Citizendium Blog

December 11, 2008

Citizendium: perfectly safe for virgins, and everybody else too

Filed under: Best of this blog, Other projects, Project growth, Recruitment — Larry Sanger @ 12:18 am

This post was linked by the New York Times online business section.

It’s been a pretty big news story: for a few days, editing of Wikipedia was effectively blocked throughout much of the U.K., because Wikipedia had, and still has, an uncensored reproduction of the Scorpions’ album cover for Virgin Killer. This shows a completely naked pre-pubescent girl in a sexually suggestive pose.

Does it bother you that Wikipedia reproduces an image that is, arguably, child pornography? It does me. Now, I think the Internet ought to be safe for porn, but not child porn. It was Jimmy Wales’ Bomis.com, after all, that den of soft-core porn “glamour photography” (the Jimbo-approved euphemism), that paid my paychecks when I was starting Nupedia and Wikipedia. (I often used to say that Wikipedia was built using good fertilizer.) But I don’t think that a general encyclopedia, used by millions of school kids (at least at home) should host sexually suggestive pictures of naked pre-pubescent girls. That ought to be obvious to Wikipedians, and the fact that it’s not is yet more evidence that not all is well in Wikipedia-land.

Perhaps it’s time to remind the world that there is a wonderful new, and growing, alternative: Citizendium (CZ). If you’re reading this on the CZ blog, you no doubt know that we are another free wiki encyclopedia project, but started by a co-founder of Wikipedia, yours truly. (But I’m writing it so you can forward it to family, friends, and colleagues who don’t know about CZ.) A lot of people don’t know what we’re here for and they have bought all sorts of misinformation about us. Let’s fix that, shall we?

Let me sum up the case for CZ. We are still around, we’re still growing, and we’re steadily becoming a viable alternative to Wikipedia. We are small, but vigorous. We have no vandalism. We have grown steadily over the one-and-a-half years since our public launch, and we’ll be breaking 10,000 articles in the next few months. I won’t bore you (again) with the reasons, but I think that there will come a tipping point for us, after which a lot more people will know about us and swell our ranks. And they should! We aren’t going away, and even at the current rate, we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of articles in the long run. We’re non-profit, Creative Commons, community-managed, and we’re open to everyone who is willing to use their real names and identities. We’re a remarkably pleasant and well-behaved community, and I think we do great work. We have pioneered a new model, a public-expert hybrid community; we’ve shown that it is not just viable, it is in many ways a clearly superior model for the organization of an open, online knowledge community.

And, of course, the cover of Virgin Killer will never appear on the pages of CZ.

Now, if you are harrumphing (rather ridiculously, I might add, but that’s just me I suppose) that of course the cover of Virgin Killer should not be “censored,” and that Wikipedia is better than CZ insofar as it doesn’t feature such “censorship,” then let me point something out. Let me point out the wonderful, delicious fact that you can stick with Wikipedia. The two projects naturally attract delightfully complementary groups of people. The people who want to hide behind pseudonyms, who want to play governance games in order to push their biases, and who want to prove their maturity and enlightenment by putting up pictures of naked little girls, can stick with Wikipedia. I’ll be delighted if they do. But I think that in the long run, you’ll see that a lot more people will want to contribute under the more sensible CZ system.

Time will tell, but you know, I was right about the viability of the Wikipedia model long before it was popular or even known to almost everyone reading this post. And I have a strong and well-justified belief in the viability of the CZ model, a belief that is well-informed by my experience actually developing the Wikipedia model, many other online projects, and thinking deeply about online knowledge communities.

We’ll be hosting a big Citizendium Open House in January, as a way to boost this great project to the next level and welcome a lot of new people who might be curious about the project. Be on the lookout for announcements here and elsewhere.

July 24, 2008

A triad of new, non-collaborative encyclopedia projects

Filed under: Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 4:40 am

Three major new encyclopedia projects have come on the scene lately. Last month, Britannica Online was announced, then more recently a new expert-led encyclopedia called Medpedia appeared, then finally yesterday Knol launched at http://knol.google.com/.

These are competitors to CZ, or to subjects within CZ, for eyeballs or traffic, and we certainly will not be complacent.

Some people have billed these as “Citizendium-killers,” but they consistently fail to appreciate is that all three of these projects are not primarily collaborative community projects, as CZ is. Both Britannica and Knol say that authors can determine the extent to which other people can collaborate on one’s article. On CZ, all articles are owned and controlled in common, and are unsigned. The designers of those projects seem not to realize just how crucially important that is to building an online community that takes on a life of its own.

In the end, as I have argued on multiple occasions (most recently here), the advantages of radical collaboration could, I think, outweigh even the natural advantages of Google, Britannica, and Medpedia’s distinguished partners.

Besides, the uncollaborative Knol and Britannica Online model has already been tried, a few years ago, by a couple of behemoths: the BBC’s H2G2, and Everything2. And while Medpedia might be billed as collaborative, it won’t be — not if experts-only projects like Encyclopedia of Life, Encyclopedia of Earth, Encyclopedia of the Cosmos, and Scholarpedia are indicators.

All this said, may the best encyclopedia win. The world needs a better encyclopedia than the 800-pound gorilla, Wikipedia.

I just think that, in the fullness of time, that will be the Citizendium!

July 9, 2008

Syndicated Web ratings - an idea whose time has come?

Filed under: Best of this blog, Other projects, Technology, Web 2.0 — Larry Sanger @ 6:56 am

The following describes an idea I had a few weeks ago while attending an entrepreneur’s conference in Paris.  I have little desire and even less time (between Citizendium and Watchknow) to pursue this myself, so I commend it to anyone who is interested.  I want to kick it out the door and see if it survives on its own.  I will not be working on it myself.  I was informed that this idea resembles the moribund PICS project somewhat.  I view this as an interesting possible alternative to the too-influential search behemoths, Google and Yahoo, as well as their various would-be Web 2.0 competitors: it would make Web search entirely distributed, decentralized, and less subject to the control of any single interest.  By the way, I circulated the idea among a set of very distinguished Internet thinkers and was graced with some interesting replies.  Suffice it to say that quite a few very smart people think this is worth thinking about, at the very least.  “The case for syndicated Web ratings,” below, captures why I am so excited about this idea.

The idea

Should there be a universal standard, like RSS, that enables people to rate (and otherwise describe) websites — and to syndicate that data? If there were such a standard and such syndicated data, search engines could seed their results in creative ways using the data. That’s the basic idea.

Ultimately, such a standard could greatly decentralize the power of Internet search. How? Well, imagine five kinds of tools.

(1) Tools and data types for the ratings themselves:

(a) “Rating toolbars,” like StumbleUpon’s, allow you to recommend and rate a website you’re looking at. In addition, you can write a description, add tags, and rate it on specific dimensions like length, accuracy, grade level, and “family-friendliness.” The toolbar then publishes a “feed” of your ratings wherever you choose. The only required data for an individual rating are: URL and up-or-down.

(b) Moreover, it could be possible to rate another person’s or entity’s feed (meta-rating), as well as a feed of feeds (meta-meta-rating).

(c) Moreover, a feed could have meta-data about the person doing the rating, listing facts like education level, age, ethnicity, political views, or whatever a person might feel is relevant.

(2) Social bookmarking services, such as Digg, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, as well as websites like Mahalo and Wikia Search, would be encouraged to publish their data using the standard (or at least allow their users to publish their own work easily). Mapping from existing attributes used by, e.g., del.icio.us to a well-designed standard would seem to be easy.

(3) Various “Web rating registrars” collect many feeds in one central location. Most registrars are absolutely open; a few are carefully edited. Moreover, most registrars, based on internal, statistical analysis of ratings, and/or meta- and meta-meta-ratings, offer a service that labels certain feeds as recommending porn, spam, and virus-infested webpages — a sort of distributed blacklist of both websites and of feeds.

(4) Search engines then use the data aggregated by the registrar(s). Due to the quantity and variety of data published in the aggregated feeds, it becomes possible to weight and filter search results not just on Google-style pagerank algorithms, but also things like:

(a) quality according to generally trusted sources; or quality according to your peer group; or quality according to academic and academic-endorsed sources; etc.

(b) whether the page contains porn, spam, or viruses.

(c) webpage type (e.g., one attribute might allow us to search just those pages that are marked as movie reviews).

(d) education level of resource (i.e., suitability for children; or post-graduate work).

(5) Making distributed rating into a Digg-type game.  As new pages came on the Web, once they had a certain minimum number of ratings, you can easily imagine “fresh meat” websites that enable and encourage people to rate them even more, letting users rate the newest, most popular stuff coming online about their particular interests. This would work a little like Digg or Reddit, except that the inputs would not come from individual users “Digging” a story, but from countless decentralized feeds rating a fresh page for the first time.

The case for syndicated Web ratings

On first glance at least, the case for syndicated Web ratings is surprisingly, even startlingly compelling.

Improves poor search engine results.  Probably the most common complaint about search engine results is that, while often relevant and useful, they do not always place the highest quality material front and center.  The best is often buried deep. The system is not broken, but it could use improvement.  If there were enough syndicated Web rating data, and effective mechanisms were in place to combat gaming the rating system (e.g., using statistical analysis of ratings, meta-ratings, and “certified” rating providers), the result could be used by search engines to deliver far higher-quality results.  This would also subtly encourage people to create higher-quality Web pages, i.e., pages that are more likely to be highly-rated.  (Cf. here this paper.)

Decentralizes search power.  Not only would the system be open, it would be fully distributed and decentralized, like the Blogosphere.  If well-constructed, a syndicated Web rating system would place the most powerful, important dataset for making the Web searchable directly in the hands of Internet users.  This could essentially “level the playing field” and could be profoundly disruptive to Google et al.

Many more people would be involved in vetting the Web.  There are huge numbers of people using Digg, del.icio.us, and StumbleUpon, as well as newer services like Mahalo and Wikia Search.  But their users are contributing just to those search/bookmarking services, and are not benefitting the search results used on a daily basis on services like Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and Ask.com.  How many more people would take the time to recommend and rate Web pages if they knew their data would be distributed across the Web, and would help the proper placement of websites they know and love?  It could be an order of magnitude or more: suddenly, we all have a direct vote about search results.

Speeds up recognition of good new websites.  Websites would not have to wait for months or even years for their quality to be recognized, as they do now. Right now, Google dominates search, and Google’s rankings are effectively but still somewhat lamely determined by a somewhat mysterious, proprietary algorithm involving the most-linked-to and most-clicked-on websites. Since it often takes some really excellent pages months or even years to receive the number of links they “deserve” — if they ever do receive them — it takes that long for them to rise up in Google’s search results. By contrast, if we could seed search results in line with massive amounts of data about website ratings, a really excellent new website might be placed at the top of the rankings almost immediately.

Could be used to tailor search to the individual user. With data about education level, a search engine could, on request, return only those pages appropriate for a 5-7 year old — or for post-doctoral researchers.  Moreover, with data included in the feed about the rater, we would be enabled to see, for any given search, what the top rated websites were for our peer group. How teenage girls rate a news article might differ greatly from how 40-year-old men rate them — and this would be useful data for both groups to have.  With data about pornography contributed by trusted sources, the user could opt to have a search guaranteed to omit pornography.  In general, the adoption of the standard could improve the flexibility and power of Internet search.  And because it would be an open standard, it would become possible to use the standard (and later versions of the standard) to organize all manner of distributed Internet rating, description, organization projects, possibly more effectively than proprietary products have done.  For example, the system could foster an open project to create a free, more powerful search alternative to proprietary “walled garden” services for children and education.  (See item (4) under “The idea” above.)

Could be a way to combat Web abuse.  In particular, a syndicated Web rating system could be used as a neutral, universally distributed protocol for publishing and sharing data about what websites are considered sources of viruses, spam, porn, and criminal activity.  These problems — long considered the most serious of Internet problems — might be best attacked by widely distributing, decentralizing, and only then organizing the means to attack them.

If this analysis is correct, the idea could be deeply disruptive — but positively so.

How gaming the system could be combatted

What stops people from posting multiple feeds, all of them favorable to their own websites?  Indeed, won’t gaming the system be far worse in this case than under the present system?  At least under the present system, if you want to game the system, you must go to the trouble of creating interlinking “dummy” websites and spamming blogs with links, and so forth — that makes gaming the system relatively difficult.  But this system makes it possible to influence search results directly.  This might be why no such system has been created yet.  That, anyway, is what a critic might say.

The solution is that most search engines will not be so silly as to aggregate the ratings in any simple way, or treat all feeds (or individual ratings) equally.  First, it will be possible to “certify” and rate feeds; second, there will be internal indicators of abuse that search engine coders will be able to analyze and exploit.

It is entirely possible that a search engine will not use a feed if it is not in some way adequately “endorsed.”  Endorsement might be via networks of certified feeds, which have a distributed protocol allowing network members to vet other feeds.

The internal indicators of abuse might prove to be more powerful, however.  If a certain website is often described as “porn,” for example, and if it is recommended by a feed as non-porn, the feed registrar might discard that particular feed.  More generally, ratings and descriptions will be mutually reinforcing in a variety of ways, so that it will be possible to devise algorithms to detect abuse automatically.

But probably the most effective way to combat system-gaming will be a combination of certifying feeds and internal data analysis.  While it might be easier to post a feed in bad faith than to create a web of supporting websites, the data in the system itself will be far richer and thus capable of creating more powerful, creative solutions to the gaming problem.

Indeed, it seems entirely possible that we could, using syndicated Web ratings, engineer systems that are virtually perfect in their elimination of virus-ridden websites, porn, really bad blogs, and other stuff.  At bottom, the combination of transparent, rich data and the fact that most Internet users act in good faith might mean the disappearance of cruft from our search results.

What if the system succeeds?

“But wait,” you might say, “I don’t like the idea that cruft will disappear from search results.  There is something comforting about cruft being in our search results.  That means that any schlub like me can get the ear of the whole world.  Even if this Web rating system is distributed and decentralized, it is not really egalitarian.  Wouldn’t it mean the effective silencing of people who are unjustly regarded as ‘not good enough,’ or not mainstream enough, to be rated highly?”

The short answer is: no, and in fact the effect might be precisely the opposite: it would probably empower the regular folks even more the current search system.  Since meta-tagging would enable us to label our feeds in various ways, we could search for results that are important and relevant for our peers.  Moreover, a syndicated Web rating system would allow us to pluck undiscovered talents out of the obscurity that Google’s popularity-based algorithm places them in.

Besides — if the new system has undesirable results, no doubt Google or a Google-like system, that does not use syndicated ratings, will still exist and still be heavily used.

This project should be developed openly

This effort should be developed openly in the free-for-all way that characterizes much open source development.  This is absolutely required, in fact, because otherwise there will likely not be adequate adoption of the standard.  The standard should be propagated by an open, neutral consortium, not any single entity, and certainly not any for-profit business.  No single interest should have control over a standard that could be so consequential.

I have no interest in leading the effort, or even participating very much in it, except as a user.  I am merely putting the idea out there and hoping that others, who have more experience writing standards and working with syndication, will be motivated to create the components of the system.  My main concern is that the standard itself be adopted according to an open, democratic process, and not be unduly influenced by any single interest.

Questions and answers

Shouldn’t we discuss this idea and make sure it really is a good one before we rush off headlong to implement it?

Yes.  Hopefully the discussion will happen on the Blogosphere, Slashdot, and elsewhere as well.  I asked for comments on SharedKnowing, for what it’s worth.  It’s a Big Idea and it would affect everyone online deeply, and so it needs a huge amount of vetting and exploration.

How would I create a Web ratings feed?  I wouldn’t want to write XML by hand.

If the idea has legs, people will create free software that will write the XML for you, as well as post it automatically (i.e., syndicate it for anyone’s use).  It is easy to imagine people writing toolbars like the StumbleUpon toolbar, which allow you to rate websites and provide other information about them, which info is then syndicated automatically.

Where would the feeds be posted?

Think of this on analogy with blog feeds.  One could post one’s ratings feed anywhere online, where they could be found by webcrawlers.  But one could also register the feed with various feed registrars (in the same way you register a blog feed with Technorati), or post directly to the registrars.

What might the markup for a rating feed look like?

 We define a markup schema that allows people to declare whether they think a Web page, or a whole domain or subdomain, is high quality, or garbage; and to describe and evaluate it on any number of features. Just for example — we need not use these exact tags or features — we might write something like this:

<webrating>
<url>http://en.citizendium.org/</url>
<url-equiv>http://www.citizendium.org/</url-equiv>
<domain-or-page>domain</domain-or-page>
<overall-rating>7</overall-rating>
<overall-rating-yes-or-no>yes</overall-rating-yes-or-no>
<content-quantity>4</content-quantity>
<content-quality>9</content-quality>
<education-level>college</education-level>
<website-type>reference</website-type>
<pornography>no</pornography>
<keywords>encyclopedia reference wiki free open content collaboration</keywords>
<description>A new wiki encyclopedia project inviting everyone to participate under their own real names, and making a special, low-key role for experts.</description>
</webrating>

What elements should be required by the standard?

It seems that search engines could be improved with just two officially “required” elements: the URL and a “yes or no” overall rating.  This would allow, e.g., digg.com users to publish their ratings.  It is possible that after further discussion we will decide that certain other elements might be needed.  Of course, feed aggregators and registrars, and search engines, might require various additional pieces of information.

There is a difference between “high quality” and usefulness.  Some academic papers, for instance, might be very high quality, but useful for only a very small number of people.  How can this be taken into account in the ratings standard?

It could be approached in many ways, no doubt.  For example, we might adopt “usefulness” as an element.  One might then rate a page with an academic paper on it highly (or not!) in terms of reliability, but low in terms of usefulness-for-me.  The default “yes-or-no” rating would then be interpreted as usefulness-for-me, not as high quality.  Another idea would be simply to make use of an education level element, or even a special attribute for academic papers.  In any event, this is the sort of question of detail that those developing the standard should think long and hard about.

How could the system get started?

You might say this is an interesting idea, but how can it get started?  Probably, if it happens at all, entrepreneurs will make it happen.  The system would involve, in fact, at least four different new business types, namely (1), (3), (4), and (5) under “The idea” above, and existing social bookmarking websites might be persuaded to drive it forward as well.

Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet indicates that something like this is the natural next step.  There is a natural progression of search “generativity”:

  1. The Yahoo! directory — proprietary, centralized directory
  2. Google — proprietary, centralized search
  3. Mahalo and Wikia Search — free, centralized search enhanced by human input
  4. Syndicated Web ratings — free, decentralized search enhanced by human input (with data support for dynamically created tagging and directory systems)

In short, this may the prototypical “idea whose time has come.”  If enough people are interested, the support for a truly distributed project like this will quickly appear.  But if people aren’t that excited about it, it will die a perhaps well-deserved death.

But another reason to be optimistic that the standard, once published, will be rapidly adopted and used, is the simple fact that there are so many people already engaged in rating and recommending websites, even though the ratings benefit only the other users of the websites. But how many more of us would actually take the time to rate and describe websites, if we knew the work would positively affect the results of all competitive Web search services? In other words, what if we knew that our vote would count? We’d vote!

Shouldn’t we simply pressure social bookmarking websites to work on a standard and use it to publish their data?

It couldn’t hurt.  If we should target any websites for such pressuring, it should be those that are already sympathetic to the ideals of the open source community.  Go to work on them.  Of course, many will prefer to ignore this idea, because it is profoundly disruptive.

I support this idea and I want to make it happen.  What should I do?

Here are some things you could do:

  1. Write about it.  Debate about it.  Help build the critical mass of people interested in the idea.
  2. Join forums that are discussing the idea, and work toward a shared understanding of what the standard should look like.
  3. If there is support for the idea, eventually someone will set up a wiki to work on the standard.  Then you could help work on the standard.
  4. Start writing software, or adapting your current software — preferably, free software — to do the things listed under “The idea” above.  Then announce your software and get other people working on it.  Standards are often developed alongside applications that use them.

The idea is loose…and it’s up to you and the innovation commons in general to make it happen, if it’s going to happen.

June 22, 2008

Is Wikipedia available for use under CC-by-sa yet?

Filed under: License, Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 7:27 pm

Question for Wikipedians out there: is Wikipedia available for use under CC-by-sa yet?  I haven’t heard anything about this.  If it hasn’t been decided, why not?  Will this ever be declared?  Surely we should expect it to be, given the triumphant announcement Lessig and Wales last December.  Right?

I have to say I’m not so happy that Wikipedia might be using original Citizendium articles without the licenses really being interoperable.  In short, if they want to release our articles under the GFDL, we should be able to release theirs under CC-by-sa.

June 6, 2008

Britannica opens up a little

Filed under: Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 3:25 pm

See here and here and here and here.  I’ll have to assess this later; I have some pre-launch materials to prepare myself!  But this looks like a welcome development.  The questions I’ll have in mind as I read through the description are these.  (1) Will this actually increase the number of credible articles EB has on offer?  (2) Will there actually be very much collaboration going on?  (3) Are there any movements toward making EB’s main encyclopedia content free?

Without plans to increase the total number of articles on offer, robust freedom, and radical collaboration, EB is not, in fact, adopting the Citizendium model.  It would be adopting something more like the BBC’s model: h2g2.  I’ll certainly keep an open mind, however; I know they’ve been talking about how to leverage something like a wiki model since 2005 at the very earliest.

June 5, 2008

The Economist on the origins of and philosophy behind Wikipedia

Filed under: Founder, Other projects, Press & blogs — Larry Sanger @ 4:16 pm

The self-styled “newspaper” in magazine format, The Economist, examines the career of Jimmy Wales and the origin of Wikipedia, with some mention of my role.  As an account it is fairly true to the facts, which is far more than can be said for many such histories.

But for the record, I do have a few quibbles.

  • This is really a quibble, I don’t believe I ever really counted Jimmy Wales as a friend; he was a friendly acquaintance.  We never even lived in the same state until I went to work for Bomis, and we never had anything other than a professional relationship at that time.
  • It is false to say that Wales “called [me] up to contest every single point.”  I believe he called me up once, or maybe two or three times; I remember only one call distinctly.
  • Jimmy Wales didn’t merely invest in Bomis.com; he was its CEO and leading light.
  • The article implies (perhaps understandably, given what I might have said in the interview) that I think that Wikipedia as a project somehow embodies relativism, or requires a “postmodernist” interpretation.  I don’t think so; I think that its current policy of making no special role for experts, regardless of their level of knowledge, is sometimes defended on such relativistic grounds.  (In other words, they think that knowledge is actually “constructed” by the Wikipedia contributor base, and so the results are just as legitimate as anything that is vouched for by experts.)  To such a defense, I would have various objections, which I have elaborated in this Edge paper.  I believe the reporter asked me what I thought Ayn Rand would have thought of Stephen Colbert’s notion of wikiality, and that, I think, is what elicited the remark, “Ayn Rand would be turning in her grave.”  It’s not as though I particularly care about the disposition of that particular corpse.
  • Finally, there is this interesting quotation from Gene Koo of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society: “Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process.  Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power are not destroyed—Foucault taught us that this is impossible—but simply visible.”  Allow me to deconstruct this; it is wrong in at least two important ways.  Most Wikipedians are anonymous, and most articles are unsigned.  Whatever you might want to say about traditional media, at least you knew (or could find out) who was behind a particular piece of content.  And while the process of writing is transparent, notwithstanding the anonymity – certainly I’d grant you that — transparency of process does not require the radical epistemic egalitarianism of Wikipedia’s least credible defenders.

April 1, 2008

This founder’s vision has not yet become reality

Filed under: Best of this blog, Experts, Other projects, Press & blogs, Recruitment — Larry Sanger @ 12:44 pm

In an Inside Higher Ed column, “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia,” Mark A. Wilson claims of Wikipedia, “The vision of its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, has become reality…”  Wilson calls on college professors to get involved in Wikipedia, using their own real names.  One has to wonder if this is an April Fool’s gag, but it’s a pretty sober-sounding piece.

Here’s is my response, which I added to the IHE comments:


I’m Larry Sanger, and this is false. Please do not use my name to encourage professors to get involved in Wikipedia. My vision has always been for a maximally reliable information resource—not one that is controlled by faceless, often hostile, often irresponsible people, many of them teenagers and college students.

Over the years there have been repeated calls to professors to get involved and improve Wikipedia. Few have heeded the call, and those who have have come back pretty consistently saying, “This place is nuts.” Indeed, long ago—in 2002—I seriously considered starting up a Wikipedia “Sifter” project (you can still read about this in archives) in which experts would approve Wikipedia articles. At the time I was told by some of the more active Wikipedians, essentially: “Don’t expect those alleged experts to get any special treatment from us. They’re no better than the rest of us, and they shouldn’t get all uppity and act like they are!” It then became clear to me that Wikipedia simply had no place for experts. I could not in good conscience recommend that any serious knowledge professional participate in Wikipedia. I still cannot.

Inside Higher Ed and this columnist would do better to acquaint themselves with a project that actually gives college professors, and other experts, a modest but real stake in guidance of content decisions and management of content policy: the Citizendium. I can’t fault the author for not mentioning us, as we are new and, with only 5,800 articles, still unproven. But a positive passing mention would help to create a better alternative to Wikipedia. Please spread the word.

Sign up here. It’s a good time to sign up; tomorrow is our monthly Write-a-Thon, which is always very lively!


Let me temper the above comments with a few additional remarks:

  • I have long maintained, and I still do, that Wikipedia is very useful, and that most of the people working on Wikipedia are excellent hands.  I do not mean to dismiss Wikipedia, or the work of most Wikipedians, wholesale.  I simply want to quash any notion that I can be associated with a call to experts to descend on Wikipedia, which I think is a bad idea.
  • Perhaps I should also clarify that the significant advantage of the Citizendium is not merely that it makes a place for experts.  That is only one of our differences (and advantages).  But it is the difference that is relevant to any suggestion that experts get involved in Wikipedia.
  • I understand that there are certain topics, especially more technical and mathematical topics, where Wikipedians behave themselves rather better and where expert knowledge is accorded an appropriate (not fawning, of course) respect.  I don’t mean to deny this, and well done to all involved for their success with articles on such topics.

March 25, 2008

Major announcement about free education project forthcoming

Filed under: Funding, Open source, Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 4:36 pm

In a few weeks, a small group and I will be announcing a major new educational project, free and non-profit, with very significant funding from a retired businessman.  We will be meeting in New York City early next month, talking to some potential advisers and funders.  I am sorry to have to be so vague.  For now, suffice it to say that everyone will benefit, but school children most of all — and the effort will answer the petition I mentioned earlier, which I hope you will sign if you have not done so already.  That’s why I want to mention this, even without any detail: there are philanthropists who will get behind that sort of project.  I know, because I have met one; his generosity inspired that petition in the first place.  I also had to let out a little of the excitement!  The idea is a corker!

March 24, 2008

Petition to philanthropists: liberate educational content

Filed under: Best of this blog, Open source, Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 8:00 pm

If you agree with this appeal, please sign this petition of support!

This is a public appeal to philanthropists who are supporting the education of children.  The author (Dr. Larry Sanger) is co-founder of Wikipedia and editor-in-chief of the new Citizendium.  Originally posted March 22, rewritten March 24.  This petition was featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, the Chronicle of Philanthropy blog, and elsewhere.


Dear Philanthropist,We (the undersigned) have a simple, deeply powerful suggestion: “liberate” the best educational content.  Buy or commission truly excellent content, aimed at school children (K-12).  Then post it online for free.  Let children reap the rewards of your generosity forever.  Just think:

  • Free, top-grade textbooks about everything, free to everyone online
  • Free, in-depth, expert-designed educational software
  • Free, high-quality educational videos

Just imagine the possibilities of good this would do for the whole world.

Isn’t this already happening?  No.  Most educational content you find for free online lacks either detail or high quality.  But we want the best for our children: for that, we still must and do pay.  There is not much truly excellent free educational content online.

Why not?  We do not know.  Perhaps because those who create and support educational content generally view the Internet either as a dangerous competitor or as an adolescent free-for-all.  Perhaps.  But also think of the Internet as an amazingly efficient and cheap distribution mechanism.  You (philanthropists) can single-handedly use it to provide curricula to the entire world, for free.  You choose the type of content, the subject, the grade level, the authors, everything.  You need not ask anyone’s permission.  If you spend the money, content will appear online — and millions of children will benefit.  It is up to you!

Let us put this in perspective.  Back in 1960, if a billionaire wanted to give the best possible textbook to every child in the world, that would have been too costly even for the richest billionaire.  But no longer.  Even those with small fortunes can provide a textbook (etc.) to everyone with Internet access–hundreds of millions of children.  Philanthropists, you could do this.

You have been spending millions of dollars annually to improve education, but we believe you have largely ignored this key opportunity.  Sometimes the simplest ways are the best.  If you want to answer, “But the problems with U.S. schools do not have to do with our textbooks or content,” we might agree with you.  Perhaps it has to do with teachers being low-paid, or parents not being involved, or something else.  We do not offer an answer to that.

But this opportunity is “low-hanging fruit.”  High-quality, free content undeniably and directly benefits the world, the entire world, through the magic of the Internet.  Educational content gives knowledge to children.  Why not pay for it?  What is stopping you?  After all, it is not only collective “Web 2.0″ efforts that can liberate content.  You have a fantastic mechanism for distributing free curricula to virtually every school child in the U.S., and the whole world can benefit, to boot.  Why not use it?

Regards and deep thanks in advance,

The Undersigned

P.S. Follow-ups to the petition will be posted both on this blog and the mailing list SharedKnowing.  Sign up to that mailing list if you want to be sure to receive info about how this petition fares.

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March 6, 2008

ECT News/LinuxInsider interview about Citizendium

Filed under: Other projects, Press & blogs — Larry Sanger @ 6:55 am

Thanks very much to ECT News/LinuxInsider for this interview, in which I got the opportunity to explain what makes the Citizendium different (probably nothing new for most readers of this blog), but also to explain (and mostly praise) many other online encyclopedia projects.  One project I neglected to mention was the nascent Encyclopedia of the Cosmos, edited by my former Digital Universe colleague, Dr. Bernard Haisch, and built on the model of the Encyclopedia of Earth that I helped engineer — though both differ significantly from CZ.  Unless plans have changed, both are intended to be the first components of a Digital Universe Encyclopedia.

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