Wikipedia Co-Founder Seeks to Start Over
By BRIAN BERGSTEIN
AP Technology Writer
Posted March 25 2007, 9:41 PM EDT
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," says 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. 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 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 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 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 says most Wikipedians who adopt pseudonyms want to protect the reputation of those handles as much as they would with their names.
Plus, he says, 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 says. "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 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.
That's where these guys really diverge. Wales argues for self-improvement, with Wikipedians constantly tweaking the rules that guide them. 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 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 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.
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. 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."