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Web 2.0 smackdown: intellectuals vs. amateurs in Citizendium

Wikipedia co-founder on Wikipedia: “The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place.

Larry Sanger, Wikipedia co-founder, is embarking on an ambitious and undoubtedly Web 2.0 politically-incorrect mission to shepherd the brain power of what he estimates is 3% of the Internet population: intellectuals or “educated, thinking people who read about science or ideas regularly.”

Sanger is hoping to spearhead a high-brow spin-off of Wikipedia; Citizendium. According to Sanger:

The Citizendium, a "citizens' compendium of everything," will be an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance. It will begin life as a "progressive fork" of Wikipedia. But we expect it to take on a life of its own and, perhaps, to become the flagship of a new set of responsibly-managed free knowledge projects.

He asks the “thinkers of the world” to “start imagining”:

Imagine what is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects…What could attract them to pool their intellectual power? What content creation systems would best harness this power? What fantastic things might result? Imagine the discussions, the journalism, the news summaries, the textbooks and educational material, the encyclopedias, the libraries, the multimedia, the 3D universes, not to mention brand new sorts of resources possible for the first time and only through massive collaboration. The paltry first steps we have made on such resources are admirable, but ultimately will prove to be laughable compared to what will exist in five or ten years. It will resemble the difference between the first PCs and the firepower of the latest business-class desktops.

Whenever I think about this now, I literally quiver with excitement, and I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers. Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.

Sanger is driven by a belief that “we can and should do better” than an "amateur" Wikipedia. He cites numerous “serious and endemic problems” afflicting Wikipedia and its community:

• The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently. Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.

• Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not--in other words, the troll problem.

• Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.

• This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics. Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism. Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there's something wrong with that.

Sanger likens the Wikipedia dilemma to a 12-step amateur recovery program:

The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place.

Sanger recognizes that obtaining such recognition will be no easy feat.

He most certainly has a tall task ahead. For example, even the TechCrunch team is conflicted:

1) Marshall Kirkpatrick boldly (literally) quips in the official TechCrunch post: “Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds?”

2) At Crunchnotes, however, the mighty Michael Arrington admits fears of intimidation by Wikipedians has dissuaded him from attempting to correct errors in Wikipedia’s TechCrunch entry.

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