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A co-founder of Wikipedia, and its first editor-in-chief, is starting a "new Wikipedia", using the current version as the starting point.

Larry Sanger describes the Citizendium project as a "progressive or gradual fork", with the major difference that experts have the final say over edits. In other ways it promises to be very similar: the system requires users to sign up, it will also be based around a Wiki, it will strive to present a "Neutral Point of View"... and it will regularly be touting for donations.

(Wiki is a pun on the Hawaiian word for "labyrinth") [ * ]

Sanger set up Wikipedia six years ago with former bond trader Jimmy Wales, with money from Wales' titty portal Bomis underwriting the project. Sanger left in 2001, and in January this year announced a new project called Digital Universe, a web-based resource that employs domain experts, with $10m backing. (Wales has subsequently edited his own Wikipedia bio to diminish Sanger's contribution, anointing himself sole founder). Explaining the need for a companion project, Sanger said he thought that "humanity can do better" than Wikipedia, and Wikipedia's shortcomings today were probably unsolvable.

"Wikipedia has already driven off no doubt thousands of would-be contributors, and there are thousands, if not millions, of people who never would think about contributing to Wikipedia in the first place. We want to set up, not a replacement, but an alternative to Wikipedia, a responsible constitutional republic that makes a special place for experts and invites the general public to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them," he wrote.

Wikipedia has tried to balance the utopian goal of "an encyclopedia anyone can edit" with the more utilitarian goal of "a website anyone would want to read". With over a million articles, and a rulebook almost as dense, Wikipedia has demonstrated an insatiable desire to participate, create lists and generate procedures. The result is a huge silo of recorded trivia, and perhaps the world's largest, most distributed bureaucracy - mostly manned by a casual staff of teenagers and the unemployed.

It's become a huge success in one sense, however. With the formerly unitary, wide open "internet" internet balkanizing into a number of vertical information domains - American teenagers rarely leave News Corporation's MySpace, for example, using it for media discovery, mail, and messaging - Wikipedia has conquered much of what's left - the wilds, "commons" or Reever territory. Wikipedia has become so synonymous with t'internet in the public mind, and so synonymous with Google, that the search engine was recently described to your reporter - by a recent broadband convert - as "Wikipedia's start page". The news that they were two discrete organizations received a shrug.

That's quite a brand cachet. How can Citizendium, with its model of patrolling domain experts, even begin offer an alternative?

One problem is that the "better" Wikipedia articles are the Otaku fan trivia, such as lists of Babylon 5 episodes and Pooterish porn trivia. But Sanger doesn't seem to want to deter that - describing Citizendium it as a collecting house for all kinds of information.

And that makes the more immediate task, removing the cruft, a lot more difficult. Time will tell.®

[ * Bootnote ] : Not really.

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