Wikipedia’s New Competition: Citizendium
Move over Wikipedia, now for something meatier! Or at least that’s the idea behind Citizendium, a new wiki created by the co-founder of Wikipedia, who hopes the online community will use it to build an online encyclopedia without as many credibility problems.
I’ve often said that Wikipedia’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness - that anyone can contribute to it. On the one hand, the populist, open nature of the online encyclopedia initiative allows the entire Internet community to participate in building the world’s largest reference tool. This openness, though, has led to more than its fair share of embarrassments, and many educators simply aren’t comfortable with letting their students use Wikipedia because of its perceived credibility problems.
This is where Larry Sanger comes in. Larry isn’t a household name, and that’s a shame, because along with Jimbo Wales, he’s the co-founder of Wikipedia. Sanger hasn’t been involved with it for a number of years, and in fact has become a bit of a critic of the project - so much so that he’s launched his own open encyclopedia initiative called Citizendium.
Wikipedia and Citizendium have some similarities, such as the basic premise that a better encyclopedia can be built with public involvement than without their involvement. They even use the same wiki software, so first-time visitors to Citizendium will be excused for having a mild case of déjà vu.
Beyond the façade, though, Citizendium has some basic differences with Wikipedia that make its advent of interest to educators. Specifically, Citizendium will not allow anonymous contributors. While Wikipedia encourages anonymity as a way of bringing dissenting voices into the community, Citizendium sees anonymity as a hindrance to achieving credibility. Additionally, people who participate must first endorse the project’s fundamental policies document. This document serves as the project’s constitution, and lays out a framework for how Citizendium will be developed. For example, the document states that Citizendium will seek out subject experts to serve as editors - a practice Wikipedia has generally shunned.
Citizendium has also created a separation between those who create the site and those who police it. Sanger has developed a job function on the site that he calls “constables.” As the name suggests, these constables are Citizendium’s traffic cops, enforcing decisions and arbitrating conflicts. Unlike the administrators on Wikipedia who perform a similar function, Citizendium’s constables are not editors as well. They cannot take advantage of their governance status to change the content on the site. By creating their own version of the separation of church and state, Citizendium hopes to avoid conflicts of interest, in which people in power get to dictate what ideas make it into the encyclopedia - or don’t make it.
Last week, Larry Sanger did an interview with CNET News in which he talked about the reasons he created Citizendium, and why Wikipedia could use some competition:
I think we absolutely need another wiki—first of all, simply because Wikipedia lacks credibility, unfortunately. It’s a good starting place, as people say—on some subjects anyway—but it isn’t really what we want out of a reliable reference resource. And frankly, I don’t think that the Wikipedia community is prepared to make the changes that I think need to be made in order to transform Wikipedia into something that’s really reliable.
Competition, of course, is a relative term, given how Wikipedia now has more than 1.7 million articles in English alone, with hundreds of thousands more in 250 other languages. The upstart Citizendium, shall we say, has much less than that.
As to the other question, how can we possibly compete? I simply think that it will take some years before we have developed on the order of several 100,000 articles and we will grow in the same way that Wikipedia itself grew. Obviously, we’re not going to be much of a competitor for some time, but just give us a few years and we will be equally useful for the most widely read topics, and actually more useful, of course, simply because our information will be more credible.
And with that, Sanger has thrown down the gauntlet. He’s banking on the idea that the public will rather have a resource that’s more authoritative than comprehensive. No doubt, that goal is going to resonate among many educators, and it will be interesting to see if he can attract teachers and students alike to participate in the project. It’s a worthy goal, and I’d love to see groups of students take up the challenge of contributing to Citizendium, especially if there’s a chance they can interact directly with subject experts who are also contributing.
Having said that, I’m not giving up on Wikipedia either. Yes, the site is not without its problems, but it’s still the most massive knowledge-gathering endeavor in human history. If the site could find a way to be more welcoming to scholars and other experts, while striking the right balance between anonymity and credibility, it could still win over critics and solve some of its problems. But Wikipedia is more than just a project - it’s also a cause. And causes don’t compromise easily. Wikipedia will continue to evolve, no doubt, but most likely in fits and starts, as has been the case so far. It’s way too early to speculate if Larry Sanger’s Citizendium can come anywhere close to the success of his former project. Will the online public be willing to jump through a few hoops for the sake of a more accurate encyclopedia? Only time will tell. -andy