Citizendium Blog

June 17, 2008

Myths and facts about Citizendium

Filed under: Authors, Editors, Governance, Policy, Press & blogs — Larry Sanger @ 6:44 am

We enjoy considerable goodwill from many people. But the Citizendium is also misunderstood. This page is devoted to correcting many errors about us.

Let’s debunk some myths [edit]

Myth: we’re experts-only.

Fact: we love experts—we admit it. And we want more of them. But this is still a remarkably open project. You can be an author with no degrees and only a basic facility with English. We agree heartily with the larger “Web 2.0″ crowd on one point: most reasonably well educated people have something to contribute to a project like this. Our youngest registered members are 13, and we have some active high school students who have done good work.
For further reading, see The Editor Role, The Author Role, and our sign-up form.

Myth: we’re a top-down project, with expert editors giving orders to underlings.

Fact: no, we’re very much bottom-up. We’re a wiki—really. If you join, nobody is going to tell you what to do here. You work on the articles you want to work on, when you want to work on them. We are a strongly, “radically,” collaborative project. This means we share ownership and work together; nobody “owns” articles or “gives orders” to do this or that. Of course, we aren’t the first to use this method; it gained currency online with the open source software movement. One of the theorists of that movement was Eric Raymond, who compared communities that create free software collaboratively to “bazaars,” as opposed to the old-fashioned “cathedral” model where everyone has a specific role and function, and orders are given from the top down. (See “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” free to read online.) We, too, are a bazaar. We have merely added “village elders” wandering the bazaar. Their welcome, moderating presence does not convert the project into a cathedral; it only helps make the bazaar a little less anarchical and unreliable.
For further reading, see Group Editing and How to collaborate.

Myth: edits appear on the Citizendium only if they have been specifically approved by editors.

Fact: editors do not approve edits before they appear on the website. Once you’re signed up, you can immediately change any article (or, for approved articles, any article draft—example). You can. You really, really can. Editors are not standing over your shoulder. Nor do they want to do so. They have their own projects here. Another author is as likely to critique and edit your work as an editor. It’s like we said. This is a wiki—a real, robust, bottom-up wiki.
For further reading, see The Editor Role. There’s nothing there about approving individual edits!

Myth: we’re Serious. We accept only your most careful, painstaking work. Writing here is like writing a term paper—no fun. We take ourselves Very Seriously.

Fact: this myth is particularly damaging to new recruits, especially to younger people who aren’t sure of themselves. You’re welcome here. You really are. This is a work in progress, and we have fun! Yes, we have a lot of overeducated people here, who are regularly writing really wonderful prose as if it costs them no effort. But we also have no problem whatsoever with you making a rough start on any topic, as long as somebody else will be able to pick up where you left off. We are permanently under construction. You do not have to be painfully careful, as if you might break something and people will start screaming at you, or will freeze you out socially, if you do. We’re much more relaxed than that. We want everybody to be bold, not so careful that you never make any mistakes. If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not participating hard enough. And you don’t have to write a whole term paper to start an article, though we have a special initiative that encourages educators to assign Citizendium articles instead of term papers. It’s OK with us if you start a relatively short article, just a paragraph or two (we call these “stubs”).
For further reading, see Be Bold, Under Construction, and Stubs.

Myth: since real names are required, nobody will participate. Maybe nobody should—participant privacy will be violated, as our bios will be accessible from Google!

Fact: the fact that we have 200+ participants every month makes it obviously false that nobody will participate in a project in which real names are required. We admit that we might get more participants if pseudonyms were widely permitted. (Note: we do permit pseudonyms for certain special reasons, e.g., political dissidents in repressive countries. We have given out ~10 pseudonyms.) As to privacy, biographies are not indexed by Google (or any other search engine that respects the “noindex” tag).
We feel that the advantages of real names outweigh the small sacrifice of allowing our work-in-progress to be viewed publicly. On the one hand, using real names makes people behave themselves more civilly; on the other hand, it makes our articles more credible, since readers know that there are people willing to put their names behind them. Besides, you’re far more likely to impress your friends and employers by posting publicly here than on, say, FaceBook, where many people do use their real names!
For further reading, see CZ:Statistics and Sanger’s “Defense of Modest Real Name Requirements.”

Myth: since this is an academic project, we are not open to articles about pop culture.

Fact: we are open to pop culture. Don’t believe us? See Dazed and Confused (Led Zeppelin song) and Metal Gear Solid. We are better described as a hybrid academic/public project. Think of it like this: we reject both the idea that knowledge belongs exclusively in the academy, and the idea that, after Wikipedia, the academy has no special role to play in explaining what we know. We think the most productive and reliable system involves the marriage of expertise with wide-ranging public interests and knowledge. So, as long as we can expect to maintain a full set of articles of a certain category, then go to town! If snobs try to shut you down, have them talk to the Editor-in-Chief, who is a confirmed “inclusionist”!
For further reading, see Maintainability or look at Category:Games Workgroup, Category:Hobbies Workgroup, and Category:Media Workgroup.

Myth: since this is an academic project, our articles will have an academic bias.

Fact: our neutrality policy specifically requires that our articles feature the full range of opinion on a subject, including opinion that is outside the mainstream of expert opinion. The important thing is that all opinion be properly labelled and attributed. Besides, as we said, this is a hybrid expert-public project, not just an academic project; the input of the general public is a necessary check on the particular biases that sometimes plague particular disciplines. So far, this problem has not been much in evidence here.
For further reading, see Neutrality Policy.

Myth: the Citizendium is just Nupedia all over again. Or: it’s not different enough from Wikipedia.

Fact: this is a really egregious error made by those familiar enough with the history of Wikipedia and Nupedia to be “a little dangerous,” but not familiar enough to be accurate. Nupedia wasn’t collaborative; the Citizendium is. Nupedia was top-down in many respects (e.g., articles were assigned); we are bottom-up. (Nupedia itself is widely misunderstood, but that’s another matter.) Since Nupedia was allowed to wither and die, the comparison to Nupedia is used to suggest subtly that the Citizendium, too, will wither and die. This is now obviously false, since CZ has produced many thousands of article drafts, where Nupedia produced only a few hundred in the same amount of time, and because CZ has accelerated its growth significantly and will probably continue to do so.
As to Wikipedia, our main differences are that we use real names, make a special role for experts in the system, and require contributors to digitally sign a “social contract.” These differences really make a difference. We have no vandalism. We have very few bad articles, and many of our articles, even our “developing” articles, are excellent, despite our project’s toddlerhood; after five years, we will probably have left Wikipedia entirely in the dust, in terms of quality. We really are a different sort of community, one that takes a commitment to professional behavior seriously. We have our disputes—what vibrant community could be without them?—but they are very rarely the sort of bizarre, Kafkaesque affairs that are so common on Wikipedia.
For further reading, see We aren’t Wikipedia, Sanger’s Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir, and “Who’s more command-and-control, Wikipedia or CZ?” (a blog post).

Myth: there is no point to the Citizendium, because Wikipedia exists.

Fact: Wikipedia has uneven quality, and is extremely off-putting to most experts—indeed, to most people, period—who might otherwise contribute to it. We believe that, in the end, a lot more people will be comfortable with and attracted to the open, yet sensible CZ model. Some of us expect a tipping point to come in the next year or two, in which CZ will be flooded with more and more people who are now firmly persuaded that we are a force to contend with. There is no danger whatsoever of our giving up. Your work here will be well used as part of a resource with tens of thousands, and then probably hundreds of thousands, of articles.
Besides, we’re sure you’ll agree that the world can use more than one “go to” source for free reference information. We are the best hope for a real alternative!
For further reading, see Why Citizendium? and Workgroup Weeks.

Myth: most Citizendium articles are just copied from Wikipedia.

Fact: wrong. While we do allow people to copy Wikipedia articles here, we keep careful track of them, and by far most of our articles are completely original. Besides, many if not most of the articles that are sourced from Wikipedia are not counted in our CZ Live article count (currently 7,000). We strongly encourage people who copy their articles from Wikipedia to work on them here; we generally prefer that people start over, in order to give the public “added value.” If someone copies a Wikipedia article here without changing it, we won’t take credit for it, and we are more than willing to let others start over from scratch on the topic.
For further reading, see How to convert Wikipedia articles to Citizendium articles and Introduction to CZ for Wikipedians.

Myth: our experts are called “constables.”

Fact: no, our experts are called “editors.” Constables are community moderators, who are mainly tasked with letting people into the system, and (only occasionally) enforcing our Professionalism policy (which says, basically, to be polite). Our constables are, as it turns out, some of the kindest and most welcome people here.
For further reading, see CZ:Constabulary.

Some other interesting facts you might not have known about us [edit]

Here are some more assorted facts that are not common knowledge, but which might put us in a new and exciting light for you:

  • Despite being an active and open wiki, we have no vandalism, and little if any “trolling.” What other wiki can say that?
  • Our well-developed articles feature subpages (here’s a list), which cover many other kinds of reference information you might want. An encyclopedia article, plus supporting reference material, is called a “cluster.”
  • CZ articles are intended to be coherent narratives, not random grab-bags of facts.
  • The person who led Wikipedia in its seminal first year, and designed many of its fundamental policies, is also leading CZ. Suffice it to say that he learns from his mistakes.
  • It is easy to get a quick start. In our sign-up procedure, we don’t actually ask that much information about you. A human being will review your account request, and let you into the system typically within 24 hours, but often within just a few hours. Once you’ve signed up, it is easy to start a new article.
  • We have a neutrality policy, which we have a better chance of living up to than the Other Place.
  • Our Citizens are bound by a social contract. It’s not called “the Citizens’ Compendium” for nothing!
  • Editorial policy decisions are settled by our Editorial Council, not by some bogus, and impossible, “consensus.”
  • Larry Sanger has declared, when he first announced the Citizendium in September 2006, that he would leave his position as editor-in-chief within two to three years, in order to set a positive precedent. He is not “dictator for life.”
  • We are not a Silicon Valley for-profit business. We are a non-profit, civic project that uses CC-by-sa as the license for our content, and our Citizens are essentially co-owners of the project.

Why all the errors about CZ? [edit]

So, why have there been so many errors passed around about CZ? And why are so many of our interesting innovations largely unknown? There are probably two reasons.

First, this is a genuinely innovative project. Nothing quite like it has ever existed before. The expert-public hybrid model and several other innovations are quite simply new. But most people are not able to take such novel things on board easily, because they think in terms of prototypes or examples. Therefore, to them, we are like a traditional academic project, like Nupedia, or like Wikipedia. In short, most people naturally think in terms of stereotypes, and so we have been stereotyped. No doubt that’s been the fate of most real innovators. This means only that we need to educate people–which this page attempts to do.

Second, a lot of Web 2.0 advocates, whose online temples are websites like Wikipedia and YouTube, are philosophically opposed to our basic policies. They tend to be radical egalitarians and closet anarchists. Therefore, they hate the idea that we ask people to take responsibility for their contributions and that we make a special role for experts. So it’s easy for our opponents to create straw men which they proceed to knock down. Here, the proper strategy is to answer criticisms quickly and show them to be, indeed, attacks on straw men.

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