
Feb. 7, 2008, as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Lecture Series,
"Wikipedia - Democratization of Knowledge or Triumph of Amateurs," hosted by
Marshall Poe.

Familiar territory

Five or ten years ago, if I were introducing a new wiki encyclopedia project, I would have to argue and explain at great length about the advantages of mass collaboration. And you all would be very skeptical. I would explain how people can come together online from around the world and donate their labor to create something that everyone can access freely, and which is controlled by the contributors themselves. I would have to teach lessons about bottom-up methods and free content. But today, most of you are all firm believers that enormous amounts of reasonably good, if not perfect, content can be created by online communities. Everybody knows what giant online communities can create, because everyone can see the results in Wikipedia, YouTube, and the many other community-built websites.

So my task isn't to explain everything about how the Citizendium, this new project, works, because in many ways it works similarly to many other Internet community content projects. It is open to everyone--or, everyone willing to work under our rules, anyway. It is built collaboratively, by people working together on a wiki. It is built bottom-up, which means no one is assigning articles, and generally, no one in authority needs to be consulted except when really difficult disputes need to be resolved; instead, the people who make decisions about an article are the people who happen to show up. The resulting content is free, meaning anyone can read and republish it, at will and free of charge. And it is run by a non-profit.

This is familiar territory. It would be boring and banal for me to point out that collaboration on free content represents an interesting opportunity. Of course it does. The Internet has been exploiting that opportunity for almost ten years, at least ever since the Open Directory Project got started in 1998. The real question is whether there are any interesting new free content opportunities. And there is, I think. The most interesting unexploited opportunity before the Internet today is high quality and high relevance. In short, if developing sheer quantity of content was the big exciting problem ten years ago, we've licked that one. The big exciting problem now is quality: how to create enormous amounts of high-quality and highly-relevant content. And this is--I guarantee it--a much more difficult problem, and one that not nearly as many online projects will be able to solve.

The problem of quality and relevance

This is a problem that just cannot be solved by "more of the same." For example, simply throwing more people at the problem of quality will not solve it, for the simple reason that many people do poor quality work in the existing community content systems. Simply look at the results that come up from a typical Google search. It is estimated that there are over one billion people online now. If number of people were the answer to the problem of high quality, wouldn't we have a brilliantly pristine Internet? But, of course, we don't. Instead, the Internet reflects a wonderfully diverse humanity, from the lows of porn websites on up to professionally edited, highly interesting content collections, written by some of the most brilliant minds. Now, please don't get me wrong. I think that, for example, Wikipedia is very useful, and the contributions of hundreds of thousands of amateurs is crucial to its usefulness. But there is a big difference between being highly useful, on the one hand, and of really high quality, on the other.

The problem of quality and relevance won't be solved by more of the same. You could make projects even more free--you could release them into the public domain, instead of using a Creative Commons license. But this would not solve the quality problem. And again, you could make projects as wonderfully collaborative as you want--even more collaborative than Wikipedia is now--but that still wouldn't help establish reliability or relevance.

Three principles

Clearly, something really important has been left out of the Web 2.0 equation. What? What needs to be added so that our communities produce content that is not merely abundant, useful, and interesting, but also reliable and relevant?

I have three principles, which I will state briefly first but then elaborate, because it is very easy to misunderstand in all three cases. They are:

  1. Find a meaningful role for experts within the project.
  2. Require contributors to use their real-world identities.
  3. Establish the rule of law by committing contributors to a social contract that makes them full partners in the project.

Adopting these three principles will help transform Web 2.0 into Web 3.0. Leveraged intelligently, these principles will allow an online community to produce high quality and relevance, without necessarily compromising high productivity. They will, in short, help the Internet to grow up.

Let's consider these principles each briefly in turn.

A role for experts in open projects

First, experts are needed to play meaningful roles, in short, because only they can be counted on to recognize when some content represents the latest expert knowledge. Amateurs and dilettantes are sometimes perfectly capable of creating excellent and reliable material on many subjects, especially if they're good writers and researchers; but they are inconsistent in doing so, and they generally lack the expert's ability to judge when some content actually represents the latest expert opinion on a subject. It seems obvious that the intelligent use of experts in a collaborative project can help to improve the quality of the output.

To this there are some common reactions, which I want to address directly, though I don't have time to do them justice.

Whenever I suggest that experts need a place in some online communities, one of the first things someone says in reply is that there's no way to tell who the experts are. But I find this very puzzling. Society has many ways to identify experts. And not all of them are jokes! There are even better ways than "a person from out of town with slides." To identify its expert editors, the Citizendium asks people to send a CV and we have certain objective criteria, such as terminal degrees and publishing, and other relevant evidence of expertise.

A second thing that people often imply, or assume, is that if one makes a place for experts, that will make the community a top-down, command-and-control system, which is a step backwards. Now, I fully admit that professionals of all sorts have a bit of a fetish for hierarchy and bureaucracy. But that doesn't mean that they cannot participate in a relatively flat, bottom-up community. And this is what the Citizendium does. Our editors have the general authority to make decisions about articles, but they rarely "pull rank." They can also approve articles. Neither of these functions compromises the bottom-up, collaborative, productive nature of the project.

Third, there is the confused thought, which is alarmingly common, that the very concept of expertise is somehow passe, and that experts have been somehow rendered unnecessary in a world that could produce Wikipedia. This sentiment is very confused, as I say. It stems from the insight that the open source community, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and so forth have all been able to produce enormous amounts of interesting, useful stuff--all without experts. This is actually incorrect. All of those Internet projects have produced interesting, useful content in part because they have experts who are comfortable working in a perfectly open system. What is true is that those projects generally do not have expert supervisors, people chosen specifically because they are qualified to manage content of a certain type. But more importantly, the mere fact that interesting, useful content can be created without expert supervision simply doesn't mean that humanity can't do any better. It is very obvious to me that can do better than Wikipedia, YouTube, and all the rest.

Why real names

The second of the three principles I stated above is that we should require contributors to use their real-world identities. In other words, when you contribute to a project, you can't call yourself "hipster45"; you have to use your own real name and identity. You can't lie about who you are. I don't say that this is necessary for every Internet community. After all, there are some people who will simply never contribute under their own identities, because they are concerned about privacy matters; or they don't want to be embarrassed later by their bad behavior online. Sometimes it might be better not to require the use of real-world identities. I admit that.

But in the case of strongly collaborative knowledge community like the Citizendium, it makes good sense to require real names. There are at least three reasons. First, it improves the credibility of the output: people can see who contributed some content, and whether they appear to know anything about the subject. Second, by making people take real-world personal responsibility for their contributions, it becomes possible to enforce rules. When problem contributors can make up a new pseudonym as soon as they get out of line, this makes it in principle impossible to enforce rules effectively. But if you can enforce rules effectively, you can do the work of a project a lot more efficiently. Third, people do tend to behave themselves better when their identities are known and their behavior is out in the open, and good behavior is crucial to a smoothly running knowledge community.

Again, however, there are some common objections to the principle that I want to address. Some people assume that I think there should never be anonymity online. That is simply wrong; I think that anonymity is one of the great advantages of the Internet, actually, and I believe it reinforces the value of free speech. I merely think that, in knowledge communities like the Citizendium, the advantages of requiring real names strongly outweighs the advantages of permitting pseudonyms.

Some might find it unusual that I would claim that the advantage lies in requiring real names. After all, one might well point out that many people will never contribute to the Citizendium simply because we do require real names. And I do have to admit that there are probably quite a few people involved in Wikipedia who will never get involved in the Citizendium precisely because they can't use a pseudonym. How do I respond to that?

Well, I have no data to back me up on this, of course, because it is speculative, but I think that in the long run, there will be more people willing to work as identified, responsible members of an Internet community connected to the real world, than as unidentified avatars, disconnected from the real world. In fact, in the long run, I think there could be more people who will insist on a real names requirement, precisely because it makes the community more mature, and those who use their real names are not at an disadvantage to those who use fake names.

There are also some understandable questions about how we can manage to confirm a person's real name on the Internet. I don't have time to go into that in great detail, but suffice it to say that we merely require some proof. We don't pretend to have an fallible system, which I would think would be impossible to have while remaining truly open and efficient. But so far, very, very few contributors have been exposed as having used an unregistered pseudonym.

The rule of law in online communities

Now to the third principle. Anyone who has spent a lot of time working in online communities is familiar with certain types of problematic characters and certain patterns of bad behavior. Governance of online communities, according to Internet scholar Clay Shirky, is a "certified hard problem." I agree. But what makes it hard is that such communities are generally volunteer communities of equals, and in such communities, it is hard to get buy-in from participants for resting some decisionmaking authority in anyone's hands. I actually think that this is a problem about the Internet's radical egalitarianism. As political philosophers sometimes observe, if you take egalitarianism to an extreme, you've got anarchy. After all, if everyone is supposed to be totally equal, they should all be equal in power; and that means that no one can be a decisionmaking authority, because the decisionmaking authority would have more power than the average person.

Well, I don't mean to go into that, as much as I'd like to. I only wanted to bring up that subject to explain why I think it is so important that online communities adopt constitutions, as it were, just as real, offline communities do. If you think about it, it is bizarre that online communities don't demand this more often, just as offline communities do. Of course, there are many online communities that announce basic ground rules in advance--especially listservs (mailing list discussions).

I think that online communities should go beyond basic ground rules. I think they should require their members to sign onto the rules explicitly, and then give the members a key stake in the governance of the project. In my experience, giving members an active stake in governance gets them personally invested, and great things can result.

But this isn't how many Web 2.0 projects work. Many of them are actually for-profit businesses that essentially exploit their contributors. This has struck me increasingly as a very strange and morally problematic situation. I think that we could be accomplishing a great deal more, and potentially avoid many abuses that plague MySpace and YouTube, if there were mature community governance. But probably, the owners of such websites would not stand for it.

How these principles are interrelated

These might appear to you to be three unrelated principles, but they are in fact closely related and mutually supporting, and together they represent a different vision of what online communities should look like.

I've found that it's very difficult to get experts involved in open projects. Experts generally tend not to take a venue seriously unless it is closed and exclusive. I do note that Wikipedia has had a fair bit of expert involvement, largely owing to the broad influence that it has a resource, being #8 in the Alexa rankings. But I also note that they tend not to stick around for very long. Most experts are not going to stay involved in an open project if their views are not respected, and frankly, their views aren't going to be respected unless it is a project policy that their views be respected. That's because most people simply assume that online communities are perfectly egalitarian, and no special consideration should to be given to expertise. So that's the first principle: respect expertise.

But if there is to be a policy that in some way requires respect of expert knowledge, there has to be an effective way to enforce that policy. So the project first needs to secure the support of participants for the policy, or it will be unenforceable. An excellent way to secure support for basic policies is to require participants to sign onto an explicit "social contract"--that's the third principle.

Some people will go to surprising lengths to disrupt a project--it's literally a hobby for them--if they can hide behind anonymity or pseudonymity. So it isn't enough to get people to say, "I agree with your fundamental policies." The very most disruptive people will say they agree, and then proceed to get the whole community up in arms; some people just thrive on chaos that way. If you attempt to ban such people from the community, but anonymity is allowed, they can and, in some communities, do return--and commit the same offenses all over again. This basically means that anonymity makes it impossible to enforce rules effectively. So if you want to have fundamental rules at all, if you want to have the rule of law, you must require people to reveal their identities, at least to project organizers. That's the second principle.

The growing opportunity

Let's take a step back. Imagine what a successful online community that adopts these three principles would look like. It could still be radically collaborative, bottom-up, free, dynamic, and productive. But it would also welcome experts and give them the credit due to their long years of study and experience. They need not bark orders; they could work alongside the rank-and-file contributors and act as guides rather than as top-down managers. As a result, the quality of the content could be expected to be considerably more reliable, or at least considerably more faithful to the latest expert knowledge, than the typical Web 2.0 project.

Not only would content be more reliable in this way, it would also be more credible. That is because people would be required to use their own real names, and content that comes with a name attached is for that reason at least slightly more credible. I'm sure you all remember the hubbub that the "WikiScanner" caused. For a month or so there was story after story about how different corporations and politicians had removed all negative information about them
from Wikipedia. That of course was a result of Wikipedia's anonymity policy. Well, imagine a more reliable wiki encyclopedia that required people to take responsibility for their additions--and their deletions. The sort of abuses that are epidemic in Wikipedia would be much less likely to happen in the new sort of project.

Finally, consider the community from the point of view of the participants. With gentle guidance from experts and their relative maturity, with the requirement of real names, and with the requirement that people agree to the basic project rules, the community that results can be expected to be much cooler, calmer, and saner. I think of this new sort of community like a friendly, open county fair with expert judges, where many older-style communities resemble a street fight between rival gangs, or a free-for-all barroom brawl.

The new sort of online community I've described is a significant opportunity, as I see it--it is the next step in the development, or the maturation, of the Internet. I think in another ten years, this will be regarded by most people as the only sensible sort of online community, at least for knowledge projects.

The Citizendium experience so far

This is the opportunity that the Citizendium project leverages. We employ all three principles. So, of course, you might be interested to know how we're doing. I will conclude by giving you a progress report.

First, I should clarify that we are open to virtually everyone who is willing to work under our rules. If you give us your real name, convincing evidence of who you are, a coherent brief biography about yourself, and you agree with our fundamental policies, then you're in. We have something like 250 editors and over 2,000 authors registered.

A private pilot project got started in November 2006, and we opened the project up to public viewing and broader participation in March 2007, a little less than a year ago. While thousands of people have created accounts, each month over 200 people edit the wiki, and on any given day you can expect to see 40 different people, who we call Citizens, on the wiki. These Citizens are all named, so that when you examine the Citizendium recent changes page, you see nothing but real names. To someone familiar with regular wikis, this is a very unusual and refreshing sight.

By various measures, our rate of production has been increasing, which is to say that production is accelerating. One way of measuring production is the rate at which new articles are created. A year ago, we were creating about five new articles per day; now we're up to 15 per day, and we're on a decided upward trend. We also added, in our first year, over five million words. That is more words than Wikipedia produced in its first year.

And how many articles? Because some people have uploaded articles from Wikipedia without working on them, we don't take credit for those. We take credit only for those articles that we have started ourselves, which is most of them, and articles to which we've made significant changes. Well, we have 5,200 articles under development, and we added our most recent 2,000 articles in about the last three months. So we are definitely accelerating.

In all honesty, we aren't doing so well approving new articles; we only have about 50 approved articles. I think this is mostly because our editors are more interested in working on new articles than approving old ones. I also think we can make our article approval process much more efficient, and that's something I hope to organize soon, if no one else does.

So much for our productivity. What about our community? What's our quality of life, so to speak? Well, here, I think we really shine. Outside of a short time last year in which we experimented with self-enrollment, we have had virtually no vandalism. That's right, despite being as productive and open as it is, the Citizendium is basically vandalism-free.

As can be expected in any community, online or offline, the Citizendium community has its share of personal unpleasantness. But typically I find people interacting politely and reasonably pleasantly, even when they are disagreeing. I also find very little indeed of what I used to describe on Wikipedia as "trolling"--in other words, hardly anyone ever appears to be disrupting the community just for the sake of doing so, or just to call attention to himself.

There are many developments I lack the time to tell you about, but I'd like to highlight one in particular, because it applies to the university context. Last semester we started a project called "Eduzendium." Essentially, we're inviting college instructors to assign their students Citizendium articles for class assignments. The students get extra help from the Citizendium community with their articles, and are motivated to do a good job not only because their work is visible publicly, but because it will actually be of good use to the whole world. Instructors get a new assignment type in their repertoire. And the Citizendium benefits, of course, from the added activity and content. Well, last semester we had courses at Purdue and the University of the Witwatersrand (in South Africa), and others. This semester, larger classes at University of Colorado, Temple University, and CUNY are engaged in the program. I think the Eduzendium project will inevitably expand, and in a few more years actually become a large source of our content.

Well, that's my report. I think we're doing very well for being about a year old. If we continue to accelerate our growth, you can expect us to be have over 100,000 articles within a few years.

So, why don't you help us toward that goal? I would like to conclude by inviting you all, everyone in this audience, to join the Citizendium and start a new article tomorrow.

Thank you very much.


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

A speech for "the locals"--Upper Arlington Public Library, January 23, 2008.  This is a more general discussion; the Citizendium is not mentioned once.

Information is easy, knowledge is difficult

There is a mind-boggling amount of information online. And this is a wonderful thing. I’m serious about that. A good search engine is like an oracle: you can ask it any question you like and be sure to get an answer. The answer might be exactly what you’re looking for, or it might be, well, oracular—difficult to interpret and possibly incorrect. I draw the usual distinction between knowledge and information. You can find information online very easily. Knowledge is another matter altogether.

Now, this is not something new about the Internet. It’s a basic feature of human life that while information is easy, knowledge is difficult. There has never been a shortage of mere data and opinion in human life. It’s a very old observation that the most ignorant people are usually full of opinions, while many of the most knowledgeable people are full of doubt. Other people are certainly sources of knowledge, but they are also sources of half-truths, confusion, misinformation, and lies. If we simply want information from others, it is easy to get; if we want knowledge in any strong sense of the word, it is very difficult. Besides that, long before the Internet, there was far more to read, far more television shows and movies to watch, than anyone could ever absorb in many lifetimes. Before the Internet, we were already awash in information. Wading through all that information in search of some hard knowledge was very difficult indeed.

Too Much InformationThe Internet is making this old and difficult problem even worse. If we had an abundance of information in, say, the 1970s, the Internet has created a superabundance of information today. Out of curiosity, I looked up some numbers. According to one estimate, there are now over 1.2 billion people online; Netcraft estimated that there are over 100 million websites, and about half of those are active. And those estimates come from over a year ago.

With that many people, and that many active websites, clearly there is, as I say, a superabundance of information. Nielsen ratings of Internet search showed that there were some six billion searches performed in December, 2007, in one month—that’s about 72 billion in a year! Google, by the way, was responsible for two thirds of those searches. Now, you might have heard these numbers before; I don’t mean to be telling you news. But I want to worry out loud about a consequence of this situation.

My worry is that the superabundance of information is devaluing knowledge. The more that information piles up on Internet servers around the world, and the easier it is for that information to be found, the less distinctive and attractive that knowledge will appear by comparison. I fear that the Internet has already greatly weakened our sense of what is distinctive about knowledge, and why it is worth seeking. I know this might seem rather abstract, and not something worth getting worked up about. Why, really, should you care?

It used to be that in order to learn some specific fact, like the population of France, you had to crack open a big thick paper encyclopedia or other reference book. One of the great things about the Internet is that that sort of searching—for very specific, commonly-sought-after facts—has become dead simple. Even more, there are many facts one can now find online that, in the past, would have taken a trip to the local library to find. The point is that the superabundance of information has actually made it remarkably easy to get information. Today, it’s easy not just to get some information about something or other, it’s easy to get boatloads of information about very specific questions and topics we’re interested in.

For all that, knowledge is, I’m afraid, not getting much easier. To be quite sure of an answer still requires comparing multiple sources, critical thinking, sometimes a knowledge of statistics and mathematics, and a careful attention to detail when it comes to understanding texts. In short, knowledge still requires hard thought. Sure, technology is a great time-saver in various ways; it has certainly made research easier, and it will become only more so. But the actual mental work that results in knowledge of a topic cannot be made much easier, simply because no one else can do your thinking for you. So while information becomes nearly instantaneous and dead simple, knowledge is looking like a doddering old uncle.

What do I mean by that? Well, you can find tons of opinions online, ready-made, but there is an interesting feature of a lot of the information and opinion you find online: not only is it easy to find, it is easy to digest. Just think of the different types of pages that a typical Web search turns up: news articles, which summarize events for the average person; blogs, which are usually very brief; Web forums, which only rarely go into depth; and encyclopedia articles and other mere summaries of topics. Of course, there are also very good websites, as well as the “Deep Web,” which contains things like books and journal articles and white papers; but most people do not use those other resources. The point is that most of the stuff that you typically find on the Internet is pretty lightweight. It’s Info Lite.

“Right,” you say, “what’s wrong with that? Great taste, less filling!” Sure, I like easy, entertaining information as much as the next guy. But what’s wrong with it is that it makes the hard work of knowledge much less appealing by comparison. For example, if you are coming to grips with what we should do about global warming, or illegal immigration, or some other very complex issue, you must escape the allure of all the dramatic and entertaining news articles and blog posts on these subjects. Instead, you must be motivated to wade through a lot of far drier material. The sources that are more likely to help you in your quest for knowledge look very boring by comparison. My point here is that the superabundance of information devalues knowledge, because the means of solid knowledge are decidedly more difficult and less sexy than the Info Lite that it is so easy to find online.

There is another way that the superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. It is that, for 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 isn’t someone 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’s 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. So, while the Internet conversation has instilled in us a tendency to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We do end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we can’t help it.

In short, we are reading reams of content written by amateurs, without the benefit of editors, which means we must as it were be our own editors. But many of us, I’m afraid, do not seem to be prepared for the job. In my own long experience interacting with Internet users, I find heaps of skepticism and little respect for what others write, regardless of whether it is edited or not. Now, skepticism is all well and good. But at the same time, I find hardly anything in the way of real critical thinking. The very opinionated people I encounter online rarely demonstrate that they have thought things through as they should, given their strength of convictions. I have even encountered college professors who cite easy-to-find news articles in the commission of the most elementary of logical fallacies. So it isn’t necessarily just a lack of education that accounts for the problem I’m describing. Having “information at our fingertips,” clearly, sometimes makes us skip the hard thinking that knowledge requires. Even those of us who ought to know better are too often content to be impressed by the sheer quantity and instant availability of information, and let it substitute for their own difficult thought.

The nature and value of knowledge

Easy information devalues hard knowledge, I say. But so far I have merely been appealing to your understanding of the nature and value of knowledge. Someone might ask me: well, what do you mean by knowledge, anyway, that it is so different from mere information? And why does it matter?

Philosophers since Plato have been saying that knowledge is actually a special kind of belief. It must be true, first of all, and it must also be justified, or have good reasons or evidence to support it. For example, let’s suppose I read something for the first time on some random blog, such as that Heath Ledger died. Suppose I just uncritically believe this. Well, even if it’s true, I don’t know that it is true, because random blogs make up stuff all the time. A blog saying something really isn’t a good enough reason to believe it. But if I then read the news in a few other, more credible sources, then my belief becomes much better justified, and then I can be said to know.

Now, I don’t want to go into a lot of unnecessary details and qualifications, which I could, at this point. So let me get right to my point. I say knowledge is, roughly speaking, justified, true belief. Well then, I want to add that knowledge is difficult not because getting truth is difficult, but because justifying our beliefs is. In other words, it’s really easy to get truth. Google is a veritable oracle of truth. The problem is recognizing truth, and distinguishing it from falsehood. The ocean of information online contains a huge amount of truth. The difficulty comes in knowing when you’ve got it.

Well, that’s what justification is for. We use reasons, or evidence, to determine that, indeed, if we accept a piece of information, we will have knowledge, not error. But producing a good justification for our beliefs is extremely difficult. It requires, as I said before, good sources, critical thinking, sometimes a knowledge of statistics and mathematics, and a careful attention to detail when it comes to understanding texts. This all takes time and energy, and while others can help, it is something that one must do for oneself.

Here you might wonder: if justification, and therefore knowledge, is really so difficult, then why go to all the trouble? Besides, justification is not an all-or-nothing matter. How much evidence is needed before we can be said to know something? After all, if a blogger says that Heath Ledger is dead, that is at least some weak evidence that Heath Ledger is in fact dead. Do I really need stronger evidence? Why?

These are very difficult questions. The best brief answer is, “It depends.” Sometimes, if someone is just telling an entertaining story, it doesn’t matter at all whether it’s true or not. So it doesn’t matter that you know the details of the story; if the story entertains, it has done its job. I am sure that celebrity trivia is similar: it doesn’t matter whether the latest gossip in the Weekly World News about Britney Spears is true, it’s just entertaining to read. But there are many other subjects that matter a lot more. Here are two: global warming and immigration reform. Well, I certainly can’t presume to tell you how much evidence you need for your positions on these issues, before you can claim to have knowledge. Being a skeptic, I would actually say that we can’t have knowledge about such complex issues, or at least, not very certain knowledge. But I would say that it is still important to get as much knowledge as possible about these issues. Why? Quite simply because a lot is riding on our getting the correct answers, and the more that we study issues, and justify our beliefs, the more likely our beliefs are to be correct.

To passively absorb information from the Internet, without caring about whether we have good reasons for what we believe, is really to roll the dice. Like all gambling, this is pleasant and self-indulgent. But if the luck doesn’t go your way, it can come back to bite you.

Knowledge matters, and as wonderful a tool for knowledge as the Internet can be, it can also devalue knowledge. It does so, I’ve said, by making passive absorption of information seem more pleasant than the hard work of justifying beliefs, and also by presenting us with so much unedited, low-quality information that we cannot absorb it as carefully as we would like. But there is another way that the Internet devalues knowledge: by encouraging anonymity. So here’s a bit about that.

Knowledge and anonymity

We get much of our knowledge from other people. Of course, we pick some things up directly from conversation, or speeches like this one. We also read books, newspapers, and magazines; we watch informational television programs; and we watch films. In short, we get knowledge either directly from other people, or indirectly, through various media.

Now, the Internet is a different sort of knowledge source. The Internet is very different, importantly different, from both face-to-face conversation and from the traditional media. Let’s talk about that.

The Internet has been called, again, a giant conversation. But it’s a very unusual conversation, if so. For one thing, it’s not a face-to-face conversation. We virtually never have the sort of “video telephone” conversations that the old science fiction stories described. In fact, on many online knowledge websites, we often have no names, pictures, or any information at all, about the people that we converse or work with online. Like the dog in the famous New Yorker cartoon said, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In the three-dimensional online virtual world, Second Life, there is an elaborate system in which you can choose the precise physical characteristics for the person you are online—your “avatar.” Not surprisingly, in Second Life, there are a lot more beautiful and striking-looking people than there are in “First Life”—real life. This practice of make-believe is very self-conscious, and many academic papers have been written about how “identity” is “constructed” online in general.

When I went to make an avatar for myself for Second Life a few years ago, I was pretty uncomfortable representing myself as anything other than what I am. So I actually made an avatar that looks like me. (I didn’t really get it right.) I’ve always been personally uncomfortable representing myself online in any other way than how I really am. But I realize that I am unusual in this regard. Obviously, privacy matters.

Now, think of this. People who care very much about getting their facts right generally consult authoritative sources; they don’t usually get their knowledge from casual conversation with friends and relatives. But at least, when we do get knowledge from a friend or relative, we have some idea of how reliable they are. Maybe you have an eccentric acquaintance, for instance, who is a conspiracy theorist, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time considering the merits of his sources, or the plausibility of their claims. Let’s say you also know that he barely got through high school and basically doesn’t care what the mainstream media or college professors say. Your acquaintance may have many fascinating factoids and interesting stories, but probably, you aren’t going to take what he says very seriously.

But imagine if you were chatting online about politics or UFOs, or other weird stuff, with someone you didn’t know was actually your acquaintance. You might actually take him more seriously in that case. You might take his bizarre claims somewhat more seriously. I don’t mean that you would simply believe them—of course you wouldn’t—but you would not have any specific reasons to discount them, as you would if you knew you were talking to your acquaintance. Your only positive reason to discount the claims would be: I don’t know this person, this person is anonymous. But you know that there can be brilliant and reliable people anonymous online, as well as thoroughly unreliable people.

Well, I think many of us would actually trust an anonymous person more than we would trust our more eccentric acquaintances. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to accuse anyone of being a dupe. Of course, we are able to spot really daft stuff no matter who it comes from. But without knowing who a person is, we are operating without a basic bit of information that we are used to having, in evaluating what people tell us face-to-face. If we lack any information at all about how reliable a source is, we will not simply conclude that the source is completely unreliable; we will often give the person the benefit of the doubt. And that is sometimes more respect than we would give the person if we knew a few basic facts about him or her.

More generally, there is a common attitude online that it is not supposed to matter, in fact, who you are. We are all perfectly equal in many online communities, except for what we say or do in those communities. Who we are offline is not supposed to matter. But it does matter, when it comes to evaluating what people say about offline topics, like science and politics. The more time we spend in the Internet’s egalitarian communities, the more contempt we might ultimately have for information about a person’s real-world credibility. The very notion of personal credibility, or reliability, is ultimately under attack, I think. On a certain utopian view, no one should be held up as an expert, and no one should be dismissed as a crackpot. All views, from all people, about all subjects, should be considered with equal respect.

Danger, Will Robinson! Personal credibility is a universal notion; it can be found in all societies and throughout recorded history. There is a good reason that it is universal, as well: knowledge of a person’s credibility, or lack thereof, is a great time-saver. If you know that someone knows a lot about a subject, then that person is, in fact, more likely to be correct than some random person. Now, the expert’s opinion cannot take the place of thought on your part; usually, you probably should not simply adopt the expert’s opinion. It is rarely that simple. But that doesn’t mean the information about personal credibility is irrelevant or useless.

Two ideas for a solution

So far, I have mainly been criticizing the Internet, which you might find it odd for me to do. After all, I work online.

I don’t think that the Internet is an unmitigated bad influence. I won’t bore you by listing all the great things there are about the Internet, like being able to get detailed information about every episode of Star Trek, without leaving home, at 3 AM. Besides, I have only focused on a small number of problems, and I don’t think they are necessarily Earth-shatteringly huge problems, either. But they are problems, and I think we can do a little bit to help solve them, or at least mitigate them.

First, we can make a role for experts in Internet communities. Of course, make the role so that does not conflict with what makes the community work. Don’t simply put all the reins of authority in the hands of your experts; doing that would ensure that the project remains a project by and for experts, and of relatively little broader impact. But give them the authority to approve content, for example, or to post reviews, or other modest but useful tasks.

My hope is that, when the general public work under the “bottom up” guidance of experts, this will have some good effects. I think the content such a community might produce would be more reliable than the run of the mill on the Internet. I would also hope that the content itself will be more conducive to seeking knowledge instead of mere information, simply by modelling good reasoning and research.

I do worry, though, that if expert-reviewed information online were to become the norm, then people might be more likely to turn off their critical faculties.

Second, we can create new communities, in which real names and identities are expected, and we can reward people in old communities for using their real names and identities. This is something that has done, for example, with its “real name” feature on product reviews. If contributors are identified, we could use the same sort of methods to evaluate what they say online, that we would use if we were to run into them on the street.

I began by laying out a general problem: superabundance of information online is devaluing knowledge. I don’t know if we can really solve this problem, but the two suggestions I just made might go a little way to making it a little better. If we include a modest role for experts in more of our Internet communities, we’ll have better information to begin with, and better role models. Moreover, if we identify the sources of our information, we will be in a better position to evaluate it.

An explanation of the Citizendium license

Preliminary notes (please read):

  • Purpose: this long essay explains in depth why we have chosen CC-by-sa as the license for our own original collaborative content.
  • Summary: this probably isn't an easy read. You can skip ahead to the license decision, and here is asummary of the reasoning behind it.
  • About links: links to places within this essay are green, while links to other pages are the usual blue.


I. Introduction

A. The decision to be made
B. Our purposes
C. Factors of motivation that influence license choice

II. Some arguments for a noncommercial license

A. The moral argument for a noncommercial license
B. The argument from the Citizendium's own financial interest
C. The argument from noncommercial media

III. Some arguments for a commercial license

A. Some moral arguments for a commercial license
B. The argument from maximum reuse
C. The inconveniences of incompatible licenses

IV. Which license will maximize participation?

A. The Citizendium's cultural quandary
B. Estimating the motivation of different groups
C. Which license will maximize participation?

V. The license and our relationship with Wikipedia

A. The relationship with Wikipedia
B. The effects of a commercial license on our relationship with Wikipedia

VI. Conclusion: the Citizendium's position

A. Some final preliminaries about open content
Our license and license procedure (essential reading)
C. The grounds for this decision (summary of the essay)
D. About this essay

I. Introduction

A. The decision to be made

Since January 2007 when the Citizendium decided to "unfork" from Wikipedia, or delete unchanged Wikipedia articles from our database and encourage original work, the license for our own original articles has been up in the air. We said only, on a generic notice on the wiki, "All new articles will be available under an open content license yet to be determined." Separately, I made it clear that we were considering the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL for short), the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-by-sa), and the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License (CC-by-nc-sa). What these licenses all have in common is that, when a copyright owner releases some data under them, then others may publish, or rework and republish, that data free of charge or individual agreement. I will not, except indirectly, argue for these common features, however interesting and necessary such an argument would be. The arguments here instead concern how the licenses differ. They differ primarily in that the GFDL and CC-by-sa allow such reuse to be done for commercial purposes, while CC-by-nc-sa forbids commercial uses. GFDL and CC-by-sa are, as I will say, "commercial licenses" because they permit commercial reuse, while CC-by-nc-sa is called a "noncommercial license" because it forbids commercial reuse. ('Noncommercial' is defined below.) So the main question examined here is: should the Citizendium adopt a commercial or a noncommercial license?

Note that the GFDL (managed by the Free Software Foundation) and CC-by-sa (managed by Creative Commons) allow pretty much the same things: roughly speaking, reuse for either commercial or noncommercial purposes, so long as credit (a name and a link back) is given. They differ mainly in that the GFDL was originally written for software documentation, and so has various features that are puzzling to interpret when applied to things like wiki encyclopedias. I recommended the GFDL for Wikipedia back in 2001 because it was the best available open content license at the time--and earned Wikipedia an endorsement from the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman. Considering just the terms of the licenses, it is widely agreed that CC-by-sa is a better license than the GFDL for wiki encyclopedias.

B. Our purposes

Why this is hard to decide. The difficulty in deciding on a license is due to the strength of the arguments on all sides. Each side has, it seems, a "knock-out" argument that compels us to choose it--except for all the other "knock-out" arguments on the other sides. In such a situation, the difficulty rests not with finding a flaw in all but one argument, because that is probably not possible at all; the difficulty rests in the task of weighing the relative merits of the arguments. While I will present some "moral" arguments, the arguments are, generally, utilitarian: they state that we should choose a certain way because that choice will have good effects, or will avoid the bad effects of other options. Comparing the force of such arguments requires estimating the probability of various effects, and comparing the desirability or undesirability of these effects. Our question, therefore, becomes: what criterion or criteria should we use to evaluate the desirability of various effects?

Hierarchy of values. Here I propose an informal hierarchy of values. Generally and roughly, securing the top-ranked value is a higher priority than securing lower-ranked values. It is possible--not to be hoped, but possible--that no such ranking of values is forthcoming. We will simply have to look and see. I stipulate in any case that the project's highest purpose is to provide vast amounts of easily accessible and high quality content to the world, and this is a global, not a local value. The project has other global purposes, or interests anyway. For example, we hope to serve as an example of a better wiki project; and we hope to avoid libel or distributing other harmful information. But providing a lot of high-quality content is clearly the most important purpose. Hence, we are ultimately working on behalf of humanity, not merely our own local community. This purpose or end has various conditions and possible means, and so my task then is to rank these. Clearly, the first and most obvious value is our own survival, because we must exist in order to secure any other value. Still, our own survival is merely a means to the end of providing good content, and if we cannot do that, we might as well not exist. Besides, as we will see, no license choice poses a threat to our survival. What are our main means, or tools and methods, for providing good content? There are many, of course. Motivating contributors and content partners is one. An efficient content production system, and (if necessary) funds or in-kind donations to develop software and pay organizers, are two more. Of these, I stipulate that motivation is the next highest value, because with adequately motivated contributors, everything else is achievable. Now, if we were to secure a large enough source of funding, that would itself provide an independent source of contributor motivation: some would be paid and others would find financial support to be a good sign that the project is worth participating in. Still, the end of such funding is, again, mainly motivated contributors.

C. Factors of motivation that influence license choice

Four factors of motivation. What, then, are the main means and conditions of motivated contributors in collaborative projects? This is something I've made a special study of on several occasions, and suffice it to say that it's complex and not particularly well understood. Here, however, are some main methods of motivating contributors that might be relevant to the choice of a license:

  1. Culture: encourage a dual culture, both democratic and meritocratic, or a culture that appeals to experts and the general public as much as possible.
  2. Free license: contributors should understand that their work is not only free to read, but is free to be copied and distributed elsewhere, i.e., is not necessarily in the hands of a single entity. Interestingly and confusingly, the choice of a license itself can have a direct effect on the motivation of contributors--and, therefore, on the choice of a license. In short, the very desire for a particular license is one reason to choose that license.
  3. Maintain good public relations: maintain an effective public relations strategy so that the press and Blogosphere also helps raise consciousness and motivate people to join, and makes it easier to recruit people actively.
  4. Ease of use: make the system itself as easy as possible to use.

(There are other important methods of motivating contributors, but they do not seem relevant to the choice of a license.)

Can we rank the importance of any of the above considerations? They each have a special role to play in contributor motivation, and in the growth and impact of the project as a result--and so also in the choice of a license.

For some individuals, some of the items determine their motivation much more than others. A poll of 49 of our most active contributors revealed that a surprisingly large number don't really care about the license very much. (About a third of the respondents said they didn't care or know enough to offer an opinion, and only half of 100 people responded. More about this poll soon.) For others, I think the fact that they do, or do not, feel comfortable in our community makes all the difference. But the question ultimately is what factors are most important to contributor motivation in general or on average.

Ranking the factors of motivation. On average, of the above four factors of motivation, I stipulate (plausibly, I think) that culture is the most important. This is, however, because the choice of a license is actually part of culture. If we choose a license that forbids commercial use, that puts us decidedly at odds with the mainstream of the free culture/open source communities, from which many of our authors (and some of our editors) come. Similarly, however, if we choose a license that permits commercial use, that might upset and put off some academics, who are used to working under "educational use only" copyright arrangements, and who have no small amount of hostility to exploitation by profit-making corporations.

Maintaining good public relations is next most important, in the sense that, if our reputation is very poor, it will be extremely difficult to motivate all but the most stalwart of contributors. Finally, ease of use, while deeply important, is not a huge problem for many of our most active contributors, and it is a problem that can be fixed over time, regardless of the choice of license.

Still, we should bear in mind that there are aspects of the license decision that might directly impact our ability to make much good content easily available, and they do not do so by affecting our culture or the factors of motivation generally. If this is not immediately clear, it should become so in the following.

The task ahead. So onto the main event: the actual evaluation of the merits of different arguments. Here I suspect I am going to frustrate a lot of people. I'm afraid I haven't taken the time to make my writing style more palatable to a popular audience (that's work!). Also, I will carefully point out the flaws in arguments for the position I support; and I will admit significant strengths in arguments for positions I oppose. This is going to strike some people as wishy-washy, but I'm merely trying to be honest. In the end, I hope it will be clear that the Citizendium's position is driven strictly by a fair evaluation of the merits of the arguments, as evaluated using the criteria set out above.

I propose first, in two very long parts, to examine some arguments for using a noncommercial license (CC-by-nc-sa) and then for using a commercial license (CC-by-sa or GFDL). Then, more briefly, I will answer the question, "Which license will maximize participation?" Lastly, I will study what relationship we should have with Wikipedia, and which license conduces most to that.

This piecemeal evaluation of the arguments, however important it might be, might ultimately prove to be inconclusive. I will have to use a final section to draw a conclusion and summarize the arguments from a global perspective.

II. Some arguments for a noncommercial license

The arguments on both sides are, in general, utilitarian. But there is another sort of argument, which does not appeal--at least not directly--to benefits and harms. It appeals, instead, to things like duties, rights, fairness, and commitments. Call such arguments "moral" arguments as opposed to "pragmatic" or "utilitarian" arguments. (Philosophers might prefer the more neutral term "deontological" argument where I use "moral"; utilitarianism is a moral theory, after all.)

A. The moral argument for a noncommercial license

The argument introduced. There is a moral argument for a noncommercial license that runs, in a brief version, as follows. To permit commercial use of content is, specifically, to allow companies to make a profit from the use of the content. But the content itself was donated by volunteers working without compensation. So--the argument goes--it treats those volunteers very unfairly to allow their work to be used by anyone to make a profit. If anyone should profit from the content, one might say, it should be the volunteers. Companies that have little to do with the creation of the content do not deserve the profits they make. There is a particularly pointed way to make this argument (which I alluded to in ablog post). Suppose the Citizendium grows to the size of Wikipedia.
This is quite possible, however probable or improbable you think it might be. Suppose also that, because we are of that size, we have the participation of a sizable portion of all the leading intellectuals of the world, in every field--and so, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of approved articles. These are all long, complete with many links, bibliography, etc., etc.--all the subpage stuff. It's reference utopia.

If we adopt a license that permits commercial reuse, then every major media company in the world could use CZ content. Such companies are in regular need of reference material of various kinds to supplement their publications, and many already have deals in place with reference publishers. A commercial license would permit CBS News, Fox News, The New York Times, English tabloids, Chinese propaganda sheets, Yahoo!, Google, and all sorts of giant new media companies to use our content without any compensation to us. Perhaps, in time, these media companies would find ways to leverage high-quality Citizendium content to create significant profits. None of that, however, need go actually to support the work of the Citizendium. But this--goes the argument--is obviously unfair. Therefore, we should use a noncommercial license, one that would require just compensation for profit-making use.

Some are apt to be persuaded by this argument immediately, as it explains their hostility to free commercial licenses. Others will understand it on some level, but find it puzzling. Sure, it might seem unfair, but what really is unfair about the situation? One might say that the situation might seem unfair, but if one cannot explain why it's unfair, then one cannot assume that it is actually unfair.

I find straightforward avowals and denials about the fairness of the situation highly unsatisfying. We won't get to the bottom of this argument until at least we understand why it seems unfair, and then either affirm or reject those reasons as good reasons to think the situation is unfair.

Some replies. Consider some replies to the argument. First, one might well reply that many people do in fact contribute under the GPL and the GFDL, and other free commercial licenses, and so they clearly do not find the situation unfair.

This reply, however, proves little. The fact that there are people who find nothing unfair about the situation does not mean that there are not others, who would contribute to a free project, if it used a free noncommercial license. Besides, the contributors could simply be confused; one might be treated unfairly, after all, and not realize it. That has happened throughout history. They might not understand what is unfair about the situation until after they have already contributed information that will go to enrich others.

Second, more promisingly, we can make a positive (and common) argument that the arrangement is indeed fair. Consider that we all do have equal rights to profit from a free commercial project. If one person avails himself of this right and succeeds in making money, that does not deprive any other contributor of the right to make money as well. Why be upset about someone else making money from the Citizendium (or whatever)? If you want, you can do just the same.

This is an interesting argument, to be sure, but it isn't to the point. Just because the licensing situation is equal or fair in one respect (i.e., in the rights to make a profit), that does not mean that it is fair in all other respects as well. Suppose John is a Citizen and Joan is an entrepreneur who has no interest in contributing to the Citizendium. Well, just because John and Joan enjoy the right to profit from the Citizendium--which is, granted, fair enough--if Joan hits upon some scheme to make a lot of money from it, and John doesn't, John still might regard that as unfair. Joan is still making money from something that John created (helped create),
without compensating him.

After these replies, one might be tempted to say, "Whatever--the burden is on the person who thinks the situation is unfair. If you can't explain it, you have nothing but a feeling to go on. You have no real reason to think it's unfair."

Fairness, desert, and rights. Let's get quite clear on what situation strikes some as unfair: that one specific party is making money from some information, when neither the creator(s) of that information nor the organization that allowed it to be organized and hosted receives any of the money. It is not at all self-evident that this is an unfair situation. After all, this is true of, for example, folk music, you might say. But the traditional musicians who served as the sources of "folk" popularizers did sometimes greatly resent it when those popularizers got rich with little more than a thanks to the actual sources of the music. The cases are not all that dissimilar.

Clearly, the unfairness has to do with what philosophers call "desert" (not the hot dry places, but whether we deserve something or not) or rights. The reason the situation might seem unfair is that the content exploiters do not deserve their profits; they have no right to them. Alternatively, we might say the content providers deserve a piece of any profit; they have a right to it. If that's correct, then we need only ask a question: why do they deserve a piece of any profit? Perhaps, we might say, there is a general principle, to wit, you deserve or have a right to compensation for whatever you create, if someone else profits from it. And to fail to get what you deserve is just what unfairness is.

But this principle, correct or not, doesn't settle the issue. After all, contributors to free software and free content projects do donate the fruits of their labor for everyone's use. That is, the vast majority of free software and free content projects are set up so that others can profit on the backs of volunteers. Presumably, those volunteers have given up any right they might have to be compensated for their labor. That's how the system explicitly works. What's unfair? What's potentially unfair is this: the fact that there are people who have given up that right doesn't mean that others would prefer not to give up that right. Most contributors to a project just go along with the license, and into the bargain is thrown their (alleged) right to be compensated in case anyone profits. In that sense, if you want to contribute to a free commercial project, you don't have a choice about whether to give up your (alleged) right to compensation.

Theoretically anyway, it doesn't have to be that way. The fact that people in free software and free culture projects do routinely seem to give up their right to be compensated, out of the profits of their "exploiters," does not help us settle the question what our license should be. What is at issue is not whether you have the right to be compensated for your labor; you do have that right, if you haven't given it up. What is at issue is whether we should give up this right in the first place. Notice that I use the first person plural: "whether we should give up this right." It is precisely the fact that this decision has to be made for everyone that makes this difficult. Some people say they license their contributions under some less restrictive license than whatever is used by a given project. This is presumably their right, but it's nevertheless pointless and silly because anyone who republishes collaboratively created content will not consult the statements made by individual contributors. Like it or not, the decision really is made collectively. Presumably, it must be, or else there wouldn't be a (collaborative) project in the first place.

The dialectic (as I've represented it, anyway) then turns to that question: why would we, as a corporate body, want to give up the right to compensation? We could do so, to be sure. But why would we want to? This, then, leads to the more purely utilitarian arguments (i.e., about advantages and disadvantages). If there are great benefits to be secured by our giving up our rights to be compensated, then perhaps we should do so. But if the benefits are not so great, then we might not wish to do so; and then we might say, and with excellent justification it seems, "Since we do not wish to give up our right to be compensated for profit-making uses, a commercial license would set up a situation we would regard as unfair." So the question of whether a noncommercial license is required by considerations of fairness actually turns on more utilitarian considerations.

B. The argument from the Citizendium's own financial interest

Could the Citizendium's content make anyone rich? If, in a rosy future, Citizendium content is copious and good enough to help media giants to turn a profit, then by using a CC-by-nc-sa license, forbidding free use of our content, we might earn money for the project by selling licenses that permit commercial use. In fact, this insight has led some of our Citizens to demand a noncommercial license: it's simply in our own interest. We would be fools, they say, to give up what could end up being a huge boon to the project--all the more so since those funds would be placed in the hands of corporations that have nothing to do with the production of the content they exploit.

On first glance--if you can temporarily set aside your preconceived notions--one has to admit that this looks right. If media giants are making large profits in part by the use of Citizendium content, perhaps we ought to help ourselves to some of that, rather than simply giving it away. In that case, perhaps we should use a noncommercial license, and sell a reuse license to profit-making entities. It seems a CC-by-nc-sa license could let us do that. The first thing to notice, however, is that this is a conditional argument. What are the chances of all three of the following occurring?

  1. The Citizendium grows to such a size and quality that it could be used by mainstream media companies.
  2. Those companies in fact want to use our content (in any of the various ways in which it might be used).
  3. Their use of our content in fact significantly enhances their profits.

It would seem immodest to expect (1) and (2) with any high degree of certainty, and as to (3), evaluating it requires a knowledge of the publishing business (and the future thereof) that I sadly lack. But I will give it a stab anyway.

What I can say firmly is that all three seem possible. There are, after all, companies that have used Wikipedia content as part of their business is probably the best known.

But Wikipedia content is probably not making any of its republishers rich. (For one thing, has struggled to reach profitability.) Still, one might argue, the Citizendium could be very different from Wikipedia in this regard. In short, we could have in time a fund of editor-approved articles that can compare positively not just with Wikipedia, but with most (perhaps all) professionally edited reference works.

(I understand of course that we don't have many approved articles yet; but this is mainly because approval hasn't been a high enough priority of mine, as many of our editors will attest. Still, we will be improving the efficiency of our approval process, and I intend to do all I can to increase the proportion of our approved articles by an order of magnitude at least.)

Anyway, the point is that a successful Citizendium could be considerably more valuable to publishers than a successful Wikipedia. Information companies generally depend on the credibility and reliability of information for their business, and both credibility and reliability are advantages that a successful Citizendium would enjoy. The amount of reuse that the Citizendium gets from media companies might be considerably higher than Wikipedia gets. That reuse could be fee-based, and if the fee were reasonable, the companies might well pay. It would be foolish indeed to rule this possibility out of hand.

Still, as long as remains free to read--which of course it always will be--that in itself might be dissuade companies from paying a very significant fee. The business managers would always be asking themselves, "Why on Earth should we pay a premium for content that users can read free anyway? We can simply creatively link to it."

I also think that in the coming years, it will become increasingly easy to find exactly what you are looking for virtually instantly. The main advantage of including a copy of the Citizendium in a website is that a company may then surround the content with ads, or use the content to enhance some services. But if you can always find the Citizendium article as quickly (or nearly so) as you could find it on some other website, there is no reason to look for the article on that website. This is arguably already the case with Wikipedia (at this writing, Alexa rank of 8) and (Alexa rank of 379).

It is possible that reuse of Citizendium content could, in the future, make someone a tidy profit. But after consideration, it just doesn't strike me as very likely. My mere guesses don't refute the argument from our financial interest, to be sure, but it makes the argument appear weaker than it might have seemed at first. We're fools for giving away something so valuable, you insist? Well, there's a good chance that it won't turn out to be as valuable as it might have seemed at first.

Reply: the problem about license sharing. But there is another reply that is even more problematic. For those unfamiliar with the arcana of free licenses, it might just have seemed obvious that the Citizendium could, i.e., was in a position to, sell a license to reuse, if our articles were themselves freely available only under a CC-by-nc-sa license. But this is by no means clear.

The biggest problem with the Citizendium charging a license fee for commercial use is that no single representative of the project--not the Citizendium Foundation, certainly not me--actually owns the copyrights to the entire collection of content. On the accepted view of these matters, whatever license the project chooses, each individual submits his or her contributions under that license. The Citizendium has not declared that individuals are, by contributing content, thereby transferring or in any way sharing their copyright with the Citizendium Foundation, and so it is problematic to suppose the Foundation is in any position to negotiate a fee.

If we did want to sell licenses to commercial operations, two ways have been suggested to attempt to get around this problem. First, we might ask authors' permission to share copyright with the Citizendium Foundation. It is not clear, however, whether this is legally possible. So, second, we might ask them simply to grant the Foundation the right to negotiate, collectively, a fee on their behalf, much as an agent would negotiate a fee for an anthology. This sort of thing is not unheard of; the Free Software Foundation Europe has posted a Fiduciary License Agreement, though its purpose is not to negotiate an agreement, but to defend programmers legally and to relicense software under improved licenses. (My thanks to the contributors of a Citizendium discussion page on this issue for pointing this out.)

Even if legally feasible, it may be politically difficult. In fact, it might even be so wrenching and destructive to the community that it is not worth attempting to "sell" the proposal to Citizens. Let's examine why, and see whether there might not be some way around this problem.

It is tantamount to asking Citizens to recognize, en masse, a single entity to speak on their behalf, not only collectively, but individually. When this option was bruited, a number of Citizens objected that they would not trust any body to be able represent them fairly. Suppose a representative body of contributors had the right to review or even make the license agreements, and also managed the budget. But even this suggestion was met with some resistance; if the representative body were an inner circle of the Citizendium Foundation, such as a Board of Directors, that would be even worse, on the view of the objectors. Legally, the Board would have to have ultimate authority; that would make many participants quite nervous. Perhaps rightly so.

There are actually two possible problems here. The first is the political impact of the objection itself, i.e., the controversy over the centralization of fiduciary authority. The second is that there really might be something wrong with a body representing the Citizendium for purposes of negotiating license fees. Let me take these in turn.

First, there would certainly be some political risk involved in proposing that any representative body be given authority over legal and money matters on behalf of the entire project. Regardless of the merits of the objections, certainly there will be some who react with hostility to any suggestion that any body can speak for them, personally. This is particularly the case for people in the open source software community and the allied free culture movement: for all the talk of collaboration and reuse, there is (charmingly) little support for "collectivization" or "unionization" of rights and finances. (Exceptions occur when there is serious infringement of a free license.) It is hard to say exactly how serious a problem this political infighting might be for the Citizendium as a community, but I think it would probably be significant and almost certainly not trivial. That is, a very vocal contingent of contributors would initially resist and campaign against any such organization; and, then, if we were to organize in the way suggested, some of them would probably make a lot of noise in demanding that all of their contributions be removed.

To be sure, political controversy need not by itself stop us from taking action; after all, whatever choice of license we settle on is bound to be controversial. But license sharing is not strictly required by the choice of a noncommercial license--although it might be the only way to make a noncommercial license particularly palatable. (More on that anon.)

Second, what dangers are there in empowering a body to negotiate licensing fees and to distribute the proceeds? Potentially, this makes knowledge more politicizable and more capable of being controlled financially. There are indeed three dangers here: political, financial, and legal.

First, the political danger. In recent generations, too many academics have become motivated by politics, especially in the humanities and social sciences. They regard "remaking the world" as part of their academic mission, sometimes above the mission of truth-seeking (though few would admit this openly, I suppose). As academics would almost certainly dominate a licensing and budging body, one might well fear that they would sometimes make decisions motivated by politics--decisions that have relatively little to do with the effectiveness of distributing Citizendium content or with the project's financial interests. We can easily anticipate ongoing arguments that begin, "I have contributed much content that is of great monetary value to this project, and I think..." There is something unseemly about that.

Second, the financial danger. We ought to bear in mind the adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is easy to imagine a lucrative agreement with a large corporation, which insists (however quietly or diplomatically) on a certain editorial slant or policy as the price of the agreement. Indeed, even lacking such an open agreement, editors and project managers might well self-censor based on what they know are naturally in the financial interests of the project.

But perhaps these two points don't prove much. As to the political danger, it is probably impossible to avoid politicizing any representative body in the project, and that might not actually be a bad thing, anyway. (Does it really make sense to complain that politics is politicized?) Politicization is not a special problem afflicting just discussions of licensing fees and budget outlays. And as to the financial danger, the adage about the piper is equally applicable regardless of how the Citizendium is funded: if we are funded mainly through foundation grants, then we must meet the criteria of the foundations, which can be equally biased, and probably more so. It is not as if foundations are magically free of bias simply because they are non-profit; unlike most corporations, many foundations are set up in part to move the world in a particular political direction. Nonprofits pay pipers, and want to call their tunes, too.

Still, there is still a very significant difference between being a vendor in a commercial relationship and being the beneficiary of a donation. Both have strings attached, but vendors typically have legal obligations far above the obligations imposed on the recipients of donations.

And that brings us to the third point, which is the legal danger. Content owners have greater legal liability. If the Citizendium does not actually hold any copyrights itself, but merely aggregates other people's content, then there is less legal ground on which to sue the project. This strikes me as a fairly important consideration, actually. It seems that, if we grow to the size and credibility we hope for, it is only a matter of time before we face liability and copyright lawsuits. Unless we can be quite certain that we can absorb such costs--and we definitely cannot, now--then it is a considerable advantage to minimize our liability.

Finally, on the whole issue of copyright sharing, it is worth reflecting on the very idea of "collectivizing" or "unionizing" a project like the Citizendium, and thereby becoming an entity with special financial obligations and legal liabilities. There is no question that it is a burden to have such obligations and liabilities, and it would
be far better, everything else being equal, to remain unencumbered.

It would also be, arguably, more appropriate to remain unencumbered, particularly for a project that is devoted to openness and being bottom-up. As long as the project is relatively free of obligations and liabilities, it is easier to remain open and bottom-up; as soon as we have to start worrying about being sued, or delivering a product or service on time, then the increased risks will create pressures to make the project more closed and more closely controlled from the top down. One can imagine how a project bound up with the marketplace could, over the long term, come to resemble a "business" itself, and therefore institutionally contemptuous of newcomers, bureaucratized, and increasingly controlled from the top.

Similarly, we might recall that one of the key pieces of our identity is that we are an online constitutional republic. A republic, to be robust, should avoid legal and financial relationships that pose a threat to its sovereignty. It might, therefore, be best for our own "sovereignty" (or independence) if we remain unencumbered by financial and legal relationships. The "constitutional" advantages of avoiding such relationships might turn out to be worth far more than whatever money might be generated. While this point can be stated briefly, it strikes me as extremely important indeed.

I do not pretend that the considerations of the last few paragraphs are definitive. I can imagine someone arguing that our taking on responsibilities of greater obligation and liability, and perhaps struggling to remain open and sovereign, are just the costs of staying true to our educational mission. But, on my analysis anyway, such an attitude doesn't seem very persuasive.

A noncommercial license without license sharing? Suppose that you find these considerations decisive, both against license sharing and so also against the argument from our financial interest. (I don't think they are perfectly decisive.) But if you thought the only good reason to insist on a noncommercial license was to be able to raise money for the project through license fees, then the failure of the case for license sharing would leave you no reason to support a noncommercial license.

Still, you might want to use a noncommercial license for some other reason I have not yet covered. What is interesting about such a position, however, is that it would prevent everyone from making money on commercial uses of Citizendium content. And surely this is a position that resonates with a few people--but probably not many. In our discussions, those who hate the idea of uncompensated commercial use have not, as far as I recall, come out against all commercial use altogether. Still, we can imagine someone saying: "The Citizendium is a knowledge project. Whatever its differences, it has much in common with purely academic projects. Such projects permit educational and non-profit uses, but no commercial uses at all, because they are committed to authoritative, independent information." First, in many cases, the latter is false. Academic projects of all sorts often have commercial applications, and the fact that they have such applications is not usually taken to entail the corruption of the project. It is, instead, merely a reflection of the fact that academics sometimes produce things (such as biomedical research or engineering advances) that have applications the marketplace will reward. That is not, in itself, something to be concerned about, in my opinion.

Perhaps it is not fair or right that we might produce content that people exploit for profit, without compensation to us. What is clear to me, however, is that the reason it would not be fair is not simply because someone is making a profit based on a knowledge project, period. Personally, I think making profits, whether based on a knowledge project or not, is a moral activity. It's not my thing, but I don't begrudge people their more lucrative interests.

Reply: our commercial reusers will support us financially. Despite my analysis, you might still have qualms about uncompensated commercial use of the Citizendium's content. There is a solid point that helps mitigate these qualms, however. It is that, if we are successful enough to attract commercial reuse, our commercial users can be expected to support us through donations. This means that people who do profit from our work will help ensure we do not go entirely unrewarded for it. To be sure, this does not remove any objections on grounds of unfairness, i.e., objections to commercial profiteering on the backs of volunteer Citizens.
But it does constitute at least a partly effective reply to the argument from our own financial interest: we will, after all, reap some financial rewards.

Unsurprisingly, the case of Wikipedia is instructive here. A number of corporations that benefit from Wikipedia support it through cash and in-kind donations, but not at a level at which it can sustain its own operations. The majority of Wikipedia's operating funds comes through individual donations, not from commercial reusers.

The Citizendium, if successful, can probably expect to be better supported by commercial reusers, for the simple reason that the Citizendium's content would be more commercially valuable than Wikipedia's. But this is by no means certain, of course.

The relevant question here is whether the Citizendium would receive significantly more money through license fees (if we used a noncommercial license) or through donations (if we used a commercial license). I don't think there is any way to know this with any certainty at all. On the one hand, there would no doubt be more commercial use, if commercial use were free, and hence there would be more entities willing to donate to us, which could bring a tidy sum. On the other hand, the total fees that commercial reusers are willing to pay could be considerably more than that, even if smaller in number. If I had to guess, I would say that we would in the end receive more money if we were to charge license fees. But I really have no idea, and I doubt there is any way to know in advance.

It does seem likely, however, that our commercial reusers would not allow the project to collapse altogether due to lack of funds. "That's something," as they say.

Reply: small commercial reuse is harmless yet important. Another reply is perhaps less momentous, but still worth mentioning. Suppose a blogger who runs ads on his blog wanted to reproduce a Citizendium article; it does no harm to do so, and indeed, the increased publicity of the project is more valuable than any tiny amount of cash the blog post might have earned him. (Most bloggers, of course, earn virtually nothing--even some very popular ones.)

More generally, free reuse encourages a kind of online public awareness of a project that is far more valuable to the project, and to the overall aims of the project, than the tiny amount of revenue that we might reasonably request for all such reuse. Of course, if we required a fee, no such small reusers would pay it, and probably our content would be much less publicized than it would be otherwise. And this sort of publicity is arguably very important. For one thing, completely free reusability encourages people not only to reuse content, but to link to it and talk about it. It "feels" to the Web 2.0 crowd like something that is owned more in common, and for
that reason, something they can support with such publicity.

The use of a noncommercial license would forbid this sort of use--and that is, I would say, a problem.

Some creative solutions. Suppose we announce that the Citizendium will be free for commercial use. Then we can perhaps use this to do fundraising for the project even now. "Don't you think your company will be able to make use of Citizendium content after a few years?" goes the pitch. "Then consider donating, and ensure that the project continues to accelerate its growth."

Moreover, we might (in various ways) make it an informal, legally nonbinding expectation that commercial reusers compensate us for their use. Language on a page about reuse might state: "We believe in free reuse for all. Nevertheless, particularly if you make a profit from your use of our content, we believe it is only fair that you share some of the proceeds back with the project. We do not require this, but surely it is the least you can do, if you are using the labor of thousands of volunteers to enrich your own personal concern. We feel it is important that those who profit from our work 'give back' generously."

An interesting variant would be to make the content available to everyone under a commercial license, excepting for-profit companies that are making above a certain level of revenue or profit: the community might vote on the size of the corporation. For them, a noncommercial license would be in effect, and they would legally have to purchase the right of reuse.

But the latter too could be a non-legally binding expectation, which would avoid the problems enumerated above. We might place on our page about reuse: "You may use the Citizendium's content legally without compensation. However, if your concern has a profit margin above X, then we will request a minimum yearly donation. This is not legally required, but it is expected by our community." If a company does use our content without compensating us at least at the requested amount, that could be made a PR problem for them. The headline would read:

Successful Corporation Abuses Citizendium Content

Profits from but Refuses to Support the Community

No commercial concern would wish to see that headline.

C. The argument from noncommercial media

A third argument for a noncommercial license can be canvassed much more briefly. A commercial license would have a definite disadvantage. Suppose that we require all media that is contributed to the Citizendium to be licensed under the same license (which permits commercial use) as the license for the text. Then we (the Citizendium) could not use, for example, the work of artists who would be happy to let their work be used for nonprofit purposes, but who do not wish to give their work away for commercial purposes. There are already, in fact, many copyrighted images on the Citizendium, including some for which we have specific permission, though the copyright holder has not given up any further rights. Such use should be permitted. Therefore--goes the argument--we should use a noncommercial license. That way, we will be able to continue to use such work.

It seems plausible that work licensed for noncommercial use only might be on average of higher quality, though I cannot cite any evidence for this point. At least, we will be able to secure the work of professionals if we do not require them to release their work under a commercial license. So, in the interest of higher quality media, we should use a noncommercial license.

But this argument does not prove very much. Regardless of what license we use for article text, we can allow people to submit media however licensed, as long as it is of a sort that gives the Citizendium the legal right to use it. Indeed, that has been our implicit policy, and I don't propose to change it. So special and separate
permission will have to be sought for reuse of much (not all) of our media. Therefore, the argument from noncommercial media doesn't really support the use of a noncommercial license for our article text.

Similar remarks can be made about the licensing of signed articles: the Citizendium is willing to host, with permission, signed articles that cannot be further redistributed without separate permission.

III. Some arguments for a commercial license

A. Some moral arguments for a commercial license

A simple argument for compatibility with Wikipedia. There is a simple moral argument that we should adopt a license compatible with Wikipedia's--and so, a commercial license. We can use Wikipedia's content, so to be fair, Wikipedia should be able to use ours. For Wikipedia to be able to use ours, we must make our content reusable under either the GFDL or else CC-by-sa (which is soon to be made compatible with the GFDL). To be sure, equal reusability isn't legally required. We're well within our legal rights to choose a different license from Wikipedia's for all the new content that we create. The point is that, one might well argue, it is morally required to make our content equally reusable by Wikipedia.

While interesting, I don't find the argument to be persuasive. I would reply with a little reductio. If anyone who uses Wikipedia's content is morally obligated to release all of their original content under the same license, that would require any project that used just one Wikipedia article to use Wikipedia's license, for the sake of parity. But that seems absurd. It surely isn't the case that "just one drop taints the whole batch." More to the point, any such moral obligation should be reflected in the license itself: you have the right to be upset with your reusers, if they don't use the same license for content they've created, only if your license obligates them to do so. Such a license is not likely to be employed, however, simply because it is far too viral, and few people want, as it were, to work for the hegemony of any single license.

The argument from the definition of "free." Perhaps the most common and simplest argument for allowing commercial use is also, I think, a "moral argument" in approximately the same sense that there is a moral argument for a noncommercial license.

However billed, the argument goes like this. At least since Richard Stallman codified the prevailing "hacker ethic" of share-and-share-alike in his open source software licenses of the GNU projects, started in the 1980s, it has been a common component of open source software projects that they be released under a license that permits commercial reuse. In fact, this has become part of the "official" definition of "open source", as promulgated by the Open Source Initiative. Section 6 of the definition reads: "The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business..." Indeed, Lawrence Lessig came under some criticism (rather ridiculously, on my view) merely for including noncommercial licenses, including the one we are considering, CC-by-nc-sa, among his set of Creative Commons licenses.

In the mouths of open source advocates, "open source" is equivalent, ceteris paribus or changing only what is necessary to apply to content, to both "open content" and "free." (It's all information.) Content cannot properly be called open content, or free, unless it is licensed so as to permit commercial use. So if the Citizendium were to use a noncommercial license, it would not be free by definition. But it is obvious that the Citizendium should be free; there is something morally questionable about failure to be free; therefore, we must not use a noncommercial license. That's the argument.

Replies: definitions prove little, and gradations of freedom. While appealing to the open source crowd, this argument is unlikely to prove much to anyone else. However well motivated the "official" definition of "open source," and more generally, however solid the ground on which the advocates' notion of "free information" (for a catch-all term) rests, it simply proves nothing to say that we have defined "free" in such a way that you may not call your reference work "free" unless you permit uncompensated commercial use. Besides that, there is a fairly straightforward reply. Beyond being free of charge to read, it is possible to "fork" any project that is carried out under a free-but-noncommercial license like CC-by-nc-sa. That is, the content may be copied and then reworked by anyone else, so long as they do not exploit the content commercially. Therefore, the content is not tied to any one person or group: it is "free" or "independent" of any such particular social ties. That seems like a very important sense of "free"--far more important than "free for others to profit from." The only sense in which the content is not free is that it cannot be freely developed and published for commercial purposes. Granted, it is less free for that reason; but why should it follow that it is not free at all, then? Surely, the fact that the content can be copied and reworked under the same license makes it importantly free. To deny that it is free in any sense looks like simple, ideologically-motivated narrow-mindedness.

Indeed, one can easily take the open source advocates' position to an extreme. Attribution--the "by" part in "CC-by-sa," or giving credit to the original source--is required by all these licenses. But if a noncommercial license is called nonfree because it restricts for what purposes the content can be reused, then we can say that the
attribution requirement, too, makes a license nonfree. After all, that requirement makes reuse dependent on your willingness to credit the authors. But what if I don't want to credit the authors? Then my hands are tied: I'm not free to do so. We ought to say, then, that only renouncing all copyrights, and releasing content into the public domain, makes the content free. So, by similar reasoning, CC-by-sa is not a free license, if CC-by-nc-sa is not. Neither are fully free.

Open source advocates would take issue with the latter suggestion. Public domain content is not free, they say, because modified versions of such content can be copyrighted and made wholly proprietary. An open source license carries a guarantee of freedom, which the public domain does not. But this is not correct. The original content, once in the public domain, forever remains in the public domain. Only adaptations can be copyrighted; if you copyright an adaptation, that does not magically remove the source material from the public domain. So, if you are organizing content and you fail to release it into the public domain, you are certainly restricting
the freedom of others to do something that, after all, they might very much wish to do--namely, to copyright their own versions. Under any open source/open content license, they are not free to do that; they are bound by your wishes. If you say, "Who cares? That sort of freedom is not what we mean by 'free'," then of course my answer is: "On what grounds should we care about any particular sense of 'free'? It is ultimately arbitrary."

Of course, the reasonable position is that there are gradations of copyright freedom, and some of them are more reasonable and recommendable than others. CC-by-sa is, to be sure, more free than CC-by-nc-sa; but the BSD license is freer than both of these, and on my view the public domain is freest of all. To say that any one of the licenses is "free" to a greater or lesser extent does not help us to rank the desirability of the various licenses (and the lack of a license).

The argument from "what information wants" (to be free, of course). There is a more sophisticated moral argument for allowing commercial use, which does not rely on stipulative definitions of key concepts or dogmatism about where to draw the line across the gradations of freedom. It begins with an answer--but not the only answer--to the question, "Why is it important that information be free, anyway?" The byword of the free information movement is "Information wants to be free." So, why does it? At least one reason forms the basis of a moral argument for a commercial license. On one account, information "wants to be free" simply because, in the digital age, there is no reason to constrain it. It is so easy to store and transfer, that any restrictions on its free flow must be specifically imposed. The advantages of the free flow of information are so many and varied that, without even listing them out, we can identify the freedom of information as an important principle. You need to have a good reason to keep information boxed in. By this general principle, then, we should use a commercial license, because that allows information to flow freely for commercial purposes.

As appealing as this argument might be, the problem is that it "proves too much." If, as a thoroughgoing principle, information "wants to be free," then again we ought to give up all copyrights and release our work to the public domain. You might be inclined to say that this does not guarantee the future freedom of this information, but it does after all guarantee the maximum freedom of this information--even the freedom to become proprietary, which again is for some an important freedom.

There are some ideologues who would have us do away with all copyrights and all patents, and perhaps we should, if it is true that information wants to be free. Indeed, some wackos might even prefer that we make medical records public. But for me, this is a reductio ad absurdum. The abundant advantages of having copyrights and patents--and privacy, such as closed medical records--makes it clear that free-spirited information, like children, shouldn't be given what everything it wants.

The argument from social ownership. Here is another argument, which is the most persuasive of the moral arguments, I think. In brief, it goes like this. We might say that whatever radical collaborations produce is "owned" by large, changeable, indiscriminate groups of people. In short, it is "socially owned." A condition of the very existence of such products of collaboration is that they be owned socially. But there is nothing special about any particular group of people that creates a particular Citizendium article, for example; it could have been another group entirely. When the actual composition of the group is irrelevant to ownership, then the broadest range of uses should be possible, including commercial uses. So, we should adopt a commercial license.

There is one interesting thing about this article that needs elaboration: the idea that productions are "socially owned." Will this stand up to scrutiny?

Suppose, as is often the case, many people contribute to a particular article. Although the edit history makes it clear who added (or removed) which part of the article, individual edits are not valuable apart from the whole article. Furthermore, an individual article, regardless of how brilliant, loses most of its value if removed from the overall collection of articles: what makes an encyclopedia article really valuable is the fact that it is part of an interconnected web of content. Therefore, while legally all and only the contributors jointly "own" the article--if the article as whole can be said to have a legal owner at all--in a looser but still robust sense, it is everyone in the project who "owns" the article. They each may, and are even encouraged to, take responsibility for it, and to "make it their own." The barrier to joining the group of "legal" or "official" co-owners of an article is very low.

And if a project is particularly open, like the Citizendium, with people coming and going pretty much at will and with almost no minimum qualifications, society at large has a stake in the project. This is illustrated very well by the interest that people take in Wikipedia articles. To be sure, this is partly because Wikipedia is so widely used and so prominent in search results; but it is also partly because the resource is created itself by the public.

The notion that society as a whole "owns" the article becomes clearer if we imagine a collaborative project over the period of many years, or even (though obviously this has not happened yet) generations. Once some content, or software, is no longer developed by any of its originators, it becomes especially obvious that the information is at best held in trust by its current maintainers.

"Held in trust" is the right phrase, I think, because it implies that the maintainers have an obligation to do a good job, and if they do not, others have the right to step in and try to do better. This is an essential feature of open source and open content licenses and a key principle of the projects that use such licenses. The reason that such projects can gain so many contributors is precisely that they are free of control by any specific group of people. If your contributions were always going to be beholden to some particular, unchangeable group of owners, then you would be much more nervous about contributing. It would be a little like immigrating to a country that permitted neither emigration nor revolutionary change. In any event, the point is that no particular group of people is (somehow) forever blessed as the maintainers of the information: others may start over.

Free information can, in this (limited) sense, take on a life of its own. Perhaps it is best to say it is owned by everyone--or else by no one, so that the notion of "ownership" does not apply. If that is correct, and if any particular group of maintainers is merely "holding the information in trust," then they both as individuals and as a group lack any moral grounds on which to restrict the use of the information just to noncommercial purposes. They are merely the stewards of the content, acting in the best interests of society, and since society's interests certainly extend to commercial interests, it is incumbent upon them to release the information under a license that permits commercial use.

On first glance, this looks like a persuasive argument. I also think it gets at the main reason that some people get quite passionate about allowing commercial use. In short, to disallow commercial use is to assert a sort of authority that no one is in a position to assert, given the open, public, fluid nature of the communities that create it.

Here is a reply: people can collaboratively create content under any license they wish. If they wish to use a license that forbids commercial use, then that is their right. If others wish to augment this base of knowledge further, they may do so provided that they agree to the same license. There should not be any moral restrictions on the choice of license. You might think the collaborators imprudent, but not immoral.

There is an interesting rebuttal to this reply, though. The mere fact that people have voluntarily entered into an agreement does not mean that whatever they agree to is right. For instance, the fact that it is possible to enter a suicide pact does not remove all possible moral objections to suicide; if suicide is wrong, then a suicide agreement is also wrong. The fact that people voluntarily agree to forbid commercial use does not necessarily make it right for them to forbid commercial use.

This last exchange turns on an interesting question. When an original organizer or original group of participants exercises its rights in establishing any license under which the content of contributors is distributed, can that exercise be morally criticized? That seems fairly obvious to me: sure. After all, it is possible to critique a decision morally before a decision is even made in the first place. Why should actually making an agreement magically immunize the agreement to all moral criticism? All that the establishment of a license does is make it clear that participants accept a certain license if they participate; it doesn't mean the original choice of a license was above reproach. So this reply seems to fail.

But another reply is possible, namely, that the argument from social ownership (once again) "proves too much." By the above reasoning, why shouldn't we say that such collaboratively-created information should be released into the public domain? After all, if the ground for allowing commercial use is that the information is "socially owned"--owned by everyone or no one--how is that really different from saying that, morally speaking, it should be regarded as being in the public domain? And if that is the proper moral status of that information, why shouldn't that be its proper legal status?

More generally, the argument from social ownership strikes me as a non sequitur. It is surely true and of great interest that collaboratively developed information is something for which society as a whole may and perhaps should take responsibility. (Indeed, we might anticipate laws that refine the legal status of collaboratively-created information; seebelow.) But it simply does not follow from this interesting insight that there could be no valid grounds on which society might wish to restrict certain kinds of use. Does the "social ownership" of strongly collaborative content create some moral problem about disallowing commercial use? I suspect the answer is "no," because there could be a reason for disallowing commercial use that actually flows from the fact that the content is socially owned. What if, for whatever economic or social reasons, to generate the largest possible fund of academic or scientific content, it is actually advantageous to choose a noncommercial
license? We cannot simply rule this possibility out a priori. It could actually be true of some kinds of content (such as scientific data) and some communities (such as academic communities). Perhaps the Citizendium will have a larger or better fund of content if we choose a noncommercial license. Open source ideologues might find this implausible, but the world is a very big and surprising place, and it often upsets our preconceived notions.

Just as with the moral argument for a noncommercial license, I find these moral arguments for a commercial license to be interesting but ultimately, taken by themselves, unpersuasive. If we want to find good reasons either for or against a noncommercial license, we must look to the advantages and disadvantages of utilitarian arguments--not to general, uncertain moral principles.

B. The argument from maximum reuse

Maximum reuse is a good thing. Perhaps the strongest argument on this side is simple. A commercial license would permit maximize reuse of Citizendium content. Access to our content is (or will be) presumably a good thing, because it spreads knowledge; therefore, doing more of that directly furthers our purpose, i.e., to provide easily accessible and high quality content to the world.

There is a variation on this argument worth pointing out, as well. If, for whatever reason, the Citizendium fails or does not do as good a job as it should, a commercial license would allow other projects with compatible commercial licenses to move forward with our content. Someone might say, "But who cares about allowing commercial enterprises to develop our content if we drop the ball? Some other noncommercial enterprise could do so." But this is to misunderstand the point. Many enterprises that develop open source and open content projects are themselves noncommercial, but they use commercial licenses. We would like our content to be as maximally reusable by those sorts of projects, if we drop the ball.

But the incompatibility in this case goes both ways: content licensed so as to permit commercial use cannot be relicensed by another project so as to forbid commercial use, and vice-versa. Why not? Because the licenses themselves are viral; use this content, use the license. And, as annoying as reusers might find it, the licenses probably should be viral. If a project wants to re-release some commercially licensed content under a noncommercial license, doing that would restrict the freedom permitted by the originator of the content. Similarly, if a project wants to release some noncommercially licensed content under a commercial license, doing that would permit more freedom than was intended by the originators of the content. In either case, the wishes of the originators of the content are not respected.

(It's worth pointing out, as an aside, that someone greatly impressed by the argument from social ownership might insist that the wishes of the originators of the content don't really matter. The very fact that information is developed according to a certain, public, method means that the information should be maximally free, period. But for reasons stated above, I don't find this argument to be very compelling.)

So a commercial license, such as CC-by-sa, permits reuse by other projects and websites that use commercial licenses. It does not permit reuse by projects that employ noncommercial licenses, such as CC-by-nc-sa. So why think this is "maximum reuse"?

Well, consider. It is true that commercial and noncommercial licenses are mutually incompatible, and it's also true that information-building projects that use such incompatible licenses cannot exchange information (easily). Nonprofit enterprises can use both commercial and noncommercial licenses (they just can't earn a profit); but for-profit enterprises cannot use content generated using a noncommercial license. That's a significant disparity. Noncommercially licensed information will not be commercially distributed.

Of course, this is not quite right. As I said above, such information could be used commercially if someone had the right to speak on behalf of all the contributors to a noncommercial project, so that they could make agreements with specific businesses. But the point remains that there would certainly not be as much reuse of the information. Most profit-seeking individuals and small businesses, or reusers who just don't want to go to the bother of making an agreement with the licensing entity, will not reuse the content. This is well known and understood. It is precisely the ease with which information floats around online--think open source software, GFDL-licensed Wikipedia content, and RSS feeds--that makes a lot of the most impressive results of online collaboration possible. The question is whether the Citizendium wishes to partake in these larger "communities" that permit commercial reuse. This would simply not be possible with a noncommercial license. And that is a solid advantage of a commercial license, and simply one of the strongest arguments anyone has about these issues.

Following the existing practice maximizes reuse. It didn't have to be this way. If, from the beginning, free software, open content, and RSS practices had restricted use to noncommercial reuses, the argument from maximum reuse for a commercial license wouldn't be nearly as strong. Then there might now be many massive communities online that would be only too happy to reuse and redevelop information released under a noncommercial license. For better or worse, that's not the case now. In the real world, the free information movement welcomes and aggressively defends commercial reuse. Therefore, a project's content cannot enjoy maximum reuse if it uses an incompatible--noncommercial--license.

But shouldn't we change the practice if it's wrong? With the requirement of real names and a place for experts, the Citizendium already represents, arguably, a step beyond the sometimes immature culture of most of the free information movement. Why shouldn't we start a new and better practice, which forbids uncompensated commercial reuse?

That seems reasonable, though it would be difficult and very controversial. And it does not diminish the advantage under discussion. Whatever you think of the free information movement and its output--I for one regard it as one of the new wonders of the world, whatever its flaws--there is no question that there would be more use of Citizendium content if we were to use a commercial license. That is, again, a solid point and it really cannot be dismissed.

The difficulty of understanding what is "noncommercial." Finally and briefly, it is worth prising out one particular aspect of the argument from maximum reuse. Individuals as well as organizations might not particularly want to profit from reusing the Citizendium's content, and yet they might still be put off from reuse because they are not sure whether their use is "noncommercial" or not. 'Noncommercial use' is defined as follows by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
(by-nc-sa) license
(section 4c):

You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You in Section 3 above in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation. The exchange of the Work for other copyrighted works by means of digital file-sharing or otherwise shall not be considered to be intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation, provided there is no payment of any monetary compensation in connection with the exchange of copyrighted works.

How are potential reusers to determine whether their reuse would be "primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation"? No doubt we can develop tests for determining this. But that does not remove doubts on the part of potential reusers--and that is the problem. The license language specifically permits digital file-sharing, but that is only one sort of potential reuse. If someone posts a copy of a Citizendium article to his blog, and he uses Google ads (say), would his reuse of the article be "primarily intended" to earn him money from the ads?

This, however, simply illustrates a broader problem: it will be more of a hassle for everyone to reuse Citizendium content if we permit only noncommercial uses. Insofar as we want maximum redistribution of our content, we should use a commercial license.

A reply: the Citizendium provides adequate availability already. One reply to this argument, used in discussions among our Citizens, is that our website,, already supplies adequate free availability. Isn't that enough? Why--goes this reply--should we go out of our way to allow other sources to duplicate our content?

On reflection, the answer to that question is obvious. While might always be available, not everyone knows that it exists. More to the point, it requires both knowledge and time to get from "wherever" a person is online to If the goal is to ensure that people benefit from the content of the Citizendium, it is simply more efficient, generally speaking, to let people redistribute it to as many other places online (and offline) as possible.

Special problem: paper copies. Moreover, one special problem about using a noncommercial license is that many of the people who could most use compilations of Citizendium content might not be able to access the Internet at all. The Citizendium website does not provide "adequate availability" to them. But they could
use cheaply-produced paper versions. It would be considerably more likely that these important potential benefactors of the Citizendium's work would receive copies if we were to use a commercial license. If only noncommercial enterprises could reproduce our content, or if a commercial enterprise had to pay a fee, that would cut down on the global impact of our work across "the digital divide."

Though ironic, perhaps, the best way to let our project benefit the world and its neediest seems to be to allow capitalistic "exploitation." But then, this point is unlikely to be surprising to anyone who has studied the economics of free markets.

C. The inconveniences

of incompatible licenses

There are some problems associated with article text within the Citizendium being licensed under two distinct and incompatible licenses (the GFDL for the Wikipedia-sourced articles and CC-by-nc-sa for our original articles).

As I was drafting this essay, it was announced that Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and the Free Software Foundation had come to agreement: the GFDL would be written so that those using it could upgrade to a new version that would permit reusers to combine content with content licensed by CC-by-sa. Moreover, Wikipedia would then upgrade to that new version. I believe this means that those using GFDL-licensed Wikipedia content could relicense the same content under CC-by-sa if desired. In short, GFDL and CC-by-sa are now compatible. But the deal hasn't been entirely concluded yet, as of this writing; the Wikipedia community still needs to (somehow?) "approve" of the change.

But both of those licenses are still incompatible with CC-by-nc-sa.

Incompatibility with Wikipedia. One might well see incompatibility with Wikipedia's license to be a significant inconvenience, precisely for Wikipedians wishing to use Citizendium content. This, of course, might be one inconvenience that some of us may not care so much about. See below for an elaboration.

Internal incompatibility. Our using a noncommercial license would create incompatibility within the Citizendium's own article base. In other words, some articles would be licensed using the GFDL, and some CC-by-nc-sa, and since those licenses are incompatible, the article content couldn't be mixed. If we wished to combine articles using different licenses, we simply couldn't.

There are some grounds on which to call this into question (see the "digression" below). Regardless, the Citizendium will proceed on the assumption that we cannot combine text taken from incompatible licenses within the same article. (For one thing, it would be practically impossible to keep straight which parts of an article are licensed under which license.) If we cannot mix licenses for the text within the same article, that means that we must declare that an article is either commercial or noncommercial. That in turn is apt to cause all sorts of undesirable effects. Some people, zealots for commercial licenses, might upload Wikipedia articles to the Citizendium just to ensure that we use the "better" license. Others, zealots for noncommercial licenses, might recommend deleting Wikipedia articles with prejudice, even those that have been improved significantly over their source material. Divisive political battles might result; but such battles would not occur if the Citizendium went with CC-by-sa or the GFDL, which are compatible with Wikipedia.

A digression about a conceptual infelicity. I'd like to digress, only slightly, to point out a conceptual infelicity here. According to usual practice and dogma on Wikipedia, individuals license their own edits, and the managing organization--the Wikimedia Foundation in this case--does not do any licensing at all. It merely aggregates and releases a whole body of content that, by a requirement it imposes on its contributors, appears under the same license.

This becomes a conceptual problem for reusers, who obviously need to know what the item is that is being licensed for reuse: the entire work, i.e., all of Wikipedia? Individual articles (which is what the Citizendium and others widely assume)? Or individual edits? Bear in mind that, according to the dogma, only individual edits can be licensed by anyone. To say that articles can be individually licensed is to assume that an article has an individual licensor. But that simply isn't the case, unless it has a single contributor, which rarely happens.

Therefore, I do not know what is preventing the Citizendium from saying, for example: the GFDL applies to this paragraph, which was licensed by an individual for use on Wikipedia under the GFDL, but the rest of the article is CC-by-nc-sa. If the reply is to say, "But that's not a complete work," I answer: "Of course it is. The complete work is whatever can be licensed under the GFDL. The only thing that can be licensed under the GFDL are individual edits."

Still, with a wink and a nod, I suggest that the Citizendium ignore this conceptual infelicity, and pretend that there is some good license-based grounds for requiring that the text of whole articles be kept under the same license. We are happy to mix text and other media under multiple licenses, however. We are also happy to mix different licenses throughout a whole Citizendium cluster.

Reuse considerably more difficult. Having different articles available under different licenses would require us to distinguish between two sets of articles for purposes of creating downloadable, reusable data ourselves, and would make reuse and publishing of our content more complex and difficult. It is not clear whether anyone would want to reuse the entire body of Citizendium articles: to do so would require that reusers, too, employ incompatible licenses within their own database. Either they do that, or they download just the commercial articles (sourced from Wikipedia) or just the noncommercial articles (original to the Citizendium). It seems unlikely that anyone would do this, since it would be entirely arbitrary which articles are commercial and which noncommercial.

In short, incompatible licenses would rather strongly discourage reuse of the entire body of work.

Suffice it to say that using incompatible licenses for different sets of Citizendium articles would pose some serious headaches. These may not be show-stoppers, but they wouldn't be pleasant; and the pain could be avoided simply by using a license compatible with Wikipedia's.

IV. Which license will maximize participation?

One of our goals is to distribute our content as broadly as possible. Our choice of license will impact not only this goal, but also the distinct goal of maximizing the amount of reliable content available. This is because the choice of license can impact the willingness of people to contribute.

In this section, I want to answer two questions:

  1. How can we expect different license choices to affect the motivation of different groups of contributors?
  2. And so which license will maximize overall participation?

A. The Citizendium's cultural quandary

The license poll of active contributors. To help understand the impact of the license choice on contributor motivation, let me share the results of the above-mentioned poll. On October 1, I circulated a poll question to approximately 100 of the most prolific Citizendium contributors of the previous three months (as determined by number of edits). I asked whether they would prefer that we use the GFDL, CC-by-sa, and CC-by-nc-sa. There were 54 responses, and the breakdown was as follows.

(Thanks to Stephen Ewen for tabulating these results and for writing most of the analysis of them that immediately follows.)

Poll resultsTotals = 54

GFDL = 7.25

CC-by-sa = 12.25

CC-by-nc-sa = 18.5

Other = 16 (and about 50 non-respondents)

Note this means there were 19.5 respondents in favor of a commercial use license (GFDL or CC-by-sa) and 18.5 in favor of a noncommercial license.

Editors = 21

GFDL = .75+.50+.50 = 1.75

CC-by-sa = .25+.50+1+.25+1+.50 = 3.50

CC-by-nc-sa = 1+1+1+1+1+1+.75+1+1+1+1 = 10.75

Ambivalent / Either way is okay = 1+1+1+1 = 4

Ignorant = 1

Authors = 30

GFDL = .50+1+.50+1+.50+1 = 4.5

CC-by-sa = 1+.50+1+1+1+.50+.25+1+.50+1 = 7.75

CC-by-nc-sa = 1+1+1+1+.75+1+1+1 = 7.75

Ambivalent / Either way is okay = 1+1+1+1+1 = 5

I don't know = 1+1 = 2

Ignorant = 1+1 = 2

CZ must get this right = 1

Techs = 3

GFDL = 1

CC-by-sa = 1

I don't know = 1


The fractional numbers are meant to represent the opinions of people who said "Either A or B," or "I'd prefer A but B would be OK." Each person's opinion was weighted as 1 (total).

The respondents overall were not particularly sophisticated with licensing issues. Moreover, the number of "Ambivalent / Either way is OK" suggests licensing is not a principle factor in their choice to contribute. One casual Wikipedia contributor, also casual on the Citizendium, commented, "I'm not sure what number 1 [the GFDL] is." Alongside is a general realization among these respondents that there are drawbacks/benefits either way. One editor's comments perhaps best expressed these combined views, "Personally I don't care, and would support a least worst decision, whatever that is."

Most who made longer comments argued primarily upon moral considerations for non-commercial. One longer comment exception was pro-GFDL, arguing for compatibility with Wikipedia.

Of the 21 editor respondents expressing a commercial or non-commercial preference, around two to one preferred non-commercial. Those in the combined ambivalent /either way, I don't know, and ignorant categories were about the same as in the commercial category.

The 30 author respondents were a different story. The plurality were in the combined ambivalent /either way, I don't know, and ignorant categories (10, versus 7.75 for each of CC-by-sa and CC-by-nc-sa). Of those expressing a preference, around 2/3 expressed commercial.

Of the 3 "techs" (programmers), 2 expressed commercial, divided between the CC and GFDL; 1 did not know which direction the Citizendium should take.

These numbers tell an interesting story. Editors as a group prefer a noncommercial license, while authors as a group--a larger group overall--prefer a commercial license, or what advocates call a "free" license. This reflects the Citizendium's effort to forge a "hybrid" project, attractive to multiple communities. These numbers are not at all implausible, either, considering the lengthy discussions that have happened on the Citizendium forums (see here and more generally here). But note that the poll--and our rate of non-response--makes it clear that most Citizens do not feel as passionately as do many of the discussantsin the forums.

An existential choice. Even if our contributors are not especially excited about the decision, the striking division of opinion still indicates that a sort of existential choice needs to be made. It is possible to represent this decision in a misleadingly dramatic way, as follows.

"What sort of project do we want to be?" one side says. "Do we want to ignore the opinions and attitudes of our most important contributors, which make us a distinctive project -- our experts? Honest academics don't work as slaves on behalf of industry, but are fair brokers of the truth. It is crucial that the Citizendium remain fully independent of commercial influence."

"Indeed, what sort of project do we want to be?" the other side says. "Do you want to be a closed, unfree project? The open source software community has demonstrated the value of free licenses. This model has been proven to be superior to the traditional academic one, which allows 'educational use only.' Freedom is our top priority."

Though I have no doubt that a few people will find themselves perfectly represented by one side or the other, I have exaggerated and caricatured both sides for effect, and I think the most appropriate attitude our Citizens should have lies in between.

On the one hand, we aren't Expertpedia; we are the Citizendium. I deliberately avoided a name that trumpeted expert involvement. Our distinctive feature is that we are generally a more responsible community with more reliable content, as unsexy as that might seem. We aren't just another academic project. What academic projects invite open, general participation from around the world in radically collaborative way? What academic projects permit broad distribution and "share-alike" reworking of content? On the other hand, we are also not your typical open source, Web 2.0, free culture project. We have a role for experts; we use our own real
names and identities; and we reject the canards of "no management" and "benevolent dictatorship" in favor of a constitutional, representative republic.

From the beginning, the Citizendium was billed as an effort to marry some good elements from two unfortunately disparate communities. The approach the Citizendium will take to our license question will, I hope, be a creative way to do justice to much, if not all, of the underlying concerns both of academics and of the free culture movement.

One might take the view that we should not overestimate the potential negative reaction to our choosing any license. Among the 100 active Citizens I asked to weigh in on the license, only 38 bothered to offer a definite opinion, and these were pretty evenly divided between commercial versus noncommercial--the edge, surely not statistically significant, given slightly to the former. None of those (most active) Citizens threatened, "I will leave if you don't choose the way I want," although later, one or two people on each side did say this--none of them very active.

But this point does not go very far, because the most active Citizens have been precisely those who are willing to participate without a clear license. It is possible that we will gain more participants once we decide one way or another, just because we've made the decision. I doubt this, but it's possible. Indeed, if we get a fresh infusion of contributors after announcing a license, that will probably be because of the interest that accompanies the announcement. In any case, it's more important that we examine what will maximize contributor motivation over the long haul.

B. Estimating the motivation of different groups

Editors and academics. Most of our editors are academics, and while academics usually favor a noncommercial, educational use only sort of license, they do not seem to be especially animated by license issues generally. Most of them do not seem to know or care much about what our license is; for most, if we choose a commercial license, it won't make much of a difference.

Moreover, some significant number of the academics who are inclined to the noncommercial side could change their minds, once they become fully acquainted with the arguments for a noncommercial license. It is not hard to argue that an "educational use only" sort of arrangement might have been appropriate in the past, but the expansion of content creation projects outside of the educational or academic sphere makes a more inclusive license possible. More generally, the arguments on the commercial side are at least as compelling as on the noncommercial side, and we can expect many academics to go where the arguments lead.

If there is a significant worry on this side, it is that large and influential groups, such as professional organizations and major academic presses, would refuse to get involved, on grounds that a license that permits commercial reuse would reduce their rights or influence. Some professional authors and publishers would not want to contribute to a work that their competitors can simply take and reuse without compensation. Why should they get involved? What's in it for us?

But the professionals who ask "What's in it for us?" will not wish to get involved in any case, and that is not just because the content can be reused for commercial purposes, but because it can be reused at all, and because indeed they aren't paid for their work. Academics do, of course, do a lot of publishing work without monetary
compensation, but this mostly takes the form of peer-reviewed research publishing, for which they're compensated in their careers. They are much more reluctant to write general informational resources, such as reference materials and textbooks, without compensation. If one removes both compensation and the right of control, professional writers and publishers will simply not want to get involved. But this is true whether we use CC-by-sa or CC-by-nc-sa. It's the common elements, the "CC" (free) and the "sa" (ShareAlike) parts, that they object to.

It is worth pointing out that one moderately successful expert project, the Encyclopedia of Earth, actually uses CC-by-sa. But another more recent (and much better funded) project, the Encyclopedia of Life, will probably not permit reuse of some of its content at all; two more examples of academic projects, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Scholarpedia, do not permit republishing without specific permission at all

I point this out not to call into question whether we should use an open content license at all, but because our use of an open content license, whether commercial or noncommercial, will put off most of the people who would be put off by a commercial free license. In brief, the category of academics perfectly comfortable with a free license but not comfortable with a commercial free license is apt to be very small indeed--and far smaller than the category of academics uncomfortable with free licenses, period. So if you want to be sure to snag the academic publishing traditionalists, it's too late: the decision that puts them off, to use a free license, has already been made.

I don't mean to dismiss entirely the fact, which seems obvious, that there will be some academics who are put off by a commercial free license and who would not be put off by a noncommercial free license. It's just that I believe the number of academics who would be seriously disaffected by the choice is very small.

The free culture crowd. With another group, matters are very different. A far higher percentage of the "free culture" and "open source software" (OSS or FOSS) crowds really care, and passionately so, about licensing issues. There is a significant minority of potential Citizens who would not dream of participating if we were to use a noncommercial license. And if we were to use a commercial license, we would instantly become much more attractive than we are now. Indeed, these people have criticized us, sometimes bitterly, for not announcing a license choice in our first year.

To be sure, among our most active contributors, there are not very many free culture zealots, and it is quite possible that we will never have many. (I use the word "zealot" not because I disagree with them. In fact, I do agree with them. I merely dislike all kinds of zealotry--even in support of my own causes.) But this crowd includes many influential commentators; indeed, the leaders of the various open content projects are usually very strong supporters of open content and free software, as are most of the people who write for Slashdot, and many tech columnists. In short, among the Web 2.0 opinion-makers, free culture zealots loom large. They can influence our "brand" or public reputation, how we are reported on in the technical press, and how many people are introduced to us.

It is worth pointing out that the Citizendium has already put off some of the free culture crowd, for the simple reason that we have rejected some of their usual policies; for example, we forbid anonymity, and we have a role for experts in our system. Also, maybe more importantly, some people hold up Wikipedia as the leading free culture success story, and they think an alternative like Citizendium is neither necessary nor desirable. For these reasons, it would be impossible for the Citizendium to win over the free culture crowd entirely, not anytime soon, and so it would be a waste of time to try. But the choice of a noncommercial license would give this crowd a reason to positively demonize us. That is, at least, a weak reason to choose a noncommercial license: quite simply, good public relations.

Everyone else. I think probably the majority, or at least the plurality, of our most active contributors are neither dyed-in-the-wool academics wedded to "educational use only," nor dyed-in-the-wool free culture zealots. This probably applies to most of our future contributors as well. I have no clear idea of where most of them will fall on these issues.

C. Which license will maximize participation?

So, pressed to name which sort of license would maximize participation, I would say a commercial license would help us, at least a little--not necessarily very much.

But it isn't quite as simple as this. One caveat is that we might have more well-informed, mature contributors if we were to choose a noncommercial license--I say that only because we might gain a higher concentration of older academics (the traditionalists). Yet I think the advantage there is marginal at best. I suspect that the overall activity of the wiki would increase over the short and medium term, which would mean that there would be more academics, period, even if there were a lower concentration of them.

Another caveat is that the dynamics of the decision might change over time. It might turn out, for example, that we become increasingly influential and therefore attractive to academics to contribute to. As more and more mainstream academics--meaning the "educational use only" traditionalists--consider joining, there might well be increasing dissatisfaction with the choice of a commercial license, and regret that we did not earlier choose a noncommercial license. But after a few more years, I think that academics will be introduced--dare I say indoctrinated?--into the value system of the free culture and free software movements. This has already
happened with a number of Wikipedian academics and Citizens. So I don't think it is crucial that we as it were prepare the way for a flood of traditional academics by automatically opting for a noncommercial license. After all, it seems likely that much of the older generation of scholars will never be interested in any such project. (I say this knowing full well that a few of our most distinguished and active contributors are in fact "very seasoned" professionals. They are delightful exceptions.)

In short, considerations of Citizen participation argue, weakly, in favor of a commercial license.

V. The license and our relationship with Wikipedia

A. The relationship with Wikipedia

For many, our relationship with Wikipedia is crucial to the license decision. Some think that we should choose a license compatible with Wikipedia's, so as to remain in the spirit of free exchange that is essential to the notion of open content. Others think that we should choose a license incompatible with Wikipedia's, to prevent Wikipedia from using our content and to make sure that we clearly distinguish ourselves from the older project.

The underlying question, which is worth examining separately, is: what sort of relationship do we want to have with Wikipedia? Are we competing or cooperating--or perhaps some of each? How?

We are not in business to put Wikipedia out of business. But we do hope to outdo them in value--that is, in quality, quantity (in the fullness of time), and in the maturity and responsibility of our community. So we are naturally neutral competitors; while we might have criticisms of Wikipedia, and while we might think those criticisms make the Citizendium necessary as an alternative, such criticisms do not justify our aiming to shut Wikipedia down. Here's another way to put it: the Citizendium is an improvement on Wikipedia, but that does not mean that Wikipedia is useless. Speaking for myself, I've always said that Wikipedia remains a force for good in the world, whatever its flaws. On balance, I remain a fan of the project I engineered. I merely think we can do better--and so we should try. I suspect these sentiments are shared by a majority of Citizens.

Given these sentiments, if we cooperate with Wikipedia, it should be in our own interest to do so. This is because the competition with Wikipedia includes, most importantly, competition for contributors. While I have long thought that Wikipedia and the Citizendium maintain only slightly overlapping social niches, in fact, a majority of our active participants are former Wikipedians, and there are some who straddle the projects and some who would be Citizens but for the fact that we are not large enough yet. Realistically speaking, though there will always be many "die hards" in both communities--people who would never set foot in the other communities--there is a fairly large number of people who might (and actually do) work on either project, depending on circumstances. As the Citizendium grows in size and viability, it is likely to win the allegiance of more of these people. Therefore, how, i.e., what license scheme, is likely to do win them over?

To answer this question, it is worth examining different statements about how commercial and noncommercial licenses would affect our relationship with Wikipedia.

B. The effects of a commercial license on our relationship with Wikipedia

Suppose that we chose a license permitting commercial use: either CC-by-sa or GFDL. This would make it possible for Wikipedia to use original Citizendium articles. What would be the consequences? Let's see.

Would Wikipedia swipe the Citizendium's content and render our project pointless? Indeed, Jimmy Wales and others are on the record saying, in effect, that they don't mind that the Citizendium is starting up; they'll simply take the best of our content and use the best of our techniques, if they work. Some Citizens have been greatly concerned about such talk. They detect a subtle implication that Wikipedia will always be one step ahead of the Citizendium, because they will be able to replicate the Citizendium's content and policies. And that will render the newer project pointless.

Whatever anyone's intentions, there is little to worry about here. Already, when the Citizendium improves a Wikipedia article, Wikipedia can "borrow back" the Citizendium changes. This has happened, and the world hasn't crashed around our heads. In fact, it doesn't seem to have mattered to anyone. As far as I can tell, Wikipedia does not avail itself of our content very much, even when they (already) have the opportunity. I have heard that something like 30-40% of our total articles, including non-"live" articles, got started on Wikipedia, and so they can be "swiped back" by Wikipedia. To be sure, our words can already be seen on Wikipedia--just
not very prominently. That's fine with us.

But what about articles that the Citizendium has, but that Wikipedia does not have? Unsurprisingly, some Wikipedians made a list of such articles. Last August, they listed around 150 articles that they spotted in the Citizendium that they didn't have at the time (and that they wanted). That might sound like a lot of articles, until one realizes that that was only about 6% of the total number of articles the Citizendium had at the time. If Wikipedia were to host copies of all of those articles, would it make much difference to us? Surely not.

The most important answer to the claim here, however, is that Wikipedians are simply too proud to replace their articles with ours. As long as our articles are--for whatever reason--significantly different from Wikipedia's, the fact that Wikipedia can borrow from our content poses exactly no threat to us. On the other hand, the fact that Wikipedia can improve our content, and we can improve theirs, turns out to be a classic win-win. If we see that they've improved a paragraph, we can "steal" it. If they like a table we wrote, they can steal that. Our articles will develop in parallel, and, as experience so far seems to bear out, will grow more dissimilar than similar. But we can still share content. I can imagine "archaeological digs" of text, 50 or 100 years from now, when there are perhaps not two but twenty different significant encyclopedia projects, all exchanging content. Future historians might ask, "Where did this precise sentence, which appears in five different sources, originally come from?"

A reputation for being derivative? As some of my fellow Citizens have suggested, it isn't the reality of being derivative of Wikipedia that is a problem for the Citizendium, it is the reputation. In other words, even if to any objective observer the Citizendium remains importantly and obviously different from Wikipedia, we might get the reputation for being derivative. It might be (wrongly) believed that Wikipedia has all of our virtues, because they have all of our content, when neither of these claims will ever be true. We could help avoid such misconceptions by using a distinct license and forbid Wikipedia to reuse our original articles.

This seems true, as far as it goes. But we will always seem somewhat derivative insofar as we borrow, and improve upon, Wikipedia's articles. The question is whether a more vigorous exchange of articles and contributors will make us always seem like an "also ran." The answer: of course not. The differences in policy are clear and loudly trumpeted. As we grow, the differences in the results will also be clear to see, if they aren't already.

I think what many people fear is the following scenario: an article begins life on the Citizendium, and is then imported into Wikipedia, where it is greatly expanded. Citizens then always must play "catch up" with Wikipedia. But this would make sense only if Wikipedia did not already have articles about almost everything. That is why Wikipedia is not apt to borrow much of our content, and when they do, then, just as when we borrow their content, it will usually tend to drift in different directions. That's how things will be, in fact; and general awareness of this fact will, sooner or later, follow.

In short, the two projects will in fact always be different, and in time they will grow only more different; and this fact will make contrary reputations difficult to develop, especially over the long term. As to the short term, well, no one who is deathly afraid of being misunderstood should ever do anything in the public arena, because most of what one does will be misunderstood by many people. That's not because people are malicious but because communication is difficult. And that shouldn't stop anyone from taking risks.

A more vigorous exchange of contributors. There are a huge number of mature, well-meaning, intelligent writers contributing to Wikipedia. They are welcome to join the Citizendium, if they like. Already, we've had some contributors to the Citizendium who have committed to maintaining and developing articles that they started on Wikipedia for us. They are welcome to do so, as long as our copies really are moving in a different direction: we don't want to be yet another mirror of Wikipedia. There's little value that. More relevantly to the current license decision: if Wikipedians thought that content from articles they start for the Citizendium could
be moved to Wikipedia freely, they would be much more likely to start new articles for us, i.e., they'd be more inclined to give us a chance. As long as they can play by our rules, we'd be delighted to have them. If they decided that the Citizendium was not for them, they could always move their content to Wikipedia.

Greasing the wheels of contributor exchange in this way would likely be to the benefit of the Citizendium. Our using a license compatible with Wikipedia's would make Wikipedians more likely to join us, but would probably not lead to much emigration in the opposite direction. This is not just because work could be easily transferred back and forth between the projects, but also because many Wikipedians would be more comfortable with a license that, like Wikipedia's, permits commercial reuse.

VI. Conclusion: the Citizendium's position

A. Some final preliminaries about open content

Who should be the licensors? Before elaborating the Citizendium's license scheme, I want to address one last issue. As one distinguished Citizendium editor suggested, if the license issue is as difficult as the above discussion implies, then we should cover our bases and make sure that we can change the license if we get the decision wrong. It would also be good to be able to change the license if the community changes its mind, or if a better license, for our purposes, comes along.

But there is no way to change the license (even from the more-restrictive CC-by-nc-sa to the less-restrictive CC-by-sa) unless there is a licensor that has the standing or authority to make this decision. As long as we continue the Wikipedia practice of viewing the individual licensors of our whole body of work as the individual contributors, then there is no single licensor. Hence, there is no practical way to improve on a license choice: the license can be made once and for all, period. This, you might think, is a serious problem. Why think we will make the right decision first?

Besides, arguably, we place reusers in a very strange situation by saying that each contributor licenses his contribution individually and no entity licenses the whole thing collectively. Who are the reusers dealing with? Some vague, shifting hydra? There are in fact as many licenses as there are contributions? Perhaps this is a real, practical problem for Wikipedia now. Can the Wikimedia Board speak for all the millions of Wikipedia contributors? Even if there is a public discussion later, who has the authority to assess the outcome of the discussion and to make any decision about a change of license? Quite frankly, the recent "decision" to make Wikipedia content "compatible" with CC-by-sa strikes me as philosophically problematic: by making this claim of compatibility, isn't the Wikimedia Board arrogating to themselves an authority that they have never had, at least by long and dogmatic proclamation by a large majority of Wikipedians? That's certainly how I remember it, even since 2001 when we first started discussing this

Therefore--one might argue, as the aforementioned distinguished editor did--whatever else we do, we should simply declare that the Citizendium has the right to change the license in the future. We say that, of course, whatever license was used at time T1 continues to apply for the content released at time T1. But if we change the license at time T2, then the content as it exists at that time is available under T2 and not T1. We add that, of course, such decisions will not be made in a secret proceeding, but only after a fair, rule-governed democratic process. In short, it is absurd to think that our individual contributors are the entities that license our content. It should be the Citizendium that licenses the content.

This seems to be a strong argument, until one considers a few facts.

First, unless we are willing to take a very serious legal and political risk, we will never be able to relicense the material that comes to us from Wikipedia. The Citizendium's options with the content that originated with Wikipedia is dependent on Wikipedia's decisions (however arrived at). So the problem the argument poses simply cannot be solved perfectly in any case.

Second, as we have seen, there is a very vocal minority that cares deeply about the license issue. As I elaborated above, any consideration of relicensing--particularly relicensing from a noncommercial license to a commercial license--would be particularly wrenching. In short, no matter how qualified, the license decision articulated in this paper is going to set a precedent that would be extremely difficult to change, even if the Citizendium Foundation were the licensor and it could (had the standing to) make the change. This does not refute the argument, but it does make the problem the argument poses much less pressing: there is little need to secure the right to change the license if we will probably not want to change the license.

There is, however, one purpose for which Citizens might to stand together and speak with a unified voice, namely, if there are serious violations of our license, over which we want to sue someone. This is something we may want as a community to support, but, as I say below, we can put this decision off until later.

The nature of open content. The above exchange indicates something deeply interesting and important about the nature of open content. Collaborative content communities are made up of individuals that want the benefits of combining their labor with other people, but who want to retain as much control and freedom for themselves as possible. An open content license is their guarantee that they will be able to enjoy the benefits of their labor--that no one will be able to steal collective products out from under the producers. It is a key element of a sort of social contract that binds people together who want to work on a particular project. But
once this social contract is created, there is no way to change it short of giving a single sovereign entity, in Hobbes' terms a leviathan, the authority to speak for the whole. It is, again, the nature of open content communities to leave as much control as possible in the hands of the contributors and not their organizers; that open and bottom-up nature is what makes such communities so productive, after all.

Some such fundamental principles might explain why we find ourselves in this situation--where we would like to be able to change the license, but we can't. Ultimately, it's because changing the license requires that an entity different than each of us, individually, enters in the social contract, so that we are no longer an relevant party to it, at least when it comes to the legal defense of our work. But then there is a special coordination problem: it is impossible to get a large body of people all to agree to a change.

This is a nice theory, I suppose, but it sounds like a "just-so story" to me. I think that a group of people probably could be justified in changing their license, even over the objections of a few. And I doubt this would necessarily entail the creation of a Hobbesian leviathan that would remove "the sovereignty of the people."

I just don't see a legal model of making a license change without in effect making the distributor of the content into a licensor as well. That is the power that, for example, I think the Wikimedia Foundation has, rightly or wrongly, had to take upon itself.

There are, I think, only two ways to allow future online collaborative communities to have the right to change their licenses. First, they (in effect) empower their organizers to make these decisions, or, second, they change the whole legal paradigm associated with collaborative open content communities. Practically, I think this would require federal legislation and, possibly, international treaties. In time, I think this might happen. As I have recently argued in a speech, I believe that cyber-polities are a new sort of entity in our international civil society. They have unique features and unique needs, and the legal paradigm of "licenses" is woefully inadequate to answer to these features and needs. I suspect--without having perfectly well-developed ideas on the subject--that governments should recognize a new kind of organization, and set up some absolute bare minimum legal ground rules for them. Among other things, such rules would allow society to recognize that an online organization has, in fact, changed its license; they might also allow certain online organizations new categories of tax-exempt status; they might settle a way to create legal proxies for such organizations, if they are needed; and they might create a legal framework for "revolution," i.e., in which contributors depose their leaders, and society can recognize that this is legitimate. (Suppose a Web project's managers were all arrested and thrown into prison. Shouldn't there be a process to put the control of the domain name and servers in the hands of the community--somehow?)

In any event, I may be bold in many ways, but I am not bold enough to claim for the Citizendium Foundation the right to change the Citizendium's license. To make such a claim would be simply too daring even for my blood. As far as the community is concerned, we will have to wait for some such new legal paradigm as described above.

B. Our license and license procedure

Without further ado, here are the details of our licensing scheme.

(1) Our license

The Citizendium adopts CC-by-sa 3.0 Unported as the license for our own original collaborative content. This means (among other things) that, if you start a new article for the Citizendium, "from scratch," then when you press the "Save page" button, you agree irrevocably to license your text using CC-by-sa. I

say "our own original" to exclude articles that originated elsewhere (usually Wikipedia), and I say "collaborative content" to exclude such possible non-collaborative features as "Signed Articles." The Citizendium will continue to use the GFDL for articles that originated with Wikipedia, at least until such time as

Wikipedia has credibly announced that we may relicense such material under CC-by-sa. We use a variety of other licenses, in addition, for our non-text media.

(2) Reproducing Citizendium content elsewhere

As to articles that originated with the Citizendium, you are free both to reproduce and to further develop them as long as you link from your copy back to the original Citizendium article, and do
so reasonably prominently (no hidden or tiny print). You must also link to a copy of the CC-by-sa license.

As to Citizendium articles that originated on Wikipedia, we expect Wikipedians to credit and link to the relevant Citizendium article if they wish to use content that the Citizendium contributed to those articles. If you are a third party site, you must credit both Wikipedia and the Citizendium for these articles, and note that the applicable license is (again, for now) GFDL, not CC-by-sa.

As to images and other media, and signed articles, consult the license information for the media or article. There are many free images (public domain, CC and GFDL) in our media collection, of course, but you may not simply host wholesale.

In general, you can most easily and safely reproduce the text of our collaborative encyclopedia articles, and all other text content that we have developed collaboratively (which is all of the text of our collaborative encyclopedia articles, and the vast majority of the text on subpages).

(3) Implications for using Wikipedia articles in the Citizendium

Bear in mind that someone who is the only author of some text that is used by Wikipedia in effect relicenses his or her contributions under CC-by-sa, if he or she does not check the "Content is from Wikipedia?" checkbox. Many Citizens have already uploaded their solely-created content without giving credit to Wikipedia. But note that if, in "your" Wikipedia article, even a very small edit was made by another Wikipedian, however, we must give Wikipedia credit and use the GFDL for that article. Unless you produce a version of the article that is entirely your own work, you personally lack the standing to remove the Wikipedia credit and license.

Bear also in mind that we allow people to upload images and some other media under any legal arrangement that permits free access. The most restrictive such arrangement is that you simply give us a permanent right to use your media on the website and any future Foundation publishing projects (which will, of course, be nonprofit); but otherwise you retain all copyrights.

(4) Downloadability

Of course, all of our content can be found and downloaded using any standard Web browser.

For computer programmers who wish to download our content all at once, we have prepared a "database dump" that we will be updating regularly, consistent with usual practice. Non-technical people will find these files useless.

(5) An expectation of support from large reusers

A significant portion of the Citizendium's contributors are not comfortable with the idea that their work might be "exploited" by "profiteers," with no compensation being given to themselves individually or even to the Citizendium Foundation.

Therefore, the Citizendium Foundation advances the proposition that those who succeed in making significant profits from reuse of the Citizendium's content are morally--not legally--obligated to share some nontrivial portion of those profits with the project. In other words, while we ask that you share any profits with the project, this remains a well-grounded request and not a requirement.

Of course, we understand that most commercial concerns "know what side their bread is buttered on," and would naturally voluntarily share some of their profits with a charitable enterprise that makes those profits possible, without our asking them to do so.

(6) An option to legally represent

We may in the future take up the issue whether the Citizendium Foundation should represent the Citizens who have contributed content, in case we would like to sue for violation of our license. Such a lawsuit could be a class action suit. For now, we are setting this issue aside.

C. The grounds for this decision

About choosing the license. Let me explain the grounds on which this decision rests, and in so doing, summarize the arguments given in this paper. I said in the beginning that our highest goal is to provide large amounts of easily accessible and high quality content to the world, and that our main means to this end is to motivate contributors. The other matters are important, but in my experience, really motivated contributors are both a necessary and a sufficient condition for a successful collaborative project. If there aren't enough motivated contributors, nothing else matters: the project will not survive. But if there are many, then nearly any problem is potentially solvable. That is, I think, the position that the Citizendium finds itself in: we have a lot of motivated contributors, but also a lot of problems to solve; yet I am confident that we will be able to solve them together.

So the really important task that impinges on the choice of license is, as I see it, motivating contributors. But there are some other considerations, as we will see from a review of the arguments. Some might question my authority to make this decision single-handedly; but in that case, I would point to the fact that, when last fall 100 of our most active contributors were polled, there was slightly more support (19.5 of the votes counted) for a commercial license than for a noncommercial license (18.5). It is gratifying that the decision I came to is consistent with the (slight) majority opinion. The fact that it was the majority opinion to support a commercial license also supports the decision.

Why not the GFDL? Since Creative Commons, the Free Software Foundation, and the Wikimedia Foundation have come to an agreement that--they say--will permit the compatibility of Wikipedia's articles with articles licensed using CC-by-sa, that removes any possible reason we might have for using the GFDL. The GFDL simply was not written for projects like wiki encyclopedias, and while it might have been the best license choice when I recommended it for Wikipedia back in 2001, it is now very far from the best choice today. I might go into more depth about the drawbacks of the GFDL, but others have rehearsed these ad nauseam.

An evaluation of the case for a noncommercial license. Generally, I found the arguments for a noncommercial license very interesting, but not ultimately more compelling than the opposed arguments. The moral argument for a noncommercial license finds something unfair about others profiting on the backs of volunteers. But, upon examination, it became clear that the situation is unfair only if a contributor has not given up the right to compensation. But it is precisely by choosing a commercial license that one might be said to give up the right to compensation. Therefore, it is actually a subtly circular argument to say that a noncommercial license is required by considerations of fairness: it is the choice of license that determines what is fair or not. So the moral argument is not by itself probative: it gains force only if independent reasons can be found in favor of a noncommercial license.

This said, I personally find some force in this moral argument. I might not have been able to articulate this force very well, but I find my head nodding in agreement when people say, "It's just wrong for corporations to be able to make tidy profits for their owners or shareholders by using free content, without compensating the sources of that content." But I think it has to do mainly with the size of the operation. Generally, we might say that larger companies owe a special moral debt to public projects that supply the means of their success, in the same way that corporations are thought to have a moral obligation to support the institutions of civil society. For this reason, I have added the section, above, that requests a portion of profits made from the use of Citizendium content.

But why not make compensation a legal requirement? After all, we might get a lot of money that way. One main reason not to make compensation a legal requirement is that it is simply not likely that anyone will earn very much money from the Citizendium as long as it is available for free use by everyone. It will be universally available, and charging for it would be like charging for the air--and that is not a very plausible business model. In addition, there is a very serious problem, namely, that charging a license fee to commercial enterprises would require that the Citizendium both become a licenser of the content (and so ask authors to share their copyright with the Foundation) and that it adopt some democratic method of apportioning out the largess. While neither of these is a fatal blow to the case for a noncommercial license--they only puts the skids on the idea of license fees charged by the Foundation to corporate reusers--they are very significant disadvantages. We ought as much as possible to avoid upsetting our contributors, as seeming to remove their individuals rights would do; and it would be simply prudent not to transform the Citizendium into a nest of political turmoil, as I think would likely happen if budget matters had to be decided democratically. There are other problems as well. In sum, I think we can avoid potentially significant problems, internal and external, if we renounce any authority to charge a license fee for the commercial use of our content.

Besides, we are apt to be supported by significant commercial reusers of our content, even if we don't require such support. We can ask for support, too, and few enterprises will refuse to support us, if they depend on us. Moreover, a noncommercial license would make it harder for "the little guy"--small blogs and websites and specialist wikis--to use our content. There is no harm, and much to gain, from permitting such use, even when reusers are trying to turn a small profit if only to pay for their expenses.

An evaluation of the case for a commercial license. There are some relatively simplistic arguments for a commercial license (e.g., from the definition of "free") that I found not particularly persuasive, despite being common.

Much more interesting is the argument from social ownership. The idea here is that strongly collaborative content is not "owned" in any traditional sense, because it is so easy to become a (legal) "co-owner" of a collaborative work, and because such works are tethered only in the most tenuous way to any specific individuals. Without saying exactly what we should make of "social ownership," we can at least say that collaborative content is held in trust by an organization on behalf of society at large. And since society has commercial interests among others, there is no justification for forbidding commercial use. This is because society at large--including those who might want to use the content commercially--has a right to contribute and augment the material. While interesting, this argument seems to "prove too much": if it were correct, we ought to conclude that all collaborative projects should be released into the public domain. Moreover, it is question-begging in that it assumes it will always be in society's best interests to have the freest possible license.

By far the strongest reason in favor of a commercial license, I think, is the argument from maximum reuse. The argument is simple. Most of the rest of the free culture movement uses a commercial license, so this influential overarching community would be more likely to spread our content if we used a commercial license. Moreover, the total number of commercial enterprises that would use our content would surely be higher if we allowed them to use our content without purchasing a license. Finally, the efficiency of access to Citizendium content, and the probability of paper copies being placed in the hands of those without Internet access, would
both be increased if we use a commercial license. In short, if we want to maximize the number of people who benefit from our content, a commercial license is what we should choose.

Moreover, a commercial license avoids some significant incompatibilities. If the problem were simply a matter of explaining and understanding that the project has two different licenses, that would be no problem. After all, we will have two different licenses, namely, the GFDL and CC-by-sa, at least until Wikipedia finalizes its compatibility decision. The problem is that different articles would be licensed using two incompatible licenses, one commercial and the other noncommercial. This makes different Citizendium articles themselves mutually incompatible, which is annoying (at least). It would also make it much less likely that anyone would ever reproduce the entire database of Citizendium articles, preventing maximum reuse (and hence our impact on the world).

You might say, by the way, that we can get rid of these incompatibility problems by not using Wikipedia's articles at all. Why not just delete them all? As tempting as that might sound at times, we've already made the decision to permit their use, and that is an issue we really cannot change at this point.

There were also two issues that go to evaluating the impact of the different licenses on levels of participation. The first may be boiled down to this: while academics in general do not especially know or care about the difference between commercial and noncommercial free licenses, the free culture crowd, which makes up another large constituency, cares deeply and passionately about the difference. We will probably have more disaffected contributors if we choose a noncommercial license than if we choose a commercial one. The second issue concerns the impact of the license on our relationship with Wikipedia; and, in sum, it seems likely that our choosing a commercial license would lead to a more vigorous exchange of contributors between Wikipedia and the Citizendium, something that could help us considerably. There is no good reason to think it will harm us.

A global assessment. On first glance, the case for a noncommercial license seemed to me, as it seemed to many Citizens, very strong. But on careful examination, the reasons for a noncommercial license are uncertain, and some objections to a scheme of license fees are very worrying. By contrast, there are several strong arguments for a commercial license, and adoption of a license compatible with Wikipedia and other open content projects would solve some additional problems that a noncommercial license would impose.

It is also worth looking again at our goals and highest priorities, as explained in the first part of the essay. The arguments above indicate that a commercial license will directly contribute to our top goal, namely, giving the broadest access to vast amounts of high-quality reference content, by removing the legal impediments to free distribution. If the most important means to this goal is motivated contributors, a commercial license is again recommended, because such a license will be attractive to the free culture community and in other respects will help build robust participation. The other arguments are interesting, but not as important as these, which
concern the fundamental conditions of our success.

The proper evaluation of all these arguments is far from obvious, but in my judgment, it falls decidedly in favor of a commercial license. That is why the Citizendium has adopted CC-by-sa as the license for its own collaborative content.

D. About this essay

Apology. I sincerely regret the amount of time it took to produce this essay--I worked on it nearly every day for a month, long after my self-imposed deadline of November 15. Not until it was mostly written did I commit to a position; I wanted to go where I felt the arguments themselves leading. In the process, I have taught myself something very important. I hope the length and attention to detail given here will have taught some readers the same thing. Namely, the issues behind the decision between a commercial and a noncommercial license are extremely complex, and more complex than some people realize, that is, people who tend to
view this as a black-and-white issue. Decent, well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree about this issue. And given its complexity, I cannot possibly pretend to have the last word on it.

I can speak for the Citizendium when it comes to what our license and license procedure are (as explained above). But as to the arguments for the license, I have made extensive efforts to solicit and understand the views of a large variety of Citizens, and also of people outside of the Citizendium, and this essay is a collaborative effort to a great extent. Still, I cannot pretend to be speaking on behalf of anyone but myself in my presentation of the issues, and only I can take the blame for the mistakes in this analysis. I hope only to have presented the most important arguments, in their most compelling versions--although that is itself ambitious, and I doubt I have really done so.

Thanks. I have borrowed many arguments from Citizens. If you spot any brilliant arguments here, they might well be someone else's.

Most of all, I would like to thank the members of the Ad Hoc Licensing Committee, to which I sent drafts of this essay and whose members provided much invaluable insight. They include Aleta Curry, Stephen Ewen, Mike Johnson, Jitse Niesen, Zachary Pruckowski, and Aleksander Stos. Just to be clear: they do not all agree with me. I deliberately chose people who are active in the project, who evidently care about it, and who wrote very interesting essays (or private comments) on the issue. They also happened to represent an excellent cross-section of Citizen opinion.

Most of the Ad Hoc Licensing Committee wrote essays in response to a call for comments. I would also like to thank Anthony Argyriou, Utkarshraj Atmaram, Tom Kelly, Robert King, Joe Quick, Andrew Su, and Peter Tretter for their helpful essays.

In addition, I would like to thank people who offered valuable comments on the Citizendium Forums, including: Martin Baldwin-Edwards, Anthony DiPierro, David Goodman, Derek Harkness, Carl Hewitt, Matt Innis, Pat Palmer, Richard Jensen, Mark Jones, Russell D. Jones, Tom Kelly, Per Lind, James F. Perry, Hayford Peirce, Geoffrey Plourde, Nereo Preto, Joe Quick, Warren Schudy, Anthony Sebastian, and Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér. Thanks also to some others, who commented on the Citizendium Blog, especially David Gerard and Eugene van der Pijll, but others as well.

Finally, thanks to the members of the Citizendium Executive Committee, who also weighed in and reviewed this document before it was released.

This essay is free to reproduce for noncommercial purposes. I hereby release the copyright over this essay to the Citizendium Foundation, and speaking on behalf of the Foundation, I hereby license the essay under the CC-by-nc-nd 3.0 Unported license. (For the license of the Citizendium, see above.) This means you can reproduce it in any medium if you give me (and the Citizendium Foundation) credit, you don't use it for commercial purposes, and you don't make derivative versions of it. This doesn't mean that we won't give separate permission to reprint it (or parts of it) for profit, or that we'll refuse to let you release a derivative version of your own--it's just that you'll have to ask our permission.

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 website.  You can easily join here.