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’, 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.


  1. Larry, by what measure do you mean that CZ is growing? Obviously, the amount of content is growing and the number of registered users is growing. But it seems from the statistics page that the size of the community is not growing; November had fewer active authors than any time since before open registration.

    I think CZ would have a community orders of magnitude larger if it had started just a year or a year and a half earlier. (But at that point, I suppose it might have been impossible to secure startup funds, since the structural and cultural shortcomings of WP were less widely known.) CZ went public just as Wikipedia peaked in terms of community size; by that time most people who would have an inclination to donate their time and energy to a free encyclopedia had already been exposed to Wikipedia. Based on Wikipedia’s community size trend, it looks like the final 2/3rds of those people encountered Wikipedia between late 2005 and early 2007; since then, the influx of new users hasn’t kept up with attrition from the initial wave, and the active community has shrunk by about a fifth (it’s unclear yet how much of that can be attributed to yearly cycles, which seem to trough around now and peak around March).

    Obviously it’s a complicated situation, and CZ has a few big advantages that might enable a similar boom some time down the road. Chief among the advantages is that many articles that non-experts would be interested in are still yet to be written, whereas it can be hard for newbies to find a place to contribute on WP. As a ‘fresh face’ for those who were previously turned off by the technical/usability hurdles of editing, CZ is in an even better position than WP to take advantage of continued MediaWiki development, particularly the new grant for three new programmers to make editing more user-friendly. As a much smaller project, CZ is also easier to integrate into socially; all the movers and shakers can still know each other, and real identities are a strong check (though not complete) on trolling. But your caricature of Wikipedians as (among other things) a bunch of people “who want to play governance games in order to push their biases” is unfair. The vast majority participate in good faith, and the major governance problems come from passionate users of the type who would behave similarly under their real names; most of the kinds of bad behavior induced by anonymity are easy to deal with.

    Comment by Sage Ross — December 11, 2008 @ 2:48 am

  2. This post is an immature and reprehensible attempt to poach readers and contributors by licking the boots of moral tyrants. I find the cover of the album in question to be detestable. In fact, I tried to get it deleted before this controversy erupted on the argument that it was on shaky ground legally.

    But I was wrong. Dead wrong. It is completely legal and distributable in myriad forms, and is not “arguably child pornography” in the eyes of the law. It has been viewable and purchasable in myriad forms both digital and physical for 30+ years.

    There is a bright line difference between distasteful and illegal. If you, God-King of Citizendium, wish to prevent things that are legal but obscene from appearing in your wiki, then that is your business. But that makes you the very definition of a censor. For such a “deep thinker” you seem to have forgotten how to use a simple dictionary.

    Comment by Steven Walling — December 11, 2008 @ 4:56 am

  3. What governance mechanism would prevent this from happening at Cititzendium?

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — December 11, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  4. Steven Walling: I am not licking any “tyrant’s” boots. I don’t care about what is legal or illegal, and for me the law does not define what counts as child pornography. I suppose reasonable people can disagree about whether this particular image counts, but I think it does. And notice that I did not take a stand on whether Wikipedia should have been censored by those U.K. groups; for the record, I think not. But that doesn’t mean that I approve of Wikipedia’s decision to retain the image. Also, if you think I am “God-King of Citizendium,” you clearly know nothing about me, my prior commitments, or CZ. You must have me confused with Jimmy Wales; trust me, we’re very different. By the way, I also want to eliminate explicit representations of the sex act from general encyclopedias. Does that, too, make me a “censor”? No, that suggestion is just silly. Our stance makes CZ (it isn’t my policy, it is CZ’s policy) merely sensible, the way that any family newspaper is.

    Sage Ross: we’re growing in the sense that we’ve doubled our article count in the last year, and in several other respects as well. We haven’t done a lot of active recruitment and our mere existence is now old news, so there isn’t much about us in the blogosphere or news media.

    I did not caricature Wikipedians. I was accurately describing some and in fact (in terms of sheer numbers) many Wikipedians. That doesn’t mean that the description applies to all Wikipedians. I agree that the majority (not the “vast majority”) are solid contributors. But you’re just wrong that “most of the kinds of bad behavior induced by anonymity are easy to deal with.” There’s a difference between being tolerable to most of Wikipedia’s regulars, on the one hand, and being easy to deal with, on the other–and also being acceptable in an open, democratic community committed to knowledge.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — December 11, 2008 @ 8:41 am

  5. Joseph — nice to see you here — what would prevent the display of the image in question on CZ is our “family friendliness policy,” which is among a relatively few policies that contributors must agree to as a condition of their participation, and which editors as a group are officially committed to enforce. We’ve had serious debates about much less clear-cut cases.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — December 11, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  6. Sanger, a censor is someone who examines material and then suppresses anything they consider obscene or otherwise unacceptable based on personal moral judgment rather than legal precedent. That is what you propose to do in Citizendium.

    Rather than stick to our business of disseminating as much knowledge as possible, and accordingly trust the legal system to stamp out things truly harmful to children and other innocents (their job), you would just simply ban all explicit sexual material from your so-called encyclopedia. As someone else told about your stance put it, this kind of moral prudery equals “the reason I’ll never bother with citizendium.”

    Millions of people use Wikipedia everyday, not despite the fact that we include explicit discussion of sex, but because of it. They may not want to see it all, may find quite a bit offensive, and a lot of isn’t appropriate for children. But they come back to us just the same because even if they dislike our coverage of sex, such articles make it self-evident that we have a deep and abiding commitment to giving them the facts on every arena of knowledge.

    Comment by Steven Walling — December 11, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  7. Unfortunately, I perceived you to be caricaturing Wikepedians. In fact, even though I’m passionate about the fundamental differences between the CZ and WP approaches, and I evangelize CP, I will not forward your posting, because I think its tone will too often be perceived too pejoritavely. Yes, “We’re a remarkably pleasant and well-behaved community,” but I fear the tone and substance in parts of your post will not be perceived that way.
    I encourage you to continue fighting the good fight, but be wary about doing it in the dirt.

    Comment by Peter Shank — December 11, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  8. Sorry, Peter, but I simply have to reject that calling a spade a spade, as I’ve done, is getting “in the dirt.” When it comes to issues like child pornography, I draw the line. I think more people should be speaking out against it, rather than attempting — in this case, quite unsuccessfully — to “shame” someone who is in the business of condemning it. Of course my post was pejorative. I was (obviously) not condemning all Wikipedians or even most of them. But I was openly and purposefully critical of Wikipedia’s policy and the people behind it, and my doing so is a good thing. OK? Maybe Wikipedians will learn a few things from my taking a stand, but even more I hope that CZ will get a few new people who understand that there is a principled alternative.

    I find it very interesting indeed that there were few substantive replies to my post, and that people instead chose to attack me for “censorship” (quite laughably — I’m not impressed, Steven Walling) or for being unfair to Wikipedians. This is the standard modus operandi today of those who meet an argument they can’t answer directly: attack the speaker.

    Seriously, what has happened to our allegedly enlightened Western society if we cannot morally condemn really reprehensible things without being attacked for it? According to the apothegm, all it takes for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing; and if attacking all moralizing successfully intimidates enough people, that ultimately means the dissolving of public standards. Well, I will take a stand and won’t be intimidated. Of course, it’s a rather pathetically undaring place to take a stand — child pornography — but it’s surely the least I can do.

    And shame on you — and I mean this unironically, shame on you — to the people who would try to shame me for taking this stand, and for my condemning Wikipedia for tolerating it. If you want to call yourselves decent people, at the very least you will let me have my opinion without heaping opprobrium on yourselves by attempting to intimidate me — and by extension, the many people out there who, I know very well, agree with me.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — December 11, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  9. Thanks Larry. I’m somewhat amazed by the number of people defending Wikipedia’s distribution of this image solely on the grounds that Wikipedia should not engage in censorship. I think a certain large group of Wikipedians have completely bastardized the principle of neutrality and take it to imply that they are not able to ever take a moral stand on anything.

    The image in question certainly has no place in a family-friendly encyclopedia. Of course, Wikipedia is explicitly not an attempt to create a family-friendly encyclopedia. On the other hand, I think one can be justified in distributing the image in question if and only if they are reasonably sure that such distribution will only serve to counter and not to promote child sexual abuse. Wikipedia, with its “anyone can edit” policy, and its general adoption of moral relativism, is absolutely not capable of providing such assurance.

    I’d much rather contribute to Citizendium than Wikipedia. But I don’t find either project worthy of my time at this point.

    Comment by Anthony — December 11, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  10. Larry, there are two topics here which are getting mixed. I’m not talking about censorship/child pornography.

    To illustrate my point, pretend you had posted about CZ/WP differences after WP had been in the news for some completely different, even innocuous, reason. You directly equated “The two projects…” with “groups of people” and then referred to those who “hide behind pseudonyms” and “play goverance games in order to push their biases.” But now clarify in the (relative) privacy of the comments you agree that the majority of Wikipedians are solid.

    Perhaps the Virgin Killer topic is overwhelming the subtlety of my topic right now, but my encouragement was simply to market CZ by leading with our strengths rather than WP’s weakness. That’s all.

    Comment by Peter Shank — December 11, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

  11. Steve, you’re way off base. To call it censorship when a collaborative project using open-source software chooses to not include certain content… you’re just missing the point completely. For Larry to consider that image child pornography… completely valid.

    CZ need answer to nobody about its guidelines for inclusion or exclusion. If you think the WP model is best, we’re waiting for you to return there.
    If you wish to use WikiMedia to advance a new model of your own, best wishes. That’s what it’s for.

    Comment by Peter Shank — December 11, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

  12. Peter, I’ve given it some thought, yet again — this issue comes up every time I publicly criticize Wikipedia.

    So let me reiterate: there is nothing wrong with my criticizing Wikipedia or types of bad behavior on Wikipedia. I actually think that it’s important that I do so. It is wrong-headed of you to suggest that I stop, actually, because that tends to pressure people to stop speaking their minds about the necessity of a new, competing project. It’s hard to justify the existence of CZ if we cannot say that there’s something wrong with Wikipedia.

    Besides, it’s annoying how much everything is overanalyzed in terms of rhetoric and PR consequences — “the horse race.” I think our society has gotten more interested in characterizing debates rather than engaging in them, as witness the recent U.S. elections. It’s alarming how much people now judge a debate not based on the substance of argument, but based on how people superficially behave in a debate and how their rhetorical style allegedly affects the “horse race.” This topic often completely drowns out any discussion of the merits of competing positions. It’s as if we would all like to become debate analysts, with no one left to discuss the issues themselves.

    Now, it’s true that the drama involved in my criticizing Wikipedia will surely for some people drown out any subtlety I have in making my points, so that people will misinterpret and overgeneralize whatever I say. This can’t be helped, I’m afraid. Still, I’ll admit that I probably should have added a sentence in the post saying (as I have so often said in the past) that most Wikipedians are solid troopers. But we would probably disagree about how many debate points to deduce for this omission.

    Finally, in the interest of indeed talking about the subject rather than about the debate about the subject, let me underscore my core point, which is definitely worth talking about: CZ can play an important role as a source of more reliable and, yes, family-friendly information. It is growing and deserves lots of public support and participation. I think it is virtually inevitable — only a matter of time — before CZ comes into its own and astonishes the world by demonstrating what a different, and now largely misunderstood, wiki model can accomplish.

    And in writing this last, I have to say I am experiencing some deja vu, because that is what I said about Wikipedia over and over, for its first couple of years.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — December 15, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  13. Hear hear, Larry, is all I can say to this.

    It amazes me (or it used to) how often some Wikipedians bring up the matter of “no censorship” but fail to understand the difference between censoring information/images and applying common sense. I fear for many it’s just intellectual laziness or a desire to thumb the nose at traditional moralities rather than any well-considered ethical or intellectual principles that drives this stance.

    Comment by Mark — December 23, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  14. I remember there was a suggestion that images that could be considered offensive (to whatever constituency) should not be shown inline, but should require a further click to be revealed. This does not speak to the morality or otherwise of displaying the photograph; it merely accepts that the picture is sufficiently upsetting to some that it should not be displayed without being requested by the viewer. This seems uncontroversial to me, and does not require censorship, but the suggestion was howled down. I am not sure how the notion that editors should impose their own views of acceptability squares with the notion that an article should contain the content the reader would expect under that title. Of course I can see the downsides of this approach, but I never quite understood why people would not want Wikipedia to be the encyclopaedia anyone could read as well as edit. By purposely including images it knows will grossly offend some, it puts some of its content off limits to some readers.

    Comment by Dr Zen — December 30, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  15. I live in the UK, and I have edited wikipedia every day for the last few months. I don’t participate in Wikipedia discussion pages, and this report is news to me. It seems to me that the professional U.S. media may have made a mess of its reporting.

    Comment by Oliver Chettle — January 17, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

  16. I can open a medical encyclopedia and I will see there explicit images of human body (not very suitable for a family reading, eh?) or an art encyclopedia and see ecplicit scenes with naked women, men, children and even sex scenes (not for children’s eyes, I guess) or an history article with photos of dead soldiers, destroyed buildings etc. Common sense might tell us where such images or information shouldn’t be but I doubt one can throw away it from the articles specifically dedicated to the subject (anatomy, art, battles).

    Comment by Alexey Bobyakov — February 13, 2009 @ 5:08 am

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