Larry Sanger, Founder, Citizendium

Larry Sanger, Founder, Citizendium

Larry Sanger is a co-founder of Wikipedia and the driving force behind Citizendium, a new wiki-based project that aims to improve on Wikipedia by adding "gentle expert oversight" to the Wikipedia model. Sanger was the editor-in-chief of Nupedia, a Web-based encyclopedia whose articles were written by experts and licensed as free content, from March 2000 until September 2003. According to his entry in Wikipedia, he grew frustrated with the slow progress of Nupedia and in January 2001 proposed the creation of a wiki to spur the development of articles; the result was Wikipedia, which Sanger named, shaped, and guided as its only paid editor until March 2002. Born in Bellevue, Washington, and reared in Anchorage, Alaska, he received his B.A. in philosophy from Reed College in 1991 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Ohio State University in 2000. The beta version of Citizendium launched in late March.

Philanthropy News Digest: Why does the world need another free, wiki-based encyclopedia?

Larry Sanger: Citizendium offers two innovations you won't find in Wikipedia. First, we require our contributors to supply their real names and biographies. And second, we make special room for expert editors. There are other differences, but those are the major ones and point to why we think the world needs another wiki-based encyclopedia. One of the central problems with Wikipedia is that the ordinary reader of a Wikipedia entry doesn't know whether he or she can trust what they are reading. Our goal is to produce a more credible, reliable resource for readers, while also creating a more pleasant community for everyone to participate in.

PND: Traditionally, editors in the non-Web world have served a gatekeeping function. What, if anything, does your decision to feature them in Citizendium say about the nature of collaboratively produced content on the Web?

LS: Most people look for expert approval in order to have a reasonable level of trust that an encyclopedia entry, a journal article, a serious work of nonfiction represents what is known about a subject. It doesn't matter how many smart people end up contributing; if they aren't specialists, the credibility of the work suffers.

But the gatekeeper concept has all the wrong connotations, at least as far as Citizendium is concerned. Our editors aren't gatekeepers in the sense that they decide what is published on the site. On the contrary. The public will be able to see our ugly and imperfect content as it's being developed in the same way that people can see ugly and imperfect content being developed on Wikipedia. The difference, of course, is that we have created a special role for experts in our community, which we believe will create a different kind of community.

PND: What, if anything, does the prevalence of cyber-vandalism on the Web say about the future of user-generated content on the Web?

LS: That's a problem Citizendium has been grappling with, and I think we've come up with a solution, which is to require the use of real names and identities. When you eliminate anonymity on the Web, people generally behave themselves. There is a related problem, of course, which is simply bad behavior. And there the solution is well understood by people who have lots of experience managing online communities. You have to be willing to post hard-and-fast rules of conduct and then enforce them by kicking people off the site or out of the project when they violate those rules. It sounds harsh, but it's necessary if you want to have a healthy, thriving online community.

PND: One of the stated goals of your project is to create a compendium of knowledge that is clearly written, entertaining, and — as far as possible — true. Who is the final arbiter of truth in the Citizendium model?

LS: There are two ways of looking at that issue. You could say that it is going to be experts who will decide, but that's an oversimplified way of looking at the situation. In the Citizendium model truth is determined not just by editors but by a lot of other people who aren't necessarily experts but who may have a lot of valuable and interesting things to contribute. And just as important is the fact that all of the edits are done out in the open before a critical and engaged audience of co-contributors. Ultimately, when you create a lot of content in that kind of context there isn't a single arbiter of truth. It becomes a community function.

PND: Could you ever have imagined that Wikipedia would achieve the popularity and success it has in such a short period of time?

LS: No, I don't think so. But I always thought it was a possibility — especially given that another project called "Everything Too" announced its one millionth node around the time we started Wikipedia. The thing I never anticipated is that Wikipedia would become a top ten destination on the Web in a matter of five or six years. That's pretty amazing.

— Mitch Nauffts