Standing Triumphant: What we can Learn From the Fall of Citizendium

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Wikipedia is more than just one of the largest and most popular web sites in existence.  It is also a major source of evolution of our understanding of many important cultural concepts.  Wikipedia’s existence alone has forcibly accelerated the debate on a number of topics related to information theory, such as censorship, intellectual property, responsible journalism, the scientific method, and even various issues related to language.

From this, there have been many interesting debates about Wikipedia’s role and effectiveness in pursuing its purpose.  One, in particular, has been quietly raging for years, and has now reached a point in which we feel comfortable declaring a decisive outcome.  This is the none-dare-call-it-a-war between Wikipedia and what has to be considered its primary rival, Citizendium.

Citiwhadium?

Citizendium is a Wikipedia-like project that was first launched in 2006 and released publicly in 2007 by one of Wikipedia’s co-founders, Larry Sanger (exactly how “co” he is, we must point out, is itself the subject of debate).  Sanger had left Wikipedia early in its formation.  The reason was due to an ideological split in the direction that he and other founder Jimmy Wales (who is still with Wikipedia) felt it should take.

Sanger felt that there should be an emphasis on guaranteed expert oversight.  Wales disagreed, stating that knowledge is something everyone has to share.  Debates ensued, with Wales’s vision winning out in the end.  Sanger soon thereafter left the project.  Although at the time he blamed funding issues for his departure, when he founded Citizendium in 2006, he had no shortage of hard words about his estranged brainchild.

A flurry of media attention followed, with Sanger making bold declarations about Citizendium’s future.  While the site’s own FAQ pleaded that he was not trying to shut down Wikipedia, Sanger stated in 2006 press release that “Citizendium will soon attempt to unseat Wikipedia as the go-to destination for general information online.”

An ugly autopsy

Citizendium now marks its 5th anniversary in sort of the same way that a married couple who isn’t even talking to each other might.  It’s a number, not a celebration.  While the site still exists, its state can be summed up by its plea to find some financial donors to cover its $ 319 a month in hosting costs.  They’ve not hit this fundraising goal once so far this year.  In June, they raised $ 33.68.

The rest of the numbers are just as ugly, so much so that highlighting them almost feels like kicking someone while they’re down.  The site has a total of 16,027 articles.  Wikipedia cracked 100,000 articles in its second year.  New article creation on Citizendium is down from a high of about 30/day to a mere 2: Wikipedia’s is about 10 times that per minute.

Disapproval of the “Approved”

A more important metric is the “Approved Articles.”  This, after all, was the whole point of Citizendium, to create the finest quality articles as a result of “expert” involvement.  After 5 years, the number of Approved Articles stands at a you-gotta-be-kidding-me 156.  And the quality is as equally underwhelming as the quantity.  The Approved Article for “Prime Number” isn’t 1/10 as long as the Wikipedia equivalent, the latter still only earning a “B” grade from its own user base.

Let’s stop.  This feels cruel.  We’ll just make it official and be done with it: the Citizendium project has failed.

Not without a fight…

Sanger remains defiant, but at this point his protests feel similar to the knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with no arms and legs left shouting “I’ll bite your leg off!”.  Sanger has stated that the primary reason for this was Wikipedia’s head start.  But this is easily refuted by the evidence of how much has changed on the web since 2006.  Other wikis started around and have more pages than Citizendium.  Also, in 2006 the social networking world was dominated by LiveJournal and MySpace.  How much did their “head start” help them?

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Single simply refuses to accept the hard truth that perhaps his original premise was wrong all along.  Wikipedia has been shown through multiple studies to be roughly as accurate and reliable as professional encyclopedias.  It is the #6 site on the web, and has been Top 10 for years.  In short, it has passed all of the tests.  It is nowhere near perfect, but it has roughly achieved what it set out to do.

…but the fight is over…

A look at Sanger’s fist in the air provides us with the lesson that we should take from this experiment.  Even to this day, he continues to decry what he sees as “anti-intellectualism” in the Web 2.0 world.  From the tone of his writings, it seems that the “anarchic” approach of Wikipedia simply bothers him on a philosophical level (and he is, in fact, a Doctor in Philosophy).  When we look at Citizendium today we see the reflection of this obsession: at this point, there seems to be more work being done on its inner political structure than on the articles themselves, like bureaucrats fighting over ownership of an anthill.

There, then, is the rub: it’s become ceremony before principle.  That is what went wrong, and that is the lesson that we should get from this, especially those in a position of management.  Being dead set on making sure something is done the way that you are personally sure is the “correct” way is a great way to ensure your failure.

The truth is that there is always more than one way to do things, always more than one way to solve a problem.  It’s not just data that everyone has access to, but ideas.  Wikipedia, as a further contrast, doesn’t just has its pages open to debate, but its methods.  Very few rules come from on high.  Most of the internal procedures are user-created, and in a continual state of evolution.

Another angle to take on it is this: respect comes from continual effort.  It is not some commoditive title that one holds forever for obtaining a degree or winning some award.  Moreover, it’s not something that anyone has any requirement to afford some pre-calculated level of deference to.  Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman both won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of people who would afford the theories of these ideological opposites equal respect.  Or how about this: neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates graduated from college.  According to Citizendium’s policies, this would make them unqualified as a “constable”, their term for sysop.  Get it, yet?

…and the hive mind has won.

For managers who cherish their position a little too highly this may be a hard pill to swallow.  Swallow it anyway.  The more that you trust that the people around you have within them to capability to solve problems and the more you untie their hands to do so, in general, the more that they will prove you right.  One final example from the story of Citizendium’s fall highlights this fact.

One of the main incidents which pushed Larry Sanger to create Citizendium was one in which the biography of one famous individual, John Seigenthaler, was altered to state that he was involved with the Kennedy assassinations.  Sanger was contacted personally, and in attempting to address the problem, found the Wikipedia user base response unacceptable.  He concluded that the only remaining response was to start his own encyclopedia.

Yet, while Citizendium has risen, floated, and crashed, new policies were created on Wikipedia to address how this happened.  The result?  While there is always a minor undercurrent of vandalism, there has not since been a single case of defamation that has risen to this level of notoriety.

Yes, the hive mind does tend in the long run to work.  As Citizendium and other “scholar-based” encyclopedias flounder (even Google’s “Knol” couldn’t crack this nut), and Wikipedia in turn approaches its 4 millionth article, this is no longer theory.  This is observable fact, one that passes the victorious Wikipedia’s standard for inclusion in its articles: verifiability.

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