Experts: Citizendium Will Replace Wikipedia
By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency
Jerusalem ---- March 28, 2007..... Wikipedia, the free on-line encyclopedia, has had a flood of serious errors, juvenile vandalism and sometimes the writing is incomprehensibly arcane. The most recent example of Wikipedia's damage to providing accurate, objective on-line information was the case of Essjay. Under the Wikipedia user name Essjay, the contributor edited over 20,000 of Wikipedia articles and was once one of the few people with the authority to deal with vandalism and to arbitrate disputes between authors.
To the Wikipedia world, Essjay was a tenured professor of religion at a private university with expertise in canon law, according to his user profile. But in fact, Essjay is a 24-year-old college drop out named Ryan Jordan, who attended a number of colleges in Kentucky and lives outside Louisville.
Jordan's deception came to public attention on Feb. 26 when The New Yorker published a rare editors' note saying that when it wrote about Essjay as part of a lengthy profile of Wikipedia, "neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay's real name," and that it took Essjay's credentials and life experience at face value. "People have gone through his edits and found places where he was basically cashing in on his fake credentials to bolster his arguments," said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator.
In addition to his professional credentials and work on articles concerning Roman Catholicism, Essjay was described in the magazine's article, perhaps oddly for a religious scholar, as twice removing a sentence from the entry on the singer Justin Timberlake that "Essjay knew to be false." After the article appeared, the head of a Wikipedia watchdog organization, Daniel Brandt contacted The New Yorker about Essjay's real identity, which Jordan had disclosed with little fanfare when he recently accepted a job at Wikia, a for-profit company.
In an e-mail message last Friday, The New Yorker's deputy editor, Pamela Maffei McCarthy, said: "We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia's confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him. In retrospect, we should have let our readers know that we had been unable to corroborate Essjay's identity beyond what he told us." The New Yorker editors' note ended with a defiant comment from Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia and the dominant force behind the site's growth. "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it," he said of Jordan's alter ego.
Complicating matters for Wales was that Essjay had been hired as a community manager by Wikia, which Wales helped to found in 2004. Jordan no longer works for Wikia, the company said.
But where Wales has no problem with Essjay and Wikipedia lying to the world, many academics, researchers and journalists do.
This week, Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger took off the wraps off a Wikipedia alternative, Citizendium. His goal is to capture Wikipedia's bustle but this time, avoid the vandalism, slander, libel and inconsistency that are its pitfalls.
Like Wikipedia, Citizendium will be non-profit, 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," says Sanger, 38, who has a doctorate in philosophy. "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 false egalitarian mantra that "anyone can edit" is a huge draw, across cultures. Few are the people who have even heard of all the languages that now have a Wikipedia (Zazaki, Voro, Pangasinan, Udmurt and Shqip, to name a few). 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 Wikipedia administrators such as Gili Bar-Hillel and Guy Chapman who have been accused of libel and censorship by users of Wikipedia.
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 says. "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 has been erased by such discoveries of blatant libel such as the case of John Seigenthaler Sr., a USA Today senior editor who was accused on Wikipedia of assassinating John Kennedy and his brother Bobby.
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 9/11 article. A Tel Aviv translator of Harry Potter books, Gili Bar-Hillel had openly stated to to a Wikipedia editor that he was dangerous to her children, even though Bar-Hillel did not know the user.
In fact, the innocent Wikipedia user that Bar-Hillel aka Wikipedia user Woggly attacked on-line with the support of Wikipedia administrators Guy Chapman aka Wikipedia user JzG, Josh Gordon aka Wikipedia user:Jpgordon, Jimbo Wales and former employee of Wikipedia Danny Wool was in fact a respected father's and children's rights activist in Israel.
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.
Look no further than the Seigenthaler entry: For 31 hours last September, the poor guy was said to have killed and eaten JFK. Sanger doesn't expect Citizendium will eradicate the puerile urge to defile the product. He just will make it harder to do. Contributors must confirm their identities and submit a short biography. Sanger says he'll allow pseudonyms in special cases, like when a volunteer's employer prohibits outside writing. But the person's name would be known to Citizendium.
Wales and Sanger agree that no one should be using Wikipedia — or any other single source — as the final word on a subject, but rather as a starting point for other research. Still, if Wikipedia is going to be so big, it has a responsibility to do things right. Sanger is convinced that the only answer is to carve space for experts, specialists — anyone who could enhance the project's credibility. He has given this a lot of thought since 2000. It was then, while finishing his Ph.D. at Ohio State University, that Sanger joined Bomis.com, a pornographic Web portal owned by Wales, a former options trader.
While Bomis might have been best known for its erotic photographs, Wales wanted to create a free Web encyclopedia, called Nupedia. Sanger was hired as editor-in-chief. Nupedia aimed to form an online community of volunteers who would create content and perform expert review. But the system for soliciting and producing articles was cumbersome, and progress was slow. Eventually the group turned to free, open Wiki software ("Wiki" is Hawaiian for "fast") to make it easy for volunteers to submit content and even change each other's work.
Soon, the infectious qualities of Wikipedia made it subsume Nupedia. Sanger says he intended to keep nurturing Nupedia's expert-review idea as well, but he was laid off from Bomis in 2002, apparently because of cost-cutting in the dot-com bust. After a brief return to academia, Sanger spent over a year with the privately financed Digital Universe project, which follows a more traditional encyclopedia model, albeit online. But he still harbored unease about how Wikipedia was so open to abuse.
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. But he found it hard to motivate the volunteers he recruited online.
"I didn't see the kind of excitement I saw in the early days of Wikipedia," he says. "You get excited about something if you've taken responsibility for it, if you've created it yourself. By conceiving of ourselves as a big mop-up organization for Wikipedia, we essentially lock ourselves into being a version of Wikipedia. ... In order to have a robust, distinct identity, it's important, I think, that we start over."
Citizendium has been operating in a limited manner that ends with this week's official launch. Its volunteer base numbers roughly 1,000 authors and 300 editors. The site has 2,000 articles, with over 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.
Because the sign-up and other steps are the antithesis of Wikipedia's brazen ease, it's hard to imagine Citizendium garnering 3 million member accounts, like Wikipedia has. Then again, many of those accounts sit unused. Many of the those Wikipedia users have been blocked or banned by other Wikipedia editors. Wikipedia's own statistics show that in September, the most recent month for such data, 43,000 people were considered "active" — they each contributed to more than five articles for the English site. The category of "very active Wikipedians" — those who worked on more than 100 items — numbered 4,330.
"Let's say we only have one-quarter of the contributors of Wikipedia," Sanger says. "Would we be able to create a credible competitor for Wikipedia within not too many years? Yes, I think." But Sanger allows himself an even grander dream — that Citizendium's professionalism and civility end up attracting more people than the self-organizing hue and cry of Wikipedia. "I don't see why not," he says. "This kind of thing hasn't been tested."
Wikipedia has been shown to support extreme left wing views while censoring moderate to right wing comments. Wikipedia continues to refer to Islamic terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad as "militants', supporting the incitement of Al-Jazeera while deleting several Israel news sites and blogs labeling them "propaganda."
Many academics, researchers and journalists see Citizendium replacing Wikipedia.
Most colleges and universities have banned Wikipedia as a credible, accountable source. Professional journalists would never even think of touching Wikipedia. When they expose Wikipedia as an easy source to libel or slander anyone, journalists at international news media outlets from NBC News to the Israel News Agency get banned.
Now there is talk of a "Wikipedia Contest" taking place which will provide financial rewards for creating funny errors on Wikipedia. Organizers of the The Wikipedia Contest state that their objective is to stop Wikipedia from hurting any more people by engaging the open source encyclopedia using methods for which Wikipedia policies actually encourage.
Recently two members of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which manages the Wikipedia Web site, have resigned their posts. Danny Wool, the No. 2 man at Wikimedia under founder Jimmy Wales, and Brad Patrick, general counsel and interim executive director, both announced their resignations late last week in emails to the organization's mailing list. Patrick had tendered his resignation to the board of the foundation earlier in the month but opted to publicly announce it Thursday. Neither disclosed the reasons for their resignations in the emails, nor did they respond to requests for comment.
Sources close to Wikipedia say that the two had resigned as part of settling several class action lawsuits which document that they were responsible for supporting several cases of libel and slander at Wikipedia.
One such case, that Wikipedia watch dog WikiTruth exposed, is that of literary agent Barbara Bauer who has sued the Wikimedia Foundation, for defamation because of their involvement in making or publicizing allegations that Bauer's respected services are a scam because she insists on payment up front from authors (where normal industry practice is for agents to collect only after the author's works sell). She has demanded a billion dollars for unauthorized use of her name as the title of a forum thread asking a question about her business practices.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales believes he's not much of a businessman. After securing about US$4 million in venture capital from a range of investors and additionally received US$10 million from online book seller Amazon, Wales states: "I'm not much of a businessperson. I just think, if we provide something people enjoy, they'll come and we'll figure out how to make money. How much money? I don't know. "I don't really get analysts on these things, I just do what I think sounds cool," he said. But unlike recent commercial hits such as YouTube or MySpace, Wikipedia is yet to draw a long list of suitors.
The encyclopedia is part of the charitable Wikipedia Foundation and does not contain any online advertising unlike Wikia, which features more specific content. He said the novelty of the jet-set life has yet to wear off and that he would likely travel more. "I go to parties with Bono and things like that," says Wales.
The Israel News Agency believes that Wales is far better going off to parties and continuing to create pornographic Web sites as Larry Sanger develops a truly accurate, objective encyclopedia.
Larry Sanger deserves our deepest gratitude. After being slandered and libeled by so many on Wikipedia, an entity that he did co-found, he was brave enough to move forward and make the Net a better place. Wikipedia was never the "online encyclopedia that anyone can edit" rather it is ruled by several anonymous administrators who slander, libel, abuse and censor. Sanger brings back the word accountability in Citizendium. For those of us who have edited Wikipedia, we witnessed how so many good, innocent people and organizations were hurt for no reason.
Citizendium defines a true collective effort providing honest and objective information. A credible, on-line free encyclopedia for which students, academics, teachers, researchers and journalists can finally rely upon.
Citizendium equals real names and real facts.
With Brian Bergstein of the Associated Press