Introducing the Encyclosphere

This is the text of a speech I gave yesterday (October 17, 2019) at TheNextWeb's Hard Fork Summit in Amsterdam.

For now, you can go to Encyclosphere.org to sign up for news of the project. We'll also give you opportunities to get involved within the next week or two.

Update: I've added a video (produced later, after giving the speech).


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cIUk-K_ZT4
Here's a video of the speech.

We are fed up.

After ten years of domination by big social media—which might finally be in decline—we are tired of giant Silicon Valley corporations using us contemptuously. We still remember an Internet in which we charted our own destiny and owned our own data.

It’s not just social media. It’s Wikipedia, too. If you want to participate in the world’s largest encyclopedia, you must collaborate with a shadowy group of anonymous amateurs and paid shills on exactly one article per topic. If you’re new, you won’t be treated very nicely. If you don’t play their strange game, you’ll be summarily dismissed. Like the social media giants, Wikipedia has become an arrogant and controlling oligarchy.

Like Facebook, Wikipedia is also controlling its readers. It feeds them biased articles, exactly one per topic, does not let users give effective, independent feedback on articles (you’re forced to become a participant if you just want to give feedback) or to rate articles. They have, in a very real way, centralized epistemic authority in the hands of an anonymous mob. This is worse than Facebook. At least with Facebook, Congress can call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. There isn’t anyone who is responsible for Wikipedia’s content—certainly not Jimmy Wales. The situation is, in some ways, more dire than with Facebook, because you can’t effectively talk back to Wikipedia.

The old proverb tells us that knowledge is powerful. More specifically, authoritative statements of what is known on various subjects are powerful. How? Such statements can be used to influence elections, justify policies, and articulate controversial points of view—in effect to gain, wield, and build and consolidate power. The power to declare what is known is nearly the power to rule the world. No small group—no person, corporation, oligarchy, or cadre of insiders—should wield such power.

We believe in democracy: we believe that political power is best spread out, not concentrated in the hands of a few, where it is apt to be abused. We should also believe, therefore, in epistemic democracy: the power to declare what is known should also be very widely distributed.

So it should not be concentrated in the hands of Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, or any such exclusive group. The history of publishing, including Internet publishing, makes all too clear that the authority to declare what is known is wielded by selfish, powerful interests to advance their own agendas, which always unsurprisingly have the effect of consolidating their own power.

We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to be at the mercy of these people.

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

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

The Encyclosphere

Blogs give everyone an independent voice. All blogs taken together are called the “Blogosphere,” but there is no single, central blog repository and no blogging authority. It’s a good thing, too. Can you imagine what it might be like if all our blogs were ultimately controlled by a giant, powerful organization like Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia?

What made the Blogosphere possible were technical standards for formatting, sharing, and interlinking blog posts: the RSS and Atom specifications. The nontechnical basics about these standards are easy and important to understand. They are simply a way to format info about blog posts in a consistent, machine-readable way, and to let bloggers alert the world when their blog has changed. In general they allow for an organized type of interconnected, networked activity—blogging—without a central, controlling body.

Plenty of websites, like WordPress.com (currently the leader according to Alexa.com), Tumblr, Medium, and Blogger.com, have tried to become the home of blogging online. But none has been able to gain exclusive dominance, because it’s just too easy to move your blog elsewhere. The existence of common blogging standards makes that possible.

We need to do for encyclopedias what blogging standards did for blogs: there needs to be an “Encyclosphere.” We should build a totally decentralized network, like the Blogosphere—or like email, IRC, blockchains, and the World Wide Web itself. The Encyclosphere would give everyone an equal voice in expressing knowledge (or claims to knowledge), and in rating those expressions of knowledge. There would be no single, central knowledge repository or authority.

So, considering that RSS and Atom enabled the development of the decentralized Blogosphere, we clearly need to develop technical standards for encyclopedias. That is the mission of a new organization I want to introduce: the Knowledge Standards Foundation. (Note, the website of the future Foundation will be Encyclosphere.org, while our Twitter account is @ks_found.)

Writers and publishers would be able to post feeds of encyclopedia articles (or metadata about articles, and ratings of articles). App developers would be able to collect the data from all of those feeds and use the data to construct massive search engines, and other neat features, for all the encyclopedia articles in the world. No one app would be privileged, but all would tap into—and help build—a “knowledge commons.” Ultimately there would be a massive knowledge competition to best express human knowledge on every topic and from every point of view.

There’s never been anything like this. But if we get together, we can build it. Nobody’s stopping us. We need only the desire to get it done. We’ll never run out of runway because it’s not a startup. It’s a distributed, collective project, an open source movement that is bigger than any of us—and certainly much bigger than the Knowledge Standards Foundation, which will serve only as the catalyst, not the owner. The Encyclosphere will have no owner just as the Blogosphere has no owner.

Epistemic power should be spread out among the public. But how? I call it the “Encyclosphere,” but how would a more democratic Encyclosphere work?

  • Writers should be able to publish their own articles wherever and whenever they want, without asking anyone.
  • Raters—the general public, including people identified as experts—should be able to rate those articles.
  • The data for both articles and ratings are published according to standards, or a single common format, in a feed, similar to an RSS feed.
  • Users should be able to sort and re-sort articles according to all ratings, or selected ratings.
  • The control over whose ratings to pay attention to should always be in the hands of the user.
  • The data is slurped up and aggregated into different databases, including distributed databases such as IPFS, and open APIs.
  • Many competing apps, all around the world, use the aggregated data to build encyclopedia readers according to their own editorial standards. The Foundation’s technical standards will be completely neutral with regard to such editorial standards.

This is not a completely new concept, but I’m sure it will sound somewhat confusing. So I want to try to clarify by listing a few things that the Encyclosphere is not, or will not be:

  • The Encyclosphere is not an encyclopedia. It’s a network of encyclopedic content. It’s no more an encyclopedia than the Blogosphere is a blog.
  • The Encyclosphere is not a platform or network for building encyclopedias. It will be basically just a series of feeds. It’s not a piece of software or a library or API you can build on. It’s an old fashioned Internet network.
  • The Encyclosphere is not a blockchain. You could put it on a blockchain, sure, but it will be built directly on the World Wide Web.

By building the Encyclosphere, we, all of us little people, can, in a decentralized and democratic system, do an end run around giants like Google and Wikipedia.

The Knowledge Standards Foundation

This is the vision I’ve had for encyclopedias since around 2014. That was when I first started talking about something I called “GreaterWiki”; I even started learning to code more seriously partly in order to execute the vision. I went to work for Everipedia, the blockchain encyclopedia, in late 2017 with the promise that I’d be able to work on this project. When I joined the startup (three years after the co-founders began work on it), one thing we discussed would be the necessity of creating a nonprofit organization holding technical standards for encyclopedias. I thought that heading up such a foundation was a job I’d like to have.

For almost two years, I’ve been developing and promoting this vision (and related ideas, like decentralizing social media) as CIO of Everipedia. I’m grateful to Everipedia for the opportunity to develop and share the plan. But now it’s time for me to get to get serious about actually executing the plan. And for that, I’ve decided to get that independent foundation started.

Therefore, I am announcing that I have left my position as CIO of Everipedia to start a new Knowledge Standards Foundation. To demonstrate that the Foundation and Everipedia are independent entities, I have given back my equity to Everipedia—without compensation, i.e., they didn’t pay me for my returned equity and I did not receive or cash in any IQ tokens.

Everipedia has already committed to being among the first or the first to use the open standards that the Foundation develops, and I will continue to work with Everipedia’s technical team—along with other reference publishers and the general public.

The Foundation’s purpose will be to publish technical standards for the Encyclosphere. We will host open source tools and other software mainly for the developer community. And we will serve as a neutral public forum for discussion of such standards. We will be mostly a volunteer organization. Already over 40 people have stepped forward to help. I expect many more volunteers in the coming months.

There are also a few things that the Foundation is not, or will not be doing.

It is misleading to call the Encyclosphere “a project” of the KSF, insofar as that implies a centralized development project. We just want to be the organization to get the ball rolling and to articulate the encyclopedia specification.

The Foundation is not itself developing an encyclopedia. There will be no KSF Encyclosphere reader. We want there to be lots of competing reader software, just as there are competing blog readers.

The KSF is not an industry consortium; it is not a project paid for and controlled by reference publishers. I will have an announcement about how we’ll raise money for our modest operations next month.

I and future Foundation staff and volunteers will confer with the leadership and technical teams of a number of different app developers, standards experts, online reference publishers, and other potential stakeholders—including, of course, anyone from the interested general public. We will develop draft standards together, while vetting them in a very public, open, civil, and moderated process. As we develop software, we will host it in a Git repository controlled by the Foundation.

If you are interested in learning more, or even getting involved at this very early stage with the Encyclosphere project, please go to Encyclosphere.org and add your name and email address to our mailing list.


Want to help build an open encyclopedia network—an "Encyclosphere"?

We are fed up. After ten years of domination by big social media—which might finally be in decline—we are tired of giant Silicon Valley corporations using us contemptuously. We still remember an Internet in which we charted our own destiny.

It’s not just social media. It’s Wikipedia, too. If you want to participate in the world’s largest encyclopedia, you must collaborate with a shadowy group of anonymous amateurs and paid shills on exactly one article per topic. If you’re new, you won’t be treated very nicely. If you don’t play their strange game, you’ll be summarily dismissed. Like the social media giants, Wikipedia has become an arrogant and controlling oligarchy.

Like Facebook, Wikipedia is also controlling its readers. It feeds them biased articles, exactly one per topic, does not let users give effective, independent feedback on articles (you’re forced to become a participant) or to rate articles. They have in a very real way centralized epistemic authority in the hands of an anonymous mob. This is worse than Facebook. At least with Facebook, Congress can call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. There isn’t anyone who is responsible for Wikipedia’s content. The situation is, in some ways, more dire than with Facebook, because you can’t effectively talk back to Wikipedia.

We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to be at the mercy of these people.

What if all of humanity wrote encyclopedia articles, and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole?

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

If we do this, we won’t create just one website or app. We will create a truly decentralized, leaderless network of the people, by the people, and for the people. A commons, like the Internet itself. As to apps and editorial policies, let a thousand flowers bloom.

But that means we the people need to roll up our sleeves and get to work making it happen.

To this end, I recently tweeted:

https://twitter.com/lsanger/status/1180700522799611904

As of this writing it was liked over 1,100 times and RTd 360 times, and the new Knowledge Standards Foundation Twitter account, @ks_found, jumped from 60 to 1,441 followers in a few days. Please follow if you haven't already!

We have been calling for early participants to prepare the site for an upcoming announcement (Oct. 17, rather than Oct. 18 as stated above). We have over 30 volunteers now—and now it's a matter of getting them (and others who might sign up after this CFP) together building stuff.

Bear in mind this isn't a for-profit startup, it's not a coin, there is no ICO, and we're not building an app. Nobody is going to get rich here (unless they build a for-profit app on top of the resources we're building, which is totally OK). No, we're simply launching the discussion, the supporting nonprofit Foundation, starting work on supporting technical tools, and building an open source volunteer-driven movement.

Do you want to be among the very first participants/builders in a completely centerless, leaderless, open source network, like the Blogosphere, that I propose to call the Encyclosphere? The organizing site isn't public yet, but it is far enough along for our first participants (just not observers or the idle curious—actual participants only, please).

So, what's going on?

We are now calling for the new network's first participants. Do not write unless you're willing to get to work. We don't want observers, we want motivated participants. If that's you, please tell me a bit about yourself and which of the following you could put in some time doing in the next few weeks?

  • Social media managers: share and promote using #Encyclosphere. We need somebody to maintain Knowledge Standards Foundation accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gab, and Minds; if interested, get in touch.
  • Reporters, bloggers, podcasters, vloggers: interview me, invite me on your news program, video series, or blog. I promise to be interesting.
  • Writers or any sufficiently smart person: various stuff.
    • List all online encyclopedias. Make a massive list. Work with developers on doing any initially needed data about said encyclopedias (one thing I can think of is whether they have an API and if so, where and if there are instructions somewhere).
    • Help author and keep up-to-date text pages on Encyclosphere.org (such as "Site Map" and "About").
  • Developers: start doing exploratory coding. Like what?
    • Create scrapers to get metadata about encyclopedia articles out of Wikipedia, Everipedia, Britannica, Ballotpedia, etc. Scrape responsibly. Don't overload servers.
    • Create a regularly-updated (not too regularly-updated) database (or multiple databases) of encyclopedia articles.
    • Set up a GitLab group.
    • Install Matrix (as in Matrix.org) for developer discussions or advise about a better chat app, preferably OSS. I can give you access to an Encyclosphere.org subdomain & subdirectory.
    • Then let's share both the code and the data generated (both as a downloadable database and a queryable API). If you're interested, let's post on the blog and solicit ideas for requirements. If you already have such a database, please get in touch and let's talk next steps. There are lots of other potential projects; let's brainstorm.
  • Legal beagles:
    • Advise us on the legalities involved in the aforementioned scraping.
    • Advise us on and help us to set up a 501(c)(3).
  • Connectors of all sorts: outreach to experts. If you know interested people, reach out to them and introduce them to the project (and me).
  • Experts on anything closely related to our mission: give us advice. When it comes to executing on the early stages of a project, doing the most effective things can spell all the difference to success and failure. We know we don't have it all figured out, so if you have useful practical advice and ideas we can act on, we'd love to have them.
  • Encyclopedists and technologists: discuss, discuss, discuss. For all the work we can immediately start doing, when it comes to the standards themselves, I refuse to go off half-cocked. We're going to do this right. There are many deep, difficult, and important questions about every aspect of this endeavor. For this reason, the main method of extended deliberation about the standards will be via a group blog (as opposed to exploratory coding, which we can organize via the ordinary sort of chat). We'll have up to eight posts per day, whoever wants to post can submit something; I'll post a fair bit myself, probably, and I'll be the lead moderator. Mutual respect and staying on-topic will be requirements.
  • Foundation volunteers generally: get in touch. Send me your name and strengths; let me know if you're in central Ohio. I'll add you to a growing list, and if you help us get useful stuff done, we'll put you on Foundation's Team page. Send me your name and strengths here or DM on Twitter here.
  • Encyclosphere enthusiasts generally: also get in touch. We'll try to give you some pointers depending on what you might want to do.

Note, the above list is likely to change rapidly as we learn more and get to work. I'll let you into the "pre-alpha" site (encyclosphere.org) and introduce you to people who are working on similar things.

Also, you must be an alpha tester: that means you're OK with bugs and rough design (that will, of course, be fixed and prettied up).