Citizendium seems to bob, noah’s-ark-like, on the turning tide of wiki-populism

Conceived by Larry Sanger as “a more reliable free encyclopedia” to “correct exactly the sort of abuses that people demonize Web 2.0 for”, Citizendium pitches itself as distinctively rigorous compared to Wikipedia. It delays calling itself an encyclopedia yet, requires accountability, assigns the ultimate editorial privileges to experts, deploys a constabulary and is intolerant of disruption, certifies articles, categorically refuses to mirror Wikipedia entries, and makes policy decisions by representatives rather than by general consensus.

It was conceived as a fork from Wikipedia because

“… boatloads of academics who know about Wikipedia now, are upset about it because their students (and the general public, and worse, their colleagues) are constantly getting misinformation from it, and they are motivated to do something about it.” (Sanger, 2006)

A ‘fork’ is a way of distancing Citizendium from its untrustworthy but well-known and successful parent Wikipedia without disowning the parent and losing the inheritance. It’s a way to market a made-over Wikipedia to experts, a way which assumes that the trust of said experts in Wikipedia is irrevocably lost and that they will adamantly refuse to steward their subject areas within Wikipedia – even if the new governance adopted by Citizendium is applied there. The fork is a bid for legitimacy “a handy way of joining [Wikipedia] (their content) without *really* joining ’em (their community)” (Sanger, 2006). The Wikipedia community is something to be shunned for the sake of one’s reputation, then.

Inevitably Citizendium “will soon attempt to unseat Wikipedia as the go-to destination for general information online” and of course, that means go-to for authors as well as readers. All those Wikipedia contributors who can, should abandon ship and become Citizendium authors and editors. Wikipedia looks set to wither and die, unless Citizendium, when it comes of age, assumes its name.

Looked at one way, Citizendium is an indictment of populism in the enterprise of defining our world. It implies that our unprecedentedly evolved educational and social systems are failing to endow sufficient responsibility, expertise and discrimination for us each to participate equally in a collaborative encyclopaedia project. In this respect, it is anti-constructivist and somewhat patriarchal. In conversation Sonja adds that this move places Wikipedia as an encyclopedia first-and-foremost, underplaying the behind-the-scenes discourse as people come together to discuss the object of their interest. She also doubts that it is possible to reproduce, in an orchestrated fashion, an explosive phenomenon like Wikipedia, and has reservations about the validity of the authority conferred by an editorial and policing process.

My jury’s out on this, but I’m broadly in favour of Citizendium – because of a persistent opinion that the point of having a collaborative encyclopaedia at all (having skirted briefly round paradigms of knowledge with Sonja, I can add that I’m firmly committed to the idea of having an encyclopedia per se) is enhanced accuracy, currency and completeness – all producers of encyclopaediae (sp?) have these things as their goal, and only differ in their way of achieving them. It’s reasonable to suppose that expertise and accountability can temper this kind of collaboration – it’s just a lamentable loss of faith that the critical academics and experts who’ve been complaining to Sanger don’t roll up their sleeves and get involved with shaping up Wikipedia instead of clamouring for something more exclusive. Is it this again:

“… why should [academics] engage with a public whose political masters have in the past delighted in deriding abstract pursuits because they could not perceive their utility, or who casually conflate and confuse social with intellectual elitism?”(THES, 2007)

Anyway, as an alternative here’s fresh new ground – Citizendium: still a wiki, assuming continual change and participation, and certainly not a closed shop like the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not inevitable that it will be either elitist or circumscriptive.

Sanger, L. (2006). Why we should all fork at once. 26 Sep 2006. Post to Citizendium-l. Available from

THES (2007). The UK’s unloved elite. 13 April 2007.


One thought on “Citizendium seems to bob, noah’s-ark-like, on the turning tide of wiki-populism

  1. Pingback: Contra Citizendium « Flesh is Grass

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