Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (longer version)

1. Thinkers of the world, start imagining.

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

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

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

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

2. Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second, some differences in the community:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Areas of similarity include:

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

4. The way forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

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