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Citizendium Fancies Itself Wikipedia With Manners

With just over 1,000 articles, Citizendium isn't yet enormous, particularly in comparison with Wikipedia's 1.7 million articles.

Last November, Citizendium, a new online encyclopedia, embarked on an effort to reinvent Wikipedia. On Tuesday, it opened to the public. But there's some doubt the upstart reference site will follow the same trajectory: After four months, it still hasn't been vandalized.

That may be because Citizendium requires that authors use their real names.

"Getting rid of anonymity solves a lot of problems, or so it appears," said Larry Sanger, Citizendium's editor-in-chief and Wikipedia co-founder, in an interview. "If someone has to take responsibility for what they say, they're going to behave better."

Sanger sees Citizendium both as a competitor to Wikipedia and as a complementary resource. "I would say it's a competing effort in the sense that we are competing for the same readers," he said. "But on the other hand, I think that a lot of people are going to want to have two different articles to compare. The world will greatly benefit by having another enormous encyclopedia to consult."

With just over 1,000 articles, Citizendium isn't yet enormous, particularly in comparison with Wikipedia's 1.7 million articles. In terms of content, however, a comparison between Citizendium and Wikipedia is particularly apt. Many of Citizendium's articles derive from Wikipedia entries.

Sanger said that about one-third of Citizendium's 1,000 or so articles are either what he calls "unimproved" -- from somewhere else -- or are from Wikipedia. "But that's not really a good measure of our progress," he insisted. "We'll probably be deleting a lot of those."

Beyond sharing articles, Citizendium share's Wikipedia's nonprofit business model, in contrast with commercial competitors like Helium. Sanger sees that sameness as a good thing. "If you're going to do crowd-sourcing, those projects should be in the hands of the participants," he said, adding that once Citizendium becomes firmly established, he plans to step down as editor-in-chief and turn control over to the site's community "to set a good precedent."

Citizendium offers three possible roles for users who want to do more than simply read articles: author, editor, and constable. Authors can write, edit, and discuss articles; editors moderate content; and constables moderate user behavior.

Citizendium's identity verification system has worked so far, but it doesn't scale. That's why the site is working to make its registration process more automated. Sanger expects Citizendium will soon have an e-mail address-verification mechanism in place. He said that would-be community members are required to submit their real names and short bio of at least 50 words, preferrably from an e-mail service that isn't free. (There's more than a little irony in a nonprofit exhibiting suspicion of free e-mail.)

As to why anyone would want to write for Citizendium rather than Wikipedia, Sanger said, "You're working as part of a more civil community that has higher aims. For a lot of people, that's going to be very important."

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