Wikipedia competitor seeks to cut out errors
Citizendium plans to launch this week
In just six years, Wikipedia has mushroomed into one of the Web's most astonishing successes, with 1.7 million articles in English alone. The downside is that the free encyclopedia has its share of errors and juvenile vandalism, and sometimes the writing is incomprehensibly arcane.
To Wikipedia fans, these blemishes are an unavoidable -- and relatively small -- price to pay for the dazzling breadth spawned by its "anyone can edit" open design.
But Larry Sanger doesn't buy it. To Sanger -- who was present at the creation of Wikipedia (in fact, call him a co founder, although that, like many things within Wikipedia, is disputed) -- its charms seem to outweigh its warts simply because it has no competition.
And that's precisely what Sanger hopes to change.
This week, Sanger takes the wraps off a Wikipedia alternative, Citizendium. His goal is to capture Wikipedia's bustle but this time, avoid the vandalism and inconsistency that are its pitfalls.
Like Wikipedia, Citizendium will be nonprofit, devoid of ads and free to read and edit. Unlike Wikipedia, Citizendium's volunteer contributors will be expected to provide their real names. Experts in given fields will be asked to check articles for accuracy.
"If there's going to be a free encyclopedia, I'd like there to be a better free encyclopedia," said Sanger, 38, who has a doctorate in philosophy and speaks slowly, as if cautiously choosing every word. "It has bothered me that I helped to get a project started, Wikipedia, that people are misusing in this way, and yet the project itself has little chance of radically improving."
Citizendium is hardly the first Wikipedia alternative. But this is different -- not only because of Sanger, but because of the questions at its core: Would Wikipedia be better if its contributors fully identified themselves? Would Wikipedia be better if it solicited guidance from academics and other specialists?
To be sure, Wikipedia's egalitarian mantra that "anyone can edit" is a huge draw, across cultures.
However, critics contend the setup turns off many people with valuable expertise to share. They don't want to wade in with contributions that can be overwritten within minutes by anyone.
Stephen Ewen, an adult-education instructor in Jupiter, Fla., who gave up on contributing to Wikipedia and plans to work on Citizendium, believes the quality of Wikipedia entries often degrades over time because someone inevitably comes along to express a counterproductive viewpoint.
Contributors are free to hash out such changes on the discussion pages that accompany every article. But Ewen believes Wikipedia's anonymity reduces the accountability that stimulates healthy exchanges. To some dissidents, Wikipedia seems an inscrutable world unto itself -- not unlike the devotion-inspiring virtual environs of role-playing games.
"When you put everybody in a system that is flat, where everybody can say yes or no, without any sense of authority, what you get is tribalism," Ewen said. "What has gone into the article creation is very often the result of this dysfunctional system. It presents itself with this aura of authority, whereas what goes on behind the scenes is anything but."
Whatever authority the system does have was punctured recently by the discovery that an active contributor with the pen name "Essjay" had been promoted to a high post even though he lacked the theology Ph D he claimed in Wikipedia editing debates.
Even when everything is in the open, the chatter isn't always collegial. It's a well-known problem: Shrouded online, people often write provocative things they'd never say to someone's face. "One more slap from you, and I'll slap back, honestly," one poster with a pen name wrote in the forum accompanying Wikipedia's article on the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sanger contends that this and other Wikipedia woes will all but vanish on Citizendium because real names will promote civility -- and attract contributors turned off by Wikipedia.
Wikipedia's de facto leader, Jimmy Wales, counters that real names are overrated. Sure, he sighs just as heavily about "trolls" and other troublemakers. But he said most Wikipedians who adopt pseudonyms want to protect the reputation of those handles as much as they would with their names.
Plus, he said, an online identity -- or none at all, since participants can opt to be tagged merely by their computers' numeric Internet addresses -- frees contributors to leave their "real world" baggage behind and focus only on what matters: producing good content.
"I am unaware of any problems with the quality of discourse on the site," he said. "I don't know of any higher-quality discourse anywhere."
A more commonly cited peril of Wikipedia's anonymity is vandalism. In the most infamous incident, someone playing a bad joke wrote that journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. had been a suspect in both Kennedy assassinations. The entry lasted for four months of 2005.
Such abuse tends to get quickly swept away by the site's volunteers, especially if an article has been placed on a watch list by editors who are interested in the subject. Still, at any given point, Wikipedia visitors can't be sure of what they're getting. Look no further than the Seigenthaler entry: For 31 hours last September, the poor guy was said to have killed JFK.
When a shaken Seigenthaler called him to vent about the incident with his bio, Sanger decided it was time for a fork.
A fork, in software-development terms, is when everything about Project A gets copied by Project B, and from there they follow separate routes. A fork of Wikipedia is allowed under its "copyleft" license that lets anyone use its content as long as they are equally generous with their output.
In other words, Sanger could cut the vastness of Wikipedia and paste it into a new site, then put it through his own meat grinder, complete with rules about real names and expert review.
Last year, Sanger began organizing Citizendium as a fork of Wikipedia. He raised $35,000 from a foundation and a private donor.
Citizendium has been operating in a limited manner that ends with this week's official launch. Its volunteer base numbers roughly 900 authors and 200 editors. The site has 1,100 articles, with 11 "approved" by editors, meriting them a green check mark. Volunteers can revise any article, though already-approved entries are labeled as separate "drafts" while they're being rewritten again.
"Let's say we only have one-quarter of the contributors of Wikipedia," Sanger said. "Would we be able to create a credible competitor for Wikipedia within not too many years? Yes, I think."