Category Archives: citizendium

a few rough notes on knols

Think you’ve got an authoritative take on a subject? Write up an article, or “knol,” and see how the Web judgeth. If it’s any good, you might even make a buck.
Google’s new encyclopedia will go head to head with Wikipedia in the search rankings, though in format it more resembles other ad-supported, single-author info sources like the or Squidoo. The knol-verse (how the hell do we speak of these things as a whole?) will be a Darwinian writers’ market where the fittest knols rise to the top. Anyone can write one. Google will host it for free. Multiple knols can compete on a single topic. Readers can respond to and evaluate knols through simple community rating tools. Content belongs solely to the author, who can license it in any way he/she chooses (all rights reserved, Creative Commons, etc.). Authors have the option of having contextual ads run to the side, revenues from which are shared with Google. There is no vetting or editorial input from Google whatsoever.
Except… Might not the ads exert their own subtle editorial influence? In this entrepreneurial writers’ fray, will authors craft their knols for AdSense optimization? Will they become, consciously or not, shills for the companies that place the ads (I’m thinking especially of high impact topic areas like health and medicine)? Whatever you may think of Wikipedia, it has a certain integrity in being ad-free. The mission is clear and direct: to build a comprehensive free encyclopedia for the Web. The range of content has no correlation to marketability or revenue potential. It’s simply a big compendium of stuff, the only mention of money being a frank electronic tip jar at the top of each page. The Googlepedia, in contrast, is fundamentally an advertising platform. What will such an encyclopedia look like?
In the official knol announcement, Udi Manber, a VP for engineering at Google, explains the genesis of the project: “The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.” You can see embedded in this statement all the trademarks of Google’s rhetoric: a certain false humility, the pose of incorruptible geek integrity and above all, a boundless confidence that every problem, no matter how gray and human, has a technological fix. I’m not saying it’s wrong to build a business, nor that Google is lying whenever it talks about anything idealistic, it’s just that time and again Google displays an astonishing lack of self-awareness in the way it frames its services -? a lack that becomes especially obvious whenever the company edges into content creation and hosting. They tend to talk as though they’re building the library of Alexandria or the great Encyclopédie, but really they’re describing an advanced advertising network of Google-exclusive content. We shouldn’t allow these very different things to become as muddled in our heads as they are in theirs. You get a worrisome sense that, like the Bushies, the cheerful software engineers who promote Google’s products on the company’s various blogs truly believe the things they’re saying. That if we can just get the algorithm right, the world can bask in the light of universal knowledge.
The blogosphere has been alive with commentary about the knol situation throughout the weekend. By far the most provocative thing I’ve read so far is by Anil Dash, VP of Six Apart, the company that makes the Movable Type software that runs this blog. Dash calls out this Google self-awareness gap, or as he puts it, its lack of a “theory of mind”:

Theory of mind is that thing that a two-year-old lacks, which makes her think that covering her eyes means you can’t see her. It’s the thing a chimpanzee has, which makes him hide a banana behind his back, only taking bites when the other chimps aren’t looking.
Theory of mind is the awareness that others are aware, and its absence is the weakness that Google doesn’t know it has. This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.

He gives some examples:

Connecting PageRank to economic systems such as AdWords and AdSense corrupted the meaning and value of links by turning them into an economic exchange. Through the turn of the millennium, hyperlinking on the web was a social, aesthetic, and expressive editorial action. When Google introduced its advertising systems at the same time as it began to dominate the economy around search on the web, it transformed a basic form of online communication, without the permission of the web’s users, and without explaining that choice or offering an option to those users.

He compares the knol enterprise with GBS:

Knol shares with Google Book Search the problem of being both indexed by Google and hosted by Google. This presents inherent conflicts in the ranking of content, as well as disincentives for content creators to control the environment in which their content is published. This necessarily disadvantages competing search engines, but more importantly eliminates the ability for content creators to innovate in the area of content presentation or enhancement. Anything that is written in Knol cannot be presented any better than the best thing in Knol. [his emphasis]

And lastly concludes:

An awareness of the fact that Google has never displayed an ability to create the best tools for sharing knowledge would reveal that it is hubris for Google to think they should be a definitive source for hosting that knowledge. If the desire is to increase knowledge sharing, and the methods of compensation that Google controls include traffic/attention and money/advertising, then a more effective system than Knol would be to algorithmically determine the most valuable and well-presented sources of knowledge, identify the identity of authorites using the same journalistic techniques that the Google News team will have to learn, and then reward those sources with increased traffic, attention and/or monetary compensation.

For a long time Google’s goal was to help direct your attention outward. Increasingly we find that they want to hold onto it. Everyone knows that Wikipedia articles place highly in Google search results. Makes sense then that they want to capture some of those clicks and plug them directly into the Google ad network. But already the Web is dominated by a handful of mega sites. I get nervous at the thought that could gradually become an internal directory, that Google could become the alpha and omega, not only the start page of the Internet but all the destinations.
It will be interesting to see just how and to what extent knols start creeping up the search results. Presumably, they will be ranked according to the same secret metrics that measure all pages in Google’s index, but given the opacity of their operations, who’s to say that subtle or unconscious rigging won’t occur? Will community ratings factor in search rankings? That would seem to present a huge conflict of interest. Perhaps top-rated knols will be displayed in the sponsored links area at the top of results pages. Or knols could be listed in order of community ranking on a dedicated knol search portal, providing something analogous to the experience of searching within Wikipedia as opposed to finding articles through external search engines. Returning to the theory of mind question, will Google develop enough awareness of how it is perceived and felt by its users to strike the right balance?
One last thing worth considering about the knol -? apart from its being possibly the worst Internet neologism in recent memory -? is its author-centric nature. It’s interesting that in order to compete with Wikipedia Google has consciously not adopted Wikipedia’s model. The basic unit of authorial action in Wikipedia is the edit. Edits by multiple contributors are combined, through a complicated consensus process, into a single amalgamated product. On Google’s encyclopedia the basic unit is the knol. For each knol (god, it’s hard to keep writing that word) there is a one to one correspondence with an individual, identifiable voice. There may be multiple competing knols, and by extension competing voices (you have this on Wikipedia too, but it’s relegated to the discussion pages).
Viewed in this way, Googlepedia is perhaps a more direct rival to Larry Sanger’s Citizendium, which aims to build a more authoritative Wikipedia-type resource under the supervision of vetted experts. Citizendium is a strange, conflicted experiment, a weird cocktail of Internet populism and ivory tower elitism -? and by the look of it, not going anywhere terribly fast. If knols take off, could they be the final nail in the coffin of Sanger’s awkward dream? Bryan Alexander wonders along similar lines.
While not explicitly employing Sanger’s rhetoric of “expert” review, Google seems to be banking on its commitment to attributed solo authorship and its ad-based incentive system to lure good, knowledgeable authors onto the Web, and to build trust among readers through the brand-name credibility of authorial bylines and brandished credentials. Whether this will work remains to be seen. I wonder… whether this system will really produce quality. Whether there are enough checks and balances. Whether the community rating mechanisms will be meaningful and confidence-inspiring. Whether self-appointed experts will seem authoritative in this context or shabby, second-rate and opportunistic. Whether this will have the feeling of an enlightened knowledge project or of sleezy intellectual link farming (or something perfectly useful in between).
The feel of a site -? the values it exudes -? is an important factor though. This is why I like, and in an odd way trust Wikipedia. Trust not always to be correct, but to be transparent and to wear its flaws on its sleeve, and to be working for a higher aim. Google will probably never inspire that kind of trust in me, certainly not while it persists in its dangerous self-delusions.
A lot of unknowns here. Thoughts?

scholarpedia: sharpening the wiki for expert results

Eugene M. Izhikevich, a Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, wants to see if academics can collaborate to produce a peer reviewed equivalent to Wikipedia. The attempt is Scholarpedia, a free peer reviewed encyclopedia, entirely open to public contributions but with editorial oversight by experts.
scholarpedia.jpg At first, this sounded to me a lot like Larry Sanger’s Citizendium project, which will attempt to add an expert review layer to material already generated by Wikipedia (they’re calling it a “progressive fork” off of the Wikipedia corpus). Sanger insists that even with this added layer of control the open spirit of Wikipedia will live on in Citizendium while producing a more rigorous and authoritative encyclopedia.
It’s always struck me more as a simplistic fantasy of ivory tower-common folk détente than any reasoned community-building plan. We’ll see if Walesism and Sangerism can be reconciled in a transcendent whole, or if intellectual class warfare (of the kind that has already broken out on multiple occasions between academics and general contributors on Wikipedia) — or more likely inertia — will be the result.
The eight-month-old Scholarpedia, containing only a few dozen articles and restricted for the time being to three neuroscience sub-fields, already feels like a more plausible proposition, if for no other reason than that it knows who its community is and that it establishes an unambiguous hierarchy of participation. Izhikevich has appointed himself editor-in-chief and solicited full articles from scholarly peers around the world. First the articles receive “in-depth, anonymous peer review” by two fellow authors, or by other reviewers who measure sufficiently high on the “scholar index.” Peer review, it is explained, is employed both “to insure the accuracy and quality of information” but also “to allow authors to list their papers as peer-reviewed in their CVs and resumes” — a marriage of pragmaticism and idealism in Mr. Izhikevich.
After this initial vetting, the article is officially part of the Scholarpedia corpus and is hence open to subsequent revisions and alterations suggested by the community, which must in turn be accepted by the author, or “curator,” of the article. The discussion, or “talk” pages, familiar from Wikipedia are here called “reviews.” So far, however, it doesn’t appear that many of the approved articles have received much of a public work-over since passing muster in the initial review stage. But readers are weighing in (albeit in modest numbers) in the public election process for new curators. I’m very curious to see if this will be treated by the general public as a read-only site, or if genuine collaboration will arise.
It’s doubtful that this more tightly regulated approach could produce a work as immense and varied as Wikipedia, but it’s pretty clear that this isn’t the goal. It’s a smaller, more focused resource that Izhikevich and his curators are after, with an eye toward gradually expanding to embrace all subjects. I wonder, though, if the site wouldn’t be better off keeping its ambitions concentrated, renaming itself something like “Neuropedia” and looking simply to inspire parallel efforts in other fields. One problem of open source knowledge projects is that they’re often too general in scope (Scholarpedia says it all). A federation of specialized encyclopedias, produced by focused communities of scholars both academic and independent — and with some inter-disciplinary porousness — would be a more valuable, if less radical, counterpart to Wikipedia, and more likely to succeed than the Citizendium chimera.

a fork in the road III: fork it over

bent fork.jpg Another funny thing about Larry Sanger’s idea of a progressive fork off of Wikipedia is that he can do nothing, under the terms of the Free Documentation License, to prevent his expert-improved content from being reabsorbed by Wikipedia. In other words, the better the Citizendium becomes, the better Wikipedia becomes — but not vice versa. In the Citizendium (the name still refuses to roll off the tongue), forks are definitive. The moment a new edit is made, an article’s course is forever re-charted away from Wikipedia. So, assuming anything substantial comes of the Citizendium, feeding well-checked, better written content to Wikipedia could end up being its real value. But would it be able to sustain itself under such uninspiring circumstances? The result might be that the experts themselves fork back as well.

a fork in the road II: shirky on citizendium

Clay Shirky has some interesting thoughts on why Larry Sanger’s expert-driven Wikipedia spinoff Citizendium is bound to fail. At the heart of it is Sanger’s notion of expertise, which is based largely on institutional warrants like academic credentials, yet lacks in Citizendium the institutional framework to effectively impose itself. In other words, experts are “social facts” that rely on culturally manufactured perceptions and deferences, which may not be transferrable to an online project like the Citizendium. Sanger envisions a kind of romance between benevolent academics and an adoring public that feels privileged to take part in a distributed apprenticeship. In reality, Shirky says, this hybrid of Wikipedia-style community and top-down editorial enforcement is likely to collapse under its own contradictions. Shirky:

Citizendium is based less on a system of supportable governance than on the belief that such governance will not be necessary, except in rare cases. Real experts will self-certify; rank-and-file participants will be delighted to work alongside them; when disputes arise, the expert view will prevail; and all of this will proceed under a process that is lightweight and harmonious. All of this will come to naught when the citizens rankle at the reflexive deference to editors; in reaction, they will debauch self-certification…contest expert preogatives, rasing the cost of review to unsupportable levels…take to distributed protest…or simply opt-out.

Shirky makes a point at the end of his essay that I found especially insightful. He compares the “mechanisms of deference” at work in Wikipedia and in the proposed Citizendium. In other words, how in these two systems does consensus crystallize around an editorial action? What makes people say, ok, I defer to that?

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.

My only big problem with this piece is that it’s too easy on Wikipedia. Shirky’s primary interest is social software, so the big question for him is whether a system will foster group interaction — Wikipedia’s has proven to do so, and there’s reason to believe that Citizendium’s will not, fair enough. But Shirky doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Wikipedia suffers from some of the same problems that he claims will inevitably plague Citizendium, the most obvious being insularity. Like it or not, there is in Wikipedia de facto top-down control by self-appointed experts: the cliquish inner core of editors that over time has becomes increasingly hard to penetrate. It’s not part of Wikipedia’s policy, it certainly goes against the spirit of the enterprise, but it exists nonetheless. These may not be experts as defined by Sanger, but they certainly are “social facts” within the Wikipedia culture, and they’ve even devised semi-formal credential systems like barnstars to adorn their user profiles and perhaps cow more novice users. I still agree with Shirky’s overall prognosis, but it’s worth thinking about some of the problems that Sanger is trying to address, albeit in a misconceived way.

a fork in the road for wikipedia

Estranged Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger has long argued for a more privileged place for experts in the Wikipedia community. Now his dream may finally be realized. A few days ago, he announced a new encyclopedia project that will begin as a “progressive fork” off of the current Wikipedia. Under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, anyone is free to reproduce and alter content from Wikipedia on an independent site as long as the new version is made available under those same terms. Like its antecedent, the new Citizendium, or “Citizens’ Compendium”, will rely on volunteers to write and develop articles, but under the direction of self-nominated expert subject editors. Sanger, who currently is in the process of recruiting startup editors and assembling an advisory board, says a beta of the site should be up by the end of the month.

We want the wiki project to be as self-managing as possible. We do not want editors to be selected by a committee, which process is too open to abuse and politics in a radically open and global project like this one is. Instead, we will be posting a list of credentials suitable for editorship. (We have not constructed this list yet, but we will post a draft in the next few weeks. A Ph.D. will be neither necessary nor sufficient for editorship.) Contributors may then look at the list and make the judgment themselves whether, essentially, their CVs qualify them as editors. They may then go to the wiki, place a link to their CV on their user page, and declare themselves to be editors. Since this declaration must be made publicly on the wiki, and credentials must be verifiable online via links on user pages, it will be very easy for the community to spot false claims to editorship.
We will also no doubt need a process where people who do not have the credentials are allowed to become editors, and where (in unusual cases) people who have the credentials are removed as editors. (link)

Initially, this process will be coordinated by “an ad hoc committee of interim chief subject editors.” Eventually, more permanent subject editors will be selected through some as yet to be determined process.
Another big departure from Wikipedia: all authors and editors must be registered under their real name.
More soon…
Reports in Ars Technica and The Register.