by Timothy Lee
Tue, Nov 6th 2007 3:53pm
Wired has a roundup of two Wikipedia spinoffs that have been in the news recently. Both sites, Citizendium and Veropedia, were launched because their founders felt that Wikipedia had reliability problems that could only be addressed by an independent project. But their approaches are very different. Citizendium is what the open source software world would call a fork. They launched the site with some Wikipedia articles as the baseline, but they're not contributing their changes back to the Wikipedia project. That means that the two projects are diverging over time, and in a few years the content on the two sites will be quite different. It also means that there's going to be a lot of duplication of effort: the content in Citizendium and Wikipedia will largely be redundant. In contrast, Wikipedia is, in open source terms, "upstream" from Veropedia. Just as distributions like Ubuntu and Red Hat take Linux code, improve it, and then package it for public consumption, making a profit in the process, so Veropedia is going to take a subset of Wikipedia, do some additional work to ensure it's reliable, and then publish it on an ad-supported site. Unlike Citizendium, Veropedia is planning to contribute its changes back to Wikipedia. Personally, I'm not convinced that there's a pressing need for either effort, and I'm particularly skeptical of Citizendium. I think Clay Shirky is right to question the underlying rationale for Citizendium, and while founder Larry Sanger has touted some modest successes over the last year, they're going to need some massive growth to catch up to Wikipedia.
Veropedia is more promising, especially since it's contributing to, rather than merely competing with, Wikipedia. It obviously can't hurt to have more people verifying the accuracy of Wikipedia articles, and if Veropedia can find a way to pay people to do that, that obviously helps the overall Wikipedia project. My only concern is that promising "a quality stable version that can be trusted by students, teachers, and anyone else who is looking for top-notch, reliable information" might lull people into a false sense of security, reinforcing the attitude that if you read something in a "reliable" publication, you can automatically assume it's true without further research. I would much rather that we teach students to approach all published works with a degree of skepticism, to understand that works fall along a broad spectrum of reliability, and that it's often a good idea to double-check important information in multiple sources. Still, it will be great if they find a business model that allows them to offer financial support to some of the dedicated editors who have made Wikipedia such a success.
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