Wikipedia was a first draft. I expect that, increasingly, the Citizendium will be regarded as the next draft.
Most readers of this blog have probably seen the recent article about Wikipedia in the Times of London by now (”Wikipedia shows signs of stalling as number of volunteers falls sharply“). The article reports on Wikipedia’s apparently sharp decline in participation. (Eric Goldman must be crowing.)
First, I’ll say exactly what you’d expect me to say, and which I have said many times before: disaffected Wikipedians are welcome in the Citizendium community. If in fact participation in Wikipedia is declining so severely that the quality of its articles deteriorates significantly, then I hope former Wikipedians will remember (or learn) that they can join us. They can join simply if they are willing to work under their own real names, under the gentle guidance of experts in an open, bottom-up system, and under the Citizendium charter that is even now being drafted.
Second, let me share something with you: I think the Citizendium has an excellent chance to become the dominant reference resource in the long run. I came to this view during CZ’s first year. And yes, it probably still sounds silly. As soon as it had become established that experts and non-experts could work side-by-side in a fully open, bottom-up, largely pleasant system, as CZ’s is — in other words, when I saw that CZ was a going concern — it became clear to me that there would be no reason for CZ to fold over the long term. Therefore, it would probably continue growing its stores of high-quality content. With more high-quality content would come more credibility and more traffic. After a while, we would reach a tipping point. I admit I was off about when we would reach our tipping point, but I still think it’s likely that we will reach one. It’s only a matter of time. The original arguments for the Citizendium model are sound, and our original demonstration that this novel way of organizing a wiki community is also sound. So now it’s just a matter of time and patience. Of course, in today’s hyper-accelerated society, adverting to “time and patience” might sound silly; but it does not to the wiser heads among us, because they know from experience what time and patience can bring. The point is that CZ is a natural home for those who want to create a better encyclopedia and who have been put off from the Wikipedia experiment. Wikipedia was a first draft. I expect that, increasingly, the Citizendium will be regarded as the next draft.
Third, I am not going to prognosticate, unlike Eric Goldman. Of course it’s possible that Wikipedia will find a way to move to an even stronger position. But I will criticize. For now, it is clearly running afoul of exactly the problems I identified in the project early on — and which I encouraged Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia community at large to fix, and which precipitated my own departure. The pigeons are coming home to roost. The Wikipedia experiment has deeply suffered as a result of its radical embrace of the most extreme egalitarian and anarchistic principles — which have made the community, as such principles always will do, descend into mob rule and a failed state, so to speak. As I explained in a recent paper (”The Fate of Expertise after Wikipedia“), “Wikipedia’s success is not best explained by its radical egalitarianism, its rejection of expert involvement, but instead by its freedom, openness, and bottom-up management, all of which are consistent with a low-key role for experts.” Because it has rejected constitutional rule, real identities, and any, even modest, official role for subject-matter experts, the project may have finally run afoul of the limits of its own deeply-ingrained, self-imposed, constitutional flaws.
And need I say this? I think I must: CZ’s growth rate has been only modest because most of our potential contributors have instead put their efforts into Wikipedia. But if it is becoming increasingly obnoxious to edit Wikipedia, then there must be an increasingly untapped source of volunteer labor for working on an encyclopedia. I think that, if they look into what we’re doing, ex-Wikipedians will find that they can help make CZ into what they hoped Wikipedia would become. They can pursue the same noble goals — but they’ll have a much better chance of doing it right this time.
So here’s a little message to the Wikipedians: sure, it takes a few minutes to sign up to CZ, and yes, you have to use your own real name. But CZ is still open and bottom-up, and contrary to what you may think you know, there aren’t editors approving your edits or telling you what to do. Our community is also 100% saner than Wikipedia’s. Perhaps it’s time for a second look.
Putting aside all criticism, I do have this bit of advice. The Wikimedia Foundation ought to post a few snapshot copies of Wikipedia from the last few years, warts and all. If Wikipedia’s quality declines, at least the world will still have some “not too bad” Wikipedia articles to view. I have always maintained that Wikipedia is tremendously useful, and it would be a shame if there were not some “canonical” versions of the resource that we could consult.
[By the way, I haven't worked directly on the CZ wiki for a while. But I'm still being consulted and helping move things along as needed behind the scenes. CZ is mostly off the ground, in my opinion, and it won't be completely off the ground qua online constitutional republic until I get out of the way. I am a serial non-profit knowledge organizer, and my latest such project is WatchKnow.org. Expect me to start other things, too.]