Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia who later quit the project over differences in vision, just announced a direct competitor to the project: Citizendium.[1] In short, it’s a Wikipedia-style site with a focus on building a more scholarly, expert-centric community. You can read both the announcement and Sanger’s essay on why Citizendium is a better collaborative model for building an online encyclopedia at[2] Read on for some background and an analysis of the fledgling project.

What’s wrong with Wikipedia?

Over the past six years Wikipedia has become wildly popular with millions of articles in various world languages. Over ten percent of Americans are aware of Wikipedia and many consider it an essential resource. And though it’s suffered through some public controversy, the most vocal criticisms of Wikipedia have come from those who have a vested interest in traditional encyclopedias or clearly don’t understand the wiki model. So why the fuss?

Taking stock of Wikipedia is to ask two questions:

How good is Wikipedia’s content?
It’s surprisingly decent, given all the things that could go wrong. The most common criticisms of Wikipedia’s content tend to hinge on vandalism and accuracy, but though there have been some high profile vandalism cases, it’s not endemic (I use the site daily and have yet to see anything I suspect to be vandalism) and Wikipedia’s accuracy has been borne out by the only formal study on the topic. As I’ve mentioned before, Nature‘s expert-fueled comparison of Wikipedia’s and Britannica’s science sections pegged them as roughly equally accurate: Wikipedia averaged four errors per article whereas Britannica averaged three. This result does come with certain caveats, among them that science is probably among the better areas covered by Wikipedia and that flaws in Wikipedia’s community may cause various sorts of articles to ‘top out’ at certain levels, but (as Sanger readily admits) Wikipedia’s content is generally quite decent.

How good is Wikipedia’s community?
aka, What does Wikipedia’s future look like?
This is more of a mixed bag, and Sanger for one thinks it’s pretty bad. He argues that Wikipedia’s community has gradually but irreversibly skewed it toward being “a system committed to the maximum empowerment of amateurs,” a place where enthusiasm and conviction count for more than actually being correct. Sanger (and others) believe this atmosphere alienates many academics and experts who find their contributions mangled, reverted, or trivialized by a clueless, faceless mob, and the departure of these experts only amplifies this process and further hampers Wikipedia’s credibility in academia. He’s not shy about criticizing Wikipedia’s community structure as fundamentally flawed, suggesting

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.

… 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.

Whether Sanger is right about these deep flaws in Wikipedia’s community is a matter of debate: there are precious few metrics we have by which to measure the insular nature or social corruption of wiki communities, much as we can’t measure how many experts have been driven away from the project. But there exist enough anecdotes and websites relating bitter experiences with Wikipedia’s community that one tends to think it’s not a question of if there are problems with the community, but of how bad things are.[3] Practically speaking, Wikipedia has done some really great things, but it was the first community of its kind and it probably didn’t get everything right the first time.

The real question, then, is whether Wikipedia’s problems can be fixed, or whether there’s enough community inertia at Wikipedia that it’s impossible to alter course, making a fork such as Sanger’s necessary.

Wikipedia’s leadership is not unmindful of the importance of experts: Jimmy Wales has made recent noises that Wikipedia should strive for quality, not quantity of content and noted that “Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way.” The Wikipedia community has investigated why they have a problem with retaining experts. But it’s clear neither Wales nor the Wikipedia community believes in any radical changes which would empower those with credentials over those without.[4][5]

At any rate, it’s clear Sanger holds that Wikipedia does suffer from deep, avoidable flaws, and he has a plan to build a successor to Wikipedia by moving the good, collaborative parts of Wikipedia (including a copy of its content) under the awning of a new community, one structured so as to prevent trolls, insular cliques, and anti-elitism from taking root.

So what is Citizendium?

It’s difficult to write about Citizendium since it doesn’t yet exist in a functional form, but Sanger and others have nailed down enough details on the Citizendium webpage, mailing lists, and forums such that one can get a decent picture of what the project is about. It’s set to formally launch sometime in the next few months, taking stock and establishing a community charter after 6-12 months of operation. At this early juncture, needless to say, reports of its death by over-eager bloggers have been greatly exaggerated.[6]

In short, Citizendium is a lot like Wikipedia. It’ll be a free, wiki-based encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It’ll use the same wiki software as Wikipedia, the same neutrality policy, and even start out as a complete, frequently synchronized mirror of Wikipedia’s content, diverging only as articles are edited.

The difference lies largely in how the communities will be structured: Wikipedia attempts to harness the latent abilities of the masses by focusing on empowering everyone to contribute and by giving the project a lot of leeway for self-organization. Citizendium, on the other hand, attempts to provide a workspace which benefits from both Wikipedia-style collaboration and academic scholarly norms by abolishing anonymity, courting the academics who are primed to ‘get’ wikis, and promoting a culture of deference to experts.

Eric S. Raymond famously likened the traditional way of creating software and content- Microsoft Windows and the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance- to building a cathedral. There’s a top-down central planner, closely guarded blueprints and drafts, workers contracted to implement those blueprints, a laborious quality assurance process, and so forth. The Open Source and Wikipedia model, in contrast, is more analogous to a freewheeling bazaar in that, with no central authority, order sort of emerges bottom-up from the actions and desires of the participants. People see what needs to be done, and due to the project’s open design and collective ownership, can do it themselves. This open approach can create wonderful things that the cathedral model can’t- like Linux and Wikipedia.[7]

Sanger is quite specific that despite the addition of experts, Citizendium still follows the bottom-up bazaar model:

Experts will be expected to work shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary people in this project in more or less the same bottom-up fashion that Wikipedia uses. The difference is that, when content disputes arise, whatever editors are paying attention to the article will be empowered to articulate a resolution–if the article falls in their area of specialization. Furthermore, their decisions will be enforceable. Think of editors as the village elders wandering the bazaar and occasionally dispensing advice and reining in the wayward. Their presence is merely a moderating, civilizing influence. They don’t stop the bazaar from being a bazaar. … This isn’t going to be a top-down, command-and-control system. It is merely a sensible community: one where the people who have made it their life’s work to study certain areas are given a certain appropriate authority–without thereby converting the community into a traditional top-down academic editorial scheme.

Dispensing with abstractions, how does Citizendium differ from Wikipedia?

Citizendium will have a project charter; Wikipedia does not. In hindsight, Sanger believes a charter necessary to keep a community focused, to allow for project stability and “the rule of law,” and to allow individuals to self-select correctly. The current plan is to decide on a charter after 6-12 months of operation.

Citizendium will have expert editors that (in theory) are self-appointed. The plan is to allow people to announce their status as an expert editor in a certain field along with their CV and/or resume on their user page, and let the community sort out who is and isn’t qualified. The organizing principle for allowing self-selection as editor is formal expertise, and although the FAQ states that “A Ph.D. will be neither necessary nor sufficient for editorship,” the presence or absence of an advanced degree will probably play a very large part in the community’s decision (from Sanger’s comments, it appears a lack of formal credentials may prevent even an experienced and respected contributor to Citizendium from becoming an editor). Ideally policing the editor self-selection process won’t become a large time sink, but if allowing self-certification doesn’t work to select experts, there will be other ways.

The current plan calls for expert editors to have no more admin power than regular users; it’s just assumed that the mantle of editor will carry with it sufficient authority to carry out the role of editor, and constables will deal with the scofflaws.

It’s hard to precisely identify what roles expert editors will play, since so much of that will depend on how the community comes to understand the position and will doubtlessly vary between editors, but their primary roles qua editor appear to be being the go-to authority for problems and conflict, to steward the articles in their care, and to gently guide contributors and contributions. Of note, an expert is only an expert when they’re dealing with things that fall under their area of expertise. Two things Sanger has expressed a particular desire to avoid are experts who possessively squat on ‘their’ articles and experts who attempt to act as “top-down” authorities, and presumably this intent will be written into the charter.

There will be a corps of constables, people who have passed some sort of character and minimum-education and/or minimum-age review and are empowered to expediently ban troublemakers and enforce the charter. Ideally social norms will do most of the work of reigning in the wayward and constables will only be called in on extreme cases, but Sanger has repeatedly expressed a preference for aggressively banning troublemakers and trolls before they poison the community’s atmosphere. The presence of constables is in contrast with Wikipedia’s rather slow but perhaps more democratic process of banning users via arbitration committees. Sanger envisions a distinct separation between the powers of editors and constables.

Real Names:
As Sanger puts it,

There are two reasons for my support of the use of real names. First, a culture of real names will reduce (obviously, not eliminate) the amount of troublesome behavior that we see on Wikipedia. Second, and just as importantly, the use of real names underscores the importance of taking real-life, real-world responsibility for one’s work. This project is to be *continuous* with the rest of the world, in a real sense, not its own little provincial world with our own identities and our own credentials.

Sanger feels Wikipedia tends to accrue unneeded complexity in bureaucracy and organization. There will be a significant focus on simplifying and avoiding subject categories, portals, user boxes, and wikiprojects, and minimizing the number of official roles in the community. Presumably this will also involve less focus on current events and facts from pop culture and more on the areas of knowledge which encyclopedias have traditionally been concerned with.

Article Approval:
Experts and/or copyeditors will be able to ‘approve’ a specific revision of an article, which people may choose to use and cite while others are hammering away at the primary, freewheeling wiki version.

Constitutional Republic (future directions):
Though this isn’t apparent from, Sanger has elsewhere expressed his preference for constitutional republic-style governments in online communities, and has gone on record as saying that “a collaborative community would do well to think of itself as a polity with everything that that entails: a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter.” I would guess he will strongly push for a charter which includes these provisions, along with an orderly way by which to alter the charter.

All these changes add up to a different website, and a very different community than Wikipedia’s. It’s not a stretch to say that Wikipedia was concerned with making a working online encyclopedia; Citizendium is concerned with making a community that, if it works, will make a really good online encyclopedia.

Fundamentally, Citizendium is an experiment in collaboration. As Sanger puts it, “What the world has yet to test is the notion of experts and ordinary folks (and remember: experts working outside their areas of expertise are then “ordinary folks”) working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, on a single project according to open, open source principles. That is the radical experiment I propose.”

Will the Citizendium model work?

Before breaking out the champagne and celebrating the birth of Wikipedia’s successor, we should remember a key point- Wikipedia is a working, multilingual online encyclopedia with several million articles, whereas Citizendium is still just a small group of people with a plan.

Sanger’s underlying assumption is that Citizendium is a relatively natural progression from Wikipedia, and that if Wikipedia worked, there’s no inherent reason why Citizendium won’t. It may be that the very things Sanger wants to change about Wikipedia were central reasons for its success: as Aaron Swartz states,

Building a community is pretty tough; it requires just the right combination of technology and rules and people. And while it’s been clear that [online] communities are at the core of many of the most interesting things on the Internet, we’re still at the very early stages of understanding what it is that makes them work.

But Wikipedia isn’t even a typical community. Usually Internet communities are groups of people who come together to discuss something, like cryptography or the writing of a technical specification. Perhaps they meet in an IRC channel, a web forum, a newsgroup, or on a mailing list, but the focus is always something “out there”, something outside the discussion itself.

But with Wikipedia, the goal is building Wikipedia. It’s not a community set up to make some other thing, it’s a community set up to make itself. And since Wikipedia was one of the first sites to do it, we know hardly anything about building communities like that.

Of course, our lack of knowledge about what makes online communities work is not a death knell for Citizendium: as Sanger remarks, “We don’t really know if this will work, any more than we really knew that Wikipedia would work when it was first launched.”

So what can we say of whether Citizendium will succeed or fail?

There are a lot of promising things about Citizendium, but the primary asset Citizendium has is probably Larry Sanger: he’s a frighteningly intelligent, thoughtful, and driven man with a definite vision who shows a deep understanding of how wikis work, has already launched a massively successful collaborative encyclopedia, and has obviously spent a large part of the past six years thinking about how to best make an online encyclopedia and identifying where Wikipedia went wrong.

So, too, will Citizendium’s “forking” of Wikipedia help: they’re starting with 1.4 million pages rather than from scratch. This will be a big draw for both visitors and contributors (who are really two sides of the same coin): Citizendium will start out as a perfectly usable copy of Wikipedia with select articles further polished and fact-checked, and those who want to start editing under Citizendium’s awning have Wikipedia’s content as a jumping off point. Wikipedia didn’t have this when it began, nor many other second mover advantages.

Then there are rumblings around the web which may (or may not) signify hordes of people chomping at the bit to be involved with a more responsible, better-designed, expert-respecting Wikipedia alternative. It’s quite possible that, as popular as Wikipedia is, the structure of the community or the resulting limitations in the product have alienated or put off so many people from joining that many experts will immediately flock to Citizendium.

Furthermore, if Citizendium could successfully tap academia for contributors it would be a major coup over Wikipedia (which has largely failed to capture the imagination of academia).[8] As Sanger puts it, “I hold no brief for academia per se. … But I recognize that academia is where the action is, to a great extent, when it comes to knowing stuff.” He has also related that “I know, as I think many Wikipedians know, that there are huge numbers of experts who are willing to work without credit in a radically collaborative system.” It just needs to be the right system. And perhaps Citizendium is that system: two days after the announcement, Sanger wrote on the mailing lists that

… what I am happiest about, and what makes me most optimistic, is that in the two days since I announced it in Berlin, we have added 164 people to citizendium-l, 32 to citizendium-tools, 38 to citizendium-world, and 53 to citizendium-policy. And that’s *before* we do a press release or get any mainstream English language coverage, and *before* we post any announcements to academic mailing lists. Yowza. I predict that Citizendium-l is going to have over 1000 subscribers within a few months.

That, my friends, is what we call a quorum. This thing is going to happen. It doesn’t matter what the naysayers say: if there are enough of us to create critical mass on the wiki, this really could start with a bang. I’m anxious for us to get started, actually.

Perhaps this is simply an idea whose time has come.

Among the additional little things that Sanger has put or is planning to put into motion are

  • Moderated mailing lists with scheduled discussion topics;
  • A project archivist, or team of archivists, who would keep track of arguments in policy debates and summarize them into a coherent reference;
  • An emphasis on evenhanded enforcement. Sanger notes:

Suffice it to say that no one’s contributions to the Citizendium will be sacrosanct, editors included; editors will be answerable to other editors, and will not simply be able to lord it over anyone. We’ll eject misbehaving editors as well as misbehaving authors.

The care and attention to detail with which Sanger and the rest of the Citizendium pioneers are approaching the construction of the community leads me to believe, provided that 1). Sanger isn’t led to over-compensate for the flaws of Wikipedia and 2). pundits in academia and the blogosphere give Citizendium a fair shake, that any failure of Citizendium will be because the idea as presented turns out to be inherently unworkable rather than due to the omission of some detail or poor execution.

So, what could go wrong?

The most significant challenge facing Citizendium is drawing enough traffic, contributors, and donations while competing directly with the 800-lb gorilla that is Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s first-mover advantage is significant, and the danger that Larry Sanger throws a party but no one comes is very real.

Sanger envisions anonymity as antithetical to a serious scholarly community. It may be. But anonymous contributions may have been a significant source of Wikipedia’s content. Aaron Swartz compiled some recent statistics on “Who Writes Wikipedia?” – after crunching the numbers on 200 random articles, what he found was that

Insiders account for the vast majority of the edits [mostly grammar and format tweaks]. But it’s the outsiders [unregistered users] who provide nearly all of the content … This fact does have enormous policy implications. If Wikipedia is written by occasional contributors, then growing it requires making it easier and more rewarding to contribute occasionally. Instead of trying to squeeze more work out of those who spend their life on Wikipedia, we need to broaden the base of those who contribute just a little bit.

If most of Wikipedia’s content was contributed by vast numbers of anonymous, casual users rather than a core community, then raising the barrier for users to contribute, as Citizendium is doing by requiring that people login to edit, may be disastrous.

There are plenty of examples of popular, radically-collaborative, non-hierarchical online communities: Wikipedia, Reddit, and Digg are among the most prominent. There are no such examples of popular, radically-collaborative communities based on static hierarchies (“static” meaning there are authors and there are expert editors, and- generally speaking- no amount of hard work by an author will qualify him as an expert editor). This is only somewhat suggestive, and perhaps Citizendium will be the first. And maybe Citizendium’s will be a gentle hierarchy (Sanger has objected to it even being called a hierarchy). But it could be that large numbers of people are attracted to Wikipedia because they don’t like working under any hierarchy- or at least any hierarchy that they can’t scale- and Citizendium’s “academocracy” may drive many potential contributors away.

The concept at the heart of Citizendium is to bring in experts to oversee the radically-collaborative construction of an encyclopedia. But it’s quite possible that relatively few experts will be motivated and qualified to do so.

Now, Sanger anticipates this argument, egging academics on as follows:

But some promoters of OSS and open content say these projects won’t, or even can’t, work. They say that professional researchers won’t work without pay–ignoring that all the time researchers are writing for journals and giving speeches at conferences without pay. They say that scholars will do work only alone or in very small groups, require their names on their work, and can’t learn how to collaborate in the radical OSS way–ignoring that many unsung scholars have collaborated with Wikipedians and clearly like the basic concept. They say that college professors are too snobbish to work alongside and interact with the public–ignoring that an essential part of being a college teacher is precisely to make knowledge accessible to the public, a task to which many are passionately devoted. They say that specialists generate mainly pretentious nonsense, and so are not suitable as editors for the public–ignoring the fine abilities of many specialists.

These well-meaning but wrongheaded promoters of OSS and open content seem to think that open collaboration is a method reserved exclusively to amateurs, students, the “general public,” and so forth.

Let’s prove them wrong.

I think Sanger’s assumption that many experts will have the social and editorial skills to work on Citizendium is generally correct. But it’s also a numbers game- there are, as Sanger mentions on the mailing lists, a “small but growing minority of academics, and other intellectuals, that are already primed to ‘get’ radical collaboration, openness, and *gradual* progress toward perfection.” And some of those may hear about and join Citizendium. And most of those may be eloquent, learned, and well-meaning enough that Citizendium will want them. And some of those may be motivated enough so they would put in significant work on the project. And some of those may actually have the time to do so. But how many?

I believe that this last issue, motivation, is one of the larger black clouds over Citizendium. My major concerns are as follows:
1. How many academics can be expected to put large amounts of time and effort into something which doesn’t (at this point) help their chances of getting tenure, nor their academic prestige?
2. Doing original research is one of the most appealing parts of being an academic, and there’s no place for original research in an encyclopedia. Might academics tend to be busy with their own projects, curiosities, and visions?
3. Do enough experts have enough collective drive to build an encyclopedia? Nobody thought amateurs could write an encyclopedia, and that may have been a significant part of why Wikipedia took off. Experts, on the other hand, know they can write an encyclopedia in principle– all encyclopedias were written by experts before Wikipedia- and don’t tend to be as hungry for validation as amateurs.

Sanger suggests that academics will be motivated by irritation at their students’ use of Wikipedia despite its flaws, a feeling of stewardship over their field, a desire to build a wonderful encyclopedia and teaching aid, and the opportunity to work toward the public good in a context where people defer to their expertise. I don’t dismiss the significance of these motivators, but I do think they’re only half the story.[9][10]

Expertise and Social Overhead:
Clay Shirky of Many to Many believes the premise of an encyclopedia overseen by experts is problematic because it’s often difficult to identify who is and isn’t an expert, and arbitrating these edge cases and enforcing an expert-friendly atmosphere will suck up large amounts of energy. Shirky writes,

Reading the Citizendium manifesto, two things jump out: his faith in experts as a robust and largely context-free category of people, and his belief that authority can exist largely free of expensive enforcement. Sanger wants to believe that expertise can survive just fine outside institutional frameworks, and that Wikipedia is the anomaly. It can’t, and it isn’t.

Sanger is an incrementalist, and assumes that the current institutional framework for credentialling experts and giving them authority can largely be preserved in a process that is open and communally supported. The problem with incrementalism is that the very costs of being an institution, with the significant overhead of process, creates a U curve — it’s good to be a functioning hierarchy, and its good to be a functioning community with a core group, but most of the hybrids are less fit than either of the end points.

The philosophical issue here is one of deference. Citizendium is intended to improve on Wikipedia by adding a mechanism for deference, but Wikipedia already has a mechanism for deference — survival of edits. … Deference, on Citizendium will be for people, not contributions, and will rely on external credentials, a priori certification, and institutional enforcement. Deference, on Wikipedia, is for contributions, not people, and relies on behavior on Wikipedia itself, post hoc examination, and peer-review. Sanger believes that Wikipedia goes too far in its disrespect of experts; what killed Nupedia and will kill Citizendium is that they won’t go far enough.

Sanger has responded that Shirky’s argument, though flashy, doesn’t sufficiently support his conclusions, that Shirky doesn’t understand what Citizendium is meant to be and what safeguards it will have, and that if it turns out some Citizendium policy doesn’t work, it can be changed.

I think Shirky’s argument grandstands a bit, but also that he’s on to something, particularly with his ‘U fitness curve’ concept. It could be that there’s no fertile ground for a credential-aware yet radically-collaborative hybrid between the extremes of academia and Wikipedia because it would inherit the social overhead of both. Simply mentioning this possibility is not much of an argument, as Sanger quite rightly objects, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.

An interesting tangent on the problem of expertise is that identifying expertise in some subjects will present particularly difficult organizational challenges- challenges which Wikipedia does not face. As Sage Gasper of Slashdot writes,

Who is an expert in Middle Eastern politics? Israelis? Palestinians? Iranians? Iraqis? A polisci prof in midwest America? Who’s an expert on the famous person that keeps getting their page defaced? What credentials do I need to decide what the valuable sources are in an article about The Hulk?

Reaction to Wikipedia:
Sanger is an ex-Wikipedian, as are many on the Citizendium policy mailing list. They’re in the great position to understand Wikipedia’s flaws- but there’s a real danger that their collective bitterness toward Wikipedia may cause a reactionary slant in Citizendium policies. Just as when a room is filled with ex-wives the conversation will sour on the topic of men, when a mailing list is filled with ex-Wikipedians the conversation will no doubt sour on the topic of Wikipedia. This does not lead to a great understanding of men- or online encyclopedias. I don’t think this bitter theme yet pervades the mailing lists, but it’ll take vigilance to keep it out.

An example of Citizendium policy that I do find particularly reactionary is found in the values statement: among Citizendium’s core values are

a love of simplicity, a robust dislike for bureaucracy, and not using computer algorithms (or aggregation) where individual judgment is required

The last part seems as though it must be a reaction to some obscure Wikipedian policy, especially since there’s no context with it, the project will start out shortstaffed, and computer algorithms (and simple forms of AI) are getting better all the time.[11]

Regardless, the more I learn about Citizendium, the more I agree with what Sanger has said: no one knows whether this will work or not. But it’s certainly worth trying.

Final thoughts: what
the Citizendium project means

First, what does the birth of Citizendium mean for Wikipedia? I think it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, as wikis thrive on traffic, it hurts to have a viable competitor for the online encyclopedia throne, and it’s doubly painful to have a competitor that’s attempting to specifically attract experts and those who care about accuracy.[12] On the other hand, though, another game in town promises to increase awareness about online encyclopedias and attract new people to wikis, get competitive juices flowing which may lead to a streamlining and optimization of Wikipedia’s practices and community structure, and lead to a symbiotic relationship between the two encyclopedias.

This last point bears further examination: Wikipedia and Citizendium share the same open content license (the GFDL), so it’ll be quite easy for people or scripts associated with either project to copy the best content from the other. If one encyclopedia excels in a subject area or style of article, the other can copy those articles. Everyone- especially the reader- wins. Inevitably the article structures and hierarchies will diverge which will make automated syncing mechanisms more difficult, but not impossible.

Secondly, though a great encyclopedia may come out of the Citizendium project, so will the precedent of whether an expert-guided, freewheeling wiki can work. This is not an idle issue, nor is it limited to encyclopedias, as people and institutions realize how powerful wikis can be and want to know how and where to implement them: emerging experiments such as open peer review, the textop project, and genome wikis may take various approaches to their collaborative structure depending on Citizendium’s success. Another data point in understanding which models of radical collaboration work and which don’t will be quite valuable. More speculatively, maybe a Citizendium-like model could even lead to some reversal of the splintering, insular tendencies in academia: getting a diverse collection of experts together under one roof along with some opportunities for collaboration on cross-disciplinary articles has the potential to re-open dialogues between disciplines.

I’ll end with a recommendation: as someone who has admittedly not witnessed how or why the relationship between Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger cooled, I still believe it’s very valuable for the two of them to come to a publicly amicable understanding. If they don’t make this effort- if there’s not the perception of peace between the two men- it’ll doubtlessly feed bitter feelings between Wikipedia and Citizendium, since by-and-large communities adopt their leaders’ perceived positions, biases, and dislikes. It benefits no one to allow feuds between Wikipedia and Citizendium or take the risk of policies being driven by a reactionary, unreasoning distaste of the “other” encyclopedia’s way of doing things.

[1] Wales and Sanger vehemently disagree over whether Sanger can be considered a “co-founder” of Wikipedia.
[2] Sanger calls Citizendium a “compendium” with the implication that the body of articles they will inherit from Wikipedia will not be as reliable as an encyclopedia. However, this understanding of what Citizendium is may be revised once the project matures, and some articles from Citizendium will very likely end up in other, semi-affiliated encyclopedias such as the Digital Universe Encyclopedia. For all intents and purposes Citizendium at least as much of an encyclopedia as is Wikipedia.
[3] An anecdote that struck me as particularly and sadly funny was that Dr. Edward Buckner left due to “an amateur philosopher who insisted that the article on Astral planes belonged in the philosophy department.”
[4] There was a Wikipedia proposal to create an ‘expert editor’ position much like that on Citizendium. It was rejected by the community.
[5] Wales has described his stance as “perhaps anti-credentialist. To me the key thing is getting it right. And if a person’s really smart and they’re doing fantastic work, I don’t care if they’re a high school kid or a Harvard professor.”
[6] I suppose the first way Citizendium is useful, even before it produces a product, is to be a Rorschach test for how people understand wikis and academics.
[7] This explanation may extend ESR’s metaphor further than was originally intended with respect to content. I’ve chosen to use this metaphor because Sanger uses it. An alternative metaphor that strikes me as valuable would be to talk about Wikipedia and Citizendium as part of the second economy.
[8] To step back a bit, some view the differences between academia and Wikipedia as a contrast between “reputation and personal accountability” vs “survival of edits” as the primary guide for content. Citizendium’s position partway between these two extremes is an interesting one.
[9] Sanger has suggested that there’s already evidence that experts will work on a radically-collaborative online encyclopedia, as Wikipedia is home to a non-trivial amount of experts. But given how large Wikipedia is, there are bound to be some experts there, and it’s difficult to say this is indicative of how experts are or aren’t drawn to these sorts of projects.
[10] It’d be extremely interesting to attempt to actually measure and contrast what primary psychological reasons people have for contributing to Wikipedia versus Citizendium.
[11] An interesting question, to which I don’t think there’s any clear answer to right now, is how future developments in AI will fit into the online encyclopedia scene.
[12] It’ll be very frustrating, too, if Citizendium draws traffic away from Wikipedia and keeps anonymous users (arguably the lifeblood of wikis) from editing and thus Citizendium stops some people from contributing at all to the online encyclopedia scene.

Further reading:

Quotable quotes on Citizendium and Wikipedia:

Many experts who have left, or otherwise have expressed dissatisfaction with Wikipedia, fall into two categories: Those who have had repeated bad experiences dealing with jackassses, and are frustrated by Wikipedia’s inability to restrain said jackasses; and those who themselves are jackasses. Wikipedia has seen several recent incidents, including one this month, where notable scientists have joined the project and engaged in patterns of edits which demonstrated utter contempt for other editors of the encyclopedia (many of whom were also PhD-holding scientists, though lesser known), attempted to “own” pages, attempted to portray conjecture or unpublished research as fact, or have exaggerated the importance or quality of their own work. When challenged, said editors have engaged in (predictable) tirades accusing the encyclopedia of anti-intellectualism and anti-expert bias—charges we’ve all heard before. – “engineer_scotty”

Citizendium, if popular, will attract the same sorts of parasites, who will want to exploit a resource which many regard as reliable and truthful, in order to publish propaganda. It may be that registration, real names, and such may keep these folks at bay; but some wikiparasites are quite determined. My suspicion is that Citizendium, if it does gain some level of popularity, will have to impose technical barriers to access beyond the honor system. Which might not be bad, but it may have significant effects on the makeup of the author base, sufficient to impart bias on the project.

It is naive to assume that only angels will come to Citizendium, just because you place a sign on the door proclaiming that your establishment doesn’t serve devils. If the drinks are any good, the devils will come wearing halos and playing harps, and you’ll need increasingly agile and clever bouncers to keep them out. – “engineer_scotty”

One thing Jimmy Wales has done right is not to buckle under to the Chinese government on censorship. I completely support that policy. – Larry Sanger

[Wikipedia] is a project that shouldn’t work, but does. – Larry Sanger

What I think is often missed is that Wikipedia is itself an *institution*, though a pretty poor one by general academic standards. But it’s also one which casts itself as an anarchy, and both sides have a lot of incentive to use that mythology – Wikipedia because that’s the source of a lot of its appeal, and academia because that lets it avoid examining how Wikipedia functions by kind of a distillation of the worst aspects of academic institutions (no pay, and motivation from lording status over lower-down members, as well as exploiting people’s idealism for the life of the mind). – Seth Finkelstein

I’m of two mind in this affair. Part of me really likes the fact that these two organizations will fight it out, so to speak, toward creating the ultimate database of human knowledge. Because both organizations will be using the GNU free license, their work will be available to any human being on the planet without charge. In addition, the competition might cause Wikipedia’s community of editors to finally address the long-standing problems of anonymous editors and reliability of articles. It is also probable that articles will be traded back and forth between the two projects, with the best articles rising to the top of both encyclopedias like fine cream.

That said, I am troubled by some aspects of Sanger’s Citizendium. Aside from its pretentious title (which participants are already saying must be changed), this feels in some ways like an attempt by old-guard academics to retake control of humanity’s knowledge. – Jason Sanford

Note also that since Wikipedia and Citizendium use the same license (GNU FDL), it will be trivial to synchronize content back and forth between the two. I wouldn’t expect Wikipedia to be systematically biased against information gathered and vetted on Citizendium; that’s what deference to contributions rather than people is all about. Result, any noncontroversial areas in which the Citizendium excels will quite quickly result in Wikipedia rapidly rising to the same level of excellence. Citizendium’s design makes the reverse less likely to happen.

To understand the rapid success of Wikipedia, realize that (with a little more work, involving the copying of ideas and facts, rather than particular expressions), it stands in this same relation to every other possible source of knowledge. – James Grimmelmann

There is room for a diversity of places in the world. Wikipedia is the best place for experts who are prepared to write high quality articles under the eye of the public. Citizendium may provide an interesting forum for those who are not prepared for that. – Jimmy Wales

Basically what I think works in a wikis is to trust people to do the right thing, and trust them as much as you can possibly stand it, until it hurts your head and makes you scared for what they’re going to break. Because that is what works. – Jimmy Wales

One of the things that is so good about the literature Sanger has created over the years is that he has dramatized the expectation that Wikipedia will fail due to lack of expertise, making its success illustrative.

My belief is that Wikipedia’s success dramatizes instead a change in the nature of authority, moving from trust inhering in guarantees offered by institutions to probabilities created by processes. – Clay Shirky

33 thoughts on “Citizendium

  1. This is probably the best thing yet written about Citizendium that I’ve seen. I’m extremely impressed by the clear thinking and research that went into it.

  2. Larry,

    Thank you very much for the compliment.

    While writing this article and thinking about the issues involved I’ve really become a fan of Citizendium- if there’s any small project I could help with please do let me know.

  3. Most Wikipedians support Citizendium, but, having had experience with Larry, most old-timers are somewhat sceptical about a project controlled by him. Given a choice, he will nearly always choose a solution which involves top-down control. Notice that even his mailing lists are moderated, with a topic designated by him. Another problem, he does not so much respect expertise, as credentials. That said, it was always contemplated that Wikipedia’s content was available for improvement and republication.

    Fred Bauder

  4. “Most old-timers” are long gone from Wikipedia, driven off by people like, well, Fred Bauder for one.

    Moderation in mailing lists is a good thing. That doesn’t imply top-down control; it implies moderation. In addition to the mailing lists, there are lively forums available at

    It is silly to say that I respect credentials more than expertise. Credentials are what one uses–in lieu of getting to know a person in depth which can’t be done in a dynamic, radically collaborative project–as an imperfect indicator of expertise. This is the case offline; why, Fred, should it not also be the case online? And how do you propose to determine expertise otherwise? By whether a person can play the Wikipedia game expertly, perhaps? That’s a kind of “expertise” that doesn’t mean a thing.

  5. Be careful about words like “open” … the initial startup just announced is closed (“by invitation only”) and key positions are restricted to those who have degress. 4 year degrees, to be precise.

    Nice piece of writing. I’m surprised you have all that energy and ability but have not garnered your own experience of WikiPedia.

    Case in point: a degree really doesn’t say much, but to some people that the litmus test. Go figure, ehh whot?

  6. I howl at the carping about Wikipedia’s authority – especially from sniffy academics. Misses the point. If my regular use of Wik is any measure, it is NOT the end point of research but simply a great STARTING POINT. For me, Wik now often replaces Google as a very useful shortcut to the relevant links – especially when I need background on a new topic. I find I spend just as much time in the Discussion pages as I do in the Main pages. What does this tell you about the value of debate? And oh, did I just say ‘replaces Google’?

  7. How is ‘real name’ going to be enforced? If this presents another barrier to editing (at least the first time, waiting for real world verification of some form) on top of logging in, then the number of contributions might be small. Especially if Jakob Nielsen’s ideas on user participation hold up.

    Will Citizendium become a parasite on Wikipedia with it’s presumably small group of ‘experts’ (I’m interested to see how the problem of deciding who is an expert will be solved) just making edited articles from synchs with Wikipedia?

  8. Ben-

    I believe the word ‘open’ in this case is a reference to the openness of the content license, and that anyone (logged in) can change it. But perhaps the timing on all this talk of ‘openness’ is a bit troublesome, as Citizendium is not quite open for business per se, nor are certain roles in the community precisely ‘open’.

    I haven’t yet sorted out my thoughts on credentials. I do hope that “credentialists” (of which I don’t count Sanger a member) don’t end up completely running the show as far as deciding who qualifies as an expert and who doesn’t. My two predictions are that the litmus test of whether one qualifies as an expert will tend to be given by the other experts in the community, and that groups tends to radicalize on the opinions they all hold in common- so care will have to be taken that things don’t spiral into the extremes of insular elitism. And thanks for the compliment.

  9. Bruce-
    I often use Wikipedia for that same purpose. An interesting point about Citizendium, though, is that if it lives up to its potential, it could serve that role of providing background information as well as others, and with more nuance.

    But yes, I enjoy Wikipedia very much as a jumping off point. It hasn’t replaced Google as my search engine yet, however, as I rarely have a precise enough idea of what I’d like to find to navigate to the right wiki page. :)

    I believe the ‘real name’ provision will be on the honor system to begin with. But anyway, I too have my grave doubts about *anything* that raises the barrier to contribute- even just a little bit. I find Aaron Swartz’s statistics (that’s the overview- click around for his 200-article stats) fairly persuasive. It’s something I’m worrying about.

    I doubt Citizendium will ever be a real “parasite” on Wikipedia– insofar as it gains attention and popularity, it’ll start producing more content and we’ll see Wikipedia folding Citizendium content back in. The beauty of the GFDL is that it goes both ways.

    And thanks for the link on participation inequality.

  10. Larry Sanger writes:
    Moderation in mailing lists is a good thing. That doesn’t imply top-down control; it implies moderation.

    Certainly – except in the cases where it does imply top down control. The Citizendium mailing lists were not placed under moderation because they were out of control, or filled with noise – they were moderated because they weren’t like a mailing list you were on as an undergraduate. Moderation was not a choice made by the community – it was imposed from above (you) to make the lists fit your vision, that’s pretty much the definition of top-down control.

  11. As far as why the mailing lists were posting limited was the reason of readability. They went out of control…but were not filled with noise. We moved quickly to webforums… . Raw thoughts there are summarized and then posted to the lists for comment.

    We also installed an NNTP reader like feed for the mailing those unlucky to not have gmail threading can view the mailing list threaded.

    Such a decision was not about being oppressive as more about herding cattle…300 excited people talking about anything and everything gets crazy quick…just look at WikiEN!


  12. A realname policy is a bad idea given today’s google totalitarianism.

    The arguments were raised a lot of times before, we had them in the usenet as a rule which collapsed for good reasons.

    Sanger’s project is a whole lesson-not-learned.

  13. Hmm.

    I would be more likely to post on Wikipedia rather then Citizendium not because of anti-elitism, not because of concerns about privacy, but because it’s just flat simpler if I don’t have to log in.

    I suspect that academics don’t publish on the Wikipedia not because they are put off by not being respected, but because they are busy. They have classes to teach, grants to write, students to mentor, etc. (I’m in grad school right now, and don’t see any faculty just hanging out and being bored.) Why should they invest effort in something that they are not going to get any money or credit for?

    Now, you could ask why anyone adds to Wikipedia. I think it is in part to have a sense of helping society. Academics are probably already getting that need fulfilled with their normal activities.

  14. Ducky,

    Well said. Academics’ motivation- and just plain being busy- are two pretty big issues. I suspect with the right framing and presentation of Citizendium they can be overcome, but not (yet) being an academic myself, I couldn’t really speak to how.

  15. More potential editors are signing up than anything else for the pilot project. We’ve got 20+ new, plausible applications for editors to work through, 48 hours since an internal announcement and Slashdot, which few expert types outside of tech fields read. I think you underestimate the demand for CZ among the plugged-in professoriate, Mike.

  16. Jason wrote:

    As far as why the mailing lists were posting limited was the reason of readability. They went out of control…

    For a few days only – for the last week or so (before the clampdown), traffic averaged less than fifty messages a day. Hardly out of control by any reasonable standards. Postings were limited for one reason and one reason only – to force the lists into the mold envisioned by Larry. (This is clearly documented in his letter to the list – volume was nowhere mentioned IIRC.) Let’s not retcon into existence a falsehood.

    We also installed an NNTP reader like feed for the mailing lists..

    Unless you’ve changed (unnanounced) the setup in the last few days – you didn’t ‘install’ anything. Someone subscribed the mailing lists to Gmane.

    Such a decision was not about being oppressive as more about herding cattle…

    Neither action was a ‘decision’ Jason. Larry imposed on the community his vision in the first, and someone took the iniative on himself to do the second.

    Please let’s confine ourselves to the facts.

  17. Anonymous,

    I’m a bit troubled by the combination of your wholly critical tone and your anonymous status. I’m not sure if your purpose commenting here is to engage in good-faith discussion or snipe. I would be very happy if you were to prove my suspicions wrong.

  18. Larry,
    I probably am underestimating the potential draw of editing at Citizendium and the ability of academics to add it to all the other things they juggle; people may be busy, but if some better or more relevant way to spend one’s time comes along, schedules get changed. So I think what you’re saying is very reasonable.

    But aside from the issue of academics’ (quite possibly large) natural motivation to contribute, I think there’s an opportunity lurking here to turn arguably the biggest drag on academics’ motivation to edit at Citizendium into an asset: if the right framing and presentation of the Citizendium project could make being an expert editor there count- even a little bit- toward promotion and tenure in academia, that’d be huge.

    It might be this is a long term, unwieldly issue and not worth emphasizing right away, and it might be especially hard to alter the promotion atmosphere at R1 Universities. But I think it’s a really cool possibility, and something that could happen incrementally by academic venue. I’m not sure how one would encourage any such change like this, though.

  19. As a thought about Citizendium’s potential draw – will we be seeing professors and academics assigning article creation to their students, graduate and undergraduate, or perhaps a conversion of their research papers into the beginnings or further edits of an article? Assuming that these students are under the wing of a vetted/credentialed/expert academic/editor, will their work be admissible? And will they have to give the work to the professor to post, or will they be able to contribute themselves?

    It’ll likely be one-shot contributions as the students pass in and out of the professor’s class, but will that work in Citizendium’s favor by broadening the potential editable content, or will it make Citizendium look like Swiss cheese in coverage?

  20. Alex,

    Interesting thought. I doubt Citizendium articles or revisions to articles will ever be “assignments” that academics hand out to their students… that may go against the wiki way. Instead, my hope would be that participation in Citizendium could be seen as an academic activity which counts toward tenure, much as writing articles, editing journals, and giving presentations do.

    An interesting sidenote on what you said, though, is that an academic friend of mine had his (undergraduate) class attempt to contribute to Wikipedia as part of an assignment to learn about how Wikipedia works. So who knows what the future may hold.

  21. I use Wiki on a daily basis. I find that some content submitted by normal joes like you or I interests me more. Be that good or bad.

    Good story.

  22. Terrific analysis of Citizendium, particularly the final bit hinting at collaboration. Whether Wikipedia or Citizendium will do the better job misses the point – there is room for them to be complementary. If CZ is allowed to be complementary it can only be a good thing. But if it prefers to keep its head in Middle Earth it will likely dwindle away…

  23. Hey Mike,
    I was impressed by your article, which I skimmed through as I was doing other things, and which I’ll probably devote more time to reading in its entirety when it’s not 3:45 in the morning.
    As a journalist facing an exodus of my colleagues from print to online journalism and a rapidly changing professional climate, one of the issues I’ve studied lately is how the Wiki format is affecting news production and consumption. Several news sites now are using unconventional methods of obtaining their material, by allowing users to write and edit the news, much in the style of Wikipedia and Citizendium. This raises a few issues that follow in much the same vein.
    In my studies, I’ve seen a lot of people of the opinion that professional editors need to be in place for these establisments, to weed out error and fact-check. Others call it the most democratic form of news and claim it should be left as is. It’ll be interesting to see how a lot of these projects choose to progress, and how they try to be economically viable. If a user-generated content news source has to have advertisements to survive, and it employs professional editors, does it edit the content appease the advertisers?
    I could go on, but this is just a comment box and not my own blog (which I don’t have anyway).
    Just wanted to drop by and let you know I enjoyed the article. I’ll drop you a line if I’m in Boston this summer.
    -Andrew “Kata” de Geofroy

  24. What makes me angry, as a Wikipedia editor, is the idea that Citizendium can take my good work and then “improve” on it, thus taking the credit for years of hard work by me and literally millions like me, and that I won’t even be able to influence what is done with it without disclosing my personal details and maybe having to send a CV. If the project is going to start from scratch, that’s fine and I wish it luck, but if it’s going to import WP articles and then claim to be better than WP, well that’s just theft, pure and simple.

  25. Anonymous,

    I would have to strongly disagree. When you write for Wikipedia, you consent to release your content under a free content license. That’s part of the contract you have with Wikipedia, and indeed, the world. If you don’t wish to release your content so others may do with it as they wish, don’t release your content under the GFDL. Simply put, you can’t have it both ways.

    Also note that Citizendium credits Wikipedia when it sources Wikipedia content (as required by the GFDL).

  26. I have no problem with releasing my content, and of course I don’t mean that it’s legally theft, because yes – free license is free license. But if you take a huge bulk of our work, put a little gloss on it, and then say “look, we’re doing it so much better than you,” then morally that’s theft in my book.

    Also please note that Citizendium credits Wikipedia at the bottom of the article itself, but it trumpets its superiority on pages such as this. Not the same thing at all.

  27. “Anonymous”,

    I do see the point you’re arguing toward, but 1. that’s just the way the license works, 2. Citizendium has plenty of home-grown content, and that percentage will increase as time goes on, 3. at least a few of our approved articles which do use Wikipedia content were imported by their original authors at Wikipedia to continue to improve at Citizendium.

    We do encourage people to write articles from scratch instead of importing them from Wikipedia– though we do leave them that option. I’m not sure it’s the institutional bias you seem to be arguing for.

    As to “trumpets its superiority on pages such as this”, this was written before Citizendium had any content, and indeed goes into many potential shortcomings of Citizendium.

    At any rate, High on a Tree, I said this conversation is over. I mean it.

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