Wikipedia founder signs up academics for rival site
Wednesday 18 October 2006
The estranged founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia written entirely by members of the public, is to launch a rival that he says is less likely to be riddled with errors.
Larry Sanger says that vast swaths of the anarchic encyclopaedia he helped create in 2001 are in desperate need of an editor – and that is what he is promising for his new project.
The launch of Citizendium.org, which begins testing in the next few days, is the latest chapter in the bitter public feud between Mr Sanger and Jimmy Wales, with whom he conceived Wikipedia in 2001. And it comes as Wikipedia is still reeling from the revelation of embarrassing errors and the activities of malicious hackers.
Mr Sanger has begun signing up academics furious at the mistakes and generalisations they find on Wikipedia's articles on their specialist subjects, and vowed to give these experts a special role to shape articles on Citizendium.org.
"This is merely a sensible community: one where the people who have made it their life's work to study certain areas are given a certain appropriate authority," Mr Sanger says. "Think of it as having village elders wandering the bazaar and occasionally dispensing advice and reining in the wayward."
The idea behind Wikipedia is that, by giving a billion internet users across the globe the chance to add, correct and improve articles, the project will approximate to the sum total of human knowledge. It has become one of the most successful internet phenomena and revolutionised access to information, with articles on over 5 million subjects, including 1.4 million in English.
But its detractors say that entries on complex topics are full of errors, interested parties will manipulate articles on contentious political topics, and the whole shebang is prone to vandalism by pranksters.
A first round of soul-searching was set off last year when US journalist John Seigenthaler complained that his Wikipedia entry implicated him in the assassination of President John Kennedy. A member of the public, Brian Chase, had inserted the claim "as a joke" to fool a colleague.
Then a Wikipedia investigation earlier this year found that Congressmen and their aides were doctoring their entries to flatter their records and to erase embarrassingly unfulfilled promises.
And public figures often have their profiles vandalised. Tony Blair was briefly given the job title "Bush's bitch boy" before the offending posting was reversed by Wikipedia's administrators and the organisation was forced to compromise its free-for-all principles. Public editing of Mr Blair's entry and that of President Bush is now disabled, with only registered members able to request changes.
Even the entry for Wikipedia itself has had to be closed off to public editors, and Mr Sanger's contains the disclaimer: "The neutrality of this article is disputed."
Messrs Sanger and Wales have been involved in a dispute over who should be credited with founding the Wikipedia community. Mr Wales, whose first online venture was an internet porn site, now highlights how Mr Sanger was in fact a hired help, employed to work on a professional online encyclopaedia called Nupedia. Wikipedia was first conceived as a way of quickly building up content for editing by Nupedia's experts – "wiki" is Hawaiian for quick – and Citizendium is Mr Sanger's return to that basic idea. His new site will begin as a copy of Wikipedia and then evolve.
Mr Sanger says Wikipedia itself is "dysfunctional" and he has heard from many academics who have gone out of their way to try to edit entries, "only essentially to be beaten back by the community".
Unlike Wikipedia, Citizendium will insist that members of the public making changes do so using their real names. It will throw out troublemakers and those who do not defer to expert editors.
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