By Nate Anderson | Published: December 30, 2007 – 11:15PM CT
Soon after the Google announcement, Sanger responded in a blog post: yes, Citizendium still has “better chance” to become the “best knowledge base that Earth has ever seen.” Sanger later expanded on those remarks in response to questions posed by Ars, and the issues he raises should be of interest to anyone concerned for the promise of communal knowledge production.
Sanger’s main source of confidence is that he believes the Knol system has been tried before, and has failed. “The main elements of the Knol system have been tested repeatedly, and shown to produce, at best, large amounts of mediocre content,” he says, singling out sites like h2g2.com, squidoo.com, and everything2.com. “Maybe Google will have a different experience just because they’re Google, but I doubt it.”
He sees the communal aspects of knowledge production as Citizendium’s greatest advantage. Unlike Knol, which will carry articles authored by a single person and won’t be directly editable by others, Citizendium retains more of Wikipedia’s freewheeling format; anyone can make changes directly to articles, which are then vetted by one of the experts on the topic before becoming “approved.”
People are working together on a shared project with Citizendium in a way that they aren’t in Knol (at least as that project has been described so far), and Sanger hopes that the non-commercial, cooperative nature of the venture will attract enough “idealists” to keep the project moving. He stresses that Citizendium has racked up more words in its first year than did Wikipedia.
But can idealism of this kind really attract the kind of talent such a massive project needs, or will the lure of Google’s shiny lucre entice people to write for Knol instead? Sanger admits that there will be “exchanges of contributors” between the two projects, but remains confident that “Citizendium will get more emigrants from Knol than Knol will get from the Citizendium.”
This view is based in part on the premise that most contributors will make almost no money from Knol. Until more details are available, it’s hard to say whether this belief is accurate; should Knol start to generate large payouts for top contributors, it could tempt plenty of writers who might otherwise spend more time in communities like Citizendium.
But the battle Citizendium is fighting goes far beyond Knol; it goes even beyond Wikipedia. Sanger sees Citizendium’s approach as fundamentally offensive to the entire ethos of Web 2.0, which he characterizes in this way:
- radical egalitarianism
- an immature, anarchical community
- for-profit Silicon Valley ownership rather than contributor control
Should Citizendium succeed—and it may well do so alongside both Knol and Wikipedia—it would do so by standing these premises on their heads. Personal, real-names accountability, a role for experts, an ordered community—these are the sorts of things that Citizendium stands for. Sanger believes that they represent an inherently better approach to knowledge production. Now his project just needs to generate the content to prove it.