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Revision as of 17:45, 20 March 2008 by Larry Sanger (Talk | contribs) (Introductory topics)

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Introductory topics

What is the Citizendium, anyway?

The Citizendium is a wiki encyclopedia project aiming to create the world's finest free encyclopedia (and general reference) source, one that is reliable as well as comprehensive.
To achieve this, we are inviting the general public to help create content, but we also have a "gentle guiding" role for experts. Our contributors use their real names, and the whole project is largely vandalism-free and friendly--but also productive and growing!

How are you progressing?

Quite nicely, with thousands of contributors signed up, hundreds participating every month, and over [[Category:CZ Live|Template:Articles number articles]]. Our rate of article production has increased, and we're accelerating in other dimensions as well.

How does one join?

It's pretty easy. Fill out a short form--we ask for a name, e-mail address, short bio, and (private!) information about how to confirm your identity--and then you'll be asked to confirm your e-mail address. When that's done, a community manager, called a constable...and then read about how to get started.

How do I get started? Don't you have a lot of complicated rules I need to read first?

Again, it's pretty easy. Do you have some knowledge you'd like to express? About--well--almost anything? Then search for an article about it. At this early stage, we probably don't have an article about it. So, start one. That's dead simple to do. Please don't worry about getting all the formatting right, and certainly don't bother adding the {{subpages}} template! Just use "the easy way" you'll see here, and start writing. What do we want you to do? Write. That's the main thing. And writing for the Citizendium is about as easy as writing an e-mail. For more "get started" links, see Getting Started, and for a single, short, user-friendly page that contains all the basic getting-started info, read our Quick Start!

The justification and prospects of the project

Why require real names?

There are at least three reasons. First, it improves the credibility of the output: people can see who contributed some content, and whether they appear to know anything about the subject. Second, by making people take real-world personal responsibility for their contributions, it becomes possible to enforce rules. When problem contributors can make up a new pseudonym as soon as they get out of line, this makes it in principle impossible to enforce rules effectively. But if you can enforce rules effectively, you can do the work of a project a lot more efficiently. Third, people do tend to behave themselves better when their identities are known and their behavior is out in the open, and good behavior is crucial to a smoothly running knowledge community.
We take no official stance on the common practice of anonymity online, as a rule. We assume that most of our contributors are in favor of it. But the Citizendium is a special sort of project: the arguments for real names in a serious "knowledge project" are much stronger than in other contexts.

Why make a special role for experts?

Experts are needed to play meaningful roles because only they can be counted on to recognize when some content represents the latest expert knowledge. Amateurs and dilettantes are sometimes perfectly capable of creating excellent and reliable material on many subjects, especially if they're good writers and researchers; but they are inconsistent in doing so, and they generally lack the expert's ability to judge when some content actually represents the latest expert opinion on a subject. It seems obvious that the intelligent use of experts in a collaborative project can help to improve the quality of the output. For further discussion of the editor role, look at see the FAQ section below and in The Editor Role.

Why think it is important for people to agree to a Statement of Fundamental Policies? Why enforce a policy of professionalism in behavior?

Anyone who has spent a lot of time working in online communities is familiar with certain types of problematic characters and certain patterns of bad behavior. Governance of online communities is very hard. But what makes it hard is that such communities are generally volunteer communities of equals, and in such communities, it is hard to get buy-in from participants for resting some decisionmaking authority in anyone's hands. This may be a problem about the Internet's thoroughgoing egalitarianism. This is why it is so important that online communities adopt constitutions which institute sensible, representative governance--as it were, just as real, offline communities do. See our Statement of Fundamental Policies. Beyond that, they should require their members to sign onto the rules explicitly, and then give the members a key stake in the governance of the project. We believe that giving members an active stake in governance gets them personally invested, and great things can result. See our proposals system.
A bedrock principle of the Citizendium is professional behavior: while you need not actually be a "professional" to participate, you are still expected to behave like one. Offline communities have effective social pressures to keep impolite, insulting, and inflammatory conversation to a minimum: frowns, uncomfortable silences, social ostracism. Online communities cannot use these same mechanisms, and so they need something different. Some of the longest-lasting, most interesting, and best-behaved Internet discussion groups feature "moderation"--that is, a referee can tap someone on the shoulder if he is getting out of line, and may eject him from the conversation if necessary. While articles or talk pages are wide open to edit, Citizendium constables are empowered to remove comments that are disrespectful. See Professionalism.

But don't the above points really mean the project is some sort of top-down, "fascistic" or at least old-fashioned sort of system? Isn't this a step backward?

No--definitely not, and those who say such things about the Citizendium system have no experience with it, and presumably do not understand it. One glance at our recent changes log makes it clear that the project operates as much as a "bazaar" as any other wiki or open source software project. People contribute as they want, when they want; they are going off in a thousand different directions at once. And, like other open projects, out of this chaos, order emerges. Work does not proceed only after someone orders it. Work can begin as soon as a person signs up.
In fact, our system is a decided improvement over similar systems, made in full knowledge of the virtues of those systems. As with many revolutionaries, the front line of open source hackers [IN PROGRESS]

What exactly is the point of the project, when Wikipedia is so huge and of at least reasonably good quality?

If we can do better than Wikipedia--or more positively, if we can pioneer a truly effective way to gather knowledge--then shouldn't we? See "Why Citizendium?" where this valid question is discussed at length.

How can you possibly succeed? Wikipedia is an enormous community. How can you go head-to-head with Wikipedia, now a veritable goliath?

The solid interest and growth of our project demonstrates that there are many people who love the vibrancy and basic concept of Wikipedia, but who believe it needs to be governed under more sensible rules, and with a special place for experts. We hope they will join the Citizendium effort. We obviously have a long way to go, but we just started. Give us a few years; Wikipedia has had a rather large head start.

You began as a fork of Wikipedia, and then decided not to fork after all, but start most of your articles over from scratch. Why?

The short answer is people appear to be more motivated to start their own articles than they were to edit old Wikipedia articles; the prospect of starting over and simply doing better is more attractive to more people than trying to clean up Wikipedia. Please see this blog post for further explanation.

The project's people and culture

How similar is this project to open source hacker culture, and how similar to the culture of academia?

This is a part of our experiment: we are trying to marry the two cultures. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. On the one hand, we want to teach academics and other professionals to work in a strongly collaborative way and adopt the principles and ethics articulated in, for example, Eric Raymond's essays "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and "Homesteading the Noosphere" (essays we recommend you read, if you have not yet done so). So this will be a bottom-up, collaborative, distributed wiki project. It is not the command-and-control, bureaucratic sort of project with which many academics are familiar. On the other hand, we want to make a special place for experts to get involved as senior members of the community. Really, this is not that different from open source software projects, because those projects have senior participants who decide what's goes into and what stays out of the code. This only means that the hacker notion of a meritocracy on the basis of visible work must be qualified--not entirely jettisoned, of course--so that people with real-world, hard-won credentials are given an appropriate sort of authority in the project. (That's visible work too.) See "The Role of Editors" below.

Who is joining this community?

Generally, people who support the basic project design--and there's a lot of them from various walks of life. It's not just "experts," and it's not just "the usual online mob." Think of it as a highly potent blend--something really unusual, new, different--because it really is. Many academics and other highly knowledgeable people have gone out of their way to try to edit Wikipedia, only essentially to be beaten back by the community. Not only are they welcome, they are asked to form part of the editorial leadership of the Citizendium. Many disaffected Wikipedians have gotten involved. There are also a lot of students, and young professionals, who simply appreciate a more mature, sensible community. There are even some people who are being seriously introduced to wikis for the very first time by the Citizendium.

Who is behind the project?

If you want to understand the Citizendium properly, you have to understand that it is part of a relatively new and largely misunderstood phenomenon: it is a self-selecting online community. For that reason, the most important members, the bedrock of the project, are not some editorial board, but instead the rank-and-file volunteer authors and editors who work on the project regularly. In this way, it is more like a place or a community than a publishing project. That said, we do have some formal governance apparatus, including an Executive Committee, an CZ:Editorial Council, and a Constabulary. There are other people with various responsibilities as well. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is Editor-in-Chief.
For a further introduction to the community and how it operates, see Community Overview.

What partnerships do you have now?

We are a project of the Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We intend to become an independent nonprofit before too much longer. Steadfast Networks of Chicago is currently hosting our servers and providing our bandwidth. Steadfast has donated two servers and other items, while we are paying for three more ourselves. Some of our mailing lists are hosted at Purdue University. We have had three reasonably significant grants from different foundations or individuals associated with foundations (see Donors).

In many open source communities, there are "benevolent dictators for life." Is that Larry Sanger's role here?

No. We believe that a collaborative online community, to be healthy, must resemble a law-governed, constitutional republic--just like offline communities. So, when the charter is adopted, Larry will be fully beholden to whatever processes it defines. He might then lose his role as editor-in-chief. He's willing to take that chance in order to set up a community that is healthy, vibrant, responsible, and self-managing. In fact, since the beginning of the project, Larry has been committed to stepping down from the leadership of the Citizendium in 2009 or 2010 at the latest, to set the healthy precedent of allowing others--members of the volunteer community--to take over his role according to a rule-governed, regular transfer of leadership.

Funding and related issues

Can I donate to the project, to help ensure it comes into existence?

Yes, please! We take major credit cards and your donation is tax-deductible. You are donating the money to Tides, legally speaking, but the money is earmarked for the Citizendium (minus Tides' very reasonable fee for their valuable administrative work).

Will the Citizendium accept advertisements?

No. Sponsors of the Citizendium would have the opportunity to be named in brief, unobtrusive, text-only sponsorship statements at the bottom of Citizendium pages. A statement might read something like this: "The Citizendium is made possible in part by a generous grant from XYZ Corporation." The articles on which these statements appear will be determined randomly, but the frequency of any given name would be determined by the amount of the grant. This is done in public television and radio and such sponsorships are not generally regarded as being at odds with the non-profit mission of public broadcasting.
The Citizendium community will enjoy broad oversight over the sponsorship program as well as the proceeds from it. Guidelines for sponsorship statements will be included in the community charter. We will also be writing into the project charter both that sponsors will have no editorial influence over the project, that enforceable, adequate oversight of this rule must be in place, and that no grants that make specific editorial demands will be accepted. (The precise wording of such rules remains to be worked out.)

How committed are the Citizendium leaders to making and keeping this a non-profit project?

Completely. If some big corporation were to offer us a million dollars to reorganize the project as a for-profit (if that were possible somehow), we would refuse. We're not in it for the money.

Not in it for the money? Why not?

Because that's the only way the Citizendium can thrive as a project that is at once reliable, guided by experts, and maximally welcoming to the open source community. We believe that volunteers--both from academia and from the hacker world--will refuse to contribute to a Wikipedia-style knowledge project if it merely lines the pockets of profit-making enterprise. Besides, the best way to ensure freedom, independence, and neutrality of information is to make sure that the information does not depend on any particular vested interests--that the content itself is ultimately in the hands of a responsible online "republic of the mind."

The role of editors

What do your expert "editors" do here?

Expert editors work shoulder-to-shoulder with non-experts in this project in more or less the same bottom-up fashion that Wikipedia uses. The biggest difference is that experts are well respected. Editors have two functions in the system. First, they can approve articles. Second, when content disputes arise, editors are empowered to articulate a resolution--if the article falls in their areas of specialization. Think of editors as the village elders wandering the bazaar and occasionally dispensing advice and reining in the wayward. Their presence is merely a moderating, civilizing influence. They don't stop the "bazaar" from being a bazaar.

Who can become an editor, and how?

As a rule of thumb, editors in traditionally "academic" fields will require the qualifications typically needed for a tenure-track academic position in the field. Editors in "professional" fields require the usual terminal degree in their field and at least three years responsible professional experience, and, in most cases, several publications as well. Editors in non-academic, non-professional fields require varying other kinds of qualification, and can become "specialty editors." In addition, in the future, persons will be able to become editors by direct appeal to editorial workgroups--this exception should, we hope, take care of the unusual cases.
The requirement of real world credentials reflects no great love for credentials per se, but instead represents a crucially important means whereby editorship can be established independently of the internal politics and bias of decision-makers. For more information, see The Editor Role.

This will be "Expertpedia," won't it? Experts only, right?

Not at all! In fact, non-experts play an essential role in the Citizendium. We could not survive without our non-expert authors.

Can you really expect headstrong Wikipedia types to work under the guidance of expert types in this way?

It depends on the Wikipedian. For many, probably not. The Citizendium will not be Wikipedia. We do expect people who have respect for expertise, for knowledge hard gained, to love the opportunity to work alongside editors. Imagine yourself as a college student who had the opportunity to work alongside, and under the loose and gentle direction of, your professors. This isn't going to be a top-down, command-and-control system. It is merely a sensible community: one where the people who have made it their life's work to study certain areas are given a certain appropriate authority--without thereby converting the community into a traditional top-down academic editorial scheme. For more, see Introduction to CZ for Wikipedians.

How can you possibly ensure on a wiki that editors will have the carefully limited authority you want to give them?

Two ways. First, as anyone with much experience in thriving Internet communities knows, the community itself places significant peer pressures on people to follow the rules. This works for most people, and is one key reason that wikis are able to work. Second, for those not susceptible to peer pressure, there is a Dispute Resolution system (still under some development) for content-based problems, and "constables" (the local name for the people empowered to ban troublemaking editors) for behavior-based problems.

Are editors paid?

No. The hope, of course, is that we may raise enough money to pay key members of the community to work on the project full-time. Honoraria might also become possible, but it all depends on the level of donations, sponsorship, and other revenue-generators.

What, then, can motivate editors to get involved? After all, they are professionals used to getting paid for their expertise.

The idea is that this is a free resource for the entire world to use. Editors will have a desire to teach. Some people also feel a professional obligation to teach, something that is reflected by the fact that so many professional organizations have educational and outreach committees. Also, scholars and students alike are rightly concerned that widely-disseminated information about their interests be correct. The idea that we have the opportunity to create a resource that is not only enormous but truly reliable as well should be very exciting to many academics. Besides, the process is fun, which is motivation for many participants at all levels of attainment. For more, see Why Citizendium?

Wikipedia and the Citizendium

How does the project differ from Wikipedia?

In several significant ways: expert involvement, the requirement of logging in and real names, and more. What will not change is that the project will still be an open/free content wiki.

Do you want to try to "steal" people from Wikipedia and divide the community?

That is not the aim. Wikipedia has already driven off no doubt thousands of would-be contributors, and there are thousands, if not millions, of people who never would think about contributing to Wikipedia in the first place, but who might be willing to give the Citizendium a go. We want to set up, not a replacement, but an alternative to Wikipedia, a responsible constitutional republic that makes a special place for experts and invites the general public to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Are you attempting to shut Wikipedia down?

No. That makes up no part of our aim. We wish instead to take the best of Wikipedia's model and use it to create something better.

Aha! So you are trying to outdo Wikipedia, aren't you?

Well, of course.

If you're not trying to shut Wikipedia down, then what relationship do you want with Wikipedia?

A mutually complementary one, in which we occupy different social niches, as it were. Those who want to work in a system committed to the maximum empowerment of amateurs should always be able to do so on Wikipedia. Those who, by contrast, want to work shoulder-to-shoulder in a bottom-up system with experts, in which the experts are able to settle content disputes, will soon have the option of doing so on the Citizendium. Furthermore, those who want the option of working anonymously and in a wild-and-woolly atmosphere in which rules are not necessarily enforced should always be able to do so on Wikipedia. Those who, by contrast, want to take personal, real-world responsibility for their efforts, and to work in a dynamic but rule-governed environment, will soon have the option of doing so on the Citizendium.

Besides, the world has had multiple encyclopedias for a long time. There's no reason why there needs to be just one free, collaborative, general encyclopedia.

You could have started this project a long time ago. Why now?

The full and frank story is very complex, and not ready to be told. Perhaps we should have done this a long time ago. But perhaps we were not fully justified in doing it until fairly recently. In particular, many of us think that Wikipedia's attempts to paper over its very public mini-scandals with minor changes have been weak. It is pretty clear to us that Wikipedia will probably never seriously attempt to solve what we, at least, regard as the central problems of the project. For further explanation, see "Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge."

International Prospects of the Citizendium

Will you be attempting to start versions of the Citizendium in languages other than English?

Yes, if the English language Citizendium succeeds. We have seen quite a bit of interest from people speaking all major European languages.

If Citizendia in other languages are started, will the central management of the Citizendium be fully international?

The extent to which the project is centralized at all, or instead federated or "franchised," remains to be decided. Participants must not assume that we will simply replicate the current, problematic Wikipedia model; we will be developing our relationships much more deliberately and carefully.

How will you actually get the Citizendia in other languages started?

This remains to be worked out and debated. We've started listing potential contributors in other languages.

How do I contact Citizendium staff?

Please see Contact.

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