Wikipedia co-founder looks to add accountability, end anarchy
By Jonathan Sidener
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER September 23, 2006
Larry Sanger, who has had limited involvement in Wikipedia for the past few years, is working on a parallel project that would take a copy of Wikipedia's more than 1 million English-language articles and put them under the control of editors who post their names and credentials.
The changes are an attempt to fix what Sanger and others see as critical flaws in Wikipedia, which does not require that editors disclose identities or qualifications.
In a project he's calling Citizendium, Sanger says he hopes to add “gentle expert guidance” to the spirit of public participation that has fueled Wikipedia's growth.
Sanger, 38, said yesterday that more than 300 people have signed up for the mailing lists at www.citizendium.org to help with the project. He said the first Web pages should be available for public viewing and editing next month but that early visitors will find a project in its infancy, not something comparable to Wikipedia.
“It will at first be a very experimental work space,” Sanger said. “That's when we start working on Citizendium.”
Like Wikipedia, Citizendium will use wiki technology, which allows anyone who registers using their real name to contribute to or edit the site's pages. A second level of “chief subject editors” will oversee the contributions of rank-and-file editors. The chief subject editors will have to disclose their expertise in an area. A process has not yet been finalized to allow community members to evaluate and possibly challenge an expert's credentials.
Wikis have a natural element of anarchy because they are open to anyone, Sanger said. He and those who have volunteered for the new project hope to balance the populist, unregulated nature of the technology with a code of conduct and a structure that gives credentialed authorities more say over content than grass-roots writers.
“It will be built from the bottom up,” Sanger said. “But it will be much less anarchistic than Wikipedia. Authors will be expected to respect the decisions of the experts.”
Sanger said Wikipedia is an “open content” project, founded in the spirit of the open-source software movement. That means Citizendium can freely take Wikipedia articles to edit and rewrite, he said.
A Wikipedia spokesman agreed, saying the site's information is available to Citizendium or any other group that wants to provide free, online information.
“We think Citizendium is a great way to reuse Wikipedia content,” said Wayne Saewyc, a volunteer for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit group that supports Wikipedia. “It means there will be even more free content available online, and we see that as a good thing.”
Wikipedia has quickly grown to become one of the most visited Internet sites, through the efforts of a loosely organized community of volunteers.
The decentralized system has been wildly successful if measured by the level of participation and volume of articles. The site has more than 1 million articles, at least 10 times the number in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
But the ground-up encyclopedia has its critics, including mainstream publishers, academics and other researchers who say a system of anonymous editors leaves a cloud of suspicion over the accuracy of Wikipedia's content.
The project relies on a community of Wikipedians to self-police content and correct vandalism and self-serving misinformation that is common particularly in the political articles.
The open nature of the site has led to some high-profile errors, including the vandalism of a former newspaper editor's biography to falsely state that he had been a suspect in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Several political campaigns have been marred by revelations that staffers had altered profiles of their bosses or of opponents.
The site's missteps led to a July article in the satirical publication The Onion headlined “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence.”
While Wikipedia has had its problems, it has had vindication, too. The British journal Nature found that the site's articles were nearly as accurate as the professionally edited Encyclopaedia Britannica. The magazine's review found an average of 2.92 mistakes per Britannica article and an average of 3.86 per Wikipedia article.
The origins of Wikipedia date to 2000, when Sanger was finishing his doctoral thesis in philosophy and had an idea for a Web site. He wrote to an acquaintance, Jimmy Wales, who had helped found a pop-culture site, for feedback about his idea. Wales was in the process of launching Nupedia in San Diego, which was to be a free, online encyclopedia written by the Internet community and edited by experts.
Wales hired Sanger to be Nupedia's top editor.
In 2001, over dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Pacific Beach, a friend introduced Sanger to wiki technology. Sanger says he saw wiki, which takes its name from the Hawaiian word for quick, as a way to get Nupedia off the ground.
Wales agreed, and Wikipedia was launched as a spinoff. Sanger was the project's sole paid editorial employee until funding ran out during the dot-com crunch in 2002.
As Wikipedia began to flourish, Wales established the Wikimedia Foundation to oversee Wikipedia and moved operations to Florida.
Sanger finished his dissertation while at Wikipedia and Nupedia. He then took a position at Ohio State University, where he taught philosophy until last year. During that time, he had little involvement in Wikipedia, but wrote some articles pointing out what he saw as serious flaws in the site's structure.
Sanger returned to the world of collaborative online encyclopedias last year when he took a job at the Digital Universe Foundation.
That work is on hold while he launches Citizendium. It's unclear whether he will be paid for his work on the new site, which will be a nonprofit.
Sanger said he was pleased that Wikipedia was accepting of his new project.
“We will take the best of their articles and edit them and hopefully make them better,” he said. “And they are free to take from our articles. We're in a partnership to a certain extent, two parallel-thinking projects.”
Jonathan Sidener: (619) 293-1239; firstname.lastname@example.org