I rewrote our “Why Citizendium?” page. Here’s the new draft.
“What is the point of the Citizendium,” you might ask, “when Wikipedia is so huge and of reasonably good quality? Is there really a need for it?”
|There is a better way for humanity to come together to make an encyclopedia.
To put it forcefully: there is a better way for humanity to come together to make an encyclopedia. So we make this appeal to you. If we can do better than Wikipedia—or more positively, if we can pioneer a truly effective way to gather knowledge—then shouldn’t we?
In response to this, a critic might argue: but you can’t do better than Wikipedia. It has millions of articles, it is ranked #8 in traffic, it has thousands of very active contributors, and Nature did a report saying the accuracy of its science articles was not far below that of Encyclopedia Britannica. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But to make our case, we don’t have to say that Wikipedia is broken. While different Citizens have different views about Wikipedia’s merits, we agree on one thing: we, humanity, can do better. But why think that the Citizendium, in particular, can do better?
Why think the Citizendium can “catch up”?
The Citizendium actually added about five million words in its first year—more than Wikipedia did in its first year. Our rate of article creation and average number of edits per day have increased—in other words, our growth has been accelerating. Moreover, we have many very active Citizens, including Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia and now Editor-in-Chief of the Citizendium, who are on making many improvements daily. It is only a matter of time before the Citizendium system is fully “tuned up” and out of beta status. Sanger believes that we might well enjoy explosive growth in 2008, and is working very hard to make it happen. Even if we merely continue to triple our rate of growth every year, we will have millions of articles ourselves after some more years.
In other words, we look to the long term—just as Wikipedia’s founders did in its first years. And the long-term outlook is positive indeed. In five to ten years, we can expect similar growth, similar numbers of active contributors, and a similar traffic ranking. So we need not worry that Wikipedia will “always be larger.”
We can do better
|Wikipedia is full of serious problems.
We do not think that Wikipedia is “good enough.” We think humanity can do better: Wikipedia is full of serious problems. Many of the articles are written amateurishly. Too often they are mere disconnected grab-bags of factoids, not made coherent by any sort of narrative. In some fields and some topics, there are groups who “squat” on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles. Vandalism, once a minor annoyance, has become a major headache—made possible because the community allows anonymous contribution. Many experts have been driven away because know-nothings insist on ruining their articles. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales acts as a law unto himself, not subject to a written constitution, with no official position, but wielding considerable authority in the community. Wales and other Wikipedia leaders have either been directly involved in, or have not adequately responded to, a whole string of very public scandals. The community takes its dictum, “Ignore All Rules,” seriously; it is part anarchy, part mob rule. The people with the most influence in the community are the ones who have the most time on their hands—not necessarily the most knowledgable—and who manipulate Wikipedia’s eminently gameable system.
But even if you disagree with much of this indictment, you might still agree that we can do better.
Real names are better
|The Citizendium has virtually no vandalism and very little abuse of any kind.
By requiring real names, we give both our articles and our community a kind of real-world credibility that Wikipedia’s articles and community lack: if you look at our recent changes page, you will see nothing but real names. To Wikipedians, this must be a bizarre but refreshing sight. Real names also make it possible to enforce some modest, sensible rules, while Wikipedia’s anonymity policy allows anyone who is slapped on the wrist to come back immediately under a new pseudonym. This happens very frequently on Wikipedia. By contrast, the Citizendium has virtually no vandalism and very little abuse of any kind.
To this, you might say that real names also exclude too many people, so that the Citizendium will grow too slowly. But this is puzzling to say, considering that many thousands of people have signed up to the Citizendium under their own real names. A community that asks its members to use their real names is more pleasant, polite, and productive than one that allows abusive people to disrupt the community under the cloak of anonymity. We believe that in time, more and more people will come to see the merits of the Citizendium’s policy. The people driven away by Wikipedia’s governance nonsense—and there are many—are much more likely to find the Citizendium mature and to their liking.
A modest role for experts is better
We too permit very open contribution; the general public make up the bulk of our contributors, as “authors.” We agree that broad-based contribution is necessary to achieve critical mass as well as the broadest spectrum of interests and knowledge.
|A project devoted to knowledge ought to give special inducements to people who make it their life’s work to know things.
But we believe that it is merely good sense to make a special role for experts within the system. A project devoted to knowledge ought to give special inducements to people who make it their life’s work to know things. We believe—and we think our work so far bears this out—that a project gently guided by experts will in time be more credible, and of higher quality, than a project making no special role for experts. So we allow our expert editors to approve articles (creating stable versions, with a “draft” version that can be easily edited). Editors may also take the lead, when necessary, in articulating sensible, well-informed solutions to content disputes—disputes that sometimes go on interminably on Wikipedia.
To this there are a number of typical objections, all of which rest on misunderstandings of our policies. Sometimes critics claim that our editors will inflict their personal biases on authors and our readership; but this is incorrect, as we have a neutrality policy that is, if anything, more robust than Wikipedia’s. We are often asked, “But who will choose the experts?” Our answer is: why is this a problem? The “real world” has been solving that problem for a very long time, and our solution is typical. And sometimes people point to Wikipedia itself as evidence that no special role for experts is needed. We disagree: the amateurish and ever-vacillating quality of Wikipedia’s articles is an excellent reason to establish a system that gives a role to editors.
Sensible governance is better
|The Citizendium features the rule of law, not anarchy and not mob rule.
New Citizendium members, called “Citizens,” must agree to our Statement of Fundamental Policies. Moreover, we have a group of mature, generally good-natured “constables” who rein in bad behavior on the wiki, and these community managers are limited in their authority. We moderate comments on the wiki in much the same way mailing lists and forums are moderated. If a Citizen is abusive, his comment is removed; if he shows as pattern of abuse, he is removed. Since we use real names, it is difficult for such abusive people to return under another name. The upshot is that the Citizendium features the rule of law, not anarchy and not mob rule. Indeed, our Citizens get along pretty well, despite being very free to do or say almost anything—as long as it is respectful toward others. To Wikipedians, the experience of seeing such a peaceful community must be, again, bizarre but refreshing.
In the long run, again, we expect that the Citizendium will be recognizing as having the gold standard of sensible governance systems.
The potential of the Citizendium is stunning
We have spent so much time comparing the Citizendium with Wikipedia largely because we know that the comparison will loom large in many potential contributors’ minds; we know that many people ask themselves, “Why work on the Citizendium instead of Wikipedia?” We hope we have answered that question adequately.
|Imagine enormous quantities of content combined with the highest quality and exhaustiveness of scope.
But the most important reason to get behind the Citizendium is not a comparative point at all: it is that a fully-developed Citizendium would be stunning. Not only would it have millions of articles, but it would have, at least, hundreds of thousands of expert-approved articles, all available for free, all being instantly updatable with the latest research and events, and all wonderfully well written. Imagine enormous quantities of content combined with the highest quality and exhaustiveness of scope, all achievable only by radical collaboration. Imagine, as well, a whole raft of supplementary reference materials.
The world has never seen anything like this. But we can create it. Our best chance to do so is by throwing our support behind the Citizendium.
Some personal motivations to support the Citizendium
But what about you—why should you get involved?
|In time, the article you contribute to will be approved by an expert editor, and so represented to the world as containing a credible, reliable introduction to your topic.
It’s mainly because it is fun and rewarding to share your knowledge with the world. Your contributions to the Citizendium are less likely to be degraded by poor edits later on: others will move your contributions forward, not backward. In time (we can’t say when—but eventually), the article you contribute to will be approved by an expert editor, and so represented to the world as containing a credible, reliable introduction to your topic. And all for free. We are accomplishing something truly worthwhile.
Many people, especially academics, are concerned that in a strongly collaborative project like this, they cannot get the individual credit they need. Well, you can already point people to the article history, where your real name will appear, crediting you with the specific edits you make. Also, we will soon probably start a pilot project that will allow people to be credited with their contributions on a “byline,” under certain circumstances. And we hope to start a program soon where we will prepare an official report about your contributions to, and roles in, the Citizendium that you can submit to decisionmakers. Already, you can have the Editor-in-Chief or an active editor in your area attest to your activity and the quality of your work.
Fun, rewarding, and worthwhile—what more could you want?