April 5, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Newsmaker: Wikipedia today, Citizendium tomorrow

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Larry Sanger was a co-founder and the first paid editor of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Sanger now believes that the world deserves something better than his former start-up when it comes to online research. Citizendium, a new project being launched this month, abolishes posting on wikis anonymously, brings in experts to edit submissions, and enforces strict reviewing procedures.

Wikipedia has more than 400 million registered users, is offered in 250 languages and features almost 2 million articles in English alone. Sanger parted ways with Wikipedia in early 2003, but has remained committed to creating a trustworthy Wiki-based forum. With the launch of Citizendium approaching, Sanger talked with CNET News.com about how his company plans to compete with the giant Wikipedia and change the way the world seeks information online--for good.

Q: You are better known as someone who co-founded Wikipedia. Why did you choose to leave Wikipedia?
Sanger: Well it was awhile ago now, and there were two different reasons that I left. First, I was laid off. The company that founded Wikipedia and Nupedia lost the ability to pay me with the economic downturn. But then I distanced myself from the project, essentially, because the project managers were really unwilling to rein in the troublemakers and also because there really wasn't any sort of special role made for experts. And that is what I told (Wikipedia co-founder) Jimmy Wales in the beginning of 2003 or so...explaining why I was leaving the project for good.

I think we absolutely need another wiki--first of all, simply because Wikipedia lacks credibility unfortunately.

So do you just feel that you had a different viewpoint, and do you feel that you're embracing something that's more of your own with Citizendium now?
Sanger: Well, I certainly have a difference of opinion about what the high-quality, free encyclopedia should look like. Citizendium is initially aimed to be a better competitor essentially to Wikipedia, but it isn't just that. We are going to be looking to aggregate a lot of different kinds of reliable information and we're already talking to different potential partners about how to do that. So, we've got greater ambitions than simply doing one better than Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has grown to be quite big. How do you plan on competing with them? Do you really think we need another wiki?
Sanger: 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.

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.

On Citizendium, you have "experts" and "constables." Can you explain where the experts come from? How do we know that they're credible?
Sanger: Well, experts have approached us mostly as a result of the press that we've gotten. We've done a little bit of recruitment, but for the most part, it's people who just show up, and there was actually quite a few of them. There are also a lot of people who have gotten frustrated with Wikipedia and have left it to join us.

Listen up

Larry Sanger looking to trump Wikipedia Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger speaks with CNET News.com's Neha Tiwari about the upcoming launch of his new site, Citizendium.

Download mp3 (1.0MB)

About the second part of the question, well there's a lot of different views that people take about the credibility of experts per se, right? I mean, I myself (don't get) all gaga over someone simply because he or she has got a Ph.D. I think, however, that the fact that someone has credentials of various sorts--not just degrees--is an indicator that they know unusual amounts about very specific subjects. So really, the question here is why should anybody think that people that are considered by society as experts are really credible or reliable? That's a question for each of us to answer, I think, on our own. If it has to come down to my believing someone when someone writes something on a Web site, I would rather believe someone who has made it his or her life work to study something than someone who's read a single book on the subject written by that expert.

Are you aiming Citizendium at an older, more mature audience than what Wikipedia has aimed at?
Sanger: Well, in so far as I'm aiming at all, which I really can't do because it's a wiki, but...you might be surprised to know that I would like the wiki to be as open and inclusive in terms of topics as possible. And all the people who are into, you know, videogames and fan literature and all together concerns that people make fun of Wikipedia for having all these articles about--I'd welcome them with open arms. Personally I think that it is the citizens' compendium and we need a lot of information about everything. The whole question is, can we maintain large (and comprehensive) sets of articles about different topics? I'm not going to go out of my way to attract the Trekkies, for example. When I sit down and actually take the time to do recruitment, which we really haven't had the time to do much so far, I'll definitely go after academics first.

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Study The Earlier Media for The Same Stages of Development
"..that work group is probably going to have to carefully manage certain marketing efforts.."

That is the tough nut to crack. Gaming the Web has become a full-court sport and the semiotics-trained marketing experts are very good at it. Radar guns spawn radar detectors. Perhaps Citizendium will be the first noteworthy project to focus on means to de-spin information. It may be useful to study the early years of broadcast journalism to find lessons-learned as each medium has dealt with this very old problem through policy management of sources, resources, fact checking, corroboration and writing style that deflates agenda-emphasis. It is quite hard to write but breathtakingly simple looking when published. Start with the term 'advocacy journalism' and its predecessor 'yellow journalism' and see how and why what was once considered anathema to a well-trained professional journalist became trendy in the zeitgeist of post-60s social reporting, then morphed in to the vicious and one-sided reporting that is typified by Fox.

Removing anonymity is a huge step in the right direction. It won't overcome the problem of star-power where building a personality for the sake of having a frontman for a cause is the exact analog of creating a pre-processor gain stage in an amplifier. Pure signal is seldom useful because of the raw power required. So your idea of using experts is right but networks of experts like any network becomes socially organized and over time drifts toward the oldest connections. How to get a reasonable and just refresh rate into that is challenging.

Also, for any significant presence in an information ecosystem, there should be a competitor to ensure the quality of the resource. As I daily see more reports of schools refusing the use of wikipedia for research and the rising tide of skilled manipulators of marketable press, I'm glad to see Citizendium taking on the task. Good luck!
Posted by Len Bullard (454 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Will be signing up!
Ill definately be signing up - I used to use Wikipedia as a resource for most of my information - but since I got marked down because the information I used was wrong, I lost all credibility in Wikipedia. I hope the Citizens' Compendium can bring me and many other users proper legitimate information.
Posted by whizzkidwebmaster (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
You and others
that are dumb enough to actually site a non .edu or .gov (or other countries gov site) as a reference deserve to be marked down.

The problem is YOU.

Wikipedia is a source of information not the be all and end all. It is a STARTING point for information to get aquainted with a subject.

Anyone using these types of sites at all is a moron.
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
Link Flag
This new thing won't be any better. How does accountability make it better? Besides you got marked down because Wiki is not a source. Wiki is hearsaypedia unless it quotes reliable references which in turn might be wrong. The best wiki is is "a quick summary".
Posted by jsargent (98 comments )
Link Flag
400m registered users
We wish! We only have little over 4 million (check <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Statistics" target="_newWindow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Statistics</a>). The German one has around 380,000 (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spezial:Statistik" target="_newWindow">http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spezial:Statistik</a>). All other Wikipedias should be smaller.
Posted by ReyBrujo (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Elitist BS
A person who does not a bunch of letters after his name can be as knowledgeable about a topic as someone who a fair portion of his in higher education.
Wikipedia is a working man's resource. It isn't perfect, but it has served me well.
So, go build your own fort and we'll keep this one.
Posted by adlyb1 (123 comments )
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