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The New Kid on the Online Knowledge Block


IF the Nineties were the decade of ‘dumbing down’, the 2000s might well be remembered as the knowledgeable ‘Noughties’.

And on the internet at least this year, the battle for our collective minds is about to joined in a clash of the cerebral cyber Titans.

Wikipedia, that online heaven and hell of journalists and door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman alike, has long been the ‘quick fix’ for knowledge junkies worldwide for more than ten years.

As the ultimate exponent of so-called Web 2.0 technology – or the ‘do-it-yourself’ web philosophy, kitchen-sink Socrates have been able to wax lyrical alongside university PhDs in an amalgam of cosmopolitan pseudo-cleverness since 2001.

And it has worked. To date, the site – constantly one of the top 10 most visited sites in the world alongside it interactive cousins MySpace and YouTube – is heading for its 3,500,000th English language entry, and the collective colossus has even begun to break news ahead of some of its rival mainstream news channels.

However, all that could be about to change.  Ironically, Wikipedia’s strength in its plebeian all-inclusiveness may well turn out to be its Achilles Heel, according to its erstwhile co-founder, Larry Sanger, who in 2007 launched the young pretender to the cyber crown of knowledge, the equally grandiose-sounding ‘Citizendium’. 

Mr Sanger, 42, honorary founding editor-in-chief, reckons his infant online encyclopaedia - still open to the masses but with a robust ‘peer review’ model, will, over time, ignite the imaginations of the armchair intelligentsia globally.

Sanger, alongside Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, and a graduate from Ohio University and a PhD himself, hopes the perceived meritocracy of the venture  - which already has the over 15,000 entries  -will give it even greater mass appeal.

He says:

“In the case of Citizendium we’re simply in the business of attempting to create the world’s most accurate and trusted source of knowledge.

“In my view, Wikipedia has been badly governed, and is not nearly as reliable or as credible as it could be.  In short, and with all due respect to so many fine Wikipedians, I think humanity can do better.

 “The Citizendium began life by uploading a copy of all Wikipedia articles, and our intention was to get to work on improving and then approving Wikipedia's articles.  Then, in January of 2007, we decided to delete all of the Wikipedia articles that we hadn't changed, which was the vast majority of them.  Most of us felt that we would have a livelier, more productive, and better project if we started over from scratch.  I think we were right.

 “The project has no official or unofficial connection whatsoever with Wikipedia.  I broke with Wikipedia permanently around January 2003, over the very issues (of community governance and a role for experts) that I have been raising ever since.

 “We differ from Wikipedia in three main respects: we require the use of real names; we have a modest role for experts; and we are committed to professionalism and the rule of law, not to anarchism and the rule of aggressive, anonymous people.

 “I think our model is better, and in the long run, the better model will be more attractive to more people, both contributors and readers.”

 “We are certainly not elitist; we are egalitarian as well.  We are open to the general public, and it is indeed easier to become an author in our system than an expert editor, and we have ten times as many authors registered as editors. 

 “We merely have the sane idea that making a modest, "bottom-up" role for experts in our system will improve the outcome.  So far, I think this prediction has been borne out.”

 Contrary to some beliefs, Mr Sanger did not become an especially rich man as result of founding Wikipedia, which, like Citizendium,  has a ‘not-for-profit’ status officially, and a benign, intellectually philanthropic outlook.

 "I think that community projects like Wikipedia and the Citizendium should be controlled, and therefore owned, by the contributors.  I suppose that, like many college professors, my career path is civic minded.  If I never get very rich, I will not be too disappointed.  That's not what it's all about.”

 But will Citizendium eventually outseat its ancestral cousin in online popularity? Mr Sanger is philosophical.

 “It will also take at least a few more years before we have an amount of content even close to the amount Wikipedia has now.  But we can certainly be extremely useful even if we never overtake Wikipedia.  Indeed, on the topics of our well-developed articles, we do pretty well already.”

 While some might see Mr Sanger as being a modern day pseudo-Prometheus – effectively stealing the fire from the Gods of his own creation to give to a knowledge-hungry mankind – his view of himself is engagingly humble.

“There is no doubt that Wikipedia is extremely useful, and the Citizendium project and its accelerating growth is very exciting to me.  So I would be lying if I did not say I felt a little proud of my work on these projects.  But only a little. 

“But I wonder if, in ten years, the Citizendium might have serious drawbacks of its own?  What if it becomes even more influential than Wikipedia?  Then, how it is governed becomes incredibly important, and if it is poorly governed, the world could suffer as a result. I know I have been playing with fire, and this makes me nervous.  Whether I ought to feel proud of these projects is something I suspect I won't be able to determine until I am an old man.”

Mr Sanger is Editor-in-Chief of Citizendium, which by its own words aims to create the ‘world’s most trusted online encyclopaedia and knowledge base’. It can be found at www.citizendium.org.
* As of 2010, Mr Sanger holds an honorary position with relation to the project but still maintains links with Citizendium.