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$10m for a Wikipedia for grown-ups

Co-founder's new venture has experts - and it's going to use them

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Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is to launch an alternative to the utopian, all-comers, anything-goes web site, and has raised $10m to hire experts to help edit it.

A year ago Sanger, who worked on Wikipedia's predecessor Nupedia and left the project in 2002, criticized its bias against expertise, and his new venture reflects these concerns.

Digital Universe aims to garner the best of both worlds: harness wide public input, but with acknowledged experts acting as stewards.

The project has a long list of institutions signed up, including the National Council for Science and the Environment, the American Museum of Natural History, the World Resources Institute, the UN and UCB.

Material will be available for free, but the project's FAQ says that for a small premium, copyright material will be available to subscribers. It also offers a richer, and much more attractive user interface.

As its popularity has grown, Wikipedia has become more of a hobby, a multiplayer game and a repository for fan trivia than an attempt to improve the wisdom of the human race - although the project's most fanatical supporters assume that one follows the other. Sanger had similar hopes, he wrote last year, when starting Wikipedia:

"Wikipedia began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature. I always took Wikipedia's anarchy to be provisional and purely for purposes of determining what the best rules, and the nature of its authority, should be. What I, and other Wikipedians, failed to realize is that our initial anarchy would be taken by the next wave of contributors as the very essence of the project - how Wikipedia was "meant" to be."

Today Wikipedia's entries on multi user online role playing games (it's almost 8,000 words long) and pedophilia (it's perhaps rather more sympathetic than an average parent or judge might be to this predilection) illustrate the shortcomings and dangers of the Wikipedia approach. Its fate was probably sealed from that early decision to embrace the utopians at the expense of quality.

Can anyone fiddle?

With Digital Universe due to launch in January Sanger might have timed it impeccably, given the extensive recent coverage to Wikipedia's shortcomings. But will this new venture fare any better than Nupedia, which adopted a similar model and garnered only a handful of entries?

It all depends on how you define success. In terms of a quantitative measure, Wikipedia is triumphant, and it also dominates one particular medium (there are hundreds of web scraper sites duplicating the content). In terms of quality, its accuracy veers from the occasionally passable to the frequently risible, while its all-important readability is even worse - and deteriorating.

At least Digital Universe won't be encumbered by one immutable aspect of the more utopian Wikipedia: experts won't be find themselves against gangs of know-nothings. This immediately repelled all but the most dedicated experts, and over time, it began to repel the most dedicated and honorable amateur Wikipedians too.

Wikipediaphiles - in many cases being process-driven people - tend to view everything as a process issue. With a nut tightened here, and an extra bureaucratic rule there, then things will improve.

But sometimes no amount of process tweaking can compensate for the dearth of quality people, and here DU starts with a significant advantage. It wants to find them, and it can afford to pay them.

We'll see.®

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