A Wikipedia Architect Plans A “Better” Open Source Online Encyclopedia

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By William New
BERLIN – Wikipedia, the popular community-driven online encyclopedia, is doomed to “amateurism” and should be complemented by a more serious effort, says one of the project’s creators who announced plans to launch an alternative.

Larry Sanger, chief organiser of Wikipedia in its first year, unveiled his plan at last week’s fourth annual Wizards of OS conference in Berlin. Sanger is director of collaborative projects for the Digital Universe Foundation (which would be separate from the new project). He has had a hand in several similar ideas in recent years, including a failed online traditional encyclopedia called New Media, and a project on the Earth.

The new project will be known as the Citizendium, www.citizendium.org. It would closely resemble Wikipedia, but would involve a system of authors writing in their areas of expertise, being edited by experienced editors who would be their equals, not superiors. (There would be a mechanism for resolving disputes between them).

A key difference from Wikipedia would be the absence of anonymous editing, creating instead a “culture of real-world personal responsibility,” Sanger said. There would be a relatively immutable and binding charter, with “constables” enforcing adherence to the charter. The Citizendium also would avoid the “feature-creep” plaguing Wikipedia, where pieces are growing ever longer, he said.

The Citizendium would use the same free software licence as Wikipedia, GNU Free Documentation License, and would employ a “progressive fork” from Wikipedia, beginning with a mirror of all of Wikipedia’s articles, and then allowing people to make changes to them. Updates made on Wikipedia would automatically be made in the Citizendium too, unless someone had separately changed it on the Citizendium, which would then break the tie between the two encyclopedias.

“I want to help launch something better, if that is possible,” Sanger said. He still supports Wikipedia, but said it was intended to be fun and light-hearted, not a serious resource.

Addressing Amateurism or Personal Vendetta?

“One might say Wikipedia is committed to its amateurism,” he said. “In an encyclopedia, I think that is a problem.” His new “experimental workspace” would be a wiki that “aspires to be as good as a real encyclopedia,” he said.

Sanger listed some problems with Wikipedia that his new project hopes to address. For instance, Wikipedia’s “community” does not enforce its rules systematically, which “begets abuse.” In addition, widespread anonymity leads to trouble. But perhaps the real reason for Sanger’s plan stems from his view that the leaders of the Wikipedia community have become “insular,” leaving new qualified people without access.

Sanger acknowledged that Wikipedia has identified problems and is moving to address them, but said the failure to take them seriously “is a reflection of the political nature of problems.”

Martin Haase, a board member of Wikipedia Deutschland and linguistics professor at the University of Bamberg, challenged Sanger’s motives for the proposal, saying the best approach would be to make Wikipedia better. “The only reason you want to fork is because you, Larry, think there is a dysfunctional community behind Wikipedia,” Haase said.

Sanger confirmed this, replying, “I left the community because it was dysfunctional and I don’t think it has changed.” As he helped start Wikipedia, he said, his view is “based on intense personal experience.”

Haase raised questions about the Citizendium proposal such as how it would address copyrights. In addition, Haase said that as a German, Sanger’s proposal for policing in order to bring “discipline” to the wiki made him “uncomfortable” as it “sounds very German-like from another time.”

Wikipedia Says it Wants to Improve Quality

Wikipedia already is working to address criticisms, according to Haase. Criticisms of Wikipedia include that anyone can enter anything and that there is poor quality management, Haase said. Solutions under consideration at Wikipedia include to create attributions for articles and changes (currently it allows anonymity or nicknames, he said), plus reviews of articles (where readers can score an article as “excellent” or “worth reading.” Other possibilities are to create “validation” with a stable version of an article, and permalinks to link to specific articles, he said.

“I think it will change the approach and criticism of Wikipedia a bit,” Haase said. Wikipedia has millions of articles now in more than 100 languages.

Haase said he could not disprove the perception that there are more “trolls” (people who change others’ work) than experts on Wikipedia, but said a survey showed that Wikipedia contributors have a high education level. He also warned against “expertism,” where technical experts: cannot write in understandable terms, represent certain schools of thought, want credit for what they do, may vary in qualifications, or may not be available.

Meanwhile, researchers are busily using Wikipedia, Haase said. The German government is funding some research on it, for instance. “There is more ongoing research on Wikipedia than there has been on all other modern encyclopedias for the last 20 years,” Haase said.

Calling All Future Editors and Writers

Sanger is enthusiastic about the prospects for a new model, which he insisted afterward would not be competing. “There are tens of millions of intellectuals online today,” creating great possibilities, he said. “The thought makes me literally quiver with excitement.”

He said he hoped the project, which has only a webpage now, would be launched on 30 September, and that it would attract so much traffic as to clog whatever server is used.

Future editors and authors should join mailing lists, either those set up for the project or any others, contribute their ideas to the discussion and wait for the launch announcement, he said. Sanger said he made the announcement in Germany to show how international it is.

He sought to dispel the notion that he or the new initiative are “expertist,” instead of publicly accessible. “This is not ‘expert-pedia,” he said.

“There are a lot of people out there who love Wikipedia but want to see a more prominent place for community government,” Sanger said. “I think if we get enough people like that we will get a place that is different, a more responsible Wikipedia that still retains the Wikipedia ‘magic.’”

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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