Citizendium Turns One. Point Still Unclear

by on November 1, 2007 · 0 comments

Larry Sanger has an essay touting Citizendium’s accomplishments over the last year. Apparently they’ve amassed a whopping 3,200 articles over the last year, and are adding about a dozen new article per day.

He puts a brave face on this, but it’s really hard to see how this is success. Wikipedia has 2 million articles, about 500 times as many as Citizendium, and it’s growing a lot faster. I decided to check out the articles on a few topics I’m interested, and most of them didn’t exist. No articles on the Cato Insititute, libertarianism, F.A. Hayek, or even copyright. There is an article on Milton Friedman, but it’s extremely short and frankly not very good. Take the first sentence: Friedman didn’t consider himself “a leader of American Conservatism in its libertarian aspect.” He called himself a liberal. The corresponding sentence in Wikipedia is “His political philosophy, which Friedman himself considered classically liberal and consequentialist libertarian, stressed the advantages of the marketplace and the disadvantages of government intervention, strongly influencing the outlook of American conservatives and libertarians.” That’s much more accurate and informative. The Wikipedia article on Friedman is also more than twice as long as the Citizendium article.

Moreover, if Alexa is to be believed, Citizendium’s traffic numbers are even more grim. The site’s traffic has been absolutely flat over the last six months, and it’s behind Wikipedia by a factor of about 5000. And that matters for the site’s success because casual visitors are an important source of new content. Therefore, Wikipedia will continue to have a massive advantage over Citizendium in content creation.

Citizendium is a solution in search of a problem. As Clay Shirky has explained so well back when Citizendium launched:

Sanger is an incrementalist, and assumes that the current institutional framework for credentialling experts and giving them authority can largely be preserved in a process that is open and communally supported. The problem with incrementalism is that the very costs of being an institution, with the significant overhead of process, creates a U curve — it’s good to be a functioning hierarchy, and its good to be a functioning community with a core group, but most of the hybrids are less fit than either of the end points.

The philosophical issue here is one of deference. Citizendium is intended to improve on Wikipedia by adding a mechanism for deference, but Wikipedia already has a mechanism for deference — survival of edits. I recently re-wrote the conceptual recipe for a Menger Sponge, and my edits have survived, so far. The community has deferred not to me, but to my contribution, and that deference is both negative (not edited so far) and provisional (can always be edited.)

Deference, on Citizendium will be for people, not contributions, and will rely on external credentials, a priori certification, and institutional enforcement. Deference, on Wikipedia, is for contributions, not people, and relies on behavior on Wikipedia itself, post hoc examination, and peer-review. Sanger believes that Wikipedia goes too far in its disrespect of experts; what killed Nupedia and will kill Citizendium is that they won’t go far enough.

So far, I would say Sanger has failed to prove Shirky wrong. Citizendium isn’t dead yet, but its performance to date has been underwhelming, and despite his fervent prayers for an “explosion of growth,” there’s no reason to think one is in the offing.

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