Much in the way that open source software projects are known to produce forks, or spinoffs, based on different objectives and personalities, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is creating an offshoot of his popular communal Internet encyclopedia.
Citizendium is intended for named, expert contributors, Sanger said in an essay on the effort. “The work of the Wikipedians has astounded the world,” he wrote, but the amateur nature of Wikipedia’s contributions, whose authors remain anonymous, is not for everyone. Some experts are hostile toward the idea of Wikipedia and many avoid Wikipedia altogether.
“We may take Wikipedia as an early prototype of the application of open source hacker principles to content rather than code,” Sanger said in his essay outlining Citizendium. “I want to argue that it is just that, an early prototype, rather than a mature model of how such principles should be applied to reference, scholarly and educational content.”
Sanger denies that Citizendium is a product of his personality differences with fellow Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. He argued that while Wikipedia has displayed the power of collective, open collaboration for ideas the way open source software developers operate, its anonymity and entrenched editors are repelling important input.
Wikipedia is only half of what he and others envisioned as the world’s greatest encyclopedia, he said, and the more academic part of the community-driven site — formerly known as Nupedia — did not survive, causing problems with Wikipedia that have continued, Sanger said.
He faulted Wikipedia contributors and editors for irregular adherence to the rules, widespread anonymity and associated troublemaking, and an inner circle of editors that has become insular, and sometimes, insulting.
“As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism,” he wrote. “Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there’s something wrong with that.”
Outlining some guiding principles and rules of the new Citizendium, which is kicking off with a campaign to enlist more participants, Sanger said the site will at first mirror Wikipedia and gradually will be updated by experts.
Among the most notable differences to Wikipedia, Sanger said, was the elimination of logged-out, anonymous posting and editing. While anyone may participate, Citizendium users must be logged in under their real names with associated working e-mail address.
“Where Wikipedia shares the culture of anonymity found in the broader Internet, the Citizendium will have a culture of real-world, personal responsibility,” Sanger said.
Room for Two?
Some industry and Internet community observers were skeptical of Citizendium, indicating it will be limited by its participation rules. Inclusiveness has been a big part of Wikipedia’s success.
Others cautioned it will be hard for Citizendium to gain much traction since there is much more attention and participation in the highly visible Wikipedia.
“The question is, can the world support two Wikipedias even if one is new and improved?” Basex CEO and Chief Analyst Jonathan Spira told LinuxInsider.
Citizendium sounds like “more than an iterative improvement” of Wikipedia to Spira, but the effort is still in the formative stage and it is far too soon to measure its worth, he said.
Described by Sanger as “a progressive fork,” Citizendium will be an interesting experiment, Spira remarked, as it adds a measure of control to the Wikipedia model.
Diversity of Efforts
For his part, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told LinuxInsider he welcomes the Citizendium effort, but Wikipedia will maintain its advantage even if Sanger’s effort is a success, he added.
“We welcome a diversity of efforts,” Wales said. “If Larry’s project is able to produce good work, we will benefit from it by copying it back into Wikipedia.
“There is room for a diversity of places in the world,” he continued. “Wikipedia is the best place for experts who are prepared to write high quality articles under the eye of the public. Citizendium may provide an interesting forum for those who are not prepared for that.”