The Citizendium one year on:
a strong start and an amazing future
October 30, 2007
Essential reading in bold above.
It's been exactly one year since work on the
Citizendium wiki started ramping up. I said then
that I was properly skeptical about our chances and that the project was
experimental. Well, no longer. Now it's time to report the results
of the experiment: we've made a
very strong start and an amazing future likely lies ahead of us.
In the first several weeks of the Citizendium's existence, the project's chances
were dismissed by the likes of
TechCrunch's Marshall Kirkpatrick,
Cory Doctorow, and
Clay Shirky--among others. A lot of such Web 2.0
cognoscenti weren't just skeptical; they clearly disliked
the idea itself. It sounded too elitist for their taste. (But
elitist, really.) It completely
upset their notions of what Web communities are supposed to be like. As
Kirkpatrick put it, "Does the world need a
Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds?"
We shrugged and got to work demonstrating a better wiki
model. It launched publicly last March, boosted by
an Associated Press story and
other press coverage. And as it turns out, a year after the pilot
wiki was started, the project is actually exciting and refreshing--so that, increasingly and
ironically, it is
the received wisdom of the digerati that is looking dogmatic and hidebound.
There are some myths about the
Citizendium floating around that might be keeping some people from getting
involved. We can't have that--so let's debunk those myths.
Myth: it's too hard to get on board the Citizendium. There's a long and complicated
In fact, it's now simple and automated. You fill out
a short Web form,
then a human being (a "constable") will respond--with a "yes" in the vast
majority of cases--within a few hours, sometimes minutes. All the constable has
to do is press a button, and you're in.
Myth: the Citizendium is experts-only; it's an
Outrageously false. How many times do we have to say this?
elitist. This myth does a huge disservice to the project, because it
leads "non-experts" to think that the project isn't open to them. It is. In fact, we have roles for the general public, which may
become authors, as well as for
experts, which may become
They work together very well every day in an open, bottom-up wiki project.
If you didn't know that was possible, we're here to show you that it is.
Here's a hint: just because we have a role for experts, it does not follow
that the Citizendium is experts-only or elitist. Particularly in an
encyclopedia project, a role for experts isn't elitist, it's merely good sense!
Myth: the Citizendium is simply a revival of the failed Nupedia
Ridiculously false. The only significant similarities that the
project has to Nupedia are that we have a role for experts, and that we require
contributors to use their real names. But the differences are huge. We are a
cutting-edge, grassroots, open wiki, and we feature instant publishing; Nupedia had a
fairly old-fashioned, top-down seven-step publishing process. Anyone can start an
article on Citizendium; articles had to be assigned by Nupedia editors.
After a year, we have over
3,200 "live" articles
[Nov. 20, three weeks later: now 3,900] and nearly 5 million words; after a
year, Nupedia had a few dozen articles.
The Citizendium was started with intimate knowledge of the strengths
and weaknesses of both Nupedia and Wikipedia, by the person who engineered both
of those systems. Why on Earth would I revive failed systems?
Myth: the Citizendium uses old-fashioned, top-down editorial
control, so it is going nowhere. We can safely ignore
Wrong. As much as some critics might wish this were true, it isn't. The
Citizendium is very much open and bottom-up and, as a result, it will become harder and harder to ignore, as our growth
accelerates in the next year.
There is a crucial difference between the Citizendium and other expert
wiki encyclopedia projects that have started recently, like Scholarpedia
and the Encyclopedia of Earth: we invite the general public, we
make no work assignments, and our progress, warts and all, is highly visible. The fact that we require real names and that we
have a role for experts doesn't change that!
Not only have we grown nicely in our first year, our growth is accelerating. With
nearly 5 million words and over 3,200 articles, we have tripled our article count since the
conclusion of our pilot project last spring--and that is despite a predictable
summer slowdown, and without the benefit of many press or blog mentions, as we
had in our first six months. In the fall, predictably, activity has
started heating up again, and without any help from the press this time.
We have doubled our rate of article creation, from 7 to 14 per day, in the
last 100 days, and quadrupled it since January. [Nov. 20, three weeks
later: rate in the last month has been over 20/day.] This rate is almost
certain to continue growing, because we have started a (so far very effective)
recruitment push. More people, more articles.
In short, not only have we been growing steadily, our growth
is accelerating. For more, see "The coming explosion,"
Myth: who cares? Even if the Citizendium is growing, there's still no point to
it. Wikipedia has already won. Nobody can catch up.
This unfortunate attitude is confused on many levels. Suppose we had said that about Encyclopedia Britannica when we were
There's no doubting Wikipedia's present popularity and dominance, and we
don't begrudge them their successes. But
those successes do not mean there is no point to the Citizendium.
most importantly, we are rapidly ramping up to a level of
reliability that, without an expert approval system and a more responsible
governance system, Wikipedia will never be able to achieve..
Moreover, it is
hardly as if Wikipedia's popularity means the Citizendium cannot find
many able contributors; there are already many people at work on the
Citizendium who simply would not consider working on Wikipedia. The
world is big enough to sustain two general encyclopedia projects. The
existence of one popular resource does not make all other resources pointless.
Finally, there is no good reason to think that the Citizendium will not
grow at accelerating rates and, in time, have millions of articles itself.
Again, see below. Moreover, I think that our model will prove to be far more attractive to
more people than Wikipedia's. I will not be at all surprised if, after
years, there are more active Citizens than Wikipedians.
Myth: the Citizendium has only 3,200 articles after one year.
This is a sign of failure, because Wikipedia had 20,000 after its first year.
There are several reasons why this is a faulty inference and comparison.
First, the first six months of the project were a private pilot project.
Wikipedia had no such pilot project. So, a more meaningful comparison
might be made in March 2008, after the Citizendium had been publicly
launched for one year. By then, I suspect we'll have something like
Second, our average article length is 1,173 words, while our median article length is
476 words--fairly substantial.
I don't have the statistics on what the typical number of words in Wikipedia articles was in 2001,
but I do know it was substantially fewer. I suspect you can triple our article
count if you want to use article count to compare our amount of content
to Wikipedia in
2001. I believe we also have many more images and other kinds of content than
Wikipedia did in 2001.
Third, throughout our first year, it usually took at least 24 hours to get people on
board. But we've just added an automatic account approval system.
Getting on board is still not instant, but usually, accounts are approved within a
few hours of being requested--and new people are contributing more, as a result.
This alone will accelerate our growth.
Fourth, our articles are far better quality than Wikipedia's
were, and many of our articles are already better than Wikipedia's articles at
present. Here there is no contest whatsoever. This, I hope you'll
agree, counts for something.
Myth: learning how to edit the Citizendium, like all wikis, is too
complicated for my poor, nontechnical brain.
Wikis aren't nearly as complicated as they might seem. "Wikiwiki" means
"fast" in Hawaiian--wikis are fast to edit, fast to update, and fast to learn.
All you have to do is get in the system, go to the page you want to edit (or if
you want to start a new page, check out
way), and start writing your brilliant prose, just as you would an e-mail.
That is really all you need to know, to get started. Really! The
rest you can learn "by osmosis" and in bits and pieces. No one requires
you to be a Wiki Master. Some of us find Wiki Masters slightly annoying
anyway--they're always fiddling with arcane code, and not adding content.
We prefer the content. For that, no arcane code is needed. It really
is easy to dive in!
(Just kidding, you Wiki Masters. We need you, badly, too.)
We're doing well.
We have pioneered a way to use wikis that is new and
importantly different. Even more striking is the
fact that ours is perhaps the best model yet for using wikis. A lot of
people don't realize this yet. But they will--just wait--because this is all
Consider what we have demonstrated already:
An expert-public hybrid wiki leads to high quality.
A role for experts is consistent with solid growth, even on a
experts and the public to work together in an open collaborative project, and as a result,
we've produced many long, meaty articles--in just one year. (Nearly 5
Requiring real identities is consistent with solid growth, even on a
A project that asks
experts to work side-by-side with the general public can survive, grow, and
even accelerate its growth. Making a meaningful role for experts in an
open project really is a viable option for Web 2.0 communities,
as I thought it
would be. That's news!
Eliminating anonymity eliminates a lot of "funny business."
A wiki that
requires real names can grow
nicely and even accelerate. Requiring real identities will
not, in fact, doom an open online community to failure. Actually, it's
nice to know who
you're working with.
It's possible to enforce behavioral rules on an open wiki
effectively. Imagine that!
Just as one would suspect, eliminating anonymous and pseudonymous
contribution goes a very long way to preventing vandalism, uncivil behavior,
and trolling. We have had virtually none. Yes, you read that
right. That's news, too.
Signing a social contract reduces distractions.
Taking basic behavioral rules--like no
personal insults--seriously, and putting rules enforcement in the hands of
relatively mature, educated people, tends to make it easy to deal with
disruption when it does occur. Hooray for our
Parliamentary procedure can be digitized.
Requiring that contributors "sign" an
explicit social contract greatly reduces pointless debates with people who
would argue for a radically different version of the project, allowing
contributors to focus on "live issues" (not dead ones).
The Citizendium Editorial Council has passed six resolutions
a version of parliamentary procedure that makes use of a
mailing list, wiki, and Web forum. As far as we know, this is
unprecedented and has many interesting potential applications. (We
want to automate this, though--we're looking for someone who can code it
Subpages can be used to organize a variety of info types.
We conceive of our purpose as extending beyond purely encyclopedic
information into reference information of all sorts. We are organizing
various kind of reference info logically on
"subpages," with all the subpages on a given topic making up one big
"cluster." For an example, see our
Biology article (click
the green "tabs" at the top of the page). We've only just started with this--but so far, so good.
We've also had some accomplishments that aren't exactly pathbreaking, but
they're still worth bragging about:
Nonprofit Web 2.0 projects can be started on a shoestring.
When we made the announcement of the
Citizendium and secured the use of our first server free of charge from Steadfast
Networks, we had a $0 budget. We bootstrapped everything into
existence. Perhaps some people need
reminding that large, active Web 2.0 projects don't necessarily
require a huge amount of money and a half-dozen strategists. We have gotten by
with one full-time employee (me) and $40,000. But it helps that I've been
supported via speaking and writing fees, and frankly, we do
need more money. (More on that later.)
Many people are willing to support this sort of project with their
If you needed proof that there are many
people who are willing to put in many hours on a project like the
Citizendium, then look at
this post on the
Citizendium-L mailing list. There, I thank dozens of people for
their contributions and a number of organizations for their support.
But enough boasting. Other than the usual plugging away, what are are
we doing now?
While we are still focused first and foremost on encyclopedia articles, we have
opened our doors to other sorts of reference information, which we place on "subpages."
For an example, see New
York City. The Citizendium's subpages include the information normally found on good
encyclopedia articles, such as Related Articles (example:
Harry S. Truman), and External Links (example:
airship), but in the fullness of time will
include further bibliographic material (example:
Joe Louis), almanac-like catalogs or lists
of data (example:
tennis players), image galleries (example:
linguistics), timelines (example:
For each of around 35
workgroup subjects, we are now making lists of 99 (or 198) top-priority articles
to write. We're
specifically inviting people to come and start those articles, and have even
started awarding "points" (redeemable for bragging rights). We've only
recently started this initiative, but it's growing steadily. (Why not have a
look and see if you're inspired to write about one of those topics?)
We've just started getting the word out about the Citizendium--we've sent
calls for participation to only 10 mailing lists (recently). Believe it or
not, virtually all of our growth has been as a result of press coverage.
We have done very little of the sort of digital recruitment we used to get
Nupedia and Wikipedia going. Well, now that we have an automated
registration system, we can handle a lot more applications. So we've
finally started seriously inviting them.
The Citizendium is the perfect venue for
want their students to do public writing. It's perfect because most
topics are wide open, and the project is managed in a way that will
appeal to most professors. Already, we have had a half-dozen or
more articles contributed by students of Citizendium editors, as part
of course assignments. We hope to do serious recruitment for the program
later this year and next year.
In November and December 2007 we'll be doing a fundraiser. Our goal is
Please help us
toward this goal! We hope to raise much more than that, and we
know we might raise less--but we have not in fact done any fundraisers since an
aborted effort in January 2007. We badly need help from a full-time technical guru,
and our full-time Editor-in-Chief (yours truly) is at the moment an unpaid
volunteer, just like everyone else. (My little family living off of my
writing and speaking income, but this isn't much.)
Within the next several months, we have a lot to do indeed.
Adoption of new license. The Citizendium will, finally,
adopt a license (GFDL, CC-by-sa, or CC-by-nc-sa). A number of
essays have been
submitted to help us decide. We've set November 15 as the deadline for
making the decision.
Governance solidification and regularization. Further
development of many governance policies has been "on hold," as we have
focused on other things. At the same
time that these policies are developed or reworked, we will do a "changing of
the guard," meaning that people in positions of responsibility in the project
may move about. For example, our Editorial Council is likely to impose a
requirement of a minimum number of edits in order to participate in the Council,
and then several editors will exit and several newer editors will join. To
take another example, we will be establishing a Judicial Board.
Expansion of subpages. We've got a fairly elaborate plan for
expanding and maturing the use of subpages on the Citizendium.
Advisory Board and Board of Directors. The Citizendium
Fundamental Policies provides that the Editor-in-Chief will appoint an
Advisory Board which will approve a binding community charter as well the first
Board of Directors. I hope to choose the Advisory Board by the end of the year.
Adoption of a Citizendium Charter. Shortly thereafter, my
main task will be to draft the Citizendium Charter, with input from the
entire community. (No draft yet exists.) This will supersede the
Statement of Fundamental Policies.
Launch SharedKnowing (a mailing list). While this
discussion-and-announcement list is hosted by the Citizendium, it is
a distinct service, and non-Citizens are welcome to join the list. It is
devoted to "Well-reasoned, polite discussion of the nature of online knowledge
production communities, with special but not exclusive focus on community policy
(production, governance, management) questions; 'the new politics of knowledge'
broadly speaking. Though participation is by no means restricted to
philosophers, we would like the list to have a more theoretical or philosophical
focus, as opposed to being concerned with the specific minutia of specific
communities (such as Wikipedia)."
In 2008 and 2009, what do we hope to do, in addition to growing at an
Major MediaWiki improvements. We badly need to make several
improvements to our system. One way or another--either through donations
or with help from a technology partner--we hope to dig into these
improvements next year. For example:
subpage-and-metadata system we've recently added to a built-in system.
This will allow people to change large amounts of metadata--and even do
things like rate articles--by simply filling out a form.
- Build in the workgroup apparatus into the wiki system.
- Create a one-click article approval system, as well as a way to solicit
approval or comments from the right editors quickly
- Create an account management system that allows people to subscribe and
unsubscribe to project mailing lists from one spot, manage various kinds of
reminders, and designate themselves as "active" or "inactive," etc.
- Convert our talk pages into threaded forums.
- Add a public feedback system. There has been some demand for this,
but it's a non-trivial request.
- Display "thank you" messages from donors at the bottom of every page in
proportion to the amount (and recency) the donor has given.
Search for technology partner? If we do not soon receive sufficient
funding to enable us to make the significant changes to MediaWiki that really need to
be made, we might invite a special relationship with a technology company.
It seems likely that, if we achieve the success we hope for, the wiki software
as configured for the Citizendium will be in some demand. This
could motivate a technology firm to supply us with the coding hours needed to
make all the changes that we need to make; they then become the key service
provider for the Citizendium configuration of MediaWiki.
The Citizendium in other languages. Because an online
republic actually requires a mature governance framework and an editor-in-chief,
starting the Citizendium in other languages will not be very easy.
Still, it is something that we are committed to doing, or helping with, at least. We
will probably not have time to devote to this until 2008, however. It will
require considerable time and attention from the Editor-in-Chief and the new Board
Independence from the Tides Center. In December 2006, the
Citizendium Foundation joined the non-profit Tides Center as one of their
projects. We did this only because Tides enabled us to accept donations
immediately and assisted with administrative (office) details. However,
this is a temporary arrangement. We wish to be our own, completely
independent 501(c)(3) non-profit. We will make time to do this once our
Board of Directors is in place.
Launch new projects. In 2008 or 2009, I will turn toward other,
brand new content production projects on behalf of the Citizendium Foundation
and integrated (as much as possible) with the Citizendium wiki.
Sanger turns to fundraising. At some point in 2008 or 2009, I
will move away from active management of the wiki--which at this point still
seems necessary--and use more of my time for fundraising. Given our
fundamentals and success so far, I feel confident that we could be raising
hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. I worked on the
project itself, however, to make sure that there is something to raise money
for. I don't regret the decision, despite our having a very small
budget indeed!--Of course, if we have funds to hire a professional development
director, I may not have to do this.
New editor-in-chief when funds are located. Finally, in 2008 or
2009, consistently with the promise I made
when first launching the project,
I will step down as Editor-in-Chief and help guarantee the start of a regular,
rule-governed, meaningful transition of management. I want this position
reasonably well-funded, however.
I want to make a prediction about the next year. At some point,
possibly very soon, the Citizendium will grow explosively--say, quadruple the number of its active contributors,
or even grow by an
order of magnitude. And it will experience that growth over the course of
a month or two, and its growth will continue to accelerate from that higher
rate. Yeah, maybe this is a little wishful thinking of my own.
But there is actually good reason to expect this; I am not merely trying
to make a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Let me explain why it's reasonable to expect explosive growth in the not-too-distant future.
First, many people now know about us, but are watching and waiting
before they get involved. They're not early adopters; they'll join only after
we're more proven or
popular. There are a lot of people who were motivated to make accounts (we have well over
2,000 "CZ Authors"), but very many haven't been actually motivated to
start seriously editing
the wiki. (Over 200 accounts are used to make edits every month.) I
regularly find people online who say, "I support what
you're doing, it looks neat, maybe I'll get involved, but..."
But what? But they're not convinced we're a going concern, of course.
Why should they contribute to the Citizendium if it's always going to be
small and unimportant?
This leads me to my second point. We will soon have developed to the point
where a bunch of people can, all at once, prove to each other that the
Citizendium is something really exciting. The Internet is famously
subject to "crowd" phenomena. A news story, an endorsement from a famous
person, or something more mysterious can cause massive migration to a new Web
project--especially if there is an unfulfilled need for it. When that
happens, there is a sudden spike in activity--and those involved can observe the
spike, and if the fundamentals are
solid, that will feed on itself and lead to sustained growth.
Well, our fundamentals are extremely solid. There is an unfulfilled
need for an expert-guided, open, free encyclopedia under responsible management. A
huge number of people know about us, and they just need a little push to get
involved. When enough of them do, we will reach a tipping point--our
visible growth will cause an avalanche of interest among our inactive supporters, who will then be convinced that, indeed,
we really are a going concern. And worth contributing to.
We're close to such a tipping point now, I think. Here's a push, then.
The rate at which we have started new articles has actually tripled since
January and doubled since July (the last 100 days). In mid-January, just
when we "un-forked," we were adding just 4.3 articles per day; in mid-July, we
were at 7; and by mid-October we reached 14. We have tripled our creation rate
since January and doubled it since July.
To put it simply, we aren't just growing; our growth is accelerating.
(Technical note: it is actually difficult to say precisely what our
growth rate has been. The total number of articles, including ones that
are not "live," is currently 4,070, and the above growth rates include the
growth rates for all of these, not just live articles. But the growth rate of
live articles is probably even higher, because I think over the course of 2007,
we have imported fewer and fewer unimproved Wikipedia articles. Anyway,
the increase in growth rate for "live" articles is also very probably close to
300% since January and 200% since July.)
Suppose that we continue to accelerate our growth.
This is not unreasonable. The only question is how quickly we will
accelerate. If we were to continue to triple our article count
each year, then we would break 100,000 articles by 2010, and one million
articles by 2012.
Suppose we merely double our article count every year.
Then we'll still break 100,000 articles by 2011 and one million by 2015.
Suppose we merely add 50% more articles every year.
We would break 50,000 articles by 2011, 100,000 articles by 2013, and one
million by 2019. Even this relatively slow pace would be well worth
working toward, considering the other advantages of the Citizendium.
In short, if you assume that we will continue to
accelerate our growth rate by at least 50% per year, you can expect us to
have over 100,000 articles in about five years. Frankly, accelerating
our growth rate by 50% would be, by the standards of thriving and proven Web
2.0 projects--like the Citizendium--on the slow side. I'd be
willing to go out on a limb and say we'll do better. I think we'll at
least double our article creation rate every year. So I think we'll
probably have at least 100,000 by 2011, and one million by 2015.
And that's without any such "explosion of growth" as I
mentioned earlier. If we do reach a "tipping point" where loads of new
people join all at once, we can increase our growth rate not by 200% or 300%
in one year, but by 1000%, or more.
Of course, I don't claim to be able to predict what our rate of
acceleration will be. It's still possible that the project will, from
here until eternity, muddle on creating 14 articles per day. It's even
possible that the project will simply collapse and our rate will go to 0.
I just don't think that these latter possibilities are at all likely.
project's fundamentals are solid and growing stronger through motivated,
diligent effort. Most of our active contributors show
no signs of giving up. I'm not giving up.
Lots of new people are getting active, especially
with our recruitment drive. Getting on board is now quick and easy.
We become more and more credible, both as a
productive community and as an information source, every day.
Citizendium articles are also rising in the Google rankings, which in
time will create viral growth through the Google effect,
as I argued last
spring. Finally, as I explained above, we might reach a tipping point
sometime fairly soon, and increase our growth rate explosively.
I've had a particularly fascinating idea in mind since
before the Citizendium was conceived. It is one of my deep
motivations for starting the project.
Consider a possibility. What would content
shared in common look like if it were subject to open review and collaborative
development from really large numbers of specialists, and other smart
people with valuable input, from around the world? Imagine
particularly if versions of this content could be approved and displayed,
while further work could continue, under expert guidance, indefinitely?
Given enough time and enough people, the results would surely be amazing.
The world has never seen anything like the picture I have in my mind's eye.
It is hard to predict for sure the quality of the content, but I suspect,
based on my experience so far, that virtually every article created this way
would, after some years, be wonderfully readable, yet also extremely detailed,
perfectly representative of the range of expert opinion, and in general,
magisterial. What if we had hundreds of thousands of articles
like that, on every subject? A central storehouse of really reliable
information would change the world, I suspect, in ways we can't even guess
If this possibility is amazing, it is even more
amazing that it's within our grasp. We're still in our infancy, but I
see no reason to think that the Citizendium cannot seize this
opportunity. We are laying the foundations for it, and every day it
seems more likely.
I suspect that even many rank-and-file Citizens
(contributors to the Citizendium) do not fully grasp this potential.
Almost certainly, the vast majority of people who are casually tracking our
progress haven't got an inkling of where the project might lead. Those
who do don't really care about what strike them as wild
possibilities. Perhaps it's a weakness of mine that I do care about
wild possibilities. But
given two reasonable assumptions--merely time and further development along the path we've already struck
out on--the outcome described seems not just possible, not
just likely, but inevitable.
Of course, I could just have a surfeit of imagination.
Time will tell. What I do know is that if we do have a good chance to
create something so stupefyingly useful for humanity, we must try.
Do you agree? Then join up and pitch in!
For more information on the Citizendium project, see
the citizendium.org website. You
can easily join