Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 5: April 2009

Net Media

Beyond Wikipedia

This article is not about Wikipedia—at least not directly. It’s about would-be competitors or alternatives and Wikia, the very much for-profit corporation that trades on the good name of, and is owned by the cofounder of, Wikipedia.

But saying “it isn’t about Wikipedia” is misleading. In some ways, it’s all about Wikipedia. That’s true even though I’m not discussing the extent to which Wikipedia is now controlled by a few hundred cyberbureaucrats with their endless list of SAARs (Sometimes-Applied Acronymic Rules) or the oddity that, to me at least, the talk pages of Wikipedia entries are frequently more interesting than the entries themselves—and, frankly, almost mandatory viewing if you want to judge a Wikipedia entry coherently. (I must say, after the experiences I and many others have had, the next time someone says “If you find something wrong in Wikipedia, it’s up to you to fix it” I’ll have to rely on my essentially pacifist nature to avoid slugging them or at least cursing a bit.)

Why do we love monopolies so?

That’s a question that comes to mind when discussing Wikipedia alternatives and in quite a few other areas. I’ve sometimes asked why librarians seem to love monopolies so much, but it’s not just librarians.

So, for example, when Citizendium started up, it faced a huge amount of fairly vicious commentary, and you could trace much of the viciousness to it not being Wikipedia. Didn’t matter whether it might offer an interesting alternative: it could potentially threaten The Great Source of All Wisdom.

How many of you vary your default search engine so you look somewhere other than Google? How many of you would seriously consider an alternative general-purpose web search engine?

Maybe it’s not surprising it was so easy for the government to effectively dismantle its antitrust operations. Weren’t we more comfortable back when AT&T owned the landlines, even if it did mean much higher long distance rates? (As opposed to now, when AT&T only controls most landlines—and, for a while, we have competition among cellular networks. Unless you own an iPhone, of course, in which case you’re happily back in the arms of AT&T.)

I don’t get it. Does choice make us that uncomfortable? Is the need to think so disturbing?

OK, I use Word2007 running under Vista on a PC with an Intel CPU. I’m pretty sure I’d like Vista and Word2007 a lot less if Apple and (to a lesser extent) Linux weren’t providing some competition. I’m guessing, however, that a lot of Apple users would be pleased as punch if everybody used OS X…and wouldn’t mention the desirability of competition. (I was reading a set of hints for great presentations and stopped cold when the author said Presentations Must Be Done Using Keynote and you should go out and buy a Macbook just to use for presentations. That writer wasn’t concerned with monopolies—only with the wrong monopoly.)

Two sections of this article concern Wikipedia alternatives. I won’t call them competitors, exactly, because I don’t regard them as such. Is either one ready to take over from Wikipedia? Nope, and not likely to. Should they be dismissed and opposed simply because they aren’t Wikipedia, which has become an effective monopoly for online “encyclopedic” stuff (if only because of Google’s algorithms)? I don’t believe so. I’m probably in the minority.

Knol Knotes

Sorry; couldn’t resist.

The basics

Knol ( became public on July 23, 2008, after some invitation-only testing. (I discussed it briefly in May 2008.) Google defines “knol” as “A unit of knowledge,” but also as “an authoritative article about a specific topic.” Authoritative—a striking assertion.

Do you need advance vetting and proof of authority before writing an article in knol? No: Anybody can write them. As the site says, you can write on “(Almost) anything you like”; your writing isn’t edited and there’s no attempt to enforce a viewpoint (or “neutral” viewpoint). The “almost” refers to content guidelines—you can’t include pornography, pedophilia and the like, hateful content, violent content or content you don’t have rights to use. You can’t impersonate others “in a manner that is intended to or does mislead or confuse others” and, while you can promote your business, there are limits on that as well. (Pages can’t primarily exist to redirect visitors to other sites or just display ads—but “advertorials” appear to be legitimate.)

One particularly interesting aspect to Knol is that you can write about something when there’s already an article on it—it’s encouraged. “[T]he Knol project is a forum for encouraging individual voices and perspectives on topics.” Which brings us to a key aspect of Knol, one that makes it wildly different from both Wikipedia and Citizendium: Articles are typically signed…and you’re expected to use your real name and display your credentials and references. “Use your bio to tell readers why they should trust your opinion on a given topic, and reference other works that informed your thinking.”

You can collaborate with other authors, but only if you choose to do so. You can allow changes by readers—but the default is moderated collaboration (the author must approve changes). Readers can comment on articles; authors are encouraged to check those comments and update articles as needed. Since readers also rate articles, that’s probably significant.

The Knol guidelines indicate that articles are introductory essays, but also says they should generally be longer than a web page. Looking at the featured articles on February 18, 2009, I saw lots of illustrations and text varying from 1,900 to 4,500 words, with some articles going fairly deep into a topic.

I’d say the essential characteristics of Knol, other than being a Google project, are these:

         Knol consists of signed articles, encouraging real names (although pseudonyms are clearly allowed—e.g., “Murphy beds in the movies” is by “Bobbie7” and “Running for an improved life” is by “Anonymous”) with posted credentials, and even optional name verification (by phone number or credit card). As the Google announcement put it, “The key principle behind Knol is authorship.”

         Knol encourages authorities to write by protecting their articles from vandalism—although the same mechanism also protects crackpots. Given that there can be many articles on the same subject (and articles can have fairly odd names), that may not be an issue.

         Knol really doesn’t have quality control except via community feedback. The site makes it clear that nobody will edit your articles (unless you grant permission) and that, unless you’re violating fundamental content policy in such an egregious way that it becomes obvious, you can write pretty much anything. (If your topic is sufficiently obscure, that’s also true for Wikipedia—except that these days the article would probably get deleted because it’s obscure.)

         Rather than encouraging direct participation in improving articles, Knol encourages commenting, rating and reviewing articles as means of feedback.

         Knol articles have oddly varied typography and tend toward loose layouts. Some articles have fully justified serif text (probably imported documents); others have left aligned sans text or a mix; most articles seem to have large gaps between paragraphs.

         It’s not clear how many articles there are or how often they’re viewed. The site reached 100,000 articles on January 20, 2009, which is a good start—but given the difficulties of browsing or searching articles, it’s hard to guess how many of those articles are worthwhile.

         The list of articles with the “most viewed” seal runs to 1,147 on February 18, 2009, but only the first 800 are visible. The two articles tied for 799th place have been viewed 2,275 times each, which is neither trivial nor all that great. They’re an odd pair, one a German article on Web 2.0, the other “10 practical ways to teach your children right values” by “United Church of God”—a verified author name! But some articles have been viewed quite often: The most frequently viewed article that isn’t part of Knol overhead is “The self” by Kevin Spaulding, and that shows 168,415 views—which ain’t bad at all. As for current activity, it varies. When I checked the ten most recent articles 15 minutes ago, it went back 33 minutes, but now it only goes back nine minutes, which is healthy activity.

         Knol is even more of a hodgepodge than Wikipedia, combining what appear to be doctor-supplied medical topics with advertorials and religious screeds. Maybe that’s OK.

A few early comments

Tom Wilson of Information Research noted the public announcement in a July 23, 2008 post on Information Research—ideas and debate ( He notes that, even then, featured items “seem to show a bias towards medical issues” and comes to this preliminary conclusion, one I find hard to argue with:

The obvious comparison is with Wikipedia and Citizendium--Knol appears to be more like the latter than the former and I imagine we may see the same persons contributing to all three. Of the three, however, Citizendium seems to have the better editorial control--which is why my own developing article on Information Management is there.

Larry Sanger of Citizendium (and cofounder of Wikipedia) chimed in on July 24, 2008 on the Citizendium blog, noting not only Knol but also Britannica Online and Medpedia, grouping them all as “new, non-collaborative encyclopedia projects.”

These are competitors to CZ, or to subjects within CZ, for eyeballs or traffic, and we certainly will not be complacent.

Some people have billed these as “Citizendium-killers,” but they consistently fail to appreciate is that all three of these projects are not primarily collaborative community projects, as CZ is. Both Britannica and Knol say that authors can determine the extent to which other people can collaborate on one’s article. On CZ, all articles are owned and controlled in common, and are unsigned. The designers of those projects seem not to realize just how crucially important that is to building an online community that takes on a life of its own.

In the end, as I have argued on multiple occasions…the advantages of radical collaboration could, I think, outweigh even the natural advantages of Google, Britannica, and Medpedia’s distinguished partners….

All this said, may the best encyclopedia win. The world needs a better encyclopedia than the 800-pound gorilla, Wikipedia.

I just think that, in the fullness of time, that will be the Citizendium!

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m less impressed with “unsigned” as an inherently positive point in building a quality resource—but then, I don’t see a race to establish The One Best Encyclopedia.

Richard Akerman thought about Knol quite a bit during July 2008 (after noting it briefly in January 2008), posting at Science library pad (scilib.typepad. com/science_library_pad) on July 23, July 26, and July 28, 2008. Excerpts from July 23, omitting a number of other notes:

So you can contribute to Wikipedia, a vast and interlinked set of pages with high traffic.

Or toss your Knol out into the wind and hope it is gently lofted to the top of search results…

…They make a big deal about a Knol being attached to an author. Well for one, my Wikipedia edits are already attached to my user name, and for two, what’s more personal than publishing something under my own name in my own web domain instead?

It seems to me this is mostly about ads, and secondarily about drawing you even further into the web tracking dream: you’re always logged into Google, they know every search you make, every email and document, and now they will know your particular areas of expertise, and topics of interest. Seems like lots of benefits for Google...

I would only murmur that your contributions to Wikipedia are visible only if someone tracks through the history, which is a far cry from signed articles. I do see value in signed contributions—but, of course, most of mine show up on one of my own websites or in published magazines, so I certainly don’t argue with “for two” above, unless Knol does become a highly-regarded compendium.

The July 26 post is entitled “Knol—thinking about authority,” not unreasonably given Knol’s own (questionable) assertion. Akerman notes problems with attaching authority to authorship:

So if you want to organise knowledge this way, it’s quite easy, you get Learned Persons to write articles in their areas of expertise. There are, however, multiple problems with this approach:

1. You actually have to get them to write.

2. You get a tremendous management problem as you try to scale out from a handful of articles to millions.

3. Just because someone is very learned in one area (e.g. Ph.D. in Physics with accompanying publications) doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has any expertise whatsoever in another area (e.g. climate change).

4. We only have “authority structures” for a small number of areas (related to issue #2 above). You can probably find an authority in Evidence-Based Medicine (and indeed the Knol on that topic is quite learned). But who is the authority on say...Gnolls, obscure mythical creatures?...

The actual problem they appear to be trying to address is not one of authority, but of certification.  They’re focusing on credentials, when the focus should be on proof. As best I can deduce the argument, it goes something like “on Wikipedia anyone can author, anyone can make changes, and anyone can challenge anything.”..

Akerman cites Wikipedia’s {fact} template, which inserts “citation needed” into an article.

This little piece takes Wikipedia from an open brawl to one of the most powerful engines promoting scientific thinking in our time. It says simply: “I don’t care who you are, demonstrate with evidence that your statement is true.”

To retreat from this is to retreat from reasoned discourse.

Why? Well, I have to turn to Wikipedia

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. (Clarke’s First Law, from Wikipedia: Clarke’s three laws)…

To put it another way: authority is a weak predictor of truth. Only evidence is a strong indication of truth.

That’s a valid objection—although in the world of Wikipedia, “citation” really means “verifiability” according to Wikipedia’s sometimes-applied ruleset.

Akerman also objects to Knol’s marketplace of competing viewpoints rather than the consensus view of Wikipedia:

Great, so all the people with over a century of evidence supporting the benefits of immunization can balkanize off in their own Knol, while the nutjobs who think immunization is some government conspiracy can have their Knol, and each community can rate their respective Knol highly. How does that help anything?

The problem is that Knol has focused on authorship, and not certification. What demonstrates the law of gravity is true is a preponderance of evidence, not some sort of individual gravitas.

Now there certainly is something in ranking and commenting that helps us to get at certification, but the mechanism provided is simply too weak. Certification is some combination of general review, authoritative review, ranking, and ranking of the rankers. Certification must work on a consensus item…

Akerman provides an example, the long-time debate over the value of the Hubble Constant. (How long would it have taken before an earlier Wikipedia, using its standards of verifiability, would have accepted the Continental Plates theory?) He also cites a number of problems with Knol and a whole bunch of reasons why Wikipedia’s better—and Akerman clearly supports the Wisdom of the Crowd over the authority of the individual. Of course, Akerman’s Canadian, and evolution may still be the consensus up there. Here in the lower 48, if consensus is the rule for truth, the world was created in six days…

Do I think Akerman’s wrong? Not exactly. Do I buy into consensus—the wisdom of the crowd—as the basis of truth? Not really. Can both models work together? I’d like to think so.

On the other hand, I think Akerman strikes a fairly telling blow in “Knol—Google losing view of web?” on July 28, 2008. He cites one of the stupider paragraphs in Google’s publicity for Knol:

Blogs are great for quickly and easily getting your latest writing out to your readers, while knols are better for when you want to write an authoritative article on a single topic. The tone is more formal, and, while it’s easy to update the content and keep it fresh, knols aren’t designed for continuously posting new content or threading. [Emphasis added, by Akerman and by me.]

That’s just wrong. The tone of a blog is whatever the blogger chooses it to be—and very few blog posts are continually edited. (Threading? Blogs? Huh?) Since Akerman’s one of those who’s demonstrating that you can present “serious science and ideas” in blogs, he’s right to be offended by this dismissal.

He also notes the oddity that Knol uses nofollow, so search crawlers (including Google’s) don’t follow links—and the search engine is pretty poor. (Oh well, what would Google know about search engines?)

There are a bunch of other objections in the article, and they’re all sound. He sums it up:

I’m sorry Google, but that’s not only not true, the entire Knol system and “introducing Knol” tone show a total lack of understanding of the current state of scholarly blogging, a total absence of support for scholarly citation and linking, and a surprising disregard for critical existing aspects of the web architecture.

What I particularly like about this is that Akerman isn’t putting Knol down for not being Wikipedia (although I’m less enamored of the Wikipedia model than Akerman is). He’s putting it down for being badly designed and implemented.

Seth Finkelstein and others have discussed whether Google is likely to favor Knol pages in its search results. It’s a complex discussion, and the general answer is “apparently not, at least not directly.” On the other hand, when Google blogs and Google itself write warmly of Knol, that tends to drive traffic to Knol, which in turn tends to improve Knol’s ranking, which…

Eric Schnell wrote “Will librarians embrace Knol? Chances are…” on August 4 at The medium is the message ( He follows that title with “…we will not. At least initially.” But Schnell’s not ready to dismiss Knol out of hand—and, indeed, he combined his blog posts on service-oriented architecture and libraries into a single Knol article. He likes the result—at 1,600 words, it’s not that long and works well as a single article. He comments on Akerman’s criticism and goes on to discuss “the value of blogging as scholarly communication,” an area where Schnell and I are of similar minds:

When talking with our faculty about “scholarly blogging” it still amazes me how many librarians simply do not see how blogging is shaping our professional communications. I’ll speculate that a majority of topics presented at conferences [and that] eventually land up in print literature started with a half-baked idea on a blog…

Librarians think of themselves as being on top of emerging technologies and using them to provide our customers with the best services possible. Yet, the communications methods that we use to share our ideas, our knowledge, are still grounded in the middle ages. A growing amount of content making its way into our traditional literature is so ‘old’ that it is no longer interesting. This may be the single reason why our traditional published literature has become so dreary.

I am sure many of our professors could wax poetically about why Knol and blogging do not merit consideration as scholarly communications. They will talk about the lack of pre-publication peer-review and authority. Chances are they would be evaluating Knol without ever using it…

So, while Knol has issues, it is the potential of this type of publishing I feel can help to revitalize the state of our professional communication. Tools such as blogs and Knol can let us toss out those half-baked ideas. The reviews and comments enable the author to build out newer/better/more thought out versions of the content. This is in contrast to a blog post which is generally stuck in time--much like the majority of our professional communications.

Those last two sentences could favor Knol over blogs—if, in fact, Knol turns out to work that way. As of late February 2009, Schnell’s article has been viewed just over 330 times. Here’s the sum total of the comments: “good article! professional.” Which is to say: Knol will only work as a post-publication review medium if it is used heavily—and that isn’t always (or usually) the case.

I haven’t seen many commentaries on Knol since August-September 2008. Clearly, a lot of people have added a lot of content—some of it good, some of it pretty awful. Will it become a major force (not a “Wikipedia-killer” but an alternative source people will commonly check)? That’s hard to say.

My closing note here is one of those I find most frustrating: “Chuck Knol,” by Farhad Manjoo, published September 22, 2008 on Slate. The subtitle is “Why Google’s online encyclopedia will never be as good as Wikipedia,” but Manjoo goes for the throat immediately. After noting a pair of very dissimilar articles on Sarah Palin, and that one of the two appears to have been copied from Wikipedia, Manjoo offers this:

Knol is a wasteland of such articles: text copied from elsewhere, outdated entries abandoned by their creators, self-promotion, spam, and a great many old college papers that people have dug up from their files. Part of Knol’s problem is its novelty. Google opened the system for public contribution just a couple months ago, so it’s unreasonable to expect too much of it at the moment; Wikipedia took years to attract the sort of contributors and editors who’ve made it the amazing resource it is now.

There’s more—and much of it’s conditioned on Manjoo’s belief that Wikipedia is all we need, that its mechanisms work, that “We don’t need the next Wikipedia. Today’s version works amazingly well.” Once you’ve crowned The King, you need only spit on Pretenders. Manjoo regards authorship as a critical flaw, as he does Google’s sharing of ad revenue with authors. He says “Wikipedia is functionally anonymous”—and views that as a strength.

And yet, and yet. As Manjoo admits, “we read books and magazines not for their neutrality but for an author’s clear point of view.” Some of us find Wikipedia’s flat, this-then-this-then-that, intentionally uninflected style to get in the way of understanding. “So what’s wrong with encouraging…a reference guide that’s both informative and stylishly written?” Here’s Manjoo’s answer, and the first sentence troubles me:

What’s wrong is that perspective and style don’t scale. Writing is hard even for the world’s greatest wordsmiths; it requires time, thought, and care. Good writing also usually requires good editing. Because Wikipedia’s NPOV guidelines set clear rules for what’s allowed on the site, Wikipedia is easy to edit—anyone can look up the tenets of NPOV and then set about cleaning up contributions that stray from the preferred style.

Unfortunately, editing may be even harder than good writing—and Wikipedia “editing” tends not toward good style but towards an utter lack of style. The example of Knol’s editing “problem” is an odd one: He notes a critical commentary on Tori Amos that he finds “vague and mushy”—but the Wikipedia solution would be to eliminate the commentary entirely. How, exactly, is that better? It does serve as a fine example of editing-toward-blandness, which Wikipedia does magnificently.

Conclusion? Knol won’t displace Wikipedia—but it seems to have a plausible place, one where individual style and commentary are still welcome. I’m not thrilled with Manjoo’s implication that perspective, style and good writing are to be avoided; utilitarianism can go too far. As a loyal reader of the San Francisco Chronicle, I can tell you that I find the strongly styled pieces with perspective and thoughtful writing prepared by David Perlman (the science editor, who has been writing forever) and some of the bylined local writers to be much more effective, as sources of understanding rather than just facts, than the “neutral” stuff from the wire services. Good writing, style and perspective improve understanding; surely there’s a place for them on the web?

Catching Up with Citizendium

How’s Citizendium doing these days? That depends on who you ask and your criteria. If you’re looking for sheer number of articles, “badly” might be the right word. There are just over 10,000 “live articles” (those being worked on and those approved), but only 94 of those are approved as fully developed—”so well developed that it gives the Citizendium reader a good introduction and overview to its topic.” (All figures as of February 19, 2009.) There are more than 900 “developed” articles that aren’t quite ready for approval.

That compares poorly to the 100,000+ things in Knol, but such a comparison is entirely pointless. It also compares poorly to the zillions and zillions of articles (given all the deletions and new items, I wouldn’t attempt to suggest a current count) in Wikipedia—and given Larry Sanger’s goals, that might be a meaningful comparison.

So how’s it doing?

Looking at the statistics page, the growth in articles (of all statuses) is roughly linear over time. Indeed, the rate of article creation has been roughly flat (about 13-14 articles per day) for some time, when smoothed out to monthly figures.

For that matter, the edit rate (smoothed by month) is a little disturbing if you’re touting Citizendium’s growth: it was leaping to nearly 900 edits a day in mid-2007, then dropped, then came back up to roughly 800 per day in the spring of 2008. The text on the graphics page attributes the “recent drop in daily edits to summer vacation; we’ll be roaring back in September.” Unfortunately, that’s not quite true—since the graph, unlike the text, is refreshed every month. After dropping to around 400 edits per day in early summer, the rate did rise in the fall—but only into the 400-450 range, lower than the summer dip in 2007. That’s discouraging.

The number of authors active each month seems to have dropped off to a level around 125, with perhaps 50 of those doing more than 20 edits per month, perhaps 25 doing more than 100.

Total words in all articles has more than doubled in 19 months—from 4.1 million words in July 2007 to just under 9.8 million in January 2009. But the median length of articles has dropped a lot—from 562 words to 284 words.

Comparing April 2008 to February 2009, articles have increased from 6,100 to 9,900; developed articles from 778 to 900+; and approved articles from 56 to 94. I would compare total pageviews, but the automatically-generated Statistics page appears to be useless (and is labeled as “probably unreliable”), as it shows essentially the same number as last April—that is, 1.135 million, although that’s now over 19,732 probable content pages instead of roughly 11,000. Since it’s not plausible that there have been fewer than 1,000 page views in 10 months (or in 10 days, if the wiki’s being used at all!), I’ll say there have been millions of page views—but the site no longer says how many millions (that’s not one of the human-generated items).

I’ve written about Citizendium several times (November 2006, March and September 2007, May 2008 and briefly in January 2009). The May 2008 essay, while generally supportive of the effort, questions the adherence to an unsigned consensus approach (even as contributors are expected to use real names, so it’s easier to determine who contributed to an article).

Now that I look at my small set of lead sheets for Citizendium items, I notice something else that’s a bit disturbing: All of them are from the Citizendium blog. Which mostly means that the site hasn’t been mentioned much among libloggers or the couple dozen others I normally follow. Doing a Google blogs search of recent postings elsewhere, I found pretty much what I expected: Dismissals of Citizendium either as a good idea that doesn’t work or as a bad idea from the start. Some dismissals are way over the top (“Citizendium is a miserable failure”— one reason given is that it doesn’t have an article on Lost). You get the monopoly lovers (“there’s only room for one wiki-based encyclopedia”). You get the special interests—people who were ousted from Citizendium for bad behavior, where it turns out they’d previously been banned from Wikipedia. You don’t get all that much: Google showed me 49 items from June 17, 2008 to February 19, 2009.

Quick conclusions?

         These are still early days—and, unquestionably, articles developed the Citizendium way will take longer to emerge than those tossed into Wikipedia.

         We seem to be in an extended lull, with linear growth in articles and text, a dropoff in editing and, apparently, no particular growth in usage. That’s more than a little ominous—and maybe it reflects the relative paucity of effective publicity for Citizendium.

         While outright attacks on the very idea of a better Wikipedia have declined somewhat, the knives still come out fairly often. I continue to be surprised at the number of supposedly intelligent commentators who not only don’t believe Citizendium will work (that’s an opinion), but don’t seem to believe it should be given a chance to do so.

         The issue of who contributed to an article continues to be interesting and, I believe, significant—and I’m finding that it’s not always clear, at least once an article has been approved.

         “Authoritative” is a tricky word. There’s a long draft article on “memory of water” that (as the son of an engineer and brother of a chemist) I find deeply disturbing, and an approved article on homeopathy that, while including a few disclaimers, is slanted very much in favor of homeopathic claims. (For example, it considers the similarity of homeopathic remedies and vaccinations both using “low doses of active ingredients,” and says “the doses in homeopathic remedies are always very much lower”—but you have to go a lot further down in the article to learn the simple fact that most homeopathic remedies “are virtually certain to contain not even a single molecule of the initial substance.” (That’s why “memory of water” is important.)

         Indeed, the “healing arts workgroup,” dealing with “all articles that have a primary focus on topics that provide care to health problems,” shows a partial list of articles—almost all “alternative” forms (chiropractic and massage therapy probably being the most mainstream. There’s also a “health sciences workgroup,” which appears to deal with mainstream medicine—and that creates an odd disjunction. One would think that the healing arts would include and, indeed, be primarily based on health science. One would, apparently, be misinformed.

A few items from the Citizendium blog

You’ll find the blog at Most posts are by Larry Sanger. It’s not a prolific blog; as of February 19, 2009, I see 14 posts in the last seven months. These notes are from a few of those posts and the attached comments. (I didn’t realize how young Larry Sanger is: He turned 40 on July 16, 2008.)

On June 17, he posted a copy of the Citizendium “CZ:Myths and Facts” page, “devoted to correcting many errors about us.” A few of those supposed myths and excerpts from the responses, with my comments (if any) in [brackets]:

         Myth: we’re experts-only. Fact: we love experts—we admit it. And we want more of them. But this is still a remarkably open project. You can be an author with no degrees and only a basic facility with English… [M]ost reasonably well educated people have something to contribute to a project like this. Our youngest registered members are 13, and we have some active high school students who have done good work.

         Myth: we’re a top-down project, with expert editors giving orders to underlings. Fact: no, we’re very bottom-up. We’re a wiki—really… You work on the articles you want to work on, when you want to work on them… [Referring to Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar]: We, too, are a bazaar. We have merely added “village elders” wandering the bazaar. Their welcome, moderating presence does not convert the project into a cathedral; it only helps make the bazaar a little less anarchical and unreliable.

         Myth: we’re Serious. We accept only your most careful, painstaking work. Fact:… This is a work in progress, and we have fun! Yes, we have a lot of overeducated people here, who are regularly writing really wonderful prose as if it costs them no effort. But we also have no problem whatsoever with you making a rough start on any topic, as long as somebody else will be able to pick up where you left off… [I’ll admit that I’ve assumed Citizendium preferred careful, painstaking work—and maybe that’s what I’d like to see, rather than the reality.]

         Myth: since real names are required, nobody will participate. Maybe nobody should—participant privacy will be violated, as our bios will be accessible from Google! Fact: the fact that we have 200+ participants every month makes it obviously false that nobody will participate in a project in which real names are required…. As to privacy, biographies are not indexed by Google (or any other search engine that respects the “noindex” tag)… We feel that the advantages of real names outweigh the small sacrifice of allowing our work-in-progress to be viewed publicly. On the one hand, using real names makes people behave themselves more civilly; on the other hand, it makes our articles more credible, since readers know that there are people willing to put their names behind them. [I think the requirement for real names is a key advantage of Citizendium—but, as I look at approved articles, it’s not clear to me whether I’m seeing all the contributors; frankly, I’d rather see them listed as bylines, right on the article page. And unfortunately, if I’m reading the graphs right, “200+ participants” hasn’t been true since June 2008, with the current number somewhere closer to 125. That’s not the right trendline!]

         Myth: since this is an academic project, we are not open to articles about pop culture. [I never thought of Citizendium as an academic project, and there clearly are some articles about pop culture, though scarcely the sheer profusion of Wikipedia.]

         Myth: there is no point to the Citizendium, because Wikipedia exists. Fact: Wikipedia has uneven quality, and is extremely off-putting to most experts—indeed, to most people, period—who might otherwise contribute to it. We believe that, in the end, a lot more people will be comfortable with and attracted to the open, yet sensible CZ model. Some of us expect a tipping point to come in the next year or two, in which CZ will be flooded with more and more people who are now firmly persuaded that we are a force to contend with. There is no danger whatsoever of our giving up. Your work here will be well used as part of a resource with tens of thousands, and then probably hundreds of thousands, of articles. Besides, we’re sure you’ll agree that the world can use more than one “go to” source for free reference information. We are the best hope for a real alternative! [“The next year or two” may be some time away, given current trends. Otherwise, the most interesting part here is the penultimate sentence: Far too many people do not agree that the world can use more than one wiki-based encyclopedia, apparently.]

         Myth: most Citizendium articles are just copied from Wikipedia. Fact: wrong. While we do allow people to copy Wikipedia articles here, we keep careful track of them, and by far most of our articles are completely original. Besides, many if not most of the articles that are sourced from Wikipedia are not counted in our CZ Live article count… [It seems clear that Citizendium really doesn’t want warmed-over Wikipedia articles.]

The post has some interesting claims—for example, that there’s no vandalism and little trolling on Citizendium, a striking statement damaged by the following “What other wiki can say that?” Well, the PALINET Leadership Network, for one, and almost any other wiki with double-verification editing requirements. A more important statement: “CZ articles are intended to be coherent narratives, not random grab-bags of facts.”

Interjection: At this point in writing this semi-narrative, I was going to look up “Kingston Trio” in Wikipedia, having read a quite good single-author draft article in Citizendium. I used the FireFox search-box pull-down to select Wikipedia (I also have, IMDB, and the primary search engines on the menu)—and, since I was on a Citizendium page at that point, was offered the opportunity to add Citizendium to the menu. Which I did. Very snazzy way of insinuating yourself as a lookup source, if that was CZ’s doing! In comparing the two—one almost entirely by a fully-named author, the other mostly by a series of pseudonyms—it’s clear that the CZ article has better narrative flow and is more coherent, although the Wikipedia “grab-bag of facts” (which also includes commentary) includes more information.

Jumping ahead several months, Sanger tried to capitalize on a kerfuffle in which Wikipedia editing was blocked in part of the UK for several days because of an uncensored reproduction of an album cover with a naked “pre-pubescent girl in a sexually suggestive pose.” Frankly, some of this strikes me as low blows:

Does it bother you that Wikipedia reproduces an image that is, arguably, child pornography? It does me. Now, I think the Internet ought to be safe for porn, but not child porn… I don’t think that a general encyclopedia, used by millions of school kids…should host sexually suggestive pictures of naked pre-pubescent girls. That ought to be obvious to Wikipedians, and the fact that it’s not is yet more evidence that not all is well in Wikipedia-land.

Perhaps it’s time to remind the world that there is a wonderful new, and growing, alternative: Citizendium (CZ)…

Let me sum up the case for CZ. We are still around, we’re still growing, and we’re steadily becoming a viable alternative to Wikipedia. We are small, but vigorous. We have no vandalism. We have grown steadily over the one-and-a-half years since our public launch…I won’t bore you (again) with the reasons, but I think that there will come a tipping point for us, after which a lot more people will know about us and swell our ranks. And they should! We aren’t going away, and even at the current rate, we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of articles in the long run…

And, of course, the cover of Virgin Killer will never appear on the pages of CZ.

Now, if you are harrumphing (rather ridiculously, I might add, but that’s just me I suppose) that of course the cover of Virgin Killer should not be “censored,” and that Wikipedia is better than CZ insofar as it doesn’t feature such “censorship,” then let me point something out. Let me point out the wonderful, delicious fact that you can stick with Wikipedia. The two projects naturally attract delightfully complementary groups of people. The people who want to hide behind pseudonyms, who want to play governance games in order to push their biases, and who want to prove their maturity and enlightenment by putting up pictures of naked little girls, can stick with Wikipedia. I’ll be delighted if they do. But I think that in the long run, you’ll see that a lot more people will want to contribute under the more sensible CZ system…

Perhaps not surprisingly, since this was in December 2008, the first comment noted that the number of active authors seems to be shrinking, not growing—and that CZ might have started a little too late. The second, by Steven Walling, is stronger: “This post is an immature and reprehensible attempt to poach readers and contributors by licking the boots of moral tyrants.” Walling, who finds the album cover in question “detestable” and tried to get it deleted, notes that it’s not child pornography in the eyes of the law, since it’s legally distributable. Walling labels Sanger a censor. (He also calls Sanger “God-King of Citizendium”; it’s fair to assume Walling is no great friend of the effort.) In response to another question, Sanger cites the policy that would prevent display of the album cover: there’s a “family-friendliness policy.” (Walling shows up again, defending inclusion of explicit material even while saying “a lot of it isn’t appropriate for children”—so should filter software lock out Wikipedia?) Another CZ supporter felt, as I do, that the post is a low blow.

A January 23, 2009 post is interesting: “Why wiki knowledge projects are so fascinating to so many.” He lists quite a range of disciplines (with notes on why each one is interested), and considers the more general question. His answer, in part:

There’s a good reason. It’s because of what wiki knowledge projects are.

They are a new thing under the sun: international communities of volunteers that collaboratively produce free knowledge, information of use to everyone, distributed online; and, in the form of Wikipedia and soon the Citizendium too, they are remarkably huge and well-used. The mere description is enough to get a whole bunch of people excited about these communities, even if they don’t understand them very well.

But there is an even more essential explanation: wiki knowledge projects are an enormous coming-together of people to understand the world. Long ago in the 1990s and in the dark ages before that, learning and imparting knowledge socially was as it were fractured… But the Internet provides a way that everyone, globally, of all ages, of all professions, of various educational attainments, can participate together in the same (virtual) place and at the same time, in both the creation and consumption of a new sort of knowledge project.

I think most people have vaguely, but not quite, realized that we are coming to grips with a new kind of knowledge institution–one that has the potential to be as powerful as any that has come before it, or more so…

There are more posts, but that may be enough. (Did I mention that Sanger is a philosopher by education?) In some cases, the comments are as interesting as the posts. In early February 2009, for example, Eugene van der Pjill noted that Sanger’s one-year report (in October 2007) had some ambitious projections for growth, but doesn’t see them happening and refers to “its present decline.” Sanger is having none of that: He stands by his projection of explosive growth and thinks van der Pjill is painting “an unduly pessimistic and puzzlingly unfair picture.” I’ll admit that it’s the picture I saw from the same page; frankly, at this stage of the game, linear growth in the number of articles is surprising, as you’d still expect geometric growth.

Maybe I’m also being too negative, possibly because I’d love to be a lot more positive. Then again, I haven’t contributed to Citizendium; there’s only so much writing one semi-employed person can do, and I haven’t found that either it or Wikipedia fits within my limits and preferences. I continue to wish CZ well and hope it becomes at least a plausible complement, if perhaps not full competitor, to Wikipedia.

Wikia is not Wikipedia

Nor does Wikia—Jimbo Wales’ for-profit company.—own Wikipedia. It’s owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit. But Wikia does trade on the good name of Wikipedia, at least indirectly (where you see Wales mentioned, you’ll see “founder of Wikipedia” or “cofounder of Wikipedia” not far behind).

Right now, Wikia is mostly lots of specific wikis in the areas of gaming, entertainment, sports, toys, humor, etc. The Wikia site lists the 16 biggest wikis (in terms of content), with 17,000 to more than 70,000 articles each—and while they do include a recipes wiki, a psychology wiki, a genealogy wiki (“Familypedia”) and the sometimes-humorous Uncyclopedia, most of them are on role-playing games, the Star Wars and Star Trek universes (two wikis each) and the like. “Over 29,000 articles on the popular Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise.” The mind reels. From what I can see, article counts include huge numbers of extreme stubs (“articles” with a title, a category and nothing else). I have no idea how many Wikia wikis there are in all, but there are “thousands” of Wikia wikis just in the entertainment category. Most of these are “fan-created”—you write the content and do the work. The difference between Wikia wikis and Wikipedia: There’s advertising—lots of advertising—and Wikia takes the proceeds.

I’ve seen the term “digital sharecropping” used for this sort of for-profit “crowdsourced” enterprise. It’s the wrong term. Sharecroppers got a pretty substantial portion of the crops they labored to produce (sometimes half). I don’t see any suggestion at Wikia that those ad revenues are shared with contributors. That ain’t sharecropping, digital or otherwise; it’s unpaid labor. (Nothing wrong with unpaid labor, although I’d rather volunteer for a charitable agency or at least a nonprofit.)

I have nine printouts and lead sheets, mostly related to Wikia Search, Wikia’s odd effort to take on Google by crowdsourcing search ranking itself. But I notice an oddity similar to the CZ cluster, and maybe it shouldn’t be surprising: All the items are from a single blog, in this case Seth Finkelstein’s InfoThought ( blog/). Searching that blog for “Wikia search” yields a lot of results; he’s covered it in depth.

Why is all my Wikia Search stuff from one source? Maybe because, despite lots of praise when Wales started talking up the idea in 2007, the reality has been…tepid. When the public availability began in January 2008, SearchEngineLand called it “really just yet another crappy search service.” The more you read of the whole basic idea, the less it seems to make much sense in the real world.

How bad is the situation with Wikia Search? As of February 2009—13 months after the public launch—Wales has admitted that Wikia Search doesn’t use its own search engine. It’s using Yahoo! BOSS (Build your Own Search Service) to support its “user-editing, community-control” front end. Why? Because, after considerably more than a year (including pre-launch time), the backend wasn’t good enough.

Just for fun, I did an ego search on “Walt Crawford”—with the quotes. In addition to five Google-supplied ads (two above the results, three on the side), I get these as the top results: Walt Kelly (yes, his middle name was Crawford), the Watley Review (?), the Wikipedia article on The Public-Access Computer Systems Review—and, in fourth place, my own site and other results that seem sensible enough. Watley Review? In second place? I’m bemused that the site shows a count of all searches done to date—fewer than 9.9 million when I did the test, with about one new search every two or three seconds. Somehow, I don’t believe Google is worried.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 5, Whole Issue 115, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

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