Citizendium: Sanger on Edge.org
May 1st, 2007

Here are some thoughts on Larry Sanger’s “Who Says We Know? On the New Politics of Knowledge”.

Putting aside the loaded debate about collective intelligence vs. expert intelligence, there is actually a more important development here:

One of the inherent qualities of a wiki like Wikipedia, with an Open License, is what some people call the “right to fork”

http://www.communitywiki.org/en/RightToFork
http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?RightToFork

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_fork

Wikipedia is itself a fork of Nupedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nupedia

Citizendium took copies only of the Wikipedia articles that Citezendium participants were currently working on at the time of the launch, instead of all of the articles in wikipedia.

(Actually, Citizendium is a “partial” fork, under http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Text_of_the_GNU_Free_Documentation_License)

It seems that forking in wiki communities is almost inevitable. And, forking need not be adversarial in nature. For instance, MeatballWiki is a fork of the original WikiWikiWeb. Later, CommunityWiki was a fork of MeatballWiki. It was originally an adversarial fork, but relationships re-established over time, and now both communities are close. OBM Wiki Hive is a non-adversarial fork of CommunityWiki, and is set up as a “wiki hive” to encourage forking.

However, Citizendium seems to be a kind of adversarial forking of Wikipedia, in that Citizendium seeks to “unseat” Wikipedia as the “goto” place for information online.

The cool thing about right to fork, and Citizendium, and all of the other wikipedia forks, is that all of the problems with all of them can be potentially resolved in a new fork. Maybe people will end up hating the “expert edited” model of Citizendium, but maybe some other governance innovation will emerge from the Citizendium experiment? This was discussed recently on the Citzendium blog:

http://blog.citizendium.org/2007/04/26/a-sovereign-community/

Just a brief note — an attempt to insert a powerful idea into your brains.

I conceive of the Citizendium as an unusual kind of community. Once it is off the ground, and the work of setting up governance bodies and leaders has been established, it will not be beholden to anything other than the Citizendium Charter (anticipated by our Statement of Fundamental Policies, but not yet drafted) and the various balanced bodies that execute it.

I don’t want decisions ultimately to be made by any small, stable group of people who make up a non-profit board, or (of course) the owners of a private business, or the shareholders of a public corporation. I want society to recognize a new social fact: that there can be rule-governed communities that live online, whose membership is much more fluid, and which are directed by their members, according to agreed-upon rules.

Many open source projects are essentially ‘benevolent dictatorships,’ and others are oligarchies. But there are relatively few examples of communities that are really genuinely self-governed, particularly according to an established charter. Many communities give lip service to democratic governance, but due to the lack of clear, enumerated rules that are actually enforced, they end up more closely resembling mob rule.

We can do better.

So, it’s possible that a good community governance innovation might emerge from this experiment, if nothing else. Perhaps something that could be applied to Wikipedia, or even beyond wiki communities?

I’ll also be interested to see how article quality emerges from Citezendium. I’ll especially be interested to see how disputes are handled between “experts” and “non experts”, and how that affects the community over time, and the content produced by the community. I’m interested to know how these tensions will play out in a democratically organized community.

Fellow smartmoblogger Bryan Alexander also recently wrote a great post and commentary on his own blog about the Sanger essay. Definitely worth checking out.


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