Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (shorter version)
September 15, 2006 (and getting slowly out of date!)
This shorter version was delivered at the Wizards of OS conference. It might be more readable than the longer version, but the longer version has more details.
1. Thinkers of the world, start imagining.
There are tens of millions of intellectuals online today. What is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects? The very thought of that makes me literally quiver with excitement. I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers. Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.
We may take Wikipedia as an early prototype of the application of open source hacker principles to content rather than code.
Wikipedia, started only five years ago, now has millions of articles in over one hundred languages, and has nearly singlehandedly introduced the world's intellectuals to the possibilities of enormous collaborative efforts. By giving intellectuals the world over an open platform on which to work together Wikipedia has shown a global audience what enormous, distributed knowledge collaboration can achieve. The work of the Wikipedians has astounded the world.
I always have been an enormous fan of Wikipedia, and I still am. But I now want to help launch something better, if that's possible. Let me explain why I am doing so, and then I will describe the project itself.
When I first started working on Wikipedia, I was also employed as editor-in-chief of Nupedia, a more straight-laced, peer-reviewed free encyclopedia project. Wikipedia was to be a free-wheeling, fun side project, a dynamic source of content, for the more serious Nupedia project. Wikipedia was closer in spirit to the old open source, hacker ways, where Nupedia was essentially an academic project. But together, Nupedia and Wikipedia were going to be an "unstoppable high-quality article-creation juggernaut," or so I said in 2001.
I think there are many misconceptions about Nupedia and why it failed, but I don't have time to go into that here. But it did wither and finally die due to neglect. The result was that only half of my own original conception of "the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind"--the wild and anarchical half--was preserved.
Not surprisingly, with only one-half of the original design, some problems with Wikipedia--problems that continue to this day--emerged. Here are some of them:
Can Wikipedia recover from these problems? The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place. Wikipedia's most passionate defenders, if they react at all, will probably do nothing but explain why I am mistaken in each of these criticisms. I know of course that there are movements afoot to reform Wikipedia in various ways. But I see little evidence that the community, whatever its discontents, will go so far as to admit the problems I've listed.
The failure to recognize these serious problems is a reflection of the fact that, at bottom, they are political problems. Like all open communities online, Wikipedia's community is self-selecting, and its policies have determined who stays and who leaves (or is driven away). For this reason, online communities tend to become rather conservative in their attitudes toward their own systems, and Wikipedia is certainly no different.
[Note, January 2007: while we are still full steam ahead with a fork of Wikipedia's processes, we are having second thoughts about forking Wikipedia's articles. We've decided as an experiment actually to delete all the unedited Wikipedia articles from our database, to encourage people to start new articles altogether. We think this might encourage even more activity than we've had--though we're pleased with the amount of activity we've had so far--and help us to create a more distinctive Citizendium culture.]
Often, if you wish to make any very important changes to an open source or open content project that has an entrenched community, the only way to do it is to start a new community. And that is what I propose.
I propose a fork of Wikipedia to be called the Citizendium, that is, the Citizens' Compendium. Legally, of course, a fork is clearly permitted. I think it is also morally permitted--perhaps even morally recommended--if there is a chance of retaining Wikipedia's virtues while eliminating the problems I just mentioned. It will be a progressive fork, that is, all the articles will be imported at once, but individual articles will keep getting refreshed with Wikipedia's latest changes until they are changed in the Citizendium.
Obviously, you want to know how the Citizendium editorial system will differ from Wikipedia's system. There will be two main areas of dissimilarity: the involvement of experts, and the creation of a more mature community. There will be other differences as well.
Before I elaborate, however, let me assure you that I do not think that I necessarily have all of these details right. Obviously, I am fallible and, like all of us, my understanding is limited. Clearly, this project needs as much intelligent input as it can get.
Third, over the years, Wikipedia has suffered some feature creep. The Citizendium will be deliberately simplified and kept simple. In addition, copyright and libel abuses will be handled quite differently. And finally, the Citizendium won't officially call itself an encyclopedia. We might call it an experimental workspace.
So much for the differences, and as I hope you can see, they are significant. But it is important to note that the system will still work very much the way Wikipedia does, in many respects.
Areas of similarity include:
[Note, Jan. 2007: this section is now old news entirely and may be safely skipped.]
Finally, I want to discuss the way forward--in other words, how to get the project started.
Whatever else we do, we should have the servers and the wiki software set up, and available at least to some beta testers, as soon as possible.
While waiting for the wiki to be set up, what can the ordinary rank-and-file future authors or editors do? Three things: first, join the project forums or a project mailing list; second, contribute your thoughts to the discussion; and, third, wait for the announcement that the wiki is ready to edit. I want to start the project with a bang. I would like to strain the limits of whatever server configuration we put in place.
So much for the short term. As to the medium term, over the coming weeks, I hope the Citizendium project will be contacted by individuals as well as universities, foundations, and companies. My personal belief, which I do not hold very strongly, is that the latent interest in and support for this project will allow us to collect a truly stellar group of advisors and partner institutions; if so, this experiment might succeed brilliantly. As to what we need, precisely, please see the project FAQ, which is now online, for some ideas.
Once the wiki has launched, we should begin to form discipline-specific editorial workgroups. Also once the wiki has launched, I think we should immediately hold a series of monthly face-to-face meetings in about a half-dozen major cities. This would lead up to a big meeting about the project charter.
I am making this announcement in Germany in part because of my personal commitment to making this project fully international as quickly as is feasible and responsible to do. On the other hand, I do not want to presume to speak for the interested German-speaking community online. Knowing as you now do that I personally am getting behind a fork of the English language Wikipedia, I put the question to you: should we also make a similar fork of the German language Wikipedia? That's something to talk about in the "beer-to-beer networking" that will be going on this evening, maybe.
While this organizational work is going on, I wish to put together the finest possible set of advisors for this project. Their role as advisors will give them a special platform from which to advise the project and speak on its behalf. Moreover, it is this group of people who will meet at the constitutional convention to ratify the project's charter.
So, let us create a vibrant yet responsible new community. Together we will, I think, have an amazing journey.
For more information on the Citizendium project, see the citizendium.org website.